Books you’ve probably missed (And should be reading!)

There are a lot of books out there. And there have probably been a lot added since you read that sentence. But here are some I bet you’ve missed and I think you should be reading sooner rather than later…

 

V

It might seem odd to start the list with a TV tie in book from a show that aired in the 80s, but this book is brilliant, and engrossing enough to be read as a standalone without having seen the show. Crispin could have slavishly copied the script, but she pours characterisation and backstory into a well-rounded experience. Superb.

The Chrysalids

One of my candidates for “Where’s the movie?”, and the first of my John Wyndham choices. The Chrysalids concerns a strict restrictive religious community long after a nuclear war has decimated the world. This orthodoxy despises mutation in any form – extra toes is a cause for exile. Which is a problem for the teenagers born with telepathy. Just brilliant.

 

Day of the Triffids

Imagine waking up blind one morning. Now imagine waking up blind and everyone else is as well. Now imagine a rogue carnivorous plant is somewhere outside your front door, and you don’t know where it is. How do the few sighted survive in this silent and new dangerous world? There are scenes from this that still haunt me on dark nights (“Bill. There’s a light.”).

This book deserves better treatment than the dodgy two BBC adaptations (One too low a budget, the other nothing like the book) and the feeble 60s Hollywood movie.

(Special shout out to my man Wyndham for The Kraken Wakes: He was talking about the effects of the ice caps melting in 1953.)

House of Stairs

My wife put me on to this one. She remembers reading it thirty years ago, and the ending has still stuck with her. From her brief summary, I tracked it down and ordered a copy and then devoured it. If you want to know how easy it is to brainwash someone, read this and be very afraid.

Jumper

Although dated a little now – there are terrorists in the later part that hijack a plane and keep it on the runway – this still manages to be a powerful and rewarding story. Gould admits that the trope of teleportation is an old one, but he manages to give it a fresh and invigorating spin. Just don’t watch the terrible movie or bother with the book sequels.

The Great Train Robbery

Now this one has been made into a movie, even though it wasn’t very good. Crichton takes a train robbery of 1855 and spins a fanciful (and mostly fictitious) host of rogues, ne’er do wells and scoundrels into the mix. He adds historical notes (Did you know Victorian women were deemed mentally incapable of committing crime?), and lets it all whisk and blend and then simmer for a few hours before serving. It’s a hoot and a blast.

… And these are just a few of the books I know about. Do you have any favourites that the rest of us missed? Let me know!

 

 

Travels: Wales, April 2019

For a quick holiday we went to the middle of Wales for three days, to a place called Aberystwyth. (Abb-er-rist-with). It’s a long way from anywhere…

It took us four hours to get there from Leicestershire, to give you an idea of how far away it is. The main city of Wales – Cardiff – is a hundred miles away from it. If the only cinema in Aberystwyth closed, it would be a 140 mile round trip to see a movie!

I love visiting Wales, despite it’s strange language full of consonants. “Restaurant” in Welsh is “bwyty”, for example. Crossing the border means that all the road signs are in two languages.

The roadsigns bark at you!

Sunsets (Click on a picture to embiggen!)

 

Vale of Rheidol Railway

This was a tiny (I could stretch across the carriage) steam railway into the edge of the Cambrian mountains. Quite a view, and it beats driving!

The Old College, or Hogwarts-by-the-sea

Aberystwyth has a cool university site, but it stands empty now (I think it’s just what they want us Muggles to think), which seems a shame. It was empty when we went inside, and I would have liked to have walked around more, but I wasn’t sure I was allowed. It has a real Harry potter feel to it – a staircase seems to go up nine floors, but it’s only a four floor building…

 

Random stuff

Next major trip planned: Maybe Amsterdam!

My first buddy read

Just after Christmas (2018, for those reading this in the far future. Speaking of which, are you still using fossil fuels or did you work out crystollic fusion?) a friend of mine (Becky from blogsofabookaholic) suggested we do a buddy read. I’d never done one before, but I was up for it. My friend is smart, funny and often has insights that I miss, and I knew I’d have a blast with it. Sounded like fun!

