Thursday, 31 December 2015

Best and Worst of 2015

This year I read 20 books published in 2015, which is the most new books I’ve gone through in one year, so for once I feel well-informed enough (just) to do a little round up of my best and worst. Here goes..

First, the worst

I’m of the opinion that life is too short to finish a book you don’t enjoy, and so I don’t read many bad books all the way through. I have a fifty-page rule (recently upgraded from thirty pages), which is how long I will force my way through a rubbish book before making a decision to carry on or throw it out of the window.

My first worst book of the year, The Heart Goes On by Margaret Atwood, started well and had what looked like a great plot, but by the end I felt like it had not been worth the time I spent reading it. It starts as a dark and dangerous dystopia in which possibilities are severely limited and the protagonists, Stan and Charmaine, are starting to lose hope. They are living in their car when they are presented with an opportunity to live in complete safety within the walls of a new settlement called Consilience. The only catch is that every other month they must swap their home-life for a month-long stint in prison, taking the place of two convicts who will live in their house for that month. I was surprised to find that this prison-swap situation is merely the setting and doesn’t hold any significance after the first third of the story. The bigger picture is a ridiculous mash-up of sexual taboos, silly fetishes and boring personalities. I kept going because Margaret Atwood is a favourite author and I refused to believe she could be so lazy with her writing. The only reason I would have to recommend this would be to have someone to talk to about the stupid ending.
My second worst book of the year was I Love Dick by Chris Kraus. First published in 1997, this year marks its first appearance in the UK. I heard about it in The Guardian, which described it as a cult feminist classic and “the book about relationships everyone should read”. I was further fuelled by the many reviews I found claiming this to be the best book ever published (or similarly OTT declarations). It's a memoir/novel about a married woman who falls in love with a man called Dick after knowing him for only one night, for pretty much no reason. She thinks they had mind-sex or something. She and her husband then start writing letters to Dick about the evening and Chris' feelings and this goes on for way too long and gets more and more pathetic. It was very hard to get through at times, and not recommended for those who dislike or are not interested in art critique, pompous babble or pop-psychology. Chris Kraus is narcissistic, stubborn and painfully needy. I don’t feel like I’m missing some sort of point, but that others are looking for meaning that just isn’t there. I enjoyed the last chapter and the second-to-last line in particular is a killer. At the time of reading I thought I’d wasted my time, but now I look back on it as a funny few days, because I read it at the same time as a friend who equally thought it was overrated and needlessly pretentious. It was good to share the experience.

The Best

Winner of Waterstones Thriller of the Year 2015 and seemingly the whole country’s approval was The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. This book has been compared to Gone Girl and Before I Go to Sleep and that's absolutely spot-on, it's a perfect blend of the two, with gaps in vital memories and the feeling that there is more to the main characters than meets the eye. I couldn't guess what was going to happen right up until the very end. The reveal was great and the last few scenes were really tense. There was more action than I was expecting from this kind of novel, which was surprising as most of the commentary on the mystery at hand came from the outsider's point of view, which at times was questionable at best. I’ll admit that this is a good book but I do wonder how much of the hype was manufactured by clever advertising and plenty of publicity. I’d recommend it to people who are trying crime for the first time as it does whet the appetite for further exploration into the genre, but this is not my thriller of the year.

I read Disclaimer by Renee Knight immediately after I read The Girl on the Train and instantly knew I was reading something higher quality. On reading the blurb I expected a deeply sinister and dark, high-speed thriller. I expected to be guessing the sender of the mysterious book all the way through, but that is just the very start. At first I saw this as a simple story, very easy to follow, but I really underestimated its complexity. Early on I thought something major had been revealed but a few chapters later I was backtracking, wondering how I'd so dramatically got the wrong end of the stick. This isn't a fast-paced story, it is steady and deliberate, and not once was I bored. Every revelation is small but effective, which always left me wanting more. This goes on up until the last page, catching me off-guard and literally giving me goosebumps. This book left me stunned.

