Into the Woods by John Yorke

John YorkeI think it’s worth saying up front that I am not a writer. I use my blogs (here and at Screen God) to record my feelings about books and films so I can share them with others who might be interested, and that’s all. I know lots of bloggers who write fiction or poetry but that’s not me. But I am fascinated by the creative process; as well as loving to read about books, I like to read about how writers write, and Into the Woods (subtitled “How stories work and why we tell them”) definitely falls into that category, though its focus is on film and TV scriptwriting. It’s really fascinating, wonderfully write and full of insight. I now understand a little better three and five act structures and how they still apply even when the writer is consciously trying to subvert them. Lots and lots of practical examples (one of the appendices has the act structure for Raiders of the Lost Ark), I now spend my time looking for Inciting Incidents in everything I’m reading. Very worthwhile.

Darling Monster by Diana Cooper

IMG_0073I have mentioned elsewhere I’m sure the fascination I have with aristocratic and Royal ladies especially, and I couldn’t resist the letters of Lady Diana Cooper to her son John Julius Norwich, written between 1939 to 1952, so covering the momentous events of WW2 (when her husband Duff Cooper was in Churchill’s government) and their time spent in the British Embassy in Paris. Full of gossip and clothes and politics and culture and farming, this is a really touching collection and I was absorbed all the way through.

 

A quick round-up of recent short reads.

 

IMG_0097I Murdered My Library by Linda Grant

Linda Grant, like all writers I suppose, was totally surrounded by books, a collection built up over many years. But moving house meant weeding out her extensive collection to fit into her new space. In doing so she is taking apart her own history and in this short work talk about how she went about it, how it feels like now and how our development as people is reflected in the book collection we have. If you’re the kind of person who keeps books, that is. Really enjoyed this but a chill did settle on my heart as the Book God and I really really need to do something similar though not because we’re moving but simply because we are running out of room. Book lovers will enjoy this.

 

IMG_0086Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome by John Scalzi

This is a taster for the novel Locked In which is due out over the summer and which I have already pre-ordered based on the strength of this story and a sample chapter which I’ve read. I’m a sucker for this kind of plague/disease/disaster type thing and I am also very fond of the oral history style (whether in fiction or non-fiction). Great little store explaining what Haden’s Syndrome was, how it was dealt with (or not) and where we are at the point the main story will start. Clever way to get that info out there without burdening the narrative (at least that’s my assumption, we’ll have to wait and see). Cool, though.

Scan 32What’s the book about?

Mr Mercedes is a proper crime thriller from the pen of the great master of horror Stephen King. It starts with a retired police detective, Bill Hodges, who is in a bit of a state, without any purpose in life now that he is no longer serving. He gets a letter from the perpetrator of one of the cases he never solved, that of a number of people killed when a Mercedes was driven into a queue of unemployed people outside a job fair. The letter is taunting Bill with his failure, but instead o driving him to suicide it gives him a new lease of life and he is determined to track the killer down.

Why did I want to read it?

King is one of my favourite authors, I’ve reviewed a number of his book on this blog and have been reading him since I was 15 (but I’m not going to labour the point – I just think he’s great). He’s often underrated as a writer because his preferred genre is seen as horror although I’ve always been clear in my own mind that he has drifted into other genres at various points in his career. I will admit that I pre-ordered the automatically before I knew what it was actually about but was excited about trying something a little bit different.

What did I think?

This was really I had a great time reading this. I’ve always been quickly drawn in by King’s prose style which is deceptively easy to read but has real pace and verve. I liked the structure of the book; we find out extremely early on who Mr Mercedes actually is and the book alternates between him and Bill as the former’s plans careen out of control and the latter works with some unlikely helpers to track the killer down. There are a couple of points where King tries to lead us a little bit astray which I found great fun. I liked Bill very much; I was sorry that one of the plot strands didn’t work out for him at the same time that I could see why it obviously couldn’t (speaking us someone still bearing the scars of ‘Salem’s Lot many years afterwards) but it’s a crime thriller so there is peril and racing against time and a satisfactory resolution. Spent time between reading sessions trying to cast the movie. Brilliant stuff.

Book-Blog-Walkers-2014I’m using this post to keep track of my walking during July as part of the Book Blog Walkers thingy. My final tally for June can be found here.

Week 1 (Jun 30)

  • 26,899 steps
  • 16.9 km
  • 4:15 hours

Week 2 (July 7)

  • 32,384 steps
  • 20.1 km
  • 5.03 hours

Week 3 (July 14)

  • 18,862 steps
  • 12 km
  • 2:57 hours

Week 4 (July 21)

  • steps
  • km
  • hours

Week 5 (July 28)

  • steps
  • km
  • hours

Scan 31What’s the book about?

Beth is a teacher living on the Isle of Wight (though we’re not told that for a while) in a slightly future Britain where climate change has had a real impact socially and financially. She is on her own; her husband Vic has come back from war with significant problems and has been the victim of a treatment regime which has gone wrong, leaving him unable to communicate or look after himself. The treatment is delivered by The Machine, now out of use because of the damage done, and the story starts with her buying one of these devices on the black market because she wants to bring her husband back be reversing the treatment if she can.