(Note: She’ll be reading this, so I am contractually obliged to state that smart-funny thing, or she will have me pan fried and served on a bed of rice. Don’t worry…I’ll tell her not to read this part.)

I should also point out I’ve never met Becky, and only know her through emails and Goodreads and short Instagram messages. Which doesn’t stop her being my second best friend after my wife. I don’t make many friends (It’s an introvert thing) and I tend to relish the ones I have!

But I digress, as is often the case. Why, just last week, I was telling someone how much I digress when I’m writing about something. Why, yes you do, they replied!

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are a lot of books out there.

But, anyway. First problem with a buddy read: What should we read? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are a lot of books out there. I had a stack of about six physical books sitting on my shelf at home, unread – and about a hundred and forty on my to-be-read (TBR) pile on Goodreads.

Becky has about four hundred in her TBR, and three full bookshelves, which is absolutely beautiful and pristine:

Less like bookshelves and more like a library. Yeah, so there’s that!

We wanted something newly published.

So we had a lot to choose from. We decided to make it something of reasonable length – neither of us felt like we wanted to be welded to a buddy read forever when there are so many good books to read, so eight hundred page monsters were out. Classics take a lot of time and sometimes they’re hard going.

In the end, we picked something YA, which we both of us enjoy reading and reviewing. And we wanted something newly published.

Becky had picked up a copy of Dry by Neal and Jarrod Shusterman (my review, Becky’s review). We made sure we got the same edition so our page counts matched.

I’d read quite a bit of Shusterman before (His Unwind is excellent), and I’d been following him for quite a while, so I knew this was probably going to be outstanding. But Becky went one better and got to meet Neal and got her copy signed. And she got it in 2017 along with a bunch of other cool stuff!

(I told her I feel entitled to hate her a little for this. Fortunately, she knows I don’t mean it!)

So we were off!

Well…not quite. One thing about buddy reads? You start them at the same time.

Which is harder than you might think for two people who get through as many books a year as we do – I average a book every ten days, to give you an idea.

I finished one (Actually, it was the Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle), and didn’t want to start something new and be halfway through it when Becky became…bookless. The same problem with her: She might start something new and be halfway through it. It’s harder to match up starting a book at the same time than you might think.

I struggled my way through readerless lunch-breaks with manly fortitude.

I decided to brave it and be without a book for a week or so. So I struggled my way through readerless lunch-breaks with manly fortitude and an iron will while I waited.

Well…not quite. I was re-reading Sherlock Holmes.

So we were off!

Well…not quite. Before we even started, we set some ground rules and got some background: where our first pages would be read, how many pages we were allowed to read before we stopped and talked about it. What we thought about the cover. Did we usually read the teaser on the back or skip it? I do, she doesn’t – but we both read the afterword and acknowledgements first, strangely enough!

One of the fun things about reading apocalyptic books is the what would you do in that situation? I was shocked to discover that some of the things I would have done were the wrong choices.

That startled me, talking about it to Becky. I always thought I’d be quite adept at surviving, but Becky made the right calls pages before I did. That’s what a degree in psychology will do for you!

It got really hard to put the book down in the last ninety pages.

We didn’t always read at the same pace…sometimes I’d be in front, sometimes Becky would race ahead (sometimes far ahead, ahem!) and wait for me. It got really hard to put the book down in the last ninety pages, and I was busting to discuss it with her when the story ended!

There were some interesting side discussions along the way about dehydration and finding water resources (It’s the plot of the book) how to make evaporation traps, does beer actually dehydrate you more, would you share or hoard, things like that.

Having a book buddy added a whole dimension to the story I wouldn’t have thought about; there are things I saw that she missed, and things she noticed I didn’t. It was an absolute blast guessing where the plot lines would go and where things would end up.

It might sound obvious, but it’s like reading the same book with a different brain. I had a riot, and I know we will be doing it again at some point (Shadow of the wind), and I’m sure we’ll do it again after that (War of the Worlds?).

And I’ve made a mental note that in any future apocalypses: I’m on Team Becky!

