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MyBooksandMe

My Books and Me

I love reading. Which boils down to the fact I will read, to be honest, pretty much anything. I enjoy a wide range of genres, and prefer not to limit myself with preconceived notions about a book based on it’s genre. I do tend to gravitate towards fantasy a lot. I also find books with a political slant appealing, most particularly of the dystopian variety, but my interest is broader than that would suggest. I enjoy a lot of classics (well, who doesn’t – a book has to be pretty darn good to stand the test of time and remain popular with generation after generation of readers). I like historical fiction, contemporary fiction, sci fi, thrillers, mysteries, horror, children’s fiction, and even the occasional romance. Pretty much the only thing I actively avoid would be erotica. Of course, that doesn’t mean I like every book I read ever. It just means I will give most books a chance. Sometimes this can cause a lot of frustration, because I can end up reading a lot of not-so-great books. Particularly with so much self-published material out there these days. There are some real gems out there, but sometimes you have to wade through a lot of detritus to find them. And even some of the rubbish contains much to redeem it, and I find myself wishing the author had had the benefit of a skilled editor, because there is so much promise there that failed to deliver. I should make clear, I am no writer myself. I sometimes feel guilty judging the works of others harshly when it is still vastly superior to anything I could write. On the other hand, I think it does the author no favours to give false praise. I believe criticism is something we all learn from, and can lead us to better achievements. So when I review I try to err on the side of frank criticism where I feel it is warranted. This is not meant to offend, but inform. I may not be able to write fiction myself, but I am quite capable of assessing my own enjoyment of it – and that is what I intend to express.

Currently reading

Death Comes to Pemberley
P.D. James
The Ladies' Paradise (Les Rougon-Macquart, #11)
Émile Zola
Under the Dome
Stephen King
Son of a Witch (Wicked Years, #2)
Gregory Maguire

The Various Haunts of Men (Simon Serrailler #1)

The Various Haunts of Men (Simon Serrailler #1) - Susan Hill I generally enjoy murder mysteries, but it has been many years since I read one. This was definitely a good one to get back into the genre with.

As it is the first in a series of Simon Serrailler novels, I was somewhat surprised to find he was rather absent from the book – in many ways he was just an incidental character. But nevertheless I think it served as a good introduction to his character, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the second novel to learn more about him, and hopefully to enjoy a tale as engaging as this one.

I’ll be honest, it wasn’t perfect. The central character, a detective sergeant called Freya, was really well written, and I liked her a lot. So I’m a little disappointed that she isn’t the main protagonist of the series. I also found certain things about her to be hard to swallow – such as her sudden and overwhelming infatuation with another character. But, in the end, I couldn’t help but forgive it, as I think the story was ultimately richer for it.

I was also impressed with Susan Hill’s evocative descriptions. Sometimes I struggle to form a mental image of what I am reading about, which can pull me out of the story. That was not a problem here. I found myself repeatedly drawn in and completely immersed in the world that was created for me, no matter how often my husband interrupted me for silly things like wanting to eat.

I think this isn’t necessarily a novel for everyone. The narrative perspective kept shifting, and that is something I like, and is part of what kept me interested. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea though. I also liked the slow and gradual reveal, allowing me to correctly guess the identity of the killer relatively early in the novel, and not having to wait too long to find my suspicion confirmed. Others might consider that too obvious, and think there weren’t enough red herrings. It was just right for my tastes however.

Overall, this was a really enjoyable read that left me wanting more, so it gets an easy 5 stars from me. Roll on book #2!

We

We - Yevgeny Zamyatin The main criticism I have of this book isn’t actually a criticism at all, merely an unfortunate consequence of me being already familiar with 1984, a novel heavily influenced by We. However, despite the familiarity of the basic concept and plot, it was a very enjoyable read. The world Zamyatin describes through the eyes of the central character, D-503, is vividly and beautifully drawn. As the story progresses D-503′s perception of himself and the world he inhabits begins to change, generating a great deal of internal conflict, to the point where he regards himself as insane and unwell. It is in this conflict that we find the real heart of the story. D-503′s strong desire to conform, to do what he has always been taught is right, combating with his sense of self and his own desires and needs, is central to the narrative. We see his half-finished thoughts and sentences and contradictions. For me, it is this personal struggle that held my attention more than anything else. The wider narrative didn’t engage me as much because, ironically, it felt like it was treading old ground. I suppose it was inevitable I would feel that given so much of the dystopian literature I have read owes such a lot to this original work. However, despite that self-inflicted impairment to my appreciation of this book, I still found it a very worthwhile read and enjoyed it immensely. I heartily recommend reading it.

Anthem

Anthem - Ayn Rand I’m actually finding it really difficult to express my thoughts about this novella. I think my biggest problem with it is that it seemed less like a well thought out story to me, and more like window dressing for her philosophy. It felt like blatant propaganda rather than something that was truly thought provoking.

Initially I quite liked the use of “we” and “us” instead of “I” and “me” to suggest the loss of individualism within society, but it quickly felt contradictory to me, since Equality 7-2521 (the central character and narrator) quite obviously had a clear sense of his own identity and of the individual identity of others, and that wasn’t altered by the use of different pronouns. It’s hard for me to explain, but it just felt to me that it was a narrative device that failed to do what it seemed like the author wanted it do do – a case of trying too hard, maybe. I don’t know. It’s just something that I thought was a good idea at first, but it just fell flat for me, and in the end was simply irritating.

There was also something about this story that rubbed me very much the wrong way as a feminist. In this society where everyone is supposed to be equal, and allocated to different houses according to how they serve society (ie their jobs), women are segregated from men and apparently excluded from the House of Scholars, for example. In fact the only women we encounter are working the fields, harvesting food. At first I had thought Rand had been clever in that there was no way to tell from the writing what gender anyone was, until it later became clear that the default was male, and women had their own special category. Which wouldn’t have been a problem, if that was something that was being criticised, but that’s not the case.

