Thursday, 27 February 2014


Booking Through Thursday's question for this week is:

What do you think of fanfiction? In general—do you think it’s a fun thing or a trespass on an author/producer’s world? And of course, obviously specific authors have very firm and very differing opinions about this, yet it’s getting more popular and more mainstream all the time. Do you ever read or write it yourself?

I've never actually thought much about it. I've read the odd Topless Robot Fanfiction Friday - a selection of the more horrifying examples of fanfiction out there (warning: do not read these unless you and your friends want to be simultaneously amused and traumatised) - but I've never really read any fanfiction with the expectation of actually enjoying it. That's not to say that there aren't people out there writing fanfiction that might be high quality prose, but I suppose the samples the glorious world of the internet brings to my doorstep are some of the worst.

I completely understand the impulse, when you've finished a book, TV series, or film and loved it, to allow the characters to continue to exist outside their original framework. Personally though, I prefer them to live on in my imagination only - anything else seems wrong, and however well done, departing from the author's original vision creates someone different, a slightly weird twin of the original. Even in published works like Death Comes to Pemberley, I can't shake off the feeling that the characters are being twisted out of their natural selves somehow.

In short, I think it's great to feel inspired to write by books/films/etc, but why not write something that comes from within yourself, rather than using someone else's ready-made characters?

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger

You know that sensation when it’s hard to think clearly about a novel because you still feel lost in the world it creates? That's how The Time Traveller’s Wife has me feeling right now. I have to admit that it’s because of the film adaptation that I read it – I would probably never have considered it if I hadn’t seen it plastered all over buses a couple of years ago. The film looked interesting, and I always like to read the book before I see a film adaptation, so I’ve been looking out for it since.

The Time Traveller’s Wife focuses on the relationship between Clare and Henry, as he struggles with his unusual condition of epilepsy-like time travel. That is to say, at any moment, particularly during times of stress, he may have a fit of sorts, disappear, and reappear in an unpredictable time period and location.

Niffenegger deftly avoids creepy Humbert Humbert-like insinuations as Clare grows from a child to a young adult with Henry as her frequent visitor, coming from different periods of time in his own life. When they meet in real time, their life together is sometimes happy, sometimes challenging, and occasionally heartrendingly painful, but always believable and carries a sense of immediacy that has you feeling as though you know the characters in real life.

I sometimes find novels written in the present tense harder to get on with, but I think in this instance it really works – where time travel is concerned, the present tense really brings home the fact that this is happening, here and now, in the present. While at first it feels a little slow, it gathers momentum as it progresses, and you find yourself drawn in by the weight of inevitability as the story draws to a close and all the pieces come together.

I’m still not sure which genre it falls into – usually anything involving time travel can be comfortably classed as ‘science fiction’, but Niffenegger takes the idea and creates something wonderfully human and compelling. The Observer’s description on the cover, of The Time Traveller’s Wife as “an old-fashioned love story” made me a little dubious at first, but it’s true, in the best sense – there’s no clichéd sentimentality to be found, only two people struggling to come together and live a happy life in spite of all their obstacles.

I can’t compare it with the film because I haven’t watched that (yet – I plan to redress this shortly), but I will say that, if you did enjoy the film, read the book! And if you haven’t seen the film either, read the book anyway.

UPDATE: I have now watched the film!

Next up: The Complete Father Brown Stories, by G K Chesterton

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Dark Fire - C J Sansom

I finished my second night shift in a row this morning, and between wanting to pass out and continually having to ask myself 'what day is it?', this post may not make much sense. But I'll do my best!

I have to admit that I have difficulty remembering which of Sansom's Shardlake series I've already read, which is why I'm reading the second novel after having already read the third (Sovereign) and fourth (Revelation). That's not to say that they're forgettable - anything but. I blame the short, slightly abstract titles - while they are all relevant to the action, I find I have to really think to figure out which plot was which from the titles alone.

Dark Fire is about the rediscovery of the deadly weapon, Greek fire, in Tudor London, with (as always) a murder investigation thrown in. Hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake navigates a political minefield, caught between Thomas Cromwell and the factions seeking his overthrow.

Sansom balances mystery, action and intrigue perfectly, with a tempo that draws you in and keeps you hooked throughout. At over 500 pages, this isn't a short novel, but it's one you never want to put down. He creates three-dimensional flawed but mostly likeable characters, even where historical cameos are concerned.

One of the things I really love about this series is the way the historical setting is conveyed - the descriptions have a really tactile quality which places you firmly in the bustling, stinking, dangerous city that is 1540s London, and contemporary events are integrated seamlessly. You never feel like you're having a history lesson, but you come away feeling as though you understand and have experienced life in that time in a way plain facts can never give. I find reading historical novels one of the most effective (and enjoyable!) ways to learn about history - on my masters course we were actually recommended Ellis Peters' wonderful Cadfael series as a way to learn more about Medieval legal administration.

Dark Fire definitely doesn't disappoint - it's gritty, engaging, and keeps you guessing right until the end, without the solution to the mystery being so convoluted you feel you never had a chance to figure it out. If you're a fan of history or mystery novels (you can tell I'm sleep-deprived because I find it very funny that that rhymes), I wholeheartedly recommend the entire Shardlake series. I've still got number five (Heartstone) to read, and am looking forward to it immensely.

