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Review #4 – All the Bright Places (massive spoilers from the very beginning)

All the Bright Places

Dates: 25-26 January

Warning, this is a deeply negative review.

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The TBR Tag

The lovely Stefani at Caught Read Handed invited her followers to take part in this tag, and I, being a sucker for a meme, decided to do so!  Here’s a wee bit more info about my TBR pile.

1. How do you keep track of your TBR pile?

Mostly Goodreads/LibraryThing.  I have five (I know) TBR shelves: owned unread paper books, owned unread Kindle books, unowned shortlist, unowned longlist, and unowned maybe list. I obsessively categorise things, it’s in my nature.

2. Is your TBR mostly print or eBook?

I have c. 140 ebooks and 160 paper books in my owned TBR at the moment, so slightly weighted in favour of paper 🙂

3. How do you determine which book from your TBR to read next?

I have a few different ways.  I’ll often make lists at the start of the month of books I plan to get through.  I don’t stick to these rigidly, they’re usually just to give me an idea of what/how much I want to read.   If I can’t decide what to put on this list, I’ll use a random number generator to pick off my Goodreads shelves.  Otherwise, I’ll pick by mood.  In particular, I pick my ebooks by mood as I’ll often finish one “on the go” as it were.

4. A book that’s been on your TBR list the longest.

There are a couple (Dreams Underfoot, Big Fish) that have been there since my 21st birthday (so over three years!)

5. A book you recently added to your TBR.

I bought The Moomins and the Great Flood on Kindle Monthly Deal.  The last paper book I bought was Emma by Alexander McCall Smith but I’ve since read it.  I can’t remember what the last paper book I bought before that was – maybe Pawns of Prophecy.
6. A book on your TBR strictly because of its beautiful cover.

There’s a saying about that, you know…
7. A book on your TBR that you never plan on reading.

Um, none?  It wouldn’t be on my TBR if I didn’t want to read it.  Oh, that said, The Lies of Locke Lamora is still on it.  I promised my boyfriend I would read it, to see if I hate it as much as he did.  Problem is, I read the first 100 pages and I really hated it.  I might finish it.  But I somehow doubt it! (In case you’re wondering why, the Whedon-y dialogue and immense stupidity just did not agree with me)

8. An unpublished book on your TBR that you’re excited for.

Again, I don’t know that there’s much… ooh, Lair of Dreams actually! I can’t wait for it. And Pride and Prejudice a la Curtis Sittenfeld.
9. A book on your TBR that basically everyone has read but you.

Among books I own?  Cinder by Marissa Meyer, and probably several classics too.

10. A book on your TBR that everyone recommends to you.

Probably the same one, tbh. Oh, and Code Name Verity.

11. A book on your TBR that you’re dying to read.

Ahhhh, so many!  All of the ones on my TBR Challenge list, for instance.  Also, the rest of the Chaos Walking trilogy but I’m trying to cut down some of the individual books I have first.
12. How many books are on your Goodreads TBR shelf?

Okay:

Physical TBR: 160
Kindle TBR: 142 (however, I *think* there are some duplicates in there)
TBR Shortlist: 92
TBR Longlist: 509 (!)
TBR Maybe: 191
Help.
I’m not going to tag anyone either – it’s a free for all!  Anyone that wants to do it should feel free.
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Review #3 – Emma

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Dates: 25 – 26 January

TL,DR: I wanted to like this so much more than I did.

The Austen Project is a group that have commissioned six modern-day authors to tackle one Austen novel each, and set it in a 21st century setting.  We’ve already had Sense and Sensibility, written by Joanna Trollope, which really was almost an exact retelling of the original, except people occasionally (and I really do mean occasionally) mention things like mobile phone.  However, all the key events take place, and I always find it amusing when modern storytellers contrive to have this happen despite the obvious problems they must run into (for example, in S&S, you can hardly have the scandal be, in the modern day, that Marianne was alone with a man for all of half an hour!).  Then Val McDiarmid took on Northanger Abbey, which proved to actually be pretty good, despite VM obviously having no idea how to approximate text messages from a teenager.