Have you ever done a buddy read? Did you enjoy it or hate it? Let me know!

Review: Dry

4/5

 

 

During a poorly-managed and endless drought in Southern California, Alyssa Morrow turns on the tap and something unexpected happens: No water comes out. Through the next week of escalating dehydration, brutality and survival, she has to keep herself and her brother alive…

Wow. I’m exhausted after reading this! Alyssa takes the advice of her survivalist neighbour and head towards a “bug-out”, a safe house away from the chaos of a society without water. They spend the best part of the next three hundred pages trying to get there and the pace (for the most part) doesn’t let up.

The promise of water is often cruelly taken away.

Shusterman throws every single thing he can think of into the way of Alyssa and her companions, from evacuation centres that are death traps to forest fires and “water zombies” – those in the last stages of dehydration. The promise of water is often cruelly taken away at the last second, again and again.

For a section in the middle, the pace drops a little as a new character is introduced and we dive into his backstory and development, but it’s a temporary lull before the story rockets away again. It’s intense stuff, and only gets more so as the ending approaches – I read the last ninety pages or so in a few hours and a frantic blur of needing to know.

Like the best of stories, it holds a mirror up to ourselves and asks what would you do? What surprised me was that some of my answers to those questions would have been wrong. Alyssa’s survivalist neighbours have one approach – hoard and protect – and later in the book we meet a woman with a different approach – share and survive together. Both work in their own ways, and both are successful.

There’s a moment in the midpoint of the book which is absolutely heart-breaking to read, and it destroys one family more effectively with a single gunshot, than any water raiders or rioters could. No spoilers…but Shusterman makes the point that gun control is a good thing. Time and again, solving a problem with a gun is ruled out as an option…until there is no option left. Gun control is a good thing: But one day, that gun might save a life.

Surprisingly, Alyssa is the protagonist in this story, but she’s not really the main character. That role drops more onto her neighbour, Kelton, and it’s him who goes through the biggest character arc and development and the one we feel the most invested in.

This is a world totally believable.

 

As usual with Shusterman, he carefully considers how a society works, then breaks it brutally to see how his characters survive and react. This is a world totally believable, and scarily realistic. There are weaknesses I didn’t notice (Would people really riot after a day without water? Did they exhaust every other source of hydration that quickly? My wife asked), but despite those, I felt the desperation of the people for water.

And as usual, there are big questions. How well would you survive a disaster? How many do you try and save? Do you hoard and survive alone, or share and survive together?

If you have to drown someone to survive the shipwreck, do you deserve to reach the lifeboat? And how do you look at yourself afterwards in the mirror?

(This was a buddy read with Becky from Blogs of a Bookaholic, who some of you might remember is not a pancake. Her review is here. Blog post next time on my first buddy read with her!)

What would you do in a shortage? Hoard or share? Let me know!

Review: Gerald’s Game

3/5

 

 

 

Jessie and her husband have a game. He locks her up in real handcuffs, she pretends she doesn’t like it and wants to be set free. Except this time, she really does…

Every time I picked this book up, I was surprised by how far into it I was. I got to page two hundred or so, and realised nothing much had happened. That isn’t, by the way, a criticism, but praise of King’s writing skill. Who else could keep you turning the pages when all that’s happening is backstory? And it’s fairly obvious early on what’s at the bottom of Jessie’s backstory, at that.

So for most of the book, we get flashbacks into Jessie’s life, shifting randomly to her college years and to a solar eclipse when she was ten years old that defined and marred the rest of her life, until she finds herself submissive enough to be chained to a bed in the middle of nowhere with handcuffs she can’t escape from.

But what also kept me reading was how King was going to pull this off and get Jessie out of there. It didn’t seem likely he would kill her off at the end…Likely, but not impossible.

When the climax of the book arrives, it’s over in thirty breathless pages.

So those small things kept me reading for the three hundred or so pages, until something did happen. When the climax of the book arrives, it’s over in thirty breathless pages or so, and…

…that’s when it all fell apart. King spends the next twenty pages explaining the backstory of another character, before we finally get to Jessie’s ending (happy or otherwise, I won’t drop a spoiler).

