Monday, 15 January 2018

Sofa Spotlight - 13 Minutes, Sarah Pinborough

This one is so good you feel like you need to be able to read it in 13 minutes just because you need to know what happened. It was one of the best YA books of 2016 and it’s not hard to see why.

The story follows 17 year old Tasha as she is pulled out of the river by a man walking his dog. She’s been dead for 13 minutes and she has no memory of what happened to her before she ended up in the river. Into the mix are Tasha’s best friends, Hayley and Jenny, who seem to have become secretive since the incident, and also Becca, Tasha’s best friend from year 7, who Tasha and Hayley ditched for Jenny.

If you remember anything from high school then this book will definitely resonate. It’s so true to life, well a more sinister side to life, but the characters live in a world that we know is real. Painfully real. Teenage girls are intense and this takes it to a whole new level.

You get different points of view along the way, sometimes it’s Tasha’s sometimes Becca’s. There’s text conversations or diary entries along with the narrative and the blend works so well. Neither medium is overdone – it’s that perfect balance between not giving too much away and making the reader want more. You see the relationship between Hayley and Jenny through their texts, but you only get enough information to make you wonder what happened all the more.

Becca takes on the task of trying to work out what happened, but there are so many twists that you have to stop trying to work it out and just enjoy the story. Or at least I did. It’s rare that a book can make me feel sick, but Pinborough ramps up the tension so much that you can almost feel what is going to happen next. It’s like watching a train wreck whilst being glad that you’re just the reader and safely disconnected.

Even though this is an extreme outcome of high school politics – not many teenagers resort to murder to sort things out, it is scarily believable. It’s not a huge step away from what actually goes on. There’s something intensely creepy about children that murder though. This book is talking about the upper end of childhood, but at 17 you’re not properly an adult yet and you shouldn’t be working out and then carrying through a murder. I know that happens in real life but it just seems more horrible than adult murder. Maybe because often it’s more psychopathic? In my exploration of crime fiction the stories that have spooked me the most are the ones that involved a child murderer. I remember watching an episode of Midsomer Murders where that happened and I couldn’t watch any more episodes for a while afterwards.

If you’re planning to read this maybe clear your diary for a while. You will want to read it quickly. It only took me a couple of sittings to get through it. It’s unbelievably compelling. 

Monday, 8 January 2018

Sofa Spotlight - I will Repay, Baroness Orczy

So this is the second Scarlet Pimpernel story that Baroness Orczy wrote, although I think she later wrote another novel that fits in the time between this and the first novel. This one follows the story of Paul Deroulede who, before the French Revolution, gets into a duel with a young Vicomte de Marny and ends up killing the Vicomte. It’s obvious that the Vicomte really only has himself to blame for his death. Nevertheless the Vicomte’s father demands revenge and makes his teenage daughter, Juliette, take an oath to spend her life finding a way to ruin Deroulede.

Oaths like that never end well and the rest of the novel follows Juliette as it takes her on various twists and turns trying to accomplish it. It’s predictable and melodramatic but a lot of fun. The Scarlet Pimpernel doesn’t feature as much, but he is of course there at the end to mop up the mess that Juliette and Deroulede get themselves into.

In fact as I’ve been reading through these novels the fun thing to do is work out what elaborate way the Scarlet Pimpernel will come up with to get his friends and himself out of danger. Because they are always dramatic and nearly always involve some elaborate disguise!

But as tense as the story gets there is a comfort in the predictability. You can enjoy the drama safe in the knowledge that the Scarlet Pimpernel is out there and will save the day.

As sequels go this is a good one. My only issue is that in the first novel you got to know the character of the Scarlet Pimpernel and Marguerite and their dynamic but in this you hardly see that at all. Which left me feeling a bit short changed because their characters had been so well developed. But on the other hand it gives the characters of Deroulede and Juliette space to be developed in their own right.

In these novels the issues of the French Revolution are not really touched on. The Republic is cast as a stereotypical tyrant to be defeated by a gallant hero. Dickens did much better at describing the plight of the French peasants before the revolution in A Tale of Two Cities. But unlike Dickens, Baroness Orczy’s purpose isn’t to comment on the social history of the time but to provide good fast moving drama. Which Dickens also achieves but in a different way. (A Tale of Two Cities is one of my favourite novels of all time and if you haven’t read it before you should make this the year that you do).