As Disclaimer suffocated under the heavily padded Girl on the Train phenomenon, I was writing belly bands and recommendation cards, sneaking it onto eye-level shelves and trying to spread the word, all to no avail. Disclaimer is currently Waterstones Thriller of the Month and I find myself saying “I told you so” a little too often as more of my colleagues are picking it up and realising that it is in fact better than the much praised Thriller of the Year.

An ambitious reading goal of fifty books in one year led to a new passion for tiny little pretty books. Standalone short stories or small, select collections of poetry really helps boost the numbers in between epic tomes. So although technically the likes of Charles Dickens and the Brothers Grimm should not be showing up on this blog, I’m counting them anyway as part of Penguin’s Little Black Classics. When selecting a classic to read for the first time I put a lot of pressure on myself to choose wisely. I’d hate to be put off an author who has been hailed a genius for decades or centuries because I read the wrong book at the wrong time. The Penguin collection, 80 titles to celebrate their 80th anniversary, are 80p each, all around 80 pages long and serve as great little samples of the best loved authors. My personal favourite (so far) is A Slip Under the Microscope by H. G. Wells. The Door in the Wall, included in the slim volume along with the namesake, is a story that will stay with me for life.

This year I gave three books a 5 star rating, but only one of them was published in 2015. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, Waterstones Book of the Year and nominated for the Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Ficiton and the National Book Award for Fiction. It didn’t win anything and I just don’t understand why.

There was nothing about A Little Life that I disliked. Every character, every back story, every conversation and every anecdote. I was hooked, I savoured every word. I found I kept forgetting how the book started, and I think this shows how easy it is to slip into the story.

Before I started A Little Life I was warned by those who had read it that it was very dark and depressing. A colleague described it as "relentless". But I went ahead anyway because these people continued to read its 700+ pages despite the emotional distress it caused. In my opinion, the dark-and-depressing only starts about a third of the way in and by this time I was so invested in every character that the thought of giving up on the book for something lighter was like abandoning a family member going through hard times.

I don't cry watching TV and films, and I've only cried reading one book (a single tear at the last line of Flowers for Algernon), but this book made had me sobbing two or three times. In the last few chapters I couldn't read it in public for fear of uncontrollable wailing.

I think this book is perfect, and I want everyone I know to read it too.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Avoiding Spoilers and Speed-Reading

The following contains NO SPOILERS WHATSOEVER, but perhaps too many uses of the word itself…

The release of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee is set to be the biggest event of the decade in the literary world, and as a bookseller, I’m feeling the anticipation. There are posters and displays all over the shop, constant requests for pre-orders and a nice sense of fuzzy nostalgia for To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m excited, and yesterday I expressed this to a colleague. Big mistake.
He blurted out two spoilers. TWO. One was a heart-breaking elaboration on a tidbit that had already been revealed by a naughty Guardian tweet, the other was unrelated to the first but equally soul-destroying.

