Books in September

Robert Galbraith – Cormoran Strike 4: Lethal White
Looking back I read the first three books of this series over the span of about three weeks. Despite this book being 650 pages long I charged through it in just 4 days. Frankly if not for the annoying necessities of work and sleep getting in the way I would probably have read the whole thing through in one sitting. I found the book completely engrossing, the slow build of the cases alongside the tumultuous personal lives of Strike and Robin left me incredibly frustrated every time I had to put the book down. The book is carefully balanced between personal stories and the cases, with the different threads intertwining and continually delivering satisfying moments. I’m not so naive I can’t see that I’m being manipulated by cheap tricks like cliffhangers at the end of the chapters and “Come and meet me, I need to tell you something urgently” tropes, but the tricks are delivered very well and they just work. At the end I had that deep joy and satisfaction of a great book, but that sadness and almost emptiness of having run out of pages. Roll on the next one.

Genevieve Cogman – The Invisible Library 3: The Burning Page and 4: The Masked City
This is a very readable series, but it’s not really one I’m falling in love with. It can feel a little clinical at times, as if it’s hitting milestones which are ‘due’ in a series of this type, but then the emotion of those milestones doesn’t necessarily play out. It feels oddly devoid of passion, even when characters talk about their loves (books, people, allegiances) it feels a bit trite and regurgitated. But even without that passion it is a well built universe that’s evolving nicely, I particularly liked the development of the fae, and the idea that they deliberately and accidentally turn their lives into great stories – influencing those around them into tropes and stereotypes. It’s a nice construct that gives an excuse for cliche storytelling. It’s an effective action/adventure that keeps the pages turning. It just doesn’t leave me really feel anything.

Stephen Fry – Mythos
The subtitle of this book is “The Greek Myths Retold”, and I was really enticed by the idea of someone with Stephen Fry’s wit, turn of phrase, and sense of humour retelling the myths that I’ve always loved. The problem is, that this book could have been written by absolutely anyone. There was barely any of Stephen Fry’s personality in the retelling, it just felt like someone had done a solid job of compiling the familiar stories, in a fairly unremarkable narrative. There were very occasional asides that I could actually hear in his voice, but for the most part it was a slightly dry retelling of familiar stories. It’s as good a retelling as any other, but I was hoping for a lot more spark.

S.J. Morgan – One Way
This is incredibly similar to Andy Weir’s The Martian, but is also the complete antithesis of it. Both works are about people stranded on Mars and both also have a similar fascination and commitment to explaining the science and engineering of how things work (or don’t work). Both have a central character who is thrown into something they didn’t expect and must now “science the shit” out of the problem. But where The Martian feels like a positive story about what humanity can do when they’re working together, One Way is about the horror humanity can inflict on each other. Reading (and watching) The Martian made me feel better about the world, while One Way gave me a growing sense of sadness and depression. Technically, One Way is not quite as well put together as The Martian either; Morgan does a solid enough job, but I was always multiple steps ahead of the characters and frustrated at their slowness. It was a compelling read, but it is ultimately quite disposable and all in all, I’d probably recommend just reading The Martian instead of this. Even if you’ve already read it, read it again.

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SEAL Team: Season 1

I’m not sure how many people remember a series from a few years ago called The Unit. A bit of googling reveals it was on CBS from 2006-9, airing 69 episodes over 4 seasons. I’m not sure how I came to watch it in the UK but I somehow ended up with the dvd box set and powered through it. SEAL Team is pretty much the same series, just moved into a world 10 years older for an audience that’s more savvy.

Both series are about special forces teams, the people that get sent in to the most dangerous and complicated situations at home and abroad and both series go to great lengths for authenticity, with all the language, movements, actions and behavoiurs seeming entirely ‘correct’. This is the most satisfying thing about both series, and the most vital. If they didn’t seem credible as elite military unit it wouldn’t work at all. Similarly if they too often disobeyed orders, or the orders didn’t make sense, it would be impossible to accept any of it.

