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!

 

 

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!

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: Stand by Me (1986)

“The kid wasn’t sick. The kid wasn’t sleeping. The kid was dead.”

I can narrow down when I first saw Stand By Me to a period of two or three years in the late 1980s. I’m guessing ‘87 or early ’88. I remember which room of the house I was in and where I was sitting.

I remember it so well for a lot of reasons: My brother rented it (on VCR tape!) and brought it home with some other movies and some friends. They watched the other movies first; to this day, I have no idea what they were.

Then they stuck on Stand By Me and promptly fell asleep. But I never felt less like sleeping in my life. I sat there completely captivated by it. Hey! Kids my age! And not acting like they were five years old!

By the times the credits rolled, I loved this movie.

But there was more there. The power of the acting and the strength of the characters pulled me into their world and their search for the kid killed by a train. I had a moment of uncertainty and doubt when they fell in the swamp and went down to their underwear: I’d seen quite a few films where that happened and the characters never get dressed again, but the film thankfully picked itself up and carried on. By the time the credits rolled, I loved this movie.

It was a long time before I discovered this was a Stephen King novella in a four story collection called Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption, and I was just as enchanted with the story as the film. Dig it out and read a copy when you get a minute.

Then in 1990, something happened to my brother. He was driving too fast on a slippery road, rolled the car he was in, and died.

I didn’t see SBM for another few years after that, and suddenly it had more relevance than ever. After all, the last time I’d seen it, my brother was sleeping four feet away from me. It changed from a film to become a personal where-were-you-when moment for me.

In April my older brother Dennis had been killed in a Jeep accident. Four months had passed but my parents still hadn’t been able to put the pieces back together again.

Check.

Chris:  Gordie?
Gordie:  Why did you have to die?

Gordie:  Why did he have to die, Chris? Why did Denny have to die? Why?

Check and check  again.

It’s a movie that resonates for me on so many levels. It touches the part of me that still grieves for a dead brother after nearly thirty years.

You won’t have the same experience as me watching it, I realise that. It’s a very personal journey for me, as much as it is for Gordie LaChance.

Stand By Me is more than a movie for me: It’s a memory and an experience, one of the mileposts of my life.

Review: Eleanor and Park

5/5

Park doesn’t think much of Eleanor when he first sees her on the school bus. And Eleanor doesn’t think much of Park when she’s forced to sit next to him either…

Wow. That was something else.

Where to start with E&P? I’d start with the ending, but to do so would feel like a major spoiler, and it’s not something I want to spoil for anyone, even by dropping it under the safety of hidden text. Just read the book for yourself, then we’ll talk about the ending.

I wanted to talk about the ending so much when I finished it, I almost bothered my book-buddy friend on a Sunday night when she probably had better things to do. I would have asked my wife about it, but she’d have to read it first, and I didn’t want to wait that long.

But enough ending-related vagueness. What can I tell you about this book?

The simplicity of the writing pulls you in and along for the ride. The sentence structure is simple, almost an elementary level. But those simple sentences have complex themes poured into them. It’s like minimalism for writing; all the power is underneath the words. It drags you down the page and pulls you through the book.

There are no easy answers to the questions asked around the edges of this story. Eleanor is pushed into hard and uncomfortable shapes by the world she lives in. She cares deeply for her brothers and sisters, but finds she can’t drown with them and she can only save herself when the waters close over her head. Park, by comparison, seems to have life easy, but there are undercurrents to his life that make his footing less secure than it seems.

I liked the additional complexity of having it set in 1986 as well. Eleanor can’t simply reach into a back pocket and call 911, any more than she can call Park. He’s only a few blocks away, but it might as well be miles.

And how lost Park is without Eleanor, the music gone from his life both metaphorically and literally. The songs he’s never going to be able to listen to again. Ah, man.

It mirrors our “first times” so perfectly and makes us ache for everything to be new again.

I loved the way this book made me remember how it all felt. It mirrors our “first times” so perfectly and makes us ache for everything to be new again, for the first touch of a hand in ours.

(Falling asleep listening to your love on the phone, the conversations about nothing that mean everything. The first time you ever made someone a mix tape. Yeah, I’m that old I can remember doing those: The careful selection and editing, the struggle to get everything to fit onto a 90 minute space. Trying to squeeze your personality down to thirty songs. Even though I didn’t get there until I met my wife – my own Eleanor in style and bearing if not by name – until ten years later than Park, I still went through it all.)