Why did I want to read it?

I’ve read two of Smythe’s novels this year (reviewed here and here) and found both really compelling (if bleak, though I absolutely don’t mind bleak at all if the story warrants it, which both of those did) and always intended to read more, partly because of the number of favourable mentions I’ve seen on other blogs and elsewhere.

What did I think?

I thought this was great, another book that I stayed up late to finish (there have been quite a few of those recently, which is no bad thing) and I was totally absorbed in Beth’s story; I feel it’s important to stress that this really is Beth’s story. Of course Vic is important, there would be no book without him, but this is all about Beth’s loneliness and grief and drive to achieve what she needs, which is to get her husband home despite any risks. This is all against the background of the heat and a dysfunctional community and a friend who turns out to not be what she seems.

The book has been compared to Frankenstein but for me it has more of a resonance with The Monkey’s Paw, in the sense of getting what you wish for and that not being what you thought. Of course there are other layers to this story which, once you have read the end (and I read it twice just to make sure that what had happened had happened) become clearer and explained a key event which was pivotal to the plot but took place “offstage” (I wondered why at the time and came up with an explanation which turned out to be entirely wrong). The end has been much commented on; I don’t have a problem with it as such but I would like to read The Machine again as I’m sure it has made me want to re-read the book to see if I had missed anything obvious.

How you feel about this book will depend on what you think of Beth herself. I felt hugely sorry for her and understood why she thought she had to try to reconstitute Vic but there was always a feeling this wouldn’t end well.

I’ve already got a hold of another Smythe work, saving that for later :-)

 

 

ScanWhat’s the book about?

So, The Severed Streets is a sequel to London Falling which I read and enjoyed last year (you can find my thoughts about it here), though it’s a sequel in the sense of using the same characters and advancing their story arc with a standalone story.

It’s London, it’s summer and there are protests and riots with masked mobs blocking the streets and causing chaos. An MP is being driven in his official car when he is surrounded by one of these mobs and as a result is brutally murdered. But there is something odd; how did the killer get in (and out of ) the car without being spotted. And is what the driver saw really believable?

Enter Quill and his team who are still feeling their way around their new ability of second sight, and who are clear that something out of this world is involved in the death. And the others that follow. So they go into the underground community to find out what they can alongside good old-fashioned policing methods.

Why did I want to read it?

I really enjoy the whole urban fantasy genre (which I think this fits into but I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong) and this series sits nicely alongside Fowler and Aaronovitch, and regular readers will know how much I love them. I really wanted to see how the team would develop and deal with the personal issues arising from the first book.

What did I think?

I read the final two-thirds of the novel during one of my many recent bouts of insomnia and it is meant as a real compliment when I say that I was so engrossed I actually forgot I was tired. I liked the way the characters developed, still the people we met in the first book but obviously changed by their experiences and trying to find a way to use their new abilities without any help or guidance. I though the story itself was very enjoyable and timely given recent events on which I won’t elaborate as I don’t want to get into the plot too much.

I particularly enjoyed the Neil Gaiman cameo; in other hands it might not have worked but he is properly integrated into the story (a bit more than I expected actually and in a very interesting and unexpected way). I liked the resolution and the introduction of new elements and characters which I hope will continue into future volumes. Quill is a great protagonist and it’s really nice to see a detective with what appears to be a happy home life.

New readers could start here but I would recommend reading them in order. I really enjoyed this and I’m looking forward to the next one.

I have a mild (OK, not that mild) interest with fashion and jewellery and over the past month I’ve had some major issues with insomnia – just one of those things but deeply annoying at the time. You may wonder why these two things are connected, so let me explain…..

One of my tactics is to not lie there feeling sorry for myself, willing myself to go to sleep etc., but to get up and do something to take my mind off the sleeplessness. Sometimes that means watching TV, sometimes reading fiction, but often dipping into what are sometimes described as coffee-table books. And these are my two most recent, all about QEII.

 

Dressing the Queen: The Jubilee Wardrobe by Angela Kelly

Dressing-the-Queen-CoverAngela Kelly is a designer and Personal Assistant, Adviser and Curator to the Queen, and this book takes us through the steps involved in creating the dazzling suite of outfits that the Queen wore during the Diamond Jubilee and it is totally fascinating. Fabulous pictures in full colour, covering everything from fabric to storage to packing to hats and umbrellas, shawls and accessories. It’s quite a light book, not at all academic but nice and gossipy without being indiscreet. It is entirely responsible for my new obsession of spotting the hat pin(s) whenever I see a photo of the Queen.

 

The Queen’s Diamonds by Hugh Roberts

The Queen's Diamonds, coverI still feel a little bit guilty about this. Last year the Book God and I finally (after living in London for 26 years) took the tour of Buckingham Palace, partly because it was something we’d always wanted to do and partly because of the special exhibition about the Coronation. And of course we ended up in the garden shop and of course we bought stuff, and this was my indulgence. I love love love jewellery, and this is apparently the first authorised account of the history of the diamonds in the royal collection from the time of Queen Adelaide in the 1830s to now. It is full of astonishing pictures of fabulous things. Written by the Surveyor Emeritus of the Queen’s Works of Art (what a title) and a previous Director of the Royal Collection. An expensive indulgence but a lovely thing to look at if you love bling.

