Friday, 31 October 2014

I'd have an opinion on this book but I'm afraid it might be too much for my poor female brain - Dracula by Bram Stoker

I've never wanted to read Dracula. Strider - my sister, so named because she had her legs stretched when she joined the circus so she could stride over cars and unicorns - was always big into Vampires; from Point Horror's The Return of the Vampire to Anne Rice (and the film, which I recently rewatched the first half hour of for the first time and suddenly understood why Tom Cruise was so cross about it given the views of his religion on those sort of matters). She ponced around Whitby in a black crushed velvet skirt and an old jet crucifix of our Mammy's no doubt feeling she had found her spiritual home. In the interests of not being unfair to her, I should mention that at this time I was rocking the type of clothing you can only buy in Glastonbury, muttering over lumps of rock crystal, and wishing I could put green streaks in my hair. I even had an orange dot energised by Uri Geller himself.

Left to my own devices, I probably never would have got around to reading Dracula, but I made the mistake of mentioning to my Mammy I'd never read it and compounded my error by allowing her to leave the house unsupervised before enough time had passed for her to forget that fact. She smilingly presented me with a copy, telling me it was really good. Unusually for me, I did not respond with the news I could have got it for free from Project Gutenberg but instead thanked her and settled to read.

A bajillion weeks later I managed to finish.

Normally I give classic books a bit of a free pass on matters such as language, or having an enormously tedious bit in the middle because while I enjoy complaining, I'm also British and don't consider it cricket to give out to somebody who's been dead for the last hundred years or so. However, I am not giving Dracula a free pass for the sexism and I do not buy that this is an accurate portrayal of attitudes at the time any more than I expect the me of 2114 to buy Stephen King's portrayal of Beverly Marsh and her amazingly sentient nipples in IT.

The first part of Dracula, Jonathan Harker's diary of his time spent in Transylvania, is good although the moment with Dracula's harem is just as porny as every TV, film, and game portrayal of it, which is actually quite an achievement. The book continues decently from there, with only minor eye rolling on my part, until the introduction of Van Helsing and his inability to say what the problem is. I've always found that getting people to do stuff is much more effective if you inform them of all the terrible things which will happen if they fail, or maybe I just like issuing threats, but clearly Van Helsing doesn't. I don't care when a book was written, if a character fails to mention crucial information but doesn't - and doesn't have a good reason not to - and bad things happen as a result, it's weak plotting.

From there, things get worse. We go from Everybody Loves Lucy to Everybody Loves Mina. I actually checked with my Mammy that she'd read this before the 70's because I honestly don't see how she could have tolerated all the "Let's not tell Mina about this, she looks so pale and tired and I'm worried her womanly brain may explode from all the knowledge", and the "I'm so glad the men won't tell me anything about anything. I am so glad they are all here to do the thinking so I don't have to" bits.

As with The Turn of The Screw, I enjoy the fruits Dracula's legacy far more than the original work which inspired them. I don't think it's worth reading today, but as the beginning was good I'm going to give it one star.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Better Late Than Never - The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark

[With this post, I declare my personal Blog Blackout over. I thought about extending it to the 1st to keep in line with others, but from tomorrow I'm busy with Other Things, so I decided breaking early was better than breaking late on account of all the damage little old me is doing to teh authors. Why will nobody think of the authors? Anyway, this book was provided to me for no cost by the publisher, Two Roads, aided by Bookbridgr. I thank them, for both hardcopy and not sending Kirsty Wark to my home to find out why I hadn't got this reviewed yet.]

The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle is the debut novel of the journalist and broadcaster Kirsty Wark (you'd have heard of her if you were British). She is intelligent, classy, and a generally all round good egg, which is why I requested it in the first place. She also had a cameo in the Doctor Who episode "The Poison Sky' according to Wikipedia, which tells you how highly she is regarded.

When 93-year-old Elizabeth Pringle dies, she leaves her house and everything in it to Anna, the woman who pushed a note through her door 30 years earlier asking if Elizabeth would be interested in selling. TIt is Martha, Anna's daughter, who takes shocked custody of the place; the house is an untold story, one which will forever remain so thanks to Anna's Alzheimers.