Season 1 of SEAL team neatly split into two halves – the first half establishing the characters while working out of their home base, and the second half following them on deployment to Afghanistan. It’s a very smart decision, giving us a run of standalone episodes to build the characters – starting from their simple definitions (the leader, the right-hand-man, the newbie) and then add secondary notes and depths, and how they function as a team. Then the second half develops into a longer overall story line and pushes them slightly out of their comfort zone (although what is a comfort zone to a Seal team operative is quite scary).

The biggest difference between the two series is that The Unit had a much greater balance between the stories at home, the families left behind and the challenges of being military wives. That is touched upon in Seal team, but it’s always from the point of view of the soldiers. I don’t mind that change to be honest, there were a lot of times in The Unit that it felt that the home stories were forced and verging on melodrama at times. It’s a shame so many of the female characters in Seal team are therefore relegated to guest appearances, but they are still strong characters. There are also women on the team who are never presented as anything other than fully competent.

Neither series is a mindless “boys” action fest. The characters are smart and well rounded, the emotional aspects are never ignored, and the complexity of the situations they are in are well considered. The cast was one of the big draws for me, with several names that I knew could all deliver interesting characters, adding more than was maybe written on the page. Led by David Boreanaz (Angel, Bones) you’ve also got Max Thieriot (Bates Motel), Jessica Pare (Mad Men) and AJ Buckley (CSI New York and Justified) and the guest cast includes people like Alona Tal (Supernatural) and even Michael Irby from The Unit.

I watched about 1/2 the season straight through in a few days before catching up with the live airings. Each story is dealt with efficiently and effectively, I was never bored and I didn’t spot any particular holes or oversights (which is far from common). It will of course not be a show that wins any major awards, and I can’t say it’s a show that necessarily lingers in the mind after you’ve finished watching. But for me, it ticked all the boxes.

Films in August

New Films
Christopher Robin
I really wanted to love this film, but it did make it hard. I found the opening half hour or so of the film incredibly bleak. We start with Christopher Robin saying goodbye to all his friends in Hundred Acre Wood as he goes to boarding school then we see a collection of flashbacks including the death of his father and going to war, while the toys slowly fades away as he forgets them. There’s a flash of cheeriness as he marries Hayley Atwell, but then he becomes obsessed with work and providing for his family, losing sight of fun and being present for those he loves. By this point I was pretty miserable to be honest.
The second half picks up as the toys come back into his life, but Christopher Robin still takes a lot of convincing to be a decent human being and is pretty mean to poor old Pooh. There’s eventual redemption, but it’s a very long time coming.
It is a truly stunning film to look at, with hints of arthouse style direction and technically beautiful animation, even if it didn’t always feel quite grounded in the landscape. The same with the voices, even with members of the original Disney voice cast, it felt like a slightly off copy. There is some lovely stuff going on, but it just doesn’t all mesh together. It’s very much a film of two halves, with the first half really not being much fun for kids (or adults really), but then the second half being a bit too much of an easy fix for it to really work as just a grown up film.

Mission Impossible: Fallout – I went to the cinema in search of distraction, to quiet the anxious voices in my head and just escape the world for a bit. I figured a Mission Impossible film would be almost perfect for that. I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of the films, but I do think they’re good at what they are. I was slightly disappointed with Fallout compared to previous MI films. The plot seemed even less coherent than usual and it felt like they spent too long trying to explain it which just slowed the film and drew attention to the nonsense of it all. It doesn’t matter if the plot makes no sense (or even if there isn’t much plot at all) but don’t waste so much time on it and leave the audience enough time to spot the holes. I also didn’t feel that it had the humour or character of previous films. Obviously Tom Cruise is the star under the thin disguise of his character Ethan Hunt, but I’d like a bit more interaction with the more than capable supporting actors (both good guys, bad guys, and somewhere-in-the-middle). The action sequences were utterly spectacular, but everything in between was mediocre and bordering on dull, it therefore failed on its basic mission to distract me.