I made a big fuss. I shouted, backed away, covered my ears (all in public and unashamed), but it was too late. It was like I’d been punched in the chest. Or the heart.
Colleague asked “Haven’t you read the first chapter yet?”
It’s true, I’ve had the chance to read the first chapter, it was published by The Guardian 3 days ago online, and we were even selling copies of the paper containing the chapter in store. I had thought about it but ultimately decided that I would rather have the option of reading as much as the book as I wanted to after the official publication date. 
Apparently these spoilers were “only from the first chapter”, so at least I have the rest of the book to discover for myself, but the question is this: how long must you tip-toe around others to avoid spoiling? I had three days to avoid this situation, was that enough?
I found myself in a similar situation during the hype leading up the release of Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding. The third Bridget Jones book started with a pretty significant death, which I let slip to a customer and had to recover quickly by telling her that she would have found out herself on the second or third page (slight exaggeration). This had been revealed in reviews, blogs and newspaper articles everywhere, I couldn’t believe she didn’t already know, but nevertheless, I felt awful to have been the one to break the news.
I took my time reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and paid the price by having a certain death revealed by a friend when I was just pages away from finding out by myself. I beat her half to death with my school-bag. She never spoiled again. I read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as fast as I could. I locked myself in my room and hissed at anyone who attempted contact. Nothing was ruined, but to this day it’s the only book in the series that I can hardly remember. By the time Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out I was mature enough to tell everyone I was taking my time, but not mature enough to follow through. I read it over one week, during which my boyfriend (at the time) texted me the name of almost every victim just a few chapters ahead of where I was up to, because “you’d have seen it coming anyway”. He wasn’t even that into Harry Potter (or so he said).
When my current (non-spoiling) boyfriend started the Game of Thrones series a few weeks after the release of A Dance With Dragons, I thought he was in for a life-time of publication day speed-reading (albeit once every six years…), but it seems that the Game of Thrones readers are respectful of one another. The audience of the Game of Thrones television series is another matter entirely. If you are not watching the original live broadcasting, they, not unlike the characters, have no sympathy.
On the subject of film and TV, I have another colleague who does not consider it spoiling if the film has finished its run in the cinema, or if the show was broadcast on television more than a week ago. Or something like that. Just be careful around that guy.
I'm all for speed-reading if I just cannot wait to find out what happens next in a series. It's something I have experienced with many a young-adult series, where every novel ends with a cliff-hanger or an unexpected love-triangle. For me this is not the case with the Mockingbird sequel. This is one I will be approaching with caution and intrigue. The story of the author and the controversy behind the latest publication is fascinating in itself.
So I need to decide if I am going to speed-read or take my time with Go Set a Watchman. On the one hand I could get through the remainder of the book without knowing anything before the time is right. On the other hand I can take my time, read when I’m in the mood, set the scene, light the candles, the whole shebang. I’m more likely to enjoy it, I’m more likely to remember it, but will anything be a surprise?

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Netflix 26/26 Callenge

It all started with Apocalypto. I don’t like to choose my own films. The last film I chose for myself was The Family…Yeah. So I ask people who watch a lot. Apocalypto was thrown in "as a risk" by Yates (somewhat of a film fanatic at work) and it turned out to be his best recommendation by far. When I came back asking for another I must have found him in a playful mood (and maybe he was sick of me asking). 

He proposed a game, which then turned into a challenge. 26 films in 26 days. After much um-ing and ah-ing we came up with the rules (I'm a fan of serious gameplay). They are as follows:
  • 26 films must be watched within 26 days.
  • All films must be recommended by others (no choosing your own).
  • All films must be available on Netflix (from any country).
  • Each film must represent a letter of the alphabet (e.g. A - Apocalypto, B - Bridget Jones), and all must be watched in alphabetical order.
  • I mustn't have seen any of the films before the start of the challenge, I'm not allowed to research them before watching (apart from checking Netflix availability).
  • No film recommendations can be rejected as long as they fit the other rules. 
Challenge accepted.
I made a Facebook status explaining the rules and inviting friends and family to pick a letter each. There was more um-ing and ah-ing over how I was going to stop people nabbing all the good letters or sending me a list of 26 films each. More rules! They all got one letter each and I kept note. This was hilarious to watch.

“What about (insert fourth attempt at a recommendation here)?”
“Sorry that’s not on Netflix either.”
“I thought Netflix was GOOD!”

Do you realise how many obvious choices are not available on any Netflix? Thelma and Louise, American Psycho... Try it: , .

There were three types of recommendation: 1) Genuine heartfelt recommendations. Those were obvious when it came to watching those films and when those people were asking if you'd seen it yet and what you thought. 2)"the first thing that popped into my head beginning with the letter E". And then there were 3) those select 'friends' who immediately sought to exploit the rules in order to force you to watch Winnie the Pooh - A Very Merry Pooh Year. 

It took three days to complete the list and this is how it goes:

·         Argo (originally Anita)
·         Beasts of the Southern Wild
·         Collateral
·         Donnie Darko
·         The Expendables
·         Frankenweenie
·         The General
·         Happiness
·         Invictus
·         Jingle All the Way
·         The Kids are All Right
·         Little Miss Sunshine
·         Moonrise Kingdom
·         Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist
·         Olympus Has Fallen
·         The Paperboy
·         The Quick and the Dead (originally Quadrophenia)
·         Road House
·         The Shining
·         Tootsie
·         The Usual Suspects
·         V for Vendetta
·         Winnie the Pooh – A Very Merry Pooh Year
·         Xanadu
·         Young Frankenstein
·         Zombieland