The book alternates between Martha - struggling with her mother, her sister, and this new property, the gift of a woman she's never met - and Elizabeth's memoir, the story of a long life in a small place she's desperate to set down before she becomes unable to. There is a lovely parallel in the unfolding of Elizabeth's story and Martha's gradual acquaintance with her through the Arran islanders who knew her, small details cropping up in Martha's chapters to be explained in Elizabeth's.

As you might expect from somebody of Wark's calibre, the writing is pretty good. There's the odd clunky paragraph, usually speech related, but the prose has a lovely subtlety to it which only becomes apparent when you mentally apply a Scottish accent. In the right vocal chords, I imagine this would be an excellent audio book. It's certainly something which should be read for long, uninterrupted periods, sunk into rather than dipped.

And this is because while lovely, and evocative, and interesting, Elizabeth Pringle lacks a strong plot. Any book split between two narratives in this way faces an uphill struggle to engage the reader because it usually takes twice as long for the book to get going. This one gives no impetus to either story. Elizabeth's memoir is exactly that, the story of her life, while Martha merely lives hers. Things happen, certainly - the relationship between Martha and her sister Susie over their mother is especially keenly observed - but there is little drive or tension. At no point was I waiting to find out what happened.

When the great denouement comes, it feels ... random. There is no particular build up, or the sense that this was the reason Elizabeth was writing her memoir. It's a shame, and I wish Elizabeth's actions following the event had been made more of. There is seriously under-utilised mileage in that particular idea.

The same can be said of the romantic elements - it feels like there's a stage missing between the characters' conversations-in-passing and the characters giving each other a metaphorical throat-swabbing on the doorstep. It feels like the parts are there on paper, but they lack the organic connection between the characters. When I read about a relationship I want to feel these two people not getting together would be a travesty. Instead I was a bit ho-hum about it.

The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle is one of these books I could might well have given up on if it hadn't been an ARC, but one of the ones I'm glad I didn't. Sometimes a book turns out not to be right for me, the sack of meat and bitterness behind the keyboard, and I think there's certainly an element of that here. While slow, for me it was a solid three-star read. If Women's Fiction set on a remote Scottish Island appeals, I'd certainly recommend you download a sample.

The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle on Amazon UK

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Blogger Blackout until October 27th

I don't use Twitter much. I find it too much of a time sink; it can take me 5 minutes minimum to read and respond to a Tweet (I'm dyslexic). Yesterday, though, I was keeping an eye on #HaleNo and I ended up having a conversation with an internationally bestselling author about the proposed blackout. She argued that it would be hurting a lot of authors who had nothing to do with Hale, and she's right - in a way - it will.

When I began the conversation, I wasn't sure what my position was going to be. I agreed with the blackout but I wasn't sure if I was going to join in. I'm horribly behind on my ARCs and I've got 2 reviews which I was intending to get finished and post ASAP - if I join in with the blackout, I am actively punishing these two authors (if you will excuse me the ego trip of pretending anything I do makes a difference, especially to the two people concerned). It's going to effect another two authors who's books I need to crack on with and who I would make the effort to status update about because I am so horribly behind. It's going to effect another author, because I started their book last night and am really excited that it's going to be good and if I join the blackout, I can't say anything about it.

I don't know what any of these people think about #HaleNo. I haven't looked. It doesn't actually matter because this is not about them. As I said to the IBA on Twitter, when nurses strike it's not done to hurt the patients. As a blogger, I hope that authors understand why we're doing this and that they offer to support us. We all have our own reasons for doing this. These are mine.

  • Because accusations were made without proof and a woman has been silenced. No proof of trolling, of harassment, or of bullying by Blythe Harris against Kathleen Hale. No proof has been shown that she has stolen a friends' pictures. Hale's account differs in several important respects from that of the Blog Tour company. When people go digging, they're finding more evidence Hale's presentation of events differs from them.

  • Because even in balanced articles, the headlines refer to us as Trolls. For a long time we've been fighting the notion that a negative review is bullying, or one-starring without a review is trolling. It isn't, plus nobody complains about 5 star ratings without a review. Are there some people on the internet who rate 1 star and needle the author about it? Yes there are, the web is dark and full of idiots. Is Blythe Harris one of these people? No. Not as far as I can see. Most of us aren't.