Ant-Man and the Wasp – The Marvel universe always manages to impress me with the sheer variety it brings in its different threads of the franchise (and then astonish me when it weaves the threads together to form an even vaguely coherent joint offering). Ant Man is on the comedy end of the spectrum and it knows it. It is just plain FUN. I was utterly immersed from the first scene to the last, there was always something going on for the eye, the ear, and the heart, although the brain can happily take a bit of a nap for a lot of it. Often I am bored watching fight scenes, but the creativity here had me watching every second and even wishing I could re-wind to catch more detail. I love how everyone involved plays with the ideas and possibilities, fully exploring the potential. But the characters are never forgotten and Marvel’s stunning casting strikes again, with everyone delivering a rich portrayal of everyone as somewhere in the middle of the hero-villain spectrum. It’s a nice change that it’s not the end of the world being threatened; the more intimate stakes make a nice change and fit in the wider pacing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe perfectly. This was exactly the distraction and the entertainment I was looking for.

New to Me
Spider-Man: Homecoming – I didn’t bother going to see this in the cinema because frankly I was bored of going to see Spider-Man films. I eventually picked it up on dvd after being relentlessly told how good it was by people, and they were right. It did manage to be a fresh take on the story and felt more like an actual teenager than I think the previous ones did. It’s interesting how Tom Holland’s Spider-Man has been pre-embedded in the Marvel universe BEFORE getting his own film, and having Tony Stark appear in this film further grounds him in a known universe so his character makes more sense and is both more accepting and more acceptable as a teenager with superpowers. Despite having so much behind it, the film still felt fresh, original and vibrant and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Rewatches
The Hobbit films – ITV have been showing all the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films, so I decided to marathon my way through the Hobbit films on a wet bank holiday as I haven’t seen them since I was somewhat disappointed by them in the cinema. I remain disappointed. I won’t bother reviewing each one individually, as it’ll be quite repetitive, just like the films. It feels like they missed all the heart and soul that was present in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and just shamelessly tried to make as much money as possible. Primarily, that meant dragging a very limited story out into three over-long films and forcing in cameos and references that just didn’t feel right. I also think they skimped on the special and visual effects, more scenes were obviously green-screened and CGI’ed and it didn’t feel like there was the richness that the original trilogy had. The actors are doing their best and there are some nice moments but it mostly felt cold and mercenary.

Kiki’s Delivery Service – I was lucky enough to see this during the Picturehouse’s Studio Ghibli season and it’s a lovely film to see on the big screen. Some animations work on the big screen because of the amount of detail (Zootopia or Big Hero 6 for example), but this one works because of the simplicity of the animation. The simplicity of the lines, character design and the colours are so elegant on the big screen. It’s a pure kids film, a slow burning fairy tale but there’s enough touches of humour to keep it interesting for adults too. The majority of the film is a very gentle, slow ride which builds to an ending which felt a little rushed, but maybe watching things play out over the titles is the best way to gently break away from the lovely world.

Heathers – This film has had a cinema re-release for its 30th anniversary, which makes me feel a bit old because it was one of the films when I was at school that would do the rounds on vhs for sleepovers and the like. Admittedly it was already a few years old at that point, but it certainly spoke to teenage girls even in the early 90’s. The messages at the heart of the film are still somewhat relevant even if the styles are now horrifically dated. It’s a weird film wandering between fantasy and reality in a way that didn’t feel entirely coherent. It suffers as many of these films do by having actors who are clearly far older than the characters they are meant to portray, and not all are quite up to the depths that the writers may have been aiming for. It’s certainly not a great film, and I’m not really sure it deserves a ‘classic’ label either, but it is interesting to think where it fits into the overall timeline of teen films and how it inspired films after it.

