Eclectic Reader Challenge – Romantic Suspense – Awaken – Katie Kacvinsky

This genre caused me problems the first time round and this time I decided to leave it until the end as I just couldn’t decide what to read for it. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am not a romantic person and I do not like romance films and novels very much. I was amazed to find that I loved Come Unto These Yellow Sands by Josh Lanyon (which I read for this genre last time round) so much. In fact, I was contemplating reading another Lanyon or something similar. But I had tried to make the books I read for each category as different as possible this time round. And it is called the Eclectic Reader Challenge after all. So I found myself trawling through lists of dreadful sounding books on Goodreads, unable to make a decision.

In the end, I asked for help from the Goodreads community and Awaken was recommended to me. It sounded interesting and certainly better than anything else I’d looked at so I decided to go with it. After all, this is the point of reading communities, to find books you would never previously have read.8665876

This book is set in a future where everyone lives through their computers and never has actual physical contact with anyone. In fact, many people never leave the house. It touches on many things that I have blogged about myself such as reading a book rather than a kindle and the thinness of online communication compared to face to face communication. Maddie, the heroine, is one such teen who is liberated from her safe online world by a group of teenagers who meet face to face, dance to actual music and go to cafes. They also protest against the controlling online digital world. So far so good.

As ever, though, the R word troubled me and I felt the love story detracted from the main story and slowed the action down too much. Even worse, I found the gendered roles stereotypical and a little depressing. It occurred to me that this is probably why I found the romance between Josh Lanyon’s gay characters easier to deal with. They didn’t fall into typical roles. In this story, Madelaine is supposed to be independent and strong, yet she cannot live without the impossibly handsome Justin even though he is arrogant, distant and talks in polemic all the time. He put his job above everything and believed he knew what was best for everyone. She fell easily into the idea of saving him from himself and breaking through all his barriers. I failed to see how it could be worth her effort.

All in all, I enjoyed the main plot about overthrowing Digital School and some good points were made about the importance of face to face communication but the romance was unconvincing and sometimes it felt like I was being hit over the head with a sign saying online communication is bad, the points were that lacking in subtlety. Overall, six out of ten.

Eclectic Reader Challenge – New Adult – The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky

I bought this book when the movie came out with the intention of reading the book and then seeing the movie. In the end, I did neither. It has been on my to-read list since then. So it seemed perfecphoto-14t for the Eclectic Reader Challenge category of New Adult.

The book is series of letters to an unnamed person addressed simply as friend. They detail the ups and downs of Charlie’s life as he starts High School describing events and people with a warmth and naivety that was mostly charming. He is shy, awkward and has little grasp of social etiquette. He is befriended by a group of older misfits and through them goes to parties, takes drugs and learns about sex and relationships. While his voice was convincing, I think that I’d have enjoyed it more if I was nearer his age. I found myself feeling a little impatient with him, the way adults do with teenagers but for the most part I was keen to read on and find out what happened to him.

It is apparent quite early on that Charlie has psychological issues relating to the death of his Aunt Helen and he swings between depression and optimism throughout the book. Details are gradually revealed giving the reader clues to what the issues may be. However, the final reveal – I won’t give it away for those who have not read it – felt a little underwhelming. Not that it wasn’t a serious issue – it certainly justified Charlie’s issues – but that it wasn’t explored very deeply, was almost brushed off with an ease that seemed unlikely.

This book is often compared to The Catcher in the Rye and, in some ways, it is an apt comparison. Both Holden and Charlie are caught in cycles of behaviour that they seemed destined to repeat and both have distinctive voices. However, ultimately I prefer The Catcher in the Rye because it is darker and less twee. I found the end of The Catcher in the Rye devastating as so little progress has been made in Holden’s journey of discovery. I don’t know why but I find this easier to relate to then the sweet optimism of Charlie’s last letter.

Eclectic Reader Challenge – Humour – I Can Make You Hate – Charlie Brooker

I’m quite an angry person. I don’t mean that I go out and start fights or anything like that but intellectually, it is definitely my default position. The news, the abundance of stupid people on the TV, the growing gap between mainstream and genuinely alternative (rather than the mainstream MCfly version of alternative), all of these things and more are capable of making my blood boil. In this sense, Charlie Brooker’s I Can Make You Hate was the perfect book to read for the humour category of the Eclectic Reader Challenge. This book is very very funny but it is also incredibly angry. And understandably so.

I knew what to expect from this book. I’d read Brooker’s columns before – particularly when he used to write Screen Burn for The Guardian and of course, he is now on TV fairly regularly. He already ranked as one of my favourite angry people (along with Ben Goldacre, Mark Kermode and David Mitchell). You know the sort of people who are passionately and endlessly angry. Like when reading Kermode, there were numerous times when I felt as though Brooker had crawled inside my head and read my thoughts. Although, obviously, he expressed them with a lot more verve and potty humour then I would have managed.