I didn’t get off to a smooth start. Day 1, I was supposed to watch Anita and I left it until about 11pm before I put Netflix on and realised Anita wasn't there. It's not on any Netflix at all. I could have sworn I'd checked before I put it on the list. "Oh my god! I NEED AN A!" Col couldn't think of anything except Alien (not on Netflix). A quick FB status sorted it, Argo was suggested, it fit all the rules. Phew. Thankfully this only happened one more time further down the list. I also immediately fell behind from B onwards and by day 14 I was only up to I. Two full days off work solved that, though I had to watch 8 films over that time in order to catch up.

Most of the films were good, some were great, it was rarely an effort to keep watching. In all honesty though, this challenge was probably a bit wasted on me. It’s not really a challenge for someone who only has a part time job and the huge responsibility of a cat to feed. It might also have been more difficult for someone less open-minded. The only film-bias I have is that I’m very jumpy which makes it hard to watch horror (but it didn’t stop me watching The Shining!). Col would only sit and watch a few of the films with me (his loss) and only then if he already knew what it was about and if it sounded like something he’d like. He’s really missing out.

I completed the challenge. Bang on time. Day 26 I watched Zombieland while the ghosts of films past stood around me whisper-chanting my name and as the credits rolled up I was lifted onto the shoulders of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jake Gyllenhaal. Matthew McConaughey narrated.  


Aside from individual films the best thing about this challenge is the conversation it generates with everyone involved. I was being asked every day what letter I was up to, I was being told about favourite films, some friends were so anxious for me to get to their film that they were trying to persuade me to skip ahead. 

The General. This pretty much made the top of the list before I even finished watching. It was one that I knew nothing about before and when I realised it was a black and white silent movie I was delighted. The story is great, it’s light and funny and some of the stunts are amazing. A pleasure to watch. 

Little Miss Sunshine. The only film in the bunch to make me cry and laugh out loud. A genuine ‘feel-good’ film in my opinion. 

The Usual Suspects. It started off quite funny (the line-up scene) but then the rest seemed pretty standard and I think if it hadn’t been a part of this challenge I might have switched off hallway through. Anyone who’s seen this film would understand why that would be a BIG mistake, and I can thank this challenge for not letting me do that.

Xanadu. So bad. I wasn’t watching so much as staring in disbelief. I’d recommend it to everyone. It’s something that must be experienced. 

Winnie the Pooh – A Very Merry Pooh Year. I watched this on the 10th January. I was no longer in a Christmas mood and I was being made to watch a film aimed at…what… 5 year olds? But it was a highlight because of how much I laughed at the situation I was in. It was a long 90 minutes though.


A few people have talked about wanting to do the challenge themselves. Here are some tips for those who dare attempt it:
  • Have the complete list before you start the challenge. *Someone* suggested asking people every day for a film beginning with A, B etc. Just one per day. But this leaves you with no wiggle room; you’d have to watch one film per day which just isn’t doable sometimes. Also you then have to choose between more than one recommendation and if you’re not allowed to look them up beforehand you’re only choosing based on title or whoever recommended it. Nah 
  • Don't be too hasty taking a recommendation from someone. Make sure they've seen it and are genuinely recommending it rather than just trying to think of films beginning with the letter E. As far as I’m aware this happened to me twice and both those films made it into the bottom three of the finished ranked list. It works best if someone thinks of a great film and then asks if the letter is free. This obviously gets harder as you fill the list 
  • Try to watch as many of them as possible without knowing anything but the title. Great examples for me were Beats of the Southern Wild and The General.  
Before I leave you with my ranked list I’m going to have to give Yates some credit: He’s got some imagination. This was a great game and he’s a good referee. Ta lad. 

I hereby nominate (Oh yeah, I went there) Adam Waldron and Nick Seddon. Give it a damn good go, it can be a right laugh. 