 

onceup8200How on earth did that happen? Suddenly here we are on 22 June, and Once Upon a Time VIII is over for another year. :-(

I planned to attempt Quest the First as outlined in my post here.

Sadly, I only managed two of the five books I hoped to read, and started a third. I will persevere with the others as I really want to read them and would hate to see them on the list for next year’s challenge.

The two I managed to read (with links to my thoughts) were:

I still plan to re-read The Songs of Earth and Power by Greg Bear because it’s awesome.

Must start thinking about books for RIP IX; September will be with us before you know it!

 

IMG_0081What’s it all about?

Black Thursday. Four passenger planes fall out of the sky in four different locations for apparently no reason. Three children from separate flights have miraculously survived . There is also a mysterious message left by a dying American woman. What does it all mean? Who are The Three and is there a purpose behind their survival? And how will the world react?

Why did I want to read it?

I didn’t know anything about this book until (I think) I saw a tweet from Lauren Beukes (author of The Shining Girls which I adored and am therefore pre-disposed to listen to her opinions). I then saw a couple of reviews which suggested that this might be My Sort of Thing.

What did I think about it?

This was great stuff, a nicely creepy conspiracy thriller (bordering on horror), written at real pace and a proper page turner. I like the structure very much, it reminded me a bit of Carrie though with less real-time action and (obviously) more of the story being told through extracts from books and interviews and so on and consequently with several POVs, though the main character (if there is one) is Elspeth, the journalist who wrote a sensational book about The Three and which, along with the message left by Pamela May Donald as she lay dying, gives impetus to a range of conspiracy nuts including a pastor who uses suspicions about the children to set up his own church. Growing paranoia leads to the search for a fourth child survivor and it all ends up in various forms of violence.

I don’t want to go into the plot too much because half the fun is working out where it’s all going; there are lots of hints throughout the story of something bigger and there is a sort of resolution though I think it leaves some of the story elements open (which is not necessarily a bad thing, I don’t necessarily need everything tied up in a bow!).

Another absorbing read.

IMG_0080What’s it about?

Ursula Todd is born during an English snowstorm in 1910 and dies immediately.

Ursula Todd is born during an English snowstorm and lives.

And at key points throughout her life things happen to her or she makes choices which sometimes see her die and sometimes see her live, and also see the fates of those around her change, all running in parallel with major events of the twentieth century, particularly World War Two.

Why did I want to read this?

I like what I’ve read of Kate Atkinson’s work, most especially Case Histories (read before I started this blog so no review I’m afraid). Life After Life was consistently well reviewed and everyone seemed to be reading it all at once, especially after it won the Costa award. I knew that I was always going to read this but wanted to wait until I was good and ready  so that I could savour the book without too much chatter. And I’m glad to say it was worth the wait.

What did I think about it?

I thought this was an absolutely wonderful novel. It starts off quite sensationally with the attempted (we’re not sure if Ursula is successful on this occasion) assassination of Hitler, then leaps back to a very short chapter, really only a paragraph, describing the first time (we assume) that Ursula is born, dying before she can take her first breath as she is strangled by her umbilical cord. The throughout the book we are in a world of parallel universes, where Ursula’s life takes different paths at what we come to recognise are key points. In that sense there is a thriller element to it; what’s going to happen to her this time, at what point will the darkness of death descend and she start her story again.

Two things in particular make this work for me. The first is that we avoid Groundhog Day comparisons; not only is Ursula not living the same day over and over, but Atkinson has us picking up the story at different points.

The second is that I really like Ursula as a character and wanted her to have a long and happy life. This is a real issue in one of the strands where she is the victim of domestic violence to quite a horrendous extent, so well written that I was anxious and cringing while I read it (and just wanted to get out of the storyline as quickly as possible, just because of the power of the writing).

The most compelling parts of the novel are those around WW2, whether we are with Ursula in Germany where she has married a man who will become a member of Hitler’s inner circle, or whether we are with her in London during the Blitz. The latter is really astonishing in its recreation of what I imagine it must have been like to be bombed, really very moving. The characters around Ursula are very well drawn and themselves often affected by the different timelines, sometimes living and sometimes dying.

The key question of course is whether there is a purpose to all of this. There are points in the novel where you can clearly see that Ursula knows or suspects things ands tries to prevent them happening and ends up under psychiatric treatment. There are also hints that some of her family may have something like deja vu and get glimpses of what might have been. And the end is quite odd, leaving us with a very minor character, though I for one am not sure why, though still very affecting.

It’s one of my favourite reads of the year so far and a book that I will definitely go back to to see whether I can follow the various threads now that I know where rings are likely to end up.

So if you are one of the few people who hasn’t read this then I can highly recommend it.

 

Bride of the Book God

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Scottish, entering my fifties, love books but not always able to find the time to read them as much as I would like. I’m based in London and happily married to the Book God.

If you would like to get in touch you can contact me at brideofthebookgod (at) btinternet (dot) com.

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