Doctor Strange – A film of missed opportunities. Benedict Cumberbatch was perfectly cast, except for the fact that he’s perfect casting because he’s basically been playing a small variant of the character in Sherlock, so all you’ve really added is magic and a weird accent (it sounded just like Hugh Laurie on House to me, that odd mid-atlantic non-specific american accent that doesn’t quite work). Then the magic stuff. OK, it’s an interesting add on to the Marvel universe, but stop trying to explain it! There was SO much exposition and explaining of things that really didn’t make any sense, I kept getting bored. Then I struggled to really follow the action sequences, maybe it’s something about my eyes, but I found them too complicated, too fast moving and too layered to really focus on and get a hang of what was going on (I think if I’d seen it in 3d it would probably have made me feel ill). The bits that weren’t action OR exposition were quite interesting, but I just kept zoning out of the rest of it. On the plus side – Tilda Swinton was absolutely fantastic and the line about the ‘mantra’ is possibly the funniest thing I’ve heard all year. But I think the rest of it was a bit mediocre, and it shouldn’t have been.

Hercules – Easily the best thing about this film is the songs, as soon as they start playing (actually as soon as I even think about them playing) I get a big smile on my face and want to sing along. The mixture of ancient Greek setting and the gospel music is absolutely genius. The rest of the film is solid enough with some good comedy from the familiar side-kick slots and a satisfyingly spunky female lead, but it’s the music that’s the real joy.

Books in August

Hans Rosling and Ola Rosling – Factfulness
Like many, many thousands of people I discovered Hans Rosling through his Ted talks using data and statistics in simple yet visually creative ways to present a richer pictures of things we assume we know. His utterly charming personality, passion and energy come across perfectly in this book. I didn’t put the full title above, which is “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think” but the book does rather do what it says on the tin. Unlike some books of this type there is a powerful and simple structure running through it, each chapter presenting a different way that it is incredibly easy to get things wrong. There is a mix of anecdotes, data, psychology, statistics and sociology in every chapter that carefully reinforces each key point. Not a chapter went by without me being surprised and enlightened. It’s a relatively short book and a phenomenally easy read that will open your mind and genuinely make you feel a bit better about the world. Everyone should read this.

Claire North – The End of the Day
Looking back, I adored Claire North’s first two books (The First 15 Lives of Harry August and Touch) but the last two (this one and Sudden Appearance of Hope) have frustrated me. All her books have in common an incredible richness of central idea, they are all playing with sci-fi like abilities/powers/curses and North has built them in a way that fully embraces and plays with all the implications that they bring. But I feel that she doesn’t always embed them in a good story. The End of the Day in fact doesn’t seem to have much in the way of story at all. It’s a huge collection of small stories that don’t really seem to go anywhere. The characters and settings involved are all interesting to spend time with, so it’s not a disaster, but I was always aware of the fact that it didn’t seem to be coming together. There’s a lot of observation about the world today that if I’d known was going to be there, I probably wouldn’t have read the book (“warning – this book contains social commentary and observation that may make you angry and sad”). Despite the great concept at the centre of the book, I just came away unsatisfied and frankly a little depressed.

T Kingfisher – Summer in Orcus
If you read the author’s notes at the end she explains that this book ended up a home for a lot of the stray ideas she’d had that hadn’t made it into another book. That could make for a bit of a mess, but I think it just about works here. It’s held together with a familiar structure of a child transported to another world, but but writer and the child herself are aware of those tropes and so it feels like it’s moving the ideas forward rather than just retelling them. The collection of ideas are beautifully collected, and you can see how each grew out of either a phrase, a visual image (the valet birds are my favourite), or even a pun. I don’t think it’s her best work, it lacks some punch and it’s more of a children’s book than most of her other fairy tales, but it’s a lovely tale to read.

Agatha Christie – A Murder is Announced
With my increased commute, my reading time has multiplied dramatically and as I’m powering through books so fast I’ve started using my local library rather than bankrupt myself buying books. The selection is quite erratic, but I can always rely on finding an Agatha Christie. I haven’t read many Miss Marple’s but there’s something very comforting about the slow pace of them, easy going detective work and village life and relatively low impact crimes being investigated. There are lots of elements to the mystery, so even if you see through one or two early on as I did, there’s still more surprises to come. It does get somewhat more brutal towards the end, but it’s slightly swept away which left me feeling a bit bruised and feeling slightly less satisfied than I might otherwise have done.