My advice if you need a bit of fun escapism this January is to pick this book up (and read it – just picking it up isn’t going to do much for you). Its eye-rolling predictableness embedded in good adventure might just be what you need on a dark winters night. It’s very visual – much better than a film and you can tell that she first wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel for the stage.

Monday, 1 January 2018

It's a Whole New Year

Happy New Year!
Welcome back to my blog, which has been dormant for most of last year. 2017 was a bizarre and busy year that didn’t leave a lot of time for reading or blog writing. For the last few months I’ve hardly picked up a book at all, which I’m sure you will know, is not like me. Since my late teens I’ve struggled with frequent migraines but last September they increased like nothing I’ve had before.

Since then there haven’t been many days where I’ve been headache free. One of the annoying things about that is that I haven’t been up for much reading. I haven’t had the concentration for it. But happily for me they have started to decrease over Christmas and so book reading is back on my list of things to do for 2018.

As is this blog.

One thing that I started last year was to focus more on writing fiction with my good friend Sally. In my reading famine I’ve had the privilege of reading her work, which I hope she will one day share with the world. She has a blog of her own and I highly recommend you travel down this link and have a look;

If you’ve been reading this blog in previous years you will know that I’ve not got on well with poetry. Well, some things change and although I’m still not claiming to be a fan there have been some poems that I’ve fallen in love with in 2017.

Maybe it’s a concentration thing but I’ve needed stuff that’s short. More than ever I’ve been able to remember short phrases or ideas. I might have struggled to read words, but there’s been nothing wrong with my imagination, and I’ve sustained my need for story by using concepts from those poems as a launch into creating worlds inside my head. And it’s not just been poems, sometimes I’ve heard people say phrases that are so poetic that I’ve stored them away to use them as story titles later on.

Charlotte Bronte’s poems written after the deaths of her sisters, Emily and Anne are new discoveries for me and maybe this year the poetry of the Bronte sisters is something that I will explore. I’ve also rediscovered a poem by Robert Frost that I haven’t revisited since I studied it at A-level. Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening was one of the first poems that I understood and loved. You should look all three of them up sometime; the two by Charlotte Bronte are On the Death of Emily Bronte and On the Death of Anne Bronte. But maybe have something light hearted to read afterwards – it’s a heavy way to start the year.

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll let you know what I was reading last year up until the point I crashed out. After that the possibilities are endless. There are so many books I want to read this year.

So let me know what you’ve been reading while I’ve been gone. What are your recommendations? What did I miss? 

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Sofa Spotlight - Bullet Catcher, Joaquin Lowe

It’s the first YA book I’ve read in over a year and my overall impression was that it was alright. It started off good with Imma and her brother Nikko growing up and dreaming of becoming bullet catchers, people who can deflect bullets with their hands. Nikko runs off to join them early on and then vanishes from the face of the earth. Imma meets an old bullet catcher and basically bullies him into teaching her. Nikko reappears and Imma has to decide whose side she is on and what is right and wrong.

And I think that is what is good about this book. You have two sides, the gunslingers and the bullet catchers. Both have their propaganda that deems the other evil and in need of being wiped out. As the story progresses you see that both sides have their redeeming features but are also responsible for some pretty serious crimes.

Both Imma and Nikko have to come to terms with this and work out which side they belong to. They have family loyalties, but at the end of the day it is up to them. Mid way through this book I did get a bit bored – Imma took a while to work things out and waiting for her to do wasn’t all that entertaining. Having said that she did meet some other fun characters along the way who build into that idea of what is perceived as right or wrong.

There’s also some gore in there. The gunslingers want to be faster so they add some machinery into their hands and it is grim. I’m not one for blood so that was a tough part for me. But it added a different take to the Western setting of the book.

It’s a book that makes you think a little bit, but I would have preferred it to be faster paced. What I did like that the main character wasn’t the stereotypical tortured teenager. She was a lot more likable and real.

As it’s so hot right now maybe you should read something desert themed. Let me know how you get on if you do.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Sofa Spotlight - The Clocks, Agatha Christie

For a novel where Poirot ultimately solves the crime, he doesn’t appear in it all that much. He sort of drifts in at the end and solves it out of curiosity. Which I suppose is fair – it is a storyline that does make you curious to know what on earth is going on.

In essence what happens is that Sheila Webb, a typist, is sent to a Miss Pebmarsh’s house. When she gets there Miss Pebmarsh isn’t there, but there is a dead body surrounded by clocks – most of them stopped at 4:15. To make it even more confusing Miss Pebmarsh, who is blind, does arrive home and claims never to have requested a typist. Also no one knows who the dead man is.