The only thing that is criticised is the concept of collectivism – the loss of individual rights and freedoms and one’s right to make choices. To be fair, Rand does a good job in that respect. However, I also think she oversimplifies the argument somewhat and presents us with a flawed premise to which she tells us she has the answer. I thinks it’s this last point, the tone of “you’re doing it wrong and I know best” that makes this feel like propaganda and not something I can take too seriously. I’m all for “what if” scenarios, no matter how far fetched, and I’m all for challenging established philosophies and politics and systems of government and what-have-you. I like to have my preconceptions challenged and to be given food for thought. Unfortunately Anthem doesn’t really come across that way to me. It felt like it was trying to tell me what to think, rather than asking me to question.

So, although I understand why some people consider this an important piece of writing, and I think Rand does raise some valid questions – I also think Anthem tries too hard to force its conclusions on me, and for that reason, above all others, I don’t really rate it highly at all. Am I glad I read it? Yes. But I won’t be doing so again.

S.

S. - Doug Dorst, J.J. Abrams How do I even begin to review this book? It's not so much a book, as an experience, I think.

Firstly, just as a physical object, it is A Beautiful Thing. Every book lover should own a physical copy of this book, and although an e-book format (for tablets) exists, it would lose something important to it in that form. Part of the joy of this book is that you have a physical copy of the book-within-the-book, Ship of Theseus, complete with library date stamps with the look and feel of an old and well loved book - it even smells like it! Within you have the hand-written annotations and notes of two people studying the book, trying to divine its secrets and identify its author and his story. There are also numerous inserts, items the readers have exchanged with each other... letters, postcards, a hand drawn map on a napkin, a newspaper clipping, photographs and more. Of course, all of these things are mass produced items, but the quality of them is such that sometimes you forget that. It feels very much like you are handling the very book and ephemera that Jen and Eric (our two readers) did.

The story, unsurprisingly given the above, is multi-layered. As you read through S several stories reveal themselves. The most blatant of these is Ship of Theseus itself complete with footnotes, which is itself also revealing of a story connecting to the author. There is also the story of Jen and Eric. And these stories are interconnected, with many parallels. That in itself is another story.

And there are the puzzles. Some are obvious. Some the book answers for us. But others will take rereading and checking out other sources (there are various related websites) to even reveal the puzzle, let alone solve it. Technically, I may have finished the book, but I have by no means finished with it - there is a lot here to examine and reexamine and reread, and I still have questions which I will no doubt enjoy trying to answer, even if I ultimately can't.

This may just possibly be my favourite book ever.

The Obsidian Mirror

The Obsidian Mirror - Catherine Fisher Too many books these days seem to be unfinished, as if having a series of books means that no individual one can hold a complete story. Refreshingly, this book does not fall into that category. It manages to tell a complete story, whilst still leaving just enough dangling threads to make the second in the series feel like a must have. That fact alone, in this day and age, is enough for me to give a high star rating to the book. It would be selling it short, however, to suggest that is the only reason I give it 5 stars.

The Obsidian Mirror very quickly drew me in. It moves at quite a pace, which fits the story very well. Events are happening in a short space of time (even as they happen in different times), and I really liked that the pacing of the story reflected this. I felt, as the reader, I was learning about the characters in parallel to them learning about each other. Their questions were my questions, and each answer propelled me along with them.

The page here on goodreads provides a perfectly good synopsis, so I won't repeat that information here. Suffice to say I found the setting, so evocatively described, to be enchanting and intriguing. The story felt original, whilst drawing upon familiar ideas. The characters were engaging. The end was satisfying. And I can't wait to start on the second book!

Unspoken (The Lynburn Legacy, #1)

Unspoken (The Lynburn Legacy, #1) - Sarah Rees Brennan I really liked the concept of this book, and it certainly delivered in terms of plot and structure. However, I kept finding myself thrown out of the story by random inaccuracies (such as the suggestion than the University of Cambridge offers a course in journalism - not only was this counter-intuitive, but also easily refuted by a very quick google search. There are numerous other similar mistakes, I think the author needed to do a little more fact checking, because really mistakes like that fall outside the remit of artistic license in my view). There were also a lot of Americanisms - so much so in fact, the book felt very much like it was set in small town America, the school particularly felt more like an American High School than a British comprehensive (and when a 17yo refers to the grade they achieved last year, they generally speaking they would be referring to an external exam result (either a GCSE or AS depending on which year group they are in), not a grade assigned by a teacher as happens in this book. Yes, I know I'm being nitpicky, but it's precisely these tiny details that made it impossible for me to find it remotely believable this was actually set in England at all.

Having said all that, I still would have rated this book with 4 stars, since it really was very enjoyable, and definitely did far more right than it did wrong. Except for the ending. It's one of my pet hates when authors end a book on a cliff hanger. Yes, i know it's part of a series, but to my mind each book in a serial should be entirely self contained, whilst still being part of a greater narrative. Take Katherine Kerr's Deverry series of an example of this being done right - or Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant novels. They, and others, amply demonstrate that it is perfectly possible to give a reader closure at the end of a book whilst still leaving the reader wanting more. Unspoken does not provide any closure at all - it just leaves you hanging. And that is the reason I cannot give this book more than 3 stars. I may or may not read the sequel. I want to know what happens, but at the same time I think I'd rather drop a series that doesn't close each book early on rather than later. As it is, I rather regret reading it in the first place. Which is a real shame, especially for what is otherwise such an imaginative and well told story.