  • Because this could have been any of us. As I've said, Blythe has not been shown to have done anything wrong. Yes, trolls exist on the internet and some people are rude and some people harass authors, but Blythe has not been shown to have done any of those things. If Hale can write about Blythe in The Guardian, she can write about me. 

  • Because her Publisher has not commented. I don't expect they will but they damn well should. If Hale were a man, you can bet they'd be distancing themselves. I have no idea if they legally could, but I would like to see them drop Hale from her publishing contract. I want them to stand up and be f***ing counted. I want them to stand up and take a public action to demonstrate they do not condone Hale's actions. I want them to show they take the safety of their customers seriously (because that's what we are. We are the people buying books.). There are 20 million Goodreads users. I want them to say yes, the 20 million people whose hobby it is to read and review books, plus the however-many-more who do so elsewhere, are more important than Kathleen Hale. No, it won't happen, but I want it to.

  • Because we have no power. The only thing I have is my voice and I'm damn lucky to have that. I don't have friends in high places. I'm not important enough to be featured on STGRBs list of bloggers. My profile is too small to make me a target. Too many people believe and support Hale because of who she is. I will use the only thing I have to protest Hale's actions, as insignificant as it is.

  • Because this is not going to make a damn bit of difference. Hale is too well connected for this to destroy her career. It's funny, because that's what we're accused of being able to do: destroy careers. We can't. Really, whose career has been destroyed by bloggers? I believe that this is futile. I know there are things happening behind the scenes, but there are too many people too firmly entrenched in the belief that somebody else is responsible for their failure, even when they haven't actually failed. I believe this action will change nothing, but this is still important and I stand with everybody else.

So, here it is. With regret, until the 27th I will not be posting any reviews of new books, or status updates about the ones I'm reading. I apologise to the authors whose reviews are being further delayed by this action.

Questions, discussion etc welcome in the comments.

Monday, 20 October 2014

"It left me apoplectic with rage" - Netherworld by Lisa Morton

[This book was provided to me for no monies via the Early Reviewers program at LibraryThing. This review was first published on my Booklikes blog in Dec 2013/Jan 2014.]

I don't read many terrible books. I read a good few which are just not very good, but it's quite rare for me to read one which is deeply and unfixable awful. Nor do I read many which are so bad they're good - I have too much to read, not enough time, and too little disposable income as it is.

The best I can say about Netherworld is that it is, at times, entertainingly stupid - "Why is this the Cave of Cats?" wonders one character; 10 seconds later he finds a lot of cats. Unfortunately, it's not entertaining enough to get me past the the factual inaccuracies - as I said in my status update, the language of Kolkata is Bengali, not Hindi; yes, it is spoken there today and yes, a Kolkata had a Hindi language newspaper at the time, but the guy carrying the chair, talking to his mates, is going to speak his own language - and general lack of historical world building which, when combined with other aspects of the book, feels more like ignorance.

I appreciate the oddness in giving out about factual accuracy in a book about a woman trying to close supernatural gates to the Netherworld, but this is set in 1880 and I expected it to reflect that. Instead we have American language - references to wait staff etc - and a heroine, Lady Diana Furnaval, who reads nothing like the product of a 19th Century upbringing, let alone one - we must assume because the book doesn't tell us - from the upper classes. For a start, she doesn't appear to have a ladies maid, which I might buy if there was a reason for it, or the text referred to her doing any of the things a ladies maid does. It doesn't. It's just one of the many contextual gaps which undermine this book. Don't get me started on the trip to the Bad Part of London.

The language, too, is a disappointment. It adequately describes what is happening, with rather too many dramatic em dashes for my taste (one particularly grated: there is a diary section whose writer is attempting to get down the information as quickly as possible but still uses a dramatic em dash line break to enthral the reader). It does not, however, give any atmosphere, or sense of place. Details are absent, but for me details are what make a book like this. We don't even know what title Diana's husband possessed, or who has it now, or whether they're bothered that Diana is living in their house.