And now Emma.  I’ve just finished rereading the original, as you can see from my most recent review.  Out of the three so far, this book is by far the most dear to me in its original form.  I love Alexander McCall Smith – not only is he my fellow countryman, but he, for a long time, worked in the same field that I plan to go into, although his speciality is medical law.  So I expected a fair amount from this retelling.  Unfortunately, it didn’t deliver.

The first problem is that AMS spends the first 100 pages of the novel going into life at Hartfield prior to the beginning of the original novel.  This was definitely a good idea, and there’s a lot of merit in it.  I enjoyed the story of Mr Woodhouse’s birth, some of the interaction with Miss Taylor, and, most especially, getting a snippet of John and Isabella’s courtship.  However, this comprises more than one quarter of the novel itself.  This left only 260 pages in which to tell the story of the original book in its entirety.  The “history” part often drags, with people musing on what Emma will turn out to be like, child as she is at that time.  Except this isn’t particularly interesting for the reader as we already know what Emma will turn out like!  I read modernisations like this to see the take the author has on the events as they happened in the book, not for deep insights into the characters which are pretty impossible given the nature of the retelling.

Secondly, several events from the original are omitted completely.  There’s no strawberry picking, barely any Mrs Elton, the Box Hill picnic is curtailed so as to be unrecognisable, and the events between this point and Mr Knightley’s proposal are compressed in such a way that several minor but important events are missing in action.  Again, I don’t expect retellings to be point for point faithful (although the preceding two largely have been) but I felt like it was a waste to spend so long on the “history” part of the novel only to then omit so much of what was interesting and dramatic about the original.  Characters get very little development – there’s very, very little Jane, and hardly any Mr Knightley at all!  It’s hard to imagine why he falls in love with Emma when he barely speaks two words to her throughout this version.

Worst, however, may be some of the inexplicable changes made to established events in the original.  The lesbian undertone in Harriet’s and Emma’s relationship was, I thought, almost well done at first – I mean, who hasn’t been utterly mesmerised by the sheer beauty of someone of the same sex almost to the point of wondering if it’s romantic before realising that it’s just aesthetic?  However, the weird nude drawing scene was, I thought, poorly done.  Frank pretending to be gay made absolutely no sense at all – a double bluff that just left me more confused than sympathetic.  The revelation that Mr Knightley had been confiding in Harriet, whom in this version he seemed to think abjectly stupid, was just bizarre, and that Harriet had been seeing Robert all along was even worse – Harriet herself didn’t seem to have had any idea of this until she actually said the words.

The thing is – and this is broadly a criticism of all the modernisations, though most particularly this one – is that there are easy to find analogues for a lot of the stuff that goes on in these.  Okay, no one has a ball anymore, but couldn’t they go to a posh club night opening? That’s just one example, but there are plenty of times in this book where the changes made just didn’t make sense and actually made it feel more antiquated rather than less.

It’s not terrible.  There are some great moments – the opening about the Cuban missile crisis, some of Emma’s asides are hilarious – but it’s just enough to make it as entertaining as the other entries in this series.  I give Emma five out of ten.

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Top Ten Tuesdays: Books I Would Read in my Bookclub (if such a creature existed)

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Thanks as always to The Broke and the Bookish for hosting the meme.

So this week’s pick is an interesting one.  I’ve never belonged to a book club.  It’s something I’ve always wanted to try – I love talking about books with people, but I don’t have a ton of people to talk about them with!  My boyfriend and I have a fair amount of crossover in our tastes, but he doesn’t read YA, so I never get to talk about that with him.  My mum and I also share tastes, but there is a pretty big gulf of things we just don’t cross over on.  My best friend loves YA and contemporary fiction.  So I do get to chat about a lot of the things I love. However, I simply read in greater volume than anyone else I know, so a lot of books I’ve read are things they haven’t got round to yet.  I’m not tooting my own horn, I just don’t have a lot in the way of other interest 😉

Anyway, that’s why I’d like a book club.  Now!  I am the book club overlord. So what are we reading?  I’m going to pick five books I have read, and five that I haven’t.