David Thomson – How to Watch a Movie
The author makes a point of explaining that he is not looking to reduce the enjoyment of films through over-analysis, and I could completely get behind that message. I find that my enjoyment and respect for films is often improved by knowing a bit about the context of their production, their place in history and the complexities of producing them. So I was completely with him. Then I read the book and he actually had me doubting the whole idea. The book is STUNNINGLY boring to read, weirdly too dry to be entertaining, but too flimsy to feel educational. It wanders all over the place with little coherent messaging. I got no sense of love or joy from any of it and ended up just turning the pages as fast as I possibly could.

Raymond Chandler – The Big Sleep
A classic. Hmmm. I can see the charm of the writing style, the turns of phrases and dry wit are beautifully written and really leap off the page. But I didn’t feel like I was pulled into the book at all, like I was observing something at a difference. Maybe it’s because the central voice is so dry and emotionally distant, and the rest of the characters are all fairly unlikable so it’s hard to really engage, but I found myself just turning the pages rather than really sinking into it.

Philip Gwynne Jones – Vengeance in Venice
It’s not long since I read the first book in this series and I can see it becoming a series that I happily return to with each new work, but rather forget in between. The characters are charming and real, all with their own flaws and eccentricities (particularly the cat). The plot on the other hand is a bit so-so, as a murder mystery it relies on too many coincidences and even though the writer ‘hangs a lamp’ on those issues, it doesn’t excuse that you don’t have to try too hard to pull the story apart. But really, the star of the book is Venice itself. I’ve only been there once myself but I can certainly recognise it from the book – both the wonder of the place and the insanity of it. As mindless reads go – it’s great fun, as a quality murder mystery – it’s a bit mediocre, but as a promotion for the Venetian tourist board – it’s beyond compare.

Westworld: Season 2

I allowed the whole of season 2 of Westworld to stack up so I could box set through it (yes, I’m embracing ‘to box set’ as a verb). Within about 15 seconds of starting to watch I realised that I had utterly no memory of what happened in season 1. After a bit of reading wikipedia and a couple of youtube catchup videos I settled in feeling a bit more confident that I was caught up. I wasn’t, and I pretty much never caught up during the whole of the season, having little understanding of where we’d been, where we were going and why I was on the journey at all. The only thing I really liked about the series was the technical beauty of it. The cinematography and design of the sets and settings are absolutely stunning. I also want to call out the music which beautifully references both modern and period.

Sadly though, neither story nor characters grabbed me. I am still undecided about whether I didn’t enjoy the story because I couldn’t follow it, or whether I didn’t follow the story because I wasn’t enjoying it. Re-reading my review of season 1 I remember how the first season gradually drew me in as it revealed some clever tricks with the timelines, it even tempted me to re-watch the season to unpick how it all hung together. The second season tried to repeat the trick while everyone was watching for it, and it felt smug and confused and left me absolutely no desire to see how it worked.

Many of the characters (both host and human) felt even more one dimensional and their single minded motivations just felt contrived (even for those that weren’t programmed that way). There are only a handful of characters that felt more rounded and they were often relegated frustratingly to the background (Teddy the host, Elsie the engineer, Lee the plot writer and Ashley the security officer), they felt like people complete with mixed motivations, conflicting emotions and a sense of both bafflement and wonder. I would have liked to say Bernard is an interesting character, but he spent so much of the season confused and confusing, central to the shenanigans with timelines that made it impossible to actually follow his thread. It’s no criticism of any of the actors involved, all of whom do very fine work.

As with the first season, I’m sure a lot of the elements that I complain about, could be considered The Point of the whole thing – the lack of humanity of the humans, born vs programmed etc etc etc. But the elements of message absolutely must be entwined with the story so elegantly that you can’t see the join. The narrative needs to flow (even if it’s not told in order). This felt overly constructed, with elements put in just to pad the series out (the whole Japanese park bit), and bits fast-forwarded through because they didn’t deliver Message (there’s little sense of location and space and the timelines are so tangled I never felt grounded).

