Category Archives: Reviews

November – Read a Comedy

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The ‘2017 year of reading’ plan directed that November would be a comedy and so I bimbled around the library until I came across Life and Laughing by Michael McIntyre.

This the second autobiography of a comedian I’ve read in the last 12months and I enjoyed it even more than the first. If Graham Norton was the comedian I grew up with mainly through my late teens and early twenties with doggy-phone and So Graham Norton, Michael McIntyre is the one I’ve watched most recently over the last few years (this book is several years old now and takes you to the point where he began appearing on TV a lot).

Like Graham Norton’s book, I read ‘Life and Laughing’ in Michael’s voice – some of the sentences I could actually hear him saying and imagine him delivering them in one of his routines, head bobbing, cheeky grin and lots of running around the stage. I found – because I read it pretty quickly – that I also began throwing his style into my daily life, speaking to people at work in similar voice, which I had to stop pretty quick – my work life is just not that fun or exciting to justify impersonating a comedian as part of the daily grind.

Life and Laughing was funnier for me than Graham Norton’s book – although I laughed so loudly someone came to check I was OK when I was reading that, I chuckled, ‘lol’ed and SALTS (smiled and little then stopped) at this one all the way through. The observational comedy style that McIntyre has meant that virtually every page had funny-isms dropped onto it; he was writing about his past, but with his comedy eyes wide open all the time – even describing the set up and process of getting his writing room started at the beginning was good (if you’re interested, I’m writing my review on an old MacBook Pro c. 2011 13-inch-ish screen, which has a small crack in the right hand corner where I closed it on a book a couple of years ago – for safety purposes Magic Tape has been applied to prevent any tiny bits falling out).

My favourite thing about this book, behind the review of his life seen through comedy spectacles, was understanding how hard it is to achieve success as a comedian. Norton had similar struggles in his book and perhaps reading the two so close together brought this into greater focus for me. McIntyre shows you the true past behind the success – the long slog of years on a circuit of ‘jobbing’  stand-ups, multiple visits to Edinburgh Festival and everything in between where there’s little money coming in and lots going out as you try to achieve what is essentially a dream. How close must he have come to giving up on this, in order to have a ‘normal’ job that paid the bills? Perhaps it is passion or ambition, drive or something else that carries people to success – Michael seemed incredibly determined in his approach to his career, taking a booking for 12 months time and working in between to hone his skills.

Perhaps it takes someone so determined to succeed that they can live on an edge of huge debt without doing what many must do and ‘get a proper job’. It feels similar to being a writer in this sense – you can sit at home, writing away with no job trying to make it happen (or even in a coffee shop, a la J K Rowling), but many more must not be able to cope with the risk to home, comfort and the ability to eat something that isn’t a Tesco value meal…

The end of the book really made me think. McIntyre is a very positive, flexible comedian – he can do naughty as much as he can entertain families on his ‘Big Show’. Reading his story really made me appreciate what it must have taken to have held out and push to where he has gotten to today. I went into this book as a fan and came out really liking the man he seems to be (despite his revelations of being a stalker). I would recommend this to anyone who is a fan of his comedy and also to people who are not ‘biography’ readers – I’m not myself generally, but this one was really worth it.

Rating: 5*

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June… Read something you wouldn’t normally

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I picked Monsters up in the library because of the quirky cover. Reading the very brief blurb on the back it reminded me of a film from years ago with Kate Winslet (I think), where two odd friends have an unsavoury interest in murder.
The actual story was a bit of a surprise and didn’t unfold as I thought it might.

I’m not actually convinced that I ever read the name of the narrator of the story – if I did it was so infrequent that I missed it – and so it is odd to share such intimate knowledge of her strange and rather unhappy life without giving her the label of a name. Perhaps that is part of what the author was looking for, that as the reader there is an uncomfortable voyeurism to reading about this person and their experiences.

The story is well-written, from the point of view of a 12-13 year old, which sees her drifting through points of immature misunderstanding of an adult world to moments of real clarity, seeing the truth of people that maybe sits between being a child and an adult. The way she looks at her friendships and others feels very black and white, more childlike, as do the tempers she has.

Overall, this is an interesting read with well-rounded characters and a view into the painful and odd world of the narrator. Often the murder mystery element of the book drifts into the background whilst trivial seeming things take the centre. It’s not comfortable or fun to read, you feel pity for the narrator in many ways, but also can’t say that she is ever likely to become someone you would want to meet. She’s already pretty broken. 4*

(In terms of the reading challenge, I actually started off reading a political biography on Barack Obama, I still have it but am only about 50 pages into and it has about 800 to go… I’m not overly convinced that I’ll make it to the end of that one, perhaps it’s too far out of my comfort zone!)