  1. The General
  2. Little Miss Sunshine
  3. Donnie Darko 
  4. Argo
  5. The Paperboy 
  6. The Usual Suspects
  7. Tootsie
  8. Olympus Has Fallen 
  9. Beasts of the Southern Wild
  10. Collateral
  11. Frankenweenie
  12. Moonrise Kingdom
  13. Happiness
  14. Young Frankenstein
  15. The Shining
  16. V for Vendetta
  17. Zombieland
  18. The Quick and the Dead
  19. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
  20. Jingle All the Way
  21. Invictus
  22. The Kids Are All Right
  23. Road House
  24. The Expendables
  25. Winnie the Pooh – A Very Merry Pooh Year
  26. Xanadu

Monday, 29 September 2014

The Obligatory Coeliac Post

I was diagnosed coeliac a few months ago. It wasn’t as big a deal to me as it might be to others, as my Nan was coeliac and my Mum has been for a few years now. If a parent has coeliac disease you have a one-in-ten chance of having it too. I knew it was coming. I had no difficulties getting used to the limited choice of foods. I already know on sight if something contains gluten and if I don’t know for sure I can make an educated guess. It’s perhaps because of this that I have no tolerance for people who say things like “Can you eat eggs?”

I don’t like to make a big deal out of it, I don’t even like to mention it, but other people take care of that for me. Telling me they’d cry if they could never eat bread again, or making sure every waiter in the restaurant knows I have a dietary requirement. When people are offering biscuits or other gluten-filled treats I’ll happily say “No, thank you”, but there’s bound to be one person in the room who pipes up with “She can’t.” 

I thought I’d miss all the foods that contain gluten but the truth is I just don’t really think about it that much. I no longer keep bread in the house (gluten-free bread is awful – yes, even Genius), and my snacking habits have switched from cakes and biscuits to popcorn and chocolate. People say you become healthier when you go on a gluten-free diet but I found a way to keep hold of that lovely sugar and salt. 

What I do really miss is being able to eat out wherever I want. Although this has probably saved me hundreds of pounds, it’s made my daily life just a little bit dull. When I do get the urge to go out for lunch it’s quickly extinguished by the realisation that I only have a choice of about five reasonable quality places, most of which have one or two options for me on the menu. 

Being invited out by friends and family makes me very anxious if I know people will want to eat. Eating before I go out means I’ll be sat watching everyone else eat. I don’t have a problem with that, but I can sense others’ guilt and I usually get people trying to make me choose something. “Ooh, look, the macaroons are gluten-free!” Yes, I’ll eat my macaroon and you all carry on with your pizzas. 

My mum’s usual method is to just eat anything, gluten-free or not. She doesn’t have terrible reactions to gluten unless it’s in large quantities, so she can usually get away with it. I know I can’t do this, as with the odd time I’ve mistakenly had gluten, I’ve had a reaction within the next 24 hours. If there’s nothing for us on the menu we’ll order something with lots of simple ingredients and ask for everything plain. No sauces, seasoning, no extra little surprises. Steak and chips usually. I don’t tell them why. If the staff find out you’re coeliac they have a panic attack about cross-contamination. 

There’s another option, which is to tell people in advance that you’d like to go somewhere where they’ll accommodate you. Although I know this is the best option, it’s the one I’m least likely to do. I don’t want to make a fuss, especially if it’s not me arranging the thing. I have friends who are outraged when I’m not fully accommodated and encourage me to ‘stand up for myself’ in such situations. I have other friends who seem to think of it as a silly phase. I’ll get over this little gluten-free fad soon enough, what am I like, eh? 

No-one warned me I’d become more sensitive to alcohol and caffeine. In coeliacs, gluten causes the villi of the small intestines to lie down flat, decreasing the surface area and therefore decreasing the absorption of nutrients (including alcohol and other drugs). The first few weeks of following the diet but not making adjustments for these saw me on the floor after two glasses of wine and trembling after a small cup of coffee.

Being diagnosed isn’t all negatives though. I’m slimmer and healthier without putting in any effort. Symptoms and side-effects of coeliac disease disappear within about a week of going on the diet and there are long-term health benefits, ranging from decreased risk of certain cancers (e.g. lower risk of breast cancer when following the diet) to increased fertility. My dietician (what a luxury!) assures me it's all worth it in the long-run...