  1. Cloud Atlas – this novel is weird and multi-layered and I’d love to get other people’s take on it.  I loved it, but I can’t decide whether the structure was sort of gimmick-y or not.  I’d also like to hear which part other people liked best.
  2. Bring Up the Bodies – this is a long book, but I think it would be beneficial to discuss this one in the context that obviously it’s based on things that actually happened – I’d love to talk to someone who knows more about that period of history than I do about this book.
  3. Oryx and Crake – this book is just so good and well written and brings up so many interesting ethical issues.  I don’t necessarily completely agree with Atwood’s stance on everything in this novel, but I think it would be great for creating a discussion around the issues it references.  Also it’s just plain fantastic and I want to reread it already.
  4. The Joy Luck Club – this just seems like the quintessential book club book and I’ve been meaning to have a go at it soon.  It sounds like the kind of thing I’d like to discuss with other women in order to gauge their opinion on the portrayal of women in it.
  5. A Streetcar Named Desire –  I just had the hardest time with the drama.  I was left in shock by what happens between Blanche and Stanley near the end.  On one hand, Stanley is clearly a violent man, and this, in itself, was sadly not unusual behaviour at the time of writing.  On the other hand, I’m not sure I like what was implied about working class people in general in this play – I’m not sure if I was reading it right, but it felt a bit fatalistic and maybe a little one-sided. I’d love to get the opinion of others on this.
  6. In the Woods – Tana French’s books have been getting such an amazing write up, and I love a good murder-mystery, so I think it would be great to discuss this book.  I’ve also not read many books set in Ireland, so this would be a good addition to round out that area of my reading.
  7. Persuasion – mostly because I want to know if everyone loves this book as much as I do.  It often feels a little neglected, compared to Austen’s more famous works, but it might just be my absolute favourite.  It’s a little more reserved and austere, much like its heroine, but I absolutely adore it.  Plus, reading it for a book club would just give it more attention, which I feel like it totally deserves.
  8. The Martian – so. Much. Hype.  It really does sound like my kind of thing, though, so I’d be interested to see whether it’s universally popular or not.
  9. The Knife of Never Letting Go – mostly just for reactions to that one bad thing that happens.  Plus, I think this is a really good book for the YA-skeptical (of which I am often one!) as it combines a strong narrative voice with an (imo) excellent plot.
  10. Invisible Cities – because it’s bound to be a bit of a mindfuck, and differing interpretations of these kinds of work are always fun.

Are any of you in a book club?  What would your picks be?

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This week I will mostly be reading…

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This week, I will mostly be reading:

Pictured above, from top to bottom:

The Diamond as Big as the Ritz and other stories – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Grand Sophy – Georgette Heyer

Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

I finally managed to regain a little momentum towards the end of last week.  I finished Emma and my review for it has gone up.  I’m still stalling on Gormenghast because I’m finding it, physically, a hugely inconvenient book to read as it’s so large and heavy.  I’ll finish it at some point, but I’m trying not to let it become an albatross around my neck as I’m enjoying it immensely.  As well as finishing the original Emma, I’ve read the Alexander McCall Smith modernisation of the same book, as well as All the Bright Places over the weekend.  I’ve already written reviews for both, and those will go up Wednesday and Friday respectively.  Fair warning: neither review is particularly flattering.

So, for this week, what’s coming up?

Everything is Illuminated is still my priority behind Gormenghast.  I hope it will help spur me on even more out of this slight reading slump (I have my own suspicions on why it started but don’t want to say too much on a public blog).

The Diamond as Big as the Ritz is a nice short one.  I’m hoping it’ll be a more positive experience of Fitzgerald than my last attempt, which was reading half of Tender is the Night and heartily disliking it.  I’ll probably give the latter a go again at some point.  (For the record, The Great Gatsby is one of my favourite books).

The Grand Sophy is one I’ve been looking forward to, as many have compared it to Jane Austen in terms of wit and romance.  I’m hoping that I find it to my taste.  I tend to sway wildly one way or the other with these things.  For example, Cold Comfort Farm is often said to be witty in the same vein as Jane Austen and I didn’t find much to smile about in that one!