Brooker’s bile is wide-ranging. There is political comment – in my mind, David Cameron will always be a foal swallowing lizard now – cultural comment on TV, video games, music and film, as well as coverage of the Royal Wedding and the Olympic preparations. Nothing escapes Brooker’s gleeful voice of angry destruction. He manages to cut photo-10through the bullshit of modern life with remarkable clarity. And while he can come across as an angry man on a rant and clearly does want to shock people out of their complacency, he manages to avoid saying things that are just offensive and not funny or pertinent; a knack that seems to have escaped Frankie Boyle.

I would recommend this book for anyone who thinks that modern life is a bit rubbish. Believe me, by the end of reading this book, you will know exactly who to blame.

Eclectic Reader Challenge – Memoir – It’s Only A Movie – Mark Kermode.

There were a couple of reasons for picking up this book. First of all, it fulfilled the memoir category for the Eclectic Reader Challenge but, as the last couple of books I have read have been a bit rubbish (Yes, Tell No One by Harlan Coben, I do mean you”) I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed.

And of course, I wasn’t. In this book, Kermode imagines his life as a made for TV movie – a very funny idea which sees him detailing who would play him – Jason Isaacs – and his family members. It does seem as if spending so much time in front of a cinema screen has left Kermode with an odd view of reality and a lot of the episodes he recounts wouldn’t be out of place in a (slightly dubious) biopic. Maybe that is the point.

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The story starts with Kermode’s early cinematic experiences, moves through his love of horror, particularly The Exorcist, through his early experiences as a critic to the celebrity status he has today. The early experiences were the most interesting, I thought. Recalling as they do, a different era when going to the cinema was a more intimate experience. Y’know when cinemas had two screens and ran two features. It made me think about going to the cinema in the early eighties and I began to recall my own experiences. Although unlike Kermode, who seems to be able remember which cinema and when for every film he has ever seen, I can’t remember what I went to see first although it was undoubtedly a Disney rerun, this being back in the days before Pixar and Dreamworks and a whole business aiming to sell cinema to small kids.

There is no doubt that Kermode is a geek – and I say this as a compliment – and a particularly grumpy geek, at that. (Amusingly a review of this, or possibly The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex, on Goodreads complained about this grumpiness as though it was a surprise. As if he had happened upon the book by sheer chance, knowing nothing about Kermode. It reminded me of when a friend went to see Billy Bragg and afterwards complained that he was too political. Well, duh.) He gamely outlines the number of people he was annoyed and irritated over the years including being put on the spot by Dame Helen Mirren after saying The Queen wasn’t a  proper film and, my own personal favourite, getting punched in the arm by Benedict Cumberbatch on behalf of Kiera Knightley who resented being called Ikea Knightley on account of her plank-like acting style. A very apt description, if you ask me.

Ultimately, this is a book about obsession and I think this is why Kermode can get away with his rants and raves. He loves cinema with his whole heart and hates the fact that some people do not give it the respect it deserves. It is only possible to remain calm about things that do not matter. Cinema matters an awful lot to Mark Kermode and thank goodness for that.

Eclectic Reading Challenge – Made into a Movie – Election – Tom Perotta

election-tom-perrotta-paperback-cover-artI loved the movie of this book. That is why I chose it for The Eclectic Reader Challenge. So I had expectations. Perhaps that was the problem. In my head, Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon and a vivid portrait of high school life in America. Whichever way round it is – a beloved book or movie – it is often problematic when you approach the other version. (That’s why I still haven’t been to see The Great Gatsby and why I didn’t love The Life of Pi.)

The main problem for me was the switching between narrators. There were two problems with this. First of all, as they were all telling the same tale and it was linear, jumping between narrators was irritating and didn’t add much in the way of viewpoint, especially when sometimes the narrator might only have one or two paragraphs before someone else took up the tale again. The other problem was that none of them seemed that distinct from each other. They were lacking in personality.

The plot did drive me on though. And the theme of corruption in high school mirroring the corruption in American politics was clever and interesting but when it came done to it, the rigged election was a bit of a damp squib. I wasn’t attached enough to any of the characters to really care. Who was ruined by it and who wasn’t didn’t have an impact. The whole thing left me cold.

Maybe I would have liked this better if I hadn’t seen the movie. It’s hard to say. Without expectations, we are less disappointed. At the end, I just thought, well, there you go, that it finished. Nothing more or less than that.