I saw that giant epilogue when I was finishing this up last night and sighed. It felt very tacked on and unnecessary. Why not leave the ambiguity of what happened open? I hate to be vague, but unless you’ve read what went on, I don’t wish to spoil it.

This was written as a companion to Dolores Claiborne, and was meant to be a shorter story. There are elements there that mix in with Dolores: A single woman desperate and under pressure, incestuous fathers and abusive relationships. Tying them together is the single eclipse that changes both Dolores’s life and Jessie’s. I didn’t feel like I needed to have read DC to have read this though.

I wish I’d warmed to Jessie more and liked her better. I wasn’t rooting for her as much as I was for Dolores, which was a shame. Her passive personality annoyed me more than Dolores, although I understand why she was like it.

And as deep and exhaustive as her backstory was, I still don’t feel like I know her.

What do you think of books that share a fictional universe? Let me know!

Movies: Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge

Johnny Depp realises exactly where his career has gone.

“No, it can’t be. I’ve spent years searching for… this. The great Jack Sparrow is not some drunk in a cell. Do you even have a ship? A crew? Pants?”

A few minutes into this film, my wife and I were debating what number Pirates film this was. Four? Five? Six? It took a minute to figure out, and that was only by recapping the plots of the others.

That’s the big problem here, you see…the plots. They’re all jumbled into a mass we can’t differentiate. Was the one with the mermaids the fourth film, or the fifth? The whirlpool was the third one, right? And so it went. Anyway, for the record, this is the fifth Pirates movie. It’s also the shortest, but it certainly didn’t feel like it.

It doesn’t really matter if this is the fifth or the tenth. Here’s the plot of all of them: Jack will act like a crazy drunk, there will be swordfights and some action scenes. Jack, friends and enemies will all require a magical artefact – a sword, a magic coin, a trident that controls the seas, and so on. They’ll find this artefact in the last act after many beautiful beaches are walked / run across, lots of sea spray, fights and cannon fire. Jack will somehow walk away at the end with nothing but the sea and The Black Pearl.

Don’t get me wrong about this series. I loved the first movie and quote it all the time. Depp put a new spin on the old pirate and swashbuckler genre, and it’s a swaggering and rolling riot of a first movie. But it should have ended there and somehow Disney dragged this out until we’re left with this sad shadow, a poor pastiche of itself. What was fresh five movies ago is now formulaic and predictable.

The whimsy and charm of Jack is gone and replaced with a sense of pity.

Depp has always carried the movies, but here he seems uncomfortable and distracted. The whimsy and charm of Jack is gone and replaced with a sense of pity. He’s nothing now but a drunk falling into mud pits and he reeks of desperation. The thinness of the rest of the characters shows through when we’re looking at them because we aren’t distracted by Jack. The jokes and wit are weak and the humour is callow and vulgar.

Neither Orlando Bloom nor Keira Knightly return in any real sense, so we’re given two characters to replace them who are exactly the same, right down to Orlando’s accent and Knightley’s kick-assery. They might as well have called them the same names and be done with it.

The action scenes are confused and noisy, and there were times when I felt like hitting pause while I worked out which ship everyone was one fighting on. They seemed to go forever, and it was difficult at points to keep it all straight.

The real highlight was a deliciously silly part where horses pull a building through a town, chased by half the British Army. It’s delightfully daft and entirely entertaining. However the next scene immediately trashes it: The pirates are on a landlocked ship in the same town they were just chased through and my wife said, “I guess they stopped chasing them?”

The pleasant surprise was Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa. His character arc is the most satisfying and he’s the best developed character. There’s a sense of a man deeply conflicted and too far down a dark path to turn back, as much as he wants to. He was wasted in this movie, pushed to the side in favour of Jack’s desperate antics.

In fairness, I sat through the whole thing and enjoyed it more than the one with the mermaids and the weird sea-shell sailors.

But please: No more.

Why are you so QUIET?

Been there, bought the T shirt.