I think in some ways this is a series that’s a victim of the current success of television. I think back to something like Babylon 5 which had a giant story to tell, and it spent well over hundred episodes to tell it, giving the audience space and time to settle into the universe and each time it changed. It took its time, there were entertaining diversions and dead ends (accidental or deliberate). Westworld is trying to build, destroy and rebuild the entire universe in (from the looks of it) 30 episodes over 3 seasons. It’s just too fast and I’m afraid it’s left me behind.

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD: Season 5

There are shows that I love the big stories but get a little bored in the actual watching, and then there are shows like Agents of SHIELD where I adore the little moments and am bored by the big stuff. There are few shows out there at the moment that I find charming, where I love the characters and their interactions and genuinely want to spend time with them. I would cheerfully watch these characters build IKEA furniture together. In fact a lot of the time I’d rather watch them undertake a simple task like that than watch them get bogged down in clumsy attempts to save the world.

This season had some big STUFF going on – time travel, the destruction of the world, aliens and complicated theories about the nature of time and destiny. The problem is that I’m not sure any of it actually hung together. Every time I tried to work it out, it felt like it was heading in an incoherent direction so I stopped. Maybe if I’d kept trying to work it out, I would have got through it to something that made sense, but I couldn’t be bothered. I always thought it was a shame that the series tried to do these big stories, thereby trying and failing to compete with the Marvel movies it spun off from, or the various other hero shows. I wanted it to be about the more day-to-day, the daily grind of the agents behind the heroes, tidying up their mess or dealing with the stuff it wasn’t worth calling them for. I like stories about the little people, heroes are all well and good, but the little people deserve some love too.

The writing for the characters and the performances remain superb. The dialogue isn’t quite up there with Joss Whedon’s best, even after 5 seasons it still feels a little like Whedon-lite, but it still has that underlying sparkle. Characters snip and snark, make pop culture references, and most importantly have strong senses of self and their own history. They all remember how ridiculous their lives are, how they’ve all made mistakes and all lost things. They talk like normal people, and when one of them occasionally slips into hero speak, the others aren’t afraid to call them on it. It’s laugh out loud funny, and heartbreakingly emotional.

It’s a long wait to the next season which is only set to be 13 episodes long and doesn’t start until next year. I think there’s a good chance it will be the last season as the ratings have never been very good, but I will miss these characters.

Books in July

I continue to enjoy reading on my commute (although I wouldn’t mind the temperatures dropping by a dozen degrees or so) and am ploughing through books. To save my bank balance a bit I went and investigated the library! What a wonderful place – they just let you take books away! The selection is a bit limited, but thus far I’ve been managing to find some classics and some random picks.

Sarah Whitfield – Boublil and Schönberg’s Les Misérables
Full disclosure – the author of this book is one of my best friends and I’m even mentioned in the acknowledgements (!) so this isn’t exactly an unbiased review. Also I should note you will probably struggle a bit to follow some sections if you have not at least passingly familiar with the musical itself, or at least look up a few youtube clips as you read.
This little book tries to explain why people are such fans of Les Misérables by looking at a number of factors – the story, the music, the marketing, the history of the production and a little bit on fandom itself. Although Sarah is an academic expert in musical theatre, this book is never dry. Peppered throughout the book are quotes and anecdotes from fans of Les Misérables who were surveyed as part of the research for the book. The analysis of the musical techniques, or emotional manipulation to hook audiences is always balanced with the voice of that audience expressing how much it means to them. Sarah doesn’t stand back from this as a passive observer – she also shares her own anecdotes about growing up with a father who loved Les Misérables, and who passed away while Sarah was writing the book. The sharing of powerful emotions throughout the book is a perfect match for Les Misérables, which as Sarah says, only an Easter Island statue could fail to be moved by.
At only 60 odd pages long, the biggest problem with the book is that it’s too short. There’s plenty of room for expansion and I was a little disappointed that some areas weren’t probed a little deeper – particularly the bubbling counterpoint of why “serious” theatre people look down on the musical (and maybe by extension the fans). But as it is, it’s a charming little love letter to a musical, its fans, and a father.