Next up: The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Another Sonnet - William Wordsworth

I'm still making my way through Wordsworth's Poetical Works, and came across another sonnet I enjoyed. This one (entitled November, 1806) relates to Napoleon's progress through Europe, and really conveys the poet's anxiety and fear much more directly and powerfully than most of his others.

Another year! another deadly blow!
Another mighty empire overthrown!
And we are left, or shall be left, alone;
The last that dares to struggle with the foe.
'Tis well! from this day forward we shall know
That in ourselves our safety must be sought:
That by our own right hands it must be wrought,
That we must stand unpropp'd, or be laid low.
O dastard, whom such foretaste doth not cheer!
We shall exult, if they that rule the land

Be men who hold its many blessings dear,
Wise, upright, valiant; not a venal band,
Who are to judge of danger which they fear,
And honour, which they do not understand.

I have to say, I do like that last couplet.

Monday, 17 February 2014

A Century of Books

Stuck in a Book is attempting to read a complete century of books this year, which gave me the idea to do similarly. I'm not quite as ambitious - I've filled in the past 100 years as best I can already, and hope to fill in the missing years as I go along. Trying to find novels from the right years should challenge me to expand my literary boundaries a bit. I'm setting myself the limitations of only including fiction, and each author only once (I know I've put Terry Pratchett in twice, but one is co-authored with Stephen Baxter, which counts. Also, Terry Pratchett is lovely and fantastic.)

If anyone has recommendations for years I'm missing, please leave me a comment below!

Without further ado:

1924: A Passage to India – E M Forster
1926: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd - Agatha Christie
1936: The Birds – Frank Baker
1946: Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake
1949: Arabella – Georgette Heyer
1950: I, Robot – Isaac Asimov
1955: The Chrysalids – John Wyndham
1957: Dr Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
1959: Time out of Joint – Philip K Dick
1962: Island – Aldous Huxley
1965: Dune – Frank Herbert
1966: Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes
1971: The Dice Man – Luke Rhinehart
1972: Watership Down – Richard Adams
1973: The Princess Bride – William Goldman
1977: A Morbid Taste for Bones – Ellis Peters
1980: The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
1983: The Woman in Black – Susan Hill
1984: Neuromancer – William Gibson
1985: Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
1989: The Quincunx – Charles Pallister
1990: Possession – A S Byatt
1991: The Dragon Reborn – Robert Jordan
1994: I’ll Be Seeing You – Mary Higgins Clark
1995: Pollen – Jeff Noon
1996: Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk
1997: Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
1998: A Clash of Kings – George R R Martin
1999: What You Make it – Michael Marshall Smith
2000: House of Leaves – Mark Z Danielewski
2001: Dead Famous – Ben Elton
2002: Fingersmith – Sarah Waters
2003: Starter for Ten – David Nicholls
2006: Mistborn: The Final Empire – Brandon Sanderson
2007: The Raw Shark Texts – Steven Hall
2009: E Squared – Matt Beaumont
2010: The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise – Julia Stuart
2011: The Crimson Petal and the White – Michel Faber
2012: The Long Earth – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
2013: Raising Steam – Terry Pratchett

Friday, 14 February 2014

Sonnet - William Wordsworth

I'm working my way through Wordsworth's Poetical Works at the moment (1867 edition, or possibly earlier - definitely the oldest in my collection so far), and came across a sonnet, entitled simply 'Written in London, September, 1802'. Sorry about the poor quality of the image, my camera phone doesn't like taking pictures in focus of anything less than a couple of metres away. The text on the inside cover reads: "A birthday gift from Mrs Pearson, Febry 7th 1867". It was in the library of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, until presumably being sold ex libris at some point, and then was discovered in a second-hand bookshop by me a couple of years ago.

I was struck by how relevant the sentiment of this sonnet is today - this is essentially a complaint about materialism and celebrity culture ruining the standards of life, written more than 200 years ago.

O Friend! I know not which way I must look
For comfort, being, as I am, oppress'd
To think that now our life is only dress'd
For show: mean handiwork of craftsman, cook,
Or groom! We must run glittering like a brook
In the open sunshine, or we are unblest:
The wealthiest man among us is the best:
No grandeur now, in Nature or in book,
Delights us. Rapine, avarice, expense,
This is idolatry; and these we adore:
Plain living and high thinking are no more:
The homely beauty of the good old cause
Is gone, our peace, our fearful innocence,
And pure religion breathing household laws.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

The Sealed Letter - Emma Donoghue

I read Emma Donoghue’s novel Room last year, and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Well, ‘enjoyed’ isn’t the right word for a novel about abduction and rape told through the eyes of the resulting child, but I did find it gripping, original and very touching. The Sealed Letter’s blurb, however, promised “a delicious tale of secrets, betrayal, and forbidden love”, based on real-life events in Victorian England, so I was expecting something very different here.

The central character, Emily ‘Fido’ Faithfull, bumps into Helen, an old friend she’s lost contact with, and gets drawn into Helen’s unhappy marriage and her affair with an army officer. Despite her reservations, Fido’s unspoken but deep-seated love for Helen leads her to become irrevocably embroiled in ensuing events.

Donoghue wrote this novel in the present tense, which always jars a little with me, but I got used to it pretty quickly. I’m still not convinced that the present tense and the modern, direct style of language used are completely successful in an historical novel – while the terminology and social assumptions give a good