The plot is not terrible but it does take a while for it to kick in. Before that it's a bit directionless with Diana travelling around closing the gateways to the Netherworld, taking in Romania (in a Dracula homage), China, India, and the US, before discovering the dastardly plot. It's not a very good plot and the attempts to stop Diana thwarting it are remarkably inefficient. Even the Big Bad Guy comes directly from the Bond Villain school of "Well, you're going to die anyway, so sure I'll answer your questions about my nefarious schemes".

Irritable mentions must go to Mina, a cat version of Dean Koontz's Exceptional Dog. As a woman 15 years and 23 cats away from becoming a fully fledged crazy cat lady, I find these depictions incredibly annoying. If you are feeding a cat nothing but the nice bits of protein and carrying it around in a bag all day, you are going to have a deeply unwell cat. Yes, it really does annoy me that much.

Also to the dull and repetitive kissing scenes - have your 80's Mills and Boon bingo cards at the ready - and the angry making (spoiler and trigger warning for this) attempted rape by an Incubus who intends to impregnate Diana and have her die in childbirth. No word on whether the kidder was to be called Adrian.

My special prize for stupidest thing in the entire book is reserved for a sentence near the end. Diana has been shown the future of manufacturing and is a tad upset by it because children have no limbs, or something. She sets up a grant for scientists who create better, cleaner, safer methods of industry. Aside from the fact it's a waste of money because engineers are the people you want for that type of thing, Diana's estate is in Derbyshire. You know what's in Derbyshire? Apart from Pemberly (home of Jane Austen's Mr Darcy). Cotton Mills. Lots and lots and lots of dark satanic mills, noted employers of children. For somebody with such hippy Guardian-reading liberal sensibilities, Lady Diana is remarkably unaware of what's happening on her doorstep, or throughout her country. Has she never read any Mrs Gaskell? Or even a newspaper? 1880 was the year compulsory education was introduced for heaven's sake.

I judge a book in part by how well it manages what I expect from it. A book with "Bram Stoker award winning writer" (for Non-Fiction, incidentally) plastered on the front was expected to be well written and well researched. This was neither. I'll give it 1 star because I did finish it, but I'm struggling to think who, among the people who aren't me, would enjoy it.

Netherworld (Chronicles of Diana Furnaval Book 1) on AmazonUK

Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Book Blogger Illuminati Newsletter November 2014

As we have probably have all heard by now, we have been outed in a couple of major publications. They didn't refer to us by name, but a couple of authors managed to persuade The Guardian and New Republic to run articles about how we're deliberately destroying their books and careers. I know we'd all hoped to keep our existence a secret until after the release of Prince Lestat - don't forget, if you're having problems with snarky gifs for your reviews drop a line to Brian and he'll hook you up - so I thought I'd get the newsletter out early to reassure everyone.

First things first: nobody is to blame for this and it is not a big deal. You guys in the Vine program were doing your jobs perfectly. That can't be emphasised enough. I can see you all worked together to put good variety in your phrasing - Margo Howard is going to have a really hard time convincing people her book doesn't have issues with her being an entitled, privileged, poor-little-rich-girl. Seriously guys, I beginning to suspect she's a member of another chapter. Have you seen her comments on the piece?

The Kathleen Hale thing is concerning, especially with its mention of Athena Parker and STGRB. They've been dormant for a while so we haven't been able to take any of their posts and make it sound like they're twisted stalkers, but we've still been able to go through the internet and continue removing all mentions of Parker from before STGRB started so it looks as though she's not a real person. Those fake screen-shots we created of them doxxing book reviewers still show up on the first page of results. Anybody going to the STGRB webpage is still going to come away thinking they're seriously unhealthy individuals.

Hale's next book doesn't appear to have a release date yet but I want everybody to start brainstorming now. I want to start goading her the day after that sucker appears on NetGalley. I don't want her average review score above 2 stars. We've got some good details on the Guardian piece about how to push her buttons. I want those of you with publishing contracts to reach out to her in your author guises. You'll be the first people she turns to when it all kicks off next time, so you can reassure her she isn't being a maniac. You'll also be in a good place to feed her information like phone numbers if we've made it too difficult for her to get the info herself. Worst comes to the worst, you can tackle the reviewers "on her behalf". Friends diving in makes authors look bad too!