Derek Thompson – Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular
Any book advertised as picking up from Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point is setting a high bar, but also makes itself an easy sell to me. I find this kind of subject fascinating, it sort of spans marketing, business and economics, psychology, sociology and history. The trick that people like Gladwell, Seth Godin and Matthew Syed pull off is to blend in just the right number of case studies and stories and write the whole thing like a human being, rather than a dry text book. Thompson is a worthy addition to this pantheon. Hit Makers was not only a fascinating read, but also a fun one. The structure is clear and tidy, told with a journalist’s respect for grabbing attention, retaining it and landing messages deliberately and forcefully. The stories being told are a mixture of the familiar and the unusual, finding people and emotions that are relatable and inspiring. Thompson delivers a book that both explains why things are popular, explains why we’ll never understand why things are popular, and uses all the tricks he’s identified to write something that should be popular (except for the cover, which is stunningly poor). One of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in a very long time.

T. Kingfisher – Clocktaur War 1: The Wonder Engine, and 2: Clockwork Boys.
T. Kingfisher is one of my favourite authors and I’ve never seen a physical copy of her book. I’ve just checked and some of her books are available as physical books, but they’re far more aggressively priced as ebooks, so I don’t think anyone is really wanting us to buy the actual books. That means they have to rely more on word of mouth to sell and I continue to do my bit on that front. There’s something effortlessly simple and pure about her writing, which is of course anything other than effortless and far from common. Her stories are straightforward, retelling fairy tales, or in this case a fairly standard quest story. But the characters, worlds, and plots always sparkle. I read the two books back to back and I suggest you do the same as a) they’re impossible to put down and b) it’s really a continuous story and the first book by itself just sort of stops in the middle.
The story is a fairly straightforward quest set up with an unlikely team of experts sent off on an apparently impossible mission and a few heists and bumps along the road, plus the slightly inevitable romance of course. It’s all quite standard – the world has some magic and some steam punk type stuff going on, the team all have individual specialisms but aren’t used to working in a team and are a mixture of heroic rogues and roguish heroes. Everything jumps off the page, dialogue and thoughts of characters are immediately real, it’s laugh out loud funny, un-put-down-able action, a romance that even my cold heart fell in love with and some “unfortunate events” that had me reaching for the tissues. I cannot recommend this author highly enough and the ebooks are embarrassingly cheap so you really have no excuse to not read them.

Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl
I’m not sure about this book. The writing style is refreshing, bluntly honest (although maybe not quite right for a sheltered 15 year old) and laugh out loud funny while also gut-wrenchingly painful. It’s the kind of book that is both hard to put down and difficult to keep reading because the emotions are so powerful at times, and various disasters loom like icebergs on the horizon. I can see why some people would love it and connect incredibly deeply with it, but it didn’t quite work for me on that level. It’s the kind of book that I respect more than I like. (573)

Agatha Christie – By the Pricking of My Thumbs
Another random Agatha Christie, but not one of her better ones. I did enjoy the characters of Tommy and Tuppence for the most part, although they occasionally got a little too smug and prim. Unfortunately the story itself let the book down, the mystery was slow to develop, relying on epic numbers of coincidences to keep things moving and come up with reasons that the characters should keep searching for a crime that was completely hidden. Then there was a rush of exposition at the end to bring everything together and explain the solution to a puzzle that I still didn’t quite believe was there. It’s as if Christie started writing hoping the plot would come to her, and then when she eventually found one, she didn’t bother going back to the beginning so that it made sense.

Seni Glaister – The Museum of Things Left Behind
A random pick from the library based mostly on the title, which then proved to be completely inappropriate as the Museum in question makes barely 2 appearances and even as a metaphor is pretty far stretched. The quirkiness sort of matches the book for the most part and it’s an interesting set up, but about half way through the author seems to decide they don’t want just a nice little story and tries to add more depth with more pointed political and social satire. The bait and switch unsettled me, I wanted something nice and quirky, not something that made me sad and thoughtful. I think the author was capable of delivering either approach interestingly, but the mixture was ill judged.

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