I was almost blubbering and had to stop sometimes when I was reading this, because it’s so fragile, what Eleanor and Park have.

I felt like I would break it by looking at it for too long, and that would make my heart ache for its lost beauty.

It’s wonderful to watch these two fall for the first time, as we have all fallen. And in watching, we remember when they were us.

Books of the year: 2018

Another year on Goodreads!

My year in books at Goodreads.

I’ve been a member there since 2012, which raises an eyebrow from me when I think about it. Six years of reading habits!

22 books this year, which sounds about average for me. One every two weeks seems about right!

I managed to knock two books from my I-will-read-everything-by-Dickens list. Hard Times was a surprise for me: I was expecting something in a prison, or more brutal, but it wasn’t like that all. It’s one of my top four Dickens novels (so far!).

Two five stars highlighted there for the outstanding The Hate U Give, an extraordinary first novel from Angie Thomas. Read it!

And I loved Eleanor and Park (review coming in Jan 2019!), a book myself and my pen-friend are still discussing on and off.

The Stephen King’s this year followed a pattern of single female characters in peril. Of those, Dolores Claiborne was the highlight, but I enjoyed The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon right until the closing pages.

Endings being a weakness of King’s, he also managed to ruin Gerald’s Game for me by wandering off into some sub-plot I didn’t need to know.

More disappointments this year than highlights: Scythe didn’t really work for me, and Release was even worse. I expected better from Shusterman and Ness… Challenger Deep is more like it, guys!

The Children of Men spent too long on unnecessary backstory and the plot just plodded along, and Gray Mountain was John Grisham out of the court room and out of his comfort zone.

Three new fiction authors this year: PD James, Gillian Flynn and Joe Hill. Of those, I think Hill is the one I’m likely to go back to.

I already have some books lined up for next year (Dry, The Loneliest Girl in the Universe and The Quiet at the end of the World. Thanks, Becky!), and there’s the sequel to A Handmaid’s Tale due in November.

I should have finished all of Dicken’s novels by this time next year, which is something in itself! Then it’s on to his short stories. How did this man have time for ten children and two wives?

What books did you read this year? Which ones stick with you and which did you forget you’d read? Let me know!

Review: Moondust

2/5

In 1999, Andrew Smith was interviewing Charlie Duke, astronaut and moon walker, when he was interrupted. A fellow moon-walker had died, and now there were only nine of them left. Inspired and motivated by the fact that soon there would be none, Smith set out to track them down and talk to them about their experiences…

The first thing to note about this book is how much harder it would be to write today. Now, instead of nine, there are only four left (October 30, 2018). Soon there will be none, which is an astonishing thought: For three years, mankind sent people to the moon and then never bothered again.

Smith has no idea how to talk to introverts.

I know a fair bit about the Apollo program, but Smith throws facts and information into his mix that I wasn’t aware of. He develops relationships with some of the astronauts, and struggles with others. I was most fascinated by the two introverts – Neil Armstrong and John Young. Armstrong avoided all attempts at a face-to-face interview, but Young was stranger: He sat with Smith at a conference table, not opposite, but one chair offset, and gave his bare replies to the wall.

Smith has no idea how to talk to introverts, which I found amusing, since I am one and he’d presumably have as much trouble talking to me. He seems a pleasant enough fellow, but I wonder about his skill as an interviewer if he can’t get what he wants from his subject.

The most annoying thing about the book is Smith’s writing style. Here’s a sample of his compound, complex sentence structure:

“Houston would never win a beauty contest, but Bean’s neighbourhood on the edge of town is lovely, like a series of causeways cut through a friendly forest, saluted by all manner of towering, weeping trees, no one’s idea of Texas.”

…and he runs these throughout the book. Full stops, man. Use. Them.

Also, Smith drops references to the 1960s and assumes his audience is familiar with them. He talks about “Warhol’s Electric Circus” as though we know what he means. Some context would have been nice.

This is a book as much about Smith’s journey as the astronauts. He wonders why he feels motivated to do this project and shifts from controlling fathers to the astronauts as mirrors for ourselves.

At some point, he realises, the experience stopped being the astronauts and became our expectation of it. We all went to the moon, and we all came back with something different.

But we also all came back with the same thing: How fragile we really are.