Do you ever get the feeling you’ve made someone nervous?

Last week, a teacher at the school where I work wanted something fixing on her computer. I followed her from my office to her classroom, and while we were walking she was talking about the things she’d tried to fix it herself. I listened and analysed her body language and didn’t respond, my default behaviour unless I’m asked a question.

At one point, she turned her head towards me, raised her shoulders and gave a half-laugh. Being an INFJ and an introvert I’ve been analysing that little gesture ever since. At first, I thought it was a “I don’t know how to fix it, I’m just a girl” gesture.

(I apologise if that’s sexist, but I’ve known some women who talk to men like that. Very competent and able women who feel they can only get a problem resolved by a male by pretending to be incompetent. Perhaps – not unfairly – they think the man will consider them a failure if they can’t do everything. I think it says a lot about our culture that women feel they have to do this.)

I think my quietness made her nervous.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about it a little more, since that’s what us INFJs tend to do (Seriously: I replay conversations I had twenty years ago!). I think my quietness made her nervous. Was she taking my silence as a tacit disapproval of her actions in trying to solve the problem? Did she think my silence was a condemnation of her ability?

Most people would have filled the time while we walked with small talk, but I have little time for it and remained silent. I don’t really care how your drive was to work this morning, or what the weather is doing right now. If I’m paying attention, it’s to the things you aren’t telling me, the things you don’t want to talk about, your body language and the tone of your voice.

After the head turn and shoulder lift thing, I dropped back half a step behind her so she wouldn’t feel she had to talk to me again. That seemed to work.

I’ve noticed it before that my silence makes people uncomfortable. One of my former teachers said he sometimes thought I was going to try a judo move on him because I was so quiet and still.

It’s very odd to me that people seem happier filling the silence with nonsense and small talk. Silence doesn’t bother me at all, to be honest. I’d rather have a decent conversation than an empty one.

Do you think your quietness makes people nervous? Let me know!

Pancake Challenge!

On Tuesday, it was Pancake Day in the UK. Traditionally, people were supposed to use up food and not eat it again until Lent, six weeks later.

Personally, I just use it as an excuse to eat pancakes.

And “it’s raining” is enough of an excuse to eat pancakes for me, to be honest.

Any road up, my good friend and book buddy Becky from Blogs of a Bookaholic challenged me to link books to pancakes. Works for me!

These are pancakes.
This is Becky. She is, as far as I am aware, not a pancake.

It might seem an odd choice, but I’m going with Christine by Stephen King. There’s a particular section where Christine is chasing down another car (I should mention that she’s a haunted car, because, you know…Stephen King) and the scene is described so vividly that you are right there watching the whole thing unfold. It’s a great piece of writing.

Everyone in Patrick Ness’s books is a snarker of the highest order. I mean, everyone. He writes such vivid and solid characters it would be hard to pick one from the crowd. They are all amazing wits and his characters sparkle with life, even when his stories fall flat.

Becky went with Eleanor and Park, and that works for me as well! It’s something I could see myself dipping into just to enjoy the moments!

 

 

 

 

I’m going with a classic on this one – Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities. I love the way he develops so well through the story until…ah, but that be a spoiler! He’s definitely one of my Dickens heroes.

 

 

 

More Than This is an odd, meta-fictional story. Is it really happening? What happens after the end? Why do plot elements appear just as the main character mentions them? There’s a lot of unanswered questions there…

Here’s an interesting choice: Sherlock Holmes. Much as love the stories, there’s no getting away from the fact that Holmes is an unsocial, smug, condescending jack ass. What makes it even worse? He’s always right. Curse that man and his intelligence!

But, more seriously, I could not be Watson and put up with Holmes for long. (And I love peanut butter…I just borrowed Becky’s graphic!)

Thank you for letting me borrow your graphics, Becky! This was fun!

Review: The Talisman

5/5

Chased east by the ambitious and power-hungry partner of his dead father, Jack Sawyer and his dying mother find themselves in New Hampshire, exiled from California. Jack is sent on a road trip back to the west coast to retrieve something called “The Talisman”.