 

 

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Reading Challenge for May – Read a book recommended by a friend…

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Several friends have recommended If I Stay, by Gayle Forman, to me and it has sat languishing in my bedside table for a while now – this cover is for the version of the book I have and so must have been bought around the time of the film release. I can’t remember now if I bought this copy or if it was given to me to read – I have a feeling it’s the latter, but definitely can’t think who it came from. My author buddy Tony Talbot read and reviewed this on the Aside from Writing blog ages ago, so you can check out his thoughts there (spoiler alert!) if you like (also, it’s evidence of the recommendation!)

My thoughts… 

Before you are 20 pages in to this book, you are shocked into experiencing the same trauma as Mia. There’s so little pre-amble to the crash that it is shocking, even though you know that is what the book centres on before you start. You just don’t want this kind of thing to happen to characters like them – you feel how unfair and sad it is, when this type of tragedy strikes.

I found the comments and interviews (from the film actors) with Gayle Forman really interesting at the end, putting the story into context with her own experience of grief. There are so many facets of grief considered through the story: parental love for a child/younger sibling; romantic loss and that of losing your parents. Mia – sitting outside herself – is a very human, emotive vehicle for considering all these things, whilst reflecting back on the life she has lived and the relationships that have been built around her at that point.

This is, as you would expect, a difficult read in places. I think Gayle does a great job of managing the hard emotional parts of the present, with the backstory of the past. It has the mix in the book, just as you do with grief itself, of being overwhelmed by emotion and loss in one instant, then reminiscing and feeling the warmth of love, family and friends the next. I teared up a few times whilst reading, especially in the sections on Teddy, which Mia felt almost with a parental love for her much younger brother.

I think this is a story that will linger with you for a long time, whether it’s because of shared experiences of grief and how poignantly this is told within the story, or because of the emotion you feel for Mia’s fictional family and those of anyone in real life you experiences these similar freak tragedies.

This is a relatively short book and without formal chapters, you tend to read on through the scenes. Whilst very sad, I enjoyed this book, in so much as it has lingered with me the last few days since finishing and I’d like to read more about the characters I met.

5*

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April – Read a non-fiction book… Freakonomics

1202So, non-fiction month… I don’t often read non-fiction, but I do really enjoy them when I do. I started Freakonomics about a couple of years ago, read the first couple of chapters/essays and enjoyed it, but then popped it back into the bedside table pile and didn’t get back to it. This time, spurred on by the need to read a non-fiction book in the month, I just grabbed it and read! The way the chapters are divided over different subjects, but with vague links between them, makes it very easy to read and the style with a conversational tone taking you through their theories is a nice change for a non-fiction book.

The idea behind Freakonomics is the juxtaposing of some quite outlandish ideas, with core economic theories and approach to evaluation to give alternative perspectives on areas as diverse as violent crime statistics and the importance of parenting. Below is a snapshot from the blurb and picks out some of the best questions explored in the essay chapters:

“Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool? What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? How much do parents really matter? How did the legalization of abortion affect the rate of violent crime?”

I’d definitely recommend this for anyone who likes examining the world from different, less conventional perspectives. Their website, http://freakonomics.com/ has all sorts of articles, videos and more covering a lot of other content on other subjects, so is worthwhile checking out if you like the sound of this book. I’ll definitely be adding Super Freakonomics to my TBR list – but might need to leave tackling it to another year! 🙂

Overall 4* for this

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March – Read something published in the last year…

The Women in the WallsThe Women in the Walls by Amy Lukavics
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not sure why I read horror books now and again…

This was a chance pick-up in the library because the cover and blurb were enticingly creepy. The overall style and story is good, picking up lots of horror-story stock items: isolation, mental instability, odd family history and of course, the spooky old house…

I really liked the first 3/4 of the book, where the psychological build-up was great. My problem – similar to most of the few horror books I’ve read – is that the actual reveal of what IS spooky or horrifying tends to switch me off. It’s almost the opposite of how I find horror films: the reveal scares me but the build-up is cheesy.

Anyway, I liked the characters and set up in this book – the background story to the horror was good as well, with some nice Shakespearian-esque gruesomeness thrown in! Young adult horror, but not if you’re squeamish 😉

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‘Carry On’ and ‘Fangirl’ by Rainbow Rowell

FangirlFangirl by Rainbow Rowell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I remember reading a review of this by Becky at Blog of a Bookaholic and I quite liked the idea of the story. When I stood in WHSmith waiting to fly out to Florida in the summer, looking for another book to complete my 3 for 2 offer, I saw this and thought ‘why not’?

And then, I carried it to the US and back without reading it and placed it into the dreaded bedside table, where it ultimately became part of my challenge to clear out that book eating piece of furniture.