Now, holiday season is coming up and as a reminder to everybody, now is the time to start planting doubt. Books are still a popular gift and as well known bookish people, you're going to be asked for your opinions. You've got your lists of who we're targeting this year.

To liven things up, we're going to have a leader board. It's going to work as an honour system, but there'll be a small prize for the winner! As well as persuading people not to buy, you can earn points for distributing copies to charity shops. It will make the books look bad AND it will keep the authors from earning money if they're bought. If you need some more hard copies, get in touch with me and I'll have them sent out - special well done to all the people who got the digital ARCs we were able to copy and redistribute!

One final thing: NaNo is coming up, so make sure you pull back on your reviews a bit during the month. All failed novelists do NaNo, so that includes us. We've got a new page on the website with suggestions of "writerly" things you can tweet for added authenticity.

Unhappy reading everybody!

Friday, 17 October 2014

It's a Japanese book about a cat, I'm going to be biased - The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

[This book was provided to me for zero pennies by the publisher, Picador, their button-pressing approval made possible by NetGalley. Wren and I thank them profusely.]

The Guest Cat is an odd little book. It is a fairly simple novella about a Tokyo couple who gradually become a second family to a neighbour's cat they call Chibi. Rather unfortunately, it feels as though something large has been lost in translation with this one.

I'm loath to point the finger at the translator - not least because the last time I did that person wrote an Amazon review explaining how I'd read the book wrong - but this does read as though it's quite a literal translation.

Another one of Chibi's characteristics was that she changed the direction of her cautious attention frequently.

It's not constant by any means, and it doesn't render the book as unreadable as that isolated sentence suggests, but it's certainly a problem. Translating literary books demands rare skills anyway; translating from Japanese (which has so much particular vocabulary and a culture completely different from the West) ... well, I can't imagine it's easy. It also raises the question of what a translator should do - should they be extensively rewriting or merely reporting what is written? Who should decide if that sentence should be "Chibi found many things to be cautious about" or "Chibi rarely relaxed"?

There is a difference between a poetic statement and one which is overwritten. I didn't feel the translation always got that right. When it's good it's delicate, stepping lightly through the simplicity of the tale, but when it's not it's that quote, or it's contradicting itself, or it's starting threads which are never returned to and generally leaving me slightly confused.

There are some notes/footnotes from the translator which are illuminating enough for me to wish either they, or an expert in Japanese Literature, had written an introduction. I would feel the benefit of having this explained to me a bit.

On a personal level, I found this a very interesting book. There are protracted descriptions of the house which I found fascinating but which others may well find tedious. The narrator's engagement with Chibi is the typical monologue of the cat enthusiast; the reader's mileage will vary according to their meatworld keeness for this.

Although I'm giving this three stars I can't honestly say I'd recommend it. I'm in that weird situation where I'm reading other, more positive reviews, agreeing with them totally, but not actually making that connection myself. I do very much feel that it's me who hasn't got it, rather than there being nothing to get. There are certainly shades of something, but even with the benefit of a few days rumination, I couldn't actually tell you what.

3 stars.

The Guest Cat on Amazon UK

Monday, 13 October 2014

It's ... okay. Just about. - Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

I only have the very vaguest idea who Mindy Kaling is. I do know this was a few books away from Hyperbole and a Half when I went to the library, and that I picked it up because I've seen it before somewhere. It was probably when Sloane Crosley's I Was Told There'd Be Cake was the Kindle Daily Deal. I didn't buy Sloane Crosley's book, mainly because I don't know who she is either.

Kaling, it turns out, is a comedy writer of high repute. She writes and acts in the US version of The Office. She writes and stars in The Mindy Project. Production/Direction/Generally Telling People What To Do is also involved. I use the present tense here but I've seen neither show so may be embarrassed to find she left in season 1 and is now fronting a campaign to give every child in America an oboe. Because she's a comedy writer of high repute she is therefore in need of a book deal, a sentence which tells you everything you need to know about this book.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) is a collection of what other people call essays and, as far as this sort of thing goes, is actually okay. It doesn't start strongly: a chapter about Kaling's weight and how her hobby is dieting has the same lazy idiocy as the hashtag nomakeup selfie thing, particularly to me who is a UK 16 (US12) and only knows what Kaling looks like because there's a picture of her on the cover. After that though it gets better. Kaling has some fun - if privileged - childhood stories.