Most of the story is told by a Colin Lamb who happens to be in the area doing some work for MI5. He takes the case to Poirot, but like I say Poirot doesn’t really seem to do much until he arrives at the end with the reveal.

Although the story was intriguing it seemed to take a long time to get from murder to resolution. The police have to go through their work of not getting anywhere, but this time it just wasn’t as good. Maybe because I missed Poirot. Having said that, there were some brilliant characters and potential suspects. The crime takes place on Wilbraham Crescent and the neighbours are nosey and eccentric. But frustratingly none of them seem to have anything of value to say about the crime.

A couple more people are murdered along the way – which all goes to show that if you have dangerous information go to the police straight away and avoid getting murdered unnecessarily.

Not my favourite Poirot story but it’s still good. Oh and I worked it out/remembered how it ended just before the end.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Sofa Spotlight - The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy

I had no idea that so many people hadn’t heard of the Scarlet Pimpernel. You know that moment when someone asks you what are you reading and you tell them and then you are met with a blank stare and oh I’ve never heard of that comment. Yeah. Well that happened a lot when I was reading this. In fairness even though I had heard of the Scarlet Pimpernel I had no idea that there was a whole series of books written about him. He’s not a one off.

So who is the Scarlet Pimpernel? Well, it’s the French Revolution, or one of them anyway, and the aristocrats of France are finding their way to the guillotine. But there’s an English aristocrat who, with a band of about ten follows, is doing his best to save. No one knows who he is but he always leaves a note from the Scarlet Pimpernel.

This is no A Tale of Two Cities or Les Mis but I did enjoy it. Although I didn’t like Les Mis all that much. But back to the Scarlet Pimpernel. From what I can gather this is the first book in the series. So as readers we don’t know who the elusive Pimpernel is either. But you could probably hazard a good guess and get it right. It’s not massively obscure.

The big thing in this book is the drama. It’s like Baroness Orczy has thought about the most dramatic scenario that could possible happen, hyped it up a bit more and then written it into a novel. This is probably because the story first appeared as a play, so I guess you need the drama to be high for that.

At the start you hear of the legendary tales of the Pimpernel, which read not unlike Robin Hood legends. And then you meet some of the aristocrats that he has rescued. The two characters that are central to the book are Sir Percy Blakeney and his wife Marguerite. Marguerite is French and her brother is part of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s band. Chauvelin who is the most evil of evil villains knows that Marguerite’s brother has gone to France to work with the Pimpernel and he tries to use this knowledge to get Marguerite to find out and reveal the identity of the Pimpernel.

From the way it is written you can work out that things are going to end well, no matter how bad they may seem. It’s definitely a good read, fast paced and fun. Not something you should take too seriously. 

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Sofa Spotlight - The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins

I was given this as a Christmas present and I was fairly intrigued because I’ve heard so much hype about it. It’s been on posters and then there was the film so I thought this would be a good time to see what all the fuss was about.

It’s one of those books that has got a lot of twists. It has you looking in one direction and then you realise you’re looking completely the wrong way. Sometimes I like that kind of thing, but I don’t massively like unreliable narrators.

So the story is told by three narrators, Rachel, Anna and Megan. They are all connected in some way. Anna married to Rachel’s ex-husband Tom, and Megan lives a few doors down from Tom and Anna. Rachel can see into the lives of Megan her husband Scott when she travels into London on the train each day.

Then Megan goes missing and Rachel thinks that her viewpoint from the train might be helpful for the investigation. And that’s when everything starts to unravel.

Part of the reason I didn’t like it more is that I don’t like books where there isn’t at least one character that I can hold onto as sane and reliable. This book didn’t have that and I find characters who are spiralling down quite stressful, hence my need for a sensible character to cling on to.

It is gripping and I got through it very quickly, mainly because I wanted to know what had happened. I had pretty much worked it out before it ended though, although there was one twist I didn’t see coming. EG read it after me and worked it all out by about half way through so I suppose you might be entirely different.

What was nice was knowing a few people who were reading it at roughly the same time. Interestingly none of them liked it. I even had to just tell one of them how it ended so as to put him out of his misery.

If, like me, you missed out on this when the hype was big then I would say have a read and see what you think. It’s been a bestseller so maybe all those people are right.