I really enjoyed Fangirl, not always for the storyline, which sometimes was a bit slow for me – but I loved Cather (although I wished she’d gone for Cath and Erin for the twins over Cather and Wren – it just reminded me of the word catheter, which isn’t a great connection to make). I think Rowell wrote a very believable story about an introverted character’s experience of going to university and particularly the thought-processes of a writer. There were things that Cath says in the book, which I can only assume link about to how Rowell feels about writing herself – and they could have been thoughts from my own head.

So, it wasn’t really the ‘fangirl’ elements of Fangirl I liked the most – it was reading about a writer, writing about what they read. The correlation between reading and writing, along with the experience of being a writer, was what I loved about this book. Probably not what was aimed at, or what most people will like about it, but that was what did it for me.

So, that brings us to…

Carry OnCarry On by Rainbow Rowell

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

DNF @ pg 145

I really hate not finishing books, but I was just finding this too hard to get into.

I really liked the Simon snippets in Fangirl and loved that book overall, but this just hasn’t worked for me. I think if it was written as the ‘proper’ Simon Snow book, i.e. like Harry Potter, I would have found it easier to engage with the story and characters – but as it is written in the style of fanfic, there was just too much implied knowledge needed for me to enjoy this.

So, sorry, just not for me.

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January – Read something you read in school…

Yes, I know it’s February now – but I did read the book in January, I just didn’t get time to do the  post until now 🙂

So… ‘read a book you read in school’ was the instruction and I decided that loosely this could mean anything from high school through to my post-grad stuff, which gave me quite a lot of choice. At the same time, I was already halfway through the month and in the middle of reading a couple of other books, so I didn’t want anything too heavy. Don’t worry, you’re not about to read a post about an Allan Ahlberg book, although they are pretty awesome.

In the end, I opted to read some poetry. Partly because it is was faster, but also, I don’t often read poetry – I suppose I don’t really consider myself a ‘poetry person’, even though I have no idea who I would be defining as such. Anyway, as a ‘not really a poetry person’ person, there are only a few poetry books on my shelves and I have a limited list of poets I would say that I enjoy reading. So, my choices were Robert Lowell, who I discovered in my contemporary literature class (I think!) in 3rd year at uni or Ted Hughes, who I first read in high school with things like ‘Crow’ and ‘The Thought Fox’ (for which I can still clearly the images in the poem, despite not having read it in years).

birthday-letterI ended up going with Ted, but re-read his collection of poems Birthday Letters, which I had read at the end of university, after watching the film Sylvia. Birthday Letters is probably my favourite poetry book (if I don’t count Roald Dahl and Lewis Carroll). I remember reading both Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in high school and again for A-level. I didn’t ‘get’ most of Plath’s poems – the bleakness and images she returned to over again, were perhaps not easily accessible for a younger, immature reader – someone not familiar really with the pain life can inflict. I still don’t enjoy them, but can appreciate something different in her poetry now as an adult than I did before.

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Daniel Craig and Gwyneth Paltrow as Ted and Sylvia in 2003 film Sylvia

Whether you enjoy the film Sylvia or agree/disagree with the presentation of Hughes and Plath’s life together, what I found for me was that it gave me a context for reading Birthday Letters against. If you’re interested in knowing more on this, check out Wikipedia pages on the book here. Most people believe that the poems collected in Birthday Letters are Hughes’ response to Plath’s suicide and their relationship as a whole – published in 1998 shortly before his own death. Compared to the ‘nature’ poems we had focused on at school, the poetry in Birthday Letters feels to me more personal and precise, like the words have been worked over repeatedly not to create the perfect poem, but to enable the poetry to properly express what had been worked over in someone’s mind, heart and soul over and over again, before making it on to paper.

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Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath

As I found Plath’s poetry more vivid and painful re-reading it as an adult, I felt the same about reading Birthday Letters compared to Hughes’ other poetry. When you read these poems you are being taken on a journey, one that is emotional and real – not to tell you a purely fictional story created in their imagination.

Whilst the poems have an autobiographical slant, talking about real events, they are still being interpreted through the medium of poetry. It feels like someone try to write through grief and perhaps bend it to the format that they felt most comfortable with. My own experiences with death have always been that I can express myself better on paper than I ever can out loud – like things make sense of how I’m feeling when written down, instead of being talked about with others or floating around in my head.

Of the many poems in Birthday Letters ‘Visit’ is one of my favourites. However, it is The Thought Fox by Ted Hughes that I’ve posted below for you to enjoy, if you’ve not come across it before. I’m sure it will ‘speak’ to the writer inside you, which I think is why it has stayed with me so long, since I read it over twenty years ago in school…

THE THOUGHT-FOX

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near

Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,

A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox

It enters the dark hole of the head.

The window is starless still; the clock ticks,

The page is printed.

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