My overall impression of Kaling is of a person who is quite blinkered - she comes across as somebody who lacks empathy for other people; not in a bad way, just in a surprising way given that she's a comic. She doesn't seem ignorant enough for this to be a deliberate shtick. The adult perspective on childhood stories is missing, especially in one about a weekend friend who became a school time friend. Elements which seem obvious about the situation are missed in the way of somebody unaware of what it is to be somebody who isn't them.

There is the odd extremely problematic lines: "You should know I disagree with a lot of traditional advice. For instance, they say the best revenge is living well. I say it’s acid in the face—who will love them now?" Yeah, well, Katie Piper seems to be managing okay. See what I mean about the blinkered privilege?

Much of the book is enjoyable enough, even for somebody who has only the vaguest idea of the significance of Saturday Night Live, or who Kristen Wiig and Amy Poehler are. However, it does read - especially in the final couple of sections - as though Kaling is casting around for ideas to make her word count. She does it well enough but it smacks of being phoned-in, a product which exists purely to trade on Kaling's name. And while it would be fair enough to go 'Well, duh! What did you expect?', the answer is, 'I expected that somebody who writes for a living would do better than this diverting but not terribly funny and ultimately rather self-indulgent book.' 3 stars.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?: (And other concerns) on AmazonUK

Friday, 3 October 2014

Thoroughly Enjoyable - The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

[This ARC was provided to me for the cost of zero of your monies by the publisher. NetGalley was involved. Aren't they always?]

I wasn't the greatest fan of Grameme Simsion's first novel, The Rosie Project. It took too long to get going and - particularly in the early sections - bore the scars of its original iteration as a script, but not in a good way. However, it did get better and I did enjoy it so I was very pleased to be granted a review copy of its sequel. I was even more pleased once I'd read it.

The Rosie Effect picks up the story some months after end of the previous book - while it's probably better to read that one first so you know the characters, this is perfectly understandable if you don't. Don and Rosie are now married and living in America where Don works at Columbia and Rosie is attempting to balance finishing her PhD with her medical studies. Oh, and becoming a mother. Which was slightly less planned than Don is easily able to cope with.

Although The Rosie Effect is a comedy, and a chucklesome one, I found much of it absolutely heart-wrenching. Initially it trades on the well-worn path of the first book, Don's (probable) Aspergers providing the comedy and the tension and while unfortunately veering extremely close to uncomfortable territory in the early sections. Don is given an unnecessarily Pooterish aspect which sits staggeringly poorly against the rest of the book, especially when both books attitude to Don's (possible) Aspergers is taken into account. He has not been given that diagnosis and this has always read like a deliberate (and positive) choice by the author.

Things settle down though, Don becoming his character rather than an emotional-slapstick caricature. His introspection and lack of empathy suit the first person narration perfectly. Even when you can see the set pieces coming they're massively enjoyable, forwarding the plot in ways which manage to be both ludicrous and worrying realistic.

So, why the "heart-wrenching" then? Because underneath everything else, The Rosie Effect does what David Nicholls' Us was trying to do but better. Don may be very different from your usual character but his is the universal experience. He is going to be a parent and he is scared. His efforts to cope with the situation and to do the best and right things are normal, and it's Simsion's plotting skill which takes them and pushes them further without become stupid. Yes, you can see where Don is going to go wrong as soon as he has certain ideas, but you can't always see where he's going to go right. He doesn't know what he's doing but he's trying; he wants to do well and it tugs on my heart.

The Rosie Effect is a great book. It's an unshowy, solid read with wide commercial appeal but non of the dumbing down that phrase usually indicates. It's left me wanting to go back and re-read the first, and I'm feeling pretty sure it'll be one of those books I enjoy more the second time around. For this one though: 4 stars.