The Road – Cormac McCarthy – Dystopia – Eclectic Reader Challenge 2013

I first read Cormac McCarthy years ago. I read Blood Meridian and really enjoyed it. It was gritty, violent, nihilistic and it really appealed to me. It is a little shameful that it has taken more than 10 years to follow up on that enjoyment and read another McCarthy book. To read The Road to fulfill the dystopia category for the Eclectic Reader Challenge 2013the_road.large seemed the perfect way to rectify this.

I had no expectations. I haven’t seen the film so I was aware only vaguely as to what this was about. McCarthy doesn’t give many details. There has been an unspecified happening and now there are (at first) unspecified dangers. This had the effect of unsettling the reader as there was no way of knowing exactly where the danger would come from. Details start to emerge but not enough to ever offer security to the reader. Not enough to allow knowledge of the future.

The crux of this novel is the relationship between The Man and his son, The Boy. The fact that they are not named gives the novel an universal feel. While specific events will have lead to this particular situation, there is a sense that it is a timeless situation. Acts of war, violence, atrocity have always existed and will always exist. The Man and The Boy are just the current version of the victims of this violence. Not the first, nor the last.

The Man tells The Boy to watch out for bad guys and that they are the good guys. And while the bad guys are cannibalistic and the signs we are given of their presence are horrific, The Man also acts in a way that The Boy perceives to be bad – he doesn’t help people when he could and when they are robbed, The Man retaliates in a way that is extremely brutal. This suggests that the ‘bad’ guys may also merely be responding to circumstances, in whatever way they can. In these extreme circumstances, the difference between good and bad gets smaller and smaller. After all, what would you do in order to survive?

The prose and the plot are not complicated but that does not stop this from being one of the most devastating books that I have ever read. The details that McCarthy does give build an atmosphere of tension and fear that is both compelling and horrendous. I wanted to read on and not to read on, both at the same time. I worried for The Man and for The Boy because it seems inevitable that it will not end well for them. There is no note of hope here. As such, the ending is open to interpretation. It could be seen as a rescue, as a hopeful moment but if we have learned anything in this novel, it is that human nature finds it difficult to retain its goodness under extreme circumstances and that it is difficult to tell who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. I want to hope for the best for The Boy because he, more than the man, does seem to represent the good of humanity. He often berates The Man over what he perceives to be bad behaviour but which we can can see is to do with self-preservation. Because of this, I do not feel that the ending can be straightforwardly positive but it can hope for the best. Perhaps that is all any of us can do.

A Change in Reading Habits or How I learned to Love my Kindle

Those who read this blog regularly will know that I have been ambivalent – to say the least – about the rise in reading on kindles and the like. And I still prefer reading an actual paper book. Especially a second hand book where you can romantically imagine all the other eyes that have feasted on the very same words. There is no better place, in my mind, than a second hand bookshop. And there is nothing romantic about the kindle.

I’ve had my kindle for about eight months now and it has taken that long to get used to. One of the first things I did was buy a cover for it so that it was a little bit more like holding a book in my hands. Even so, it is different looking at a screen for a length of time rather than a page. Not particularly better or worse, just different.

The kindle has changed my reading habits for the better. Because so many books are so cheap, I have experimented much more and as a result, I have read a lot of new authors – Josh Lanyon, Michael Faber, Charles Todd, Brandon Shire, for example – which I might not have discovered in a book shop.

Also I have read more classics than I would normally. I always say I’m not really a classics fan – and I think the majority of my reading will always be contemporary fiction – but as they are often free, I’m much more willing to take a chance and have read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and Forster’s Where Angels Fear To Tread so far this year, all of which were very enjoyable.

(Actually, the kindle can’t take all the credit. I’ve started to use the recommendations on Goodreades when I’m choosing the next book I read on the kindle and this has proved very useful.)

There are still things that I find annoying about the kindle. This nonsense about the percentage that you have read. To me, that is meaningless. I like to know how many pages I have left to read but being up to 79% through a book, that could mean anything depending how long the book actually is. Of course, you can make some judgements by how quickly the percentage changes but it is not the same as moving physically through a book or as being able to work it out with page numbers.

Also, if you want to check something back in the book, that is more difficult as you have to turn past every page you have read so I don’t bother which sometimes leaves me a little confused.

Minor quibbles though. In fact, I’d definitely miss the kindle if I didn’t have it now and it is my constant companion on the journey to and from work on the tram. It might never replace reading actual books – for me anyway – but it is an alternative that I have definitely come to terms with.

The Real World Keeps Getting in the Way

It has been a month of getting very little done. After a very productive April, I have had a really annoying May. The real world keeps intruding into the world of writing which is just rude, if you ask me.

First of all, I was in Newcastle, helping my mam after a knee operation. This meant ten days without the Internet and without really getting any writing done. This last was due to the fact that I like to write on my own and I never really was. So I maybe achieved an hour at night when I was tired, most of which was rubbish which I immediately changed. Although I did manage to finish reading The Female Malady by Elaine Showalter which is part of my research for Choose Yr Future so that was productive. (It isn’t all just about words on the page, I have to remind myself.)