Its description is vague to the point of non-existence by the man sending him on the trip. It’s the McGuffin that powers the plot along. But Jack is just desperate enough to try it…to try anything to save his mother.

And, it seems, not just his mother needs saving. Jack discovers he can travel to a parallel world called “The Territories”, a place which has “magic instead of physics.” (A world King would later expand into his Dark Tower series). Ruler of this place is a woman who bears more than a passing resemblance to Jack’s mother, a dying queen who also needs saving from the Territories equivalent of his father’s partner.

There wasn’t a moment when I wanted to leave the book alone.

The Talisman is not a short book by any means…but the best part? I didn’t even notice, because the pages flip by so easily. From Jack’s first trips into the Territories to the horrors and good friends he finds in this world and the other, nothing lags or drops. There wasn’t a moment when I wanted to leave the book alone, even though I’ve read it before and knew where it was all going.

At the time of publication (around 1984), this was touted as an adult horror story, I believe. But horror forms such a small part of the story that it seems like a mis-identification: This is odyssey, this is Frodo and Sam growing as characters as they travel the road to Mordor.

This is all about the journey. This is about finding strength you didn’t know you had, discovering who your friends are, finding friends willing to die for you as you would for them.

This is as much about a twelve year old boy discovering what it takes to turn into a man, and what sort of man he wants to turn in to.

In 1984, this was classed as adult fiction, but there’s nothing here that a teenager couldn’t read. I would class it as young-adult, actually, both in terms of protagonist and the themes that run through it. And like the best of YA, there’s something there for all of us, no matter how old we are.

I like to call it “The best book by Stephen King you’ve probably never heard of.” But in two words instead of eleven: It’s bloody brilliant.

Drop everything else and go read it. Right now.

(This slightly modified review first appeared on Goodreads in 2012)

Movies: Groundhog Day (1993)

Testing the theory of gravity in the worst way possible.

“…standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”

When I first stumbled across this movie by accident, I was unimpressed. It mostly seemed to be Bill Murray doing his usual cynical-guy routine, something he excels at and has honed to a fine art since the early 80s. Seen it, done it, bought the movies. Yawn.

I was expecting a mild comedy I’d watch once or twice, and planning to come away with maybe a chortle and possibly even a laugh or a guffaw. But that’s not what happened.

Suddenly I was watching a man deconstruct himself.

Something happened about halfway through the film that made me sit up and pay attention. I’m trying to identify the moment, and what woke me up was Phil listening to Mozart as he reads. He pauses, looks around and realises how simple and elegant the music is, how beautiful it sounds. I can almost see him wanting to get up and shake people and make them realise how precious the seconds of our lives are. And then he smiles and goes for piano lessons.

Suddenly I was watching a man deconstruct himself. He slowly breaks into parts and then re-builds himself in a better shape as I looked on. By the last act, I was hooked with the story and completely in love with this movie.

It’s one of what I call “seasonal” movies for me, an annual treat. As trite as it sounds, I always make a point of watching it in February. It’s so strongly linked in my head with late winter that when a TV channel played it in June this year, it wasn’t right at all.

This is a spring-and-hope-returning film, a promise of a new year just getting into its stride. Summer isn’t right for it, no more than winter is right for Weekend at Bernie’s.

Groundhog Day always makes me melancholy as it draws to its conclusion. I’ve been enjoying the experience so much, I don’t want it to end. I’ve had the same feeling with books I love: I see only thirty pages left, and realise I won’t be spending any more time with these people, and mourn that they’re gone from my life and their time is short.

I feel the same way about this. Too quickly, far too quickly, we’re into the third act, Phil is at that piano in front of everyone in the town, and I realise that my time with him is nearly over. This movie could be three hours long and I probably wouldn’t notice.

I always want the fantasy to continue for a little longer. As the credits roll, I imagine Phil and Rita living their eternity where it’s always February third…for both of them.

Goodbye, Phil. I’ll miss you. See you next year, old friend.

Do you have any “seasonal” films that you only watch at certain times of the year? Let me know!