We’ll come to the close of January this week.  For starters, I’d like to say thanks to everyone who’s followed my blog, or commented, or liked posts over this month – it’s been a really positive experience!  This is probably the longest I’ve persevered with a blog as I tend to get discouraged really easily.  I’m trying to remember I’m doing this for myself first and foremost, and it seems to be working.  You’ll also perhaps remember that, at the start of the month, I posted a picture of the books I hoped to read this month.  I’m obviously a little over-ambitious – including those above, I still have seven of those plus half of the Gormenghast trilogy to read.  I shall not let that discourage me!  Depending on what I get done this week, those books will most likely role over into next month.  However, I’ll keep one mantra in mind: it’s up to me.

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Review #2 – Emma (Back to the Classics – 19th Century Classic)

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Dates: 3 January – 23 January

TL,DR: Mr Knightley still > Mr Darcy.  Discuss.

Firstly, this is my first book that I have read for the Back to the Classics challenge: a 19th Century Novel.

Let me just get this out of the way:  I love Jane Austen.  I’ve read all of the major novels.  I’m not an expert or anything, and I haven’t read much in the way of the juvenalia or Sanditon or anything, but it’s telling that I would have a hard time ranking five of those six novels in any sort of sensible order.  This one, Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion are probably my favourites, but I don’t have an order in which I could sensibly put them.  Then Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey sort of bounce around somewhere below that – they both have things I mildly dislike but I don’t think I’d go so far as to find actual fault in them.  I loathe Mansfield Park but that’s down to me just plain (probably unreasonably) hating the main character.

But if I had to pick one heroine that I identify the most with, for worse and for better, it’s Emma.

I feel like she’s got a bit of that “only-child” syndrome (despite not actually being one).  She’s headstrong, and self-assured, and like a lot of people, definitely thinks she could run other people’s lives better than they could.  Unlike Emma, I’m not comfortably wealthy (or, at least, I wasn’t brought up wealthy).  So my machinations have mainly been contained to complaining archly to my boyfriend.  But, I don’t know, there’s just something about me that loves Emma’s silliness, loves how she really does think she’s doing the right thing, and how she learns to finally actually do it.

Her relationship with Mr Knightley can seem a little bit weird to a modern audience.  He’s a bit older than her, and he can tend to be a bit paternalistic towards her.  What I liked about their relationship, though, and why I tend to be forgiving towards it, is that it has a naturalness and, in particular, an honesty which I felt was refreshing.  Mr Knightley is never double-faced to Emma (or at least not intentionally.  It’s arguable that his jealousy of Frank led him to criticise him more strongly than was necessary to Emma, but I’d wager that was not consciously done, as such).  He tells her what he thinks because he respects her enough to know that she can handle it.  In a lot of ways, he does actually treat her as an equal – he knows the upstanding kind of person she can be and he expects her to live up to that.  Mr Knightley would never be rude or sullen in the mode of a Mr Darcy.

One thing I enjoyed even more this time around was the relationship between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill.  Because I was properly watching out for it this time, I noted a lot more of the clues from before Mr Knightley airs his first suspicions of the truth.  I enjoy Frank’s enthusiasms, even though they don’t always come from a place of sense.  And I like Jane a lot more than I did previously.  Also, this book has some of Austen’s best side characters – Mrs Elton is a particular treat.  She’s so excruciating that I couldn’t help but cringe every time she opened her mouth.

Emma has had several modernisations recently, including the Austen Project one I mentioned earlier, but probably more notably the Emma Approved series brought to you by Pemberley Digital, the Youtube channel that created The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.  It’s not as good as LBD – the characterisation and cast weren’t quite as on point – but it’s definitely worth a watch if you enjoy Austen and like modernisations of her work.  In particular, the actors who play Emma, Mr Knightley, and Frank, are really interesting, fun interpretations of what the characters could be in a modern day setting.  Harriet is a bit one note, and I had a strong dislike for their characterisation of Jane Fairfax, but I think that was mainly due to the slight change to the nature of her relationship with Emma which I felt made it deeply inappropriate for her to behave as she did.

There’s very little for me to say about this book that hasn’t been said already.  I’d encourage anyone who’s read Pride and Prejudice to go here next.  Emma is a deeply flawed heroine, but I think that’s why I love and identify with her so much – even the most flawed of us can come good.  Even the most flawed of us can be loved.