Then, back at school, we got the call from Ofsted which meant that all spare time was spent preparing for that. An Ofsted inspection is incredibly stressful even if you aren’t seen – which I wasn’t this time – and I spent the weekend after in a haze of tiredness and so again got very little done.

Last week was half term, a time when I usually catch up a little and rest a little. Foolishly, I agreed to do some one to one tutoring over the holidays as extra cash is always welcome.  However, it soon became clear that I would get nothing else but lesson planning done and I regretted my decision. I’ll just have to hope that all the notes I’ve made when I have an idea will still make sense when I eventually get around to writing them in full.

Unfortunately, it will probably be the summer before that happens. From next weekend I will be marking exam papers for the next three weeks and that is incredibly time consuming. Its hard balancing the need to make money with having the time to write and sometimes it feels like the scales are tipped the wrong way constantly. At least I can see a time on the horizon when I can write and when I can catch up with myself a little.

The End of The Eclectic Reader Challenge

I started the Eclectic Reader Challenge in January and I was really looking forward to trying some new genres and to focusing my reading. I have really enjoyed knowing what my next book is going to be. In recent years, I have become a little pedestrian in my reading choices, choosing authors I knew I would like because I have read them before, reading a lot of detective fiction because that is a genre that I like. The Eclectic Reader Challenge has helped me to broaden my horizons again.

I didn’t expect to be finished it by now. And I must admit I am going to miss it a little bit. Someone suggested that maybe I should do it twice and maybe I will but at the minute I am actually relishing having a free choice of which books I read next. Also some genres I liked better than others and maybe I just chose the wrong books but I’m not sure I want to read anything from those genres again.

It has been a very positive reading year so far. I have read 21 books including the ones from the challenge when I only managed to read 32 in the whole of last year. At least part of that has been because of the challenge. But also, last year I was unemployed for a bit and while that may sound like a perfect opportunity for reading more when you have all the time in the world, it doesn’t always lend itself to getting a lot done.

Now that I am back at work, I am back on public transport and so I’m back to having a book at home and a book on the tram. The kindle has been great for this and I’m actually getting used to using it now. It is also a chance to get away from my bookshelves (with that immense to-read pile) and go for something new. It also pleases me that my books no longer get bashed by being carried around in my bag.

It isn’t only in terms of numbers either. 12 of these books were from new authors. In the course of doing the challenge, I discovered Josh Lanyon, Jeffrey Eugenides, Wilkie Collins, Gore Vidal, Jane Rodgers, Suzanna Keysen and Suzanne Collins. As well as that I have read Patrick McCabe, and Michael Faber on the kindle. All of which I will read again.

I didn’t realise that I had lost some enthusiasm for reading. I always read. It would seem weird not to. But I wasn’t trying very hard. I was going for the tried and tested, whereas now I am excited by each choice that I make.

Eclectic Reader Challenge – Humour – A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

This was the category it took me the longest to decide on for the eclectic reader challenge. It almost seemed too obvious to pick Pratchett, Adams, Bryson, Collins, Maconie, all writers that had made me laugh out loud. At the same time, it seemed a bit risky to pick an author that I wasn’t sure of – maybe their humour wouldn’t appeal – so I decided to go for the tried and tested. Really, all of this was simply a justification for reading another wonderful Bill Bryson book.

I picked A Walk in the Woods because although I have never hiked the Appalachian Trail, I do like to hike and have done a long distance walk before so I thought I would have some empathy with what he went through.photo-3

As with all of the Bryson books that I have read, this was like being reunited with a particularly talkative old friend. The tone of the book is warm and friendly as if you were one of the fellow hikers that Bryson meets and chats to after a long days hike. Bryson is always engaging even when passing on historical detail which could be boring in a lesser writer’s hands.

Bryson, and his friend Stephen Katz, face many challenges on this walk, not least of which is their own lack of fitness at the beginning. They hit snowstorms, are assailed by insects, have maps that are dangerous in their uselessness and meet a fellow hiker so annoying that I would certainly have understood if they had murdered her in the middle of the night. In the end, they abandon her and go to spend the night in a motel.

Even when Bryson feels he is facing certain death – be it by bear, snow, sun or dehydration – he never loses his sense of humour and is quite happy to describe his own idiocy in as much detail as he describes Katz’s. He knows he is a little bit hopeless and that helps the reader to warm to him.

In the end, they do not hike the whole trail – the hundred mile wilderness at the end proves too much for them. And I must confess I was disappointed. Not because I felt that they should tried harder but because it meant the end of my journey with them, a little bit sooner than expected. A superb read for anyone who has ever donned a pair of walking boots.