I give Emma ten out of ten.

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Top Ten Tuesday – Freebie time!

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Favourite Epistolary Novels!

Thanks again to The Broke and the Bookish. So, inspired by a conversation that I had on Twitter last week (if you want to follow me there it’s @beingsuzie by the way) I wanted to make a list of my favourite epistolary novels.  I really, really love these kinds of novels; I suppose I just think it’s an interesting way to get into the heads of characters – especially when they often  leave so much to the imagination about the surrounding people in the main character’s life:

For the avoidance of doubt:

An epistolary novel is a novel written as a series of documents. The usual form is letters, although diary entries, newspaper clippings and other documents are sometimes used.

Thanks,Wikipedia!

  1. I Capture the Castle – this remains, to me, the ultimate epistolary.  Set (largely) in a crumbling castle in the middle of nowhere in England, with a cast of characters including the frustrated writer Mr Mortmain, Topaz, a hippy-like model, Rose, beautiful and longing to see something else of the world than what she already knows… and of course, Cassandra, my favourite forever, who chronicles all of this in her journal.  Despite the improbable circumstances, there’s something so true about the emotions as portrayed in Cassandra’s diary – even those of others.  Highly recommended.
  2. Les Liaisons Dangereuses – how could I not include this?  It’s a surprisingly easy read, a rip roaring tale of passion and betrayal.  The machinations of Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquis de Merteuil are just deliciously evil and the excess of drama is balanced really well with the more realistic undertones of characterisation.  Also, props for including such a complex female character as the Marquis.
  3. Finding Cassie Crazy (and the other Ashbury books) – these books are so much fun!  They’re also probably the first books I read that were set in Australia.  I’ve picked the second one, but really the first three are all amazing in different ways.  Though I don’t think the idea of the original project (exchanging letters between a private school and a state school) is very realistic it makes for a very realistic portrayal of the lives of teenagers.  It was so much more emotionally authentic to my experience of growing up than a lot of American YA.  The fourth book is not really very good, but the first three remain some of my favourite books even now.
  4. The Perks of Being a Wallflower – I probably don’t need to say much about this one.  I know it gets a lot of stick for being pretentious but I really liked this.  I think that Chbosky is a a pretty incisive writer and he writes about the big emotions pretty well.  Realistically, I think this is one you have to read when you’re a teenager, especially if/when you’re going through a period of feeling isolated from your peers and having difficulty understanding what you feel about growing up.
  5. The Moonstone – I unexpectedly loved this! Often touted as the writer of the first mystery stories, Collins has such a wonderful sense of glee and wonder in his writing, coupled with some of the most wonderful and amusing character sketches that I can think of.  You can see the mutual influence that he and Dickens have on each other, but this is definitely lighter than a Dickens novel – that’s not a criticism, just an observation.  The story centres around the titular moonstone and the mystery surrounding its disappearance.  It’s told through a series of statements by the people peripherally involved in the incident, and still feels exciting and innovative nearly 150 years later.
  6. The Remains of the Day – this story is just heartbreaking. The meditations of a butler on his increasingly obsolete profession and the relationship between his master and himself.  Definitely worth a read if you like Downton Abbey as you can see the same themes of the decline of the British aristocracy.
  7. Attachments – this is just so much fun and easily Rainbow Rowell’s best novel to date (though Eleanor and Park is also very good).  Although the premise of reading someone’s emails without their knowledge is pretty creepy I think it’s handled fairly well.  The relationship between Beth and Jennifer is just so beautiful and touching that it really carries the book and makes it worth reading.
  8. Flowers for Algernon – don’t read this if you’re feeling even mildly depressed or sad.
  9. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 3/4 – has the funniest first five pages that I have ever, ever read.  Honestly, you can tell this book’s age, but it doesn’t matter because there is so much that is funny and recognisable in this book.  I’ve only read one of the sequels, but this first book is a classic of British literature for a reason.
  10. The Color Purple –  I expected this to be kind of miserable and, I’m not going to lie, there are some horrible bits in there.  But there is a running undercurrent of hope in Celie’s letters and this is an important book for people to read for many reasons.

So what are your favourite epistolary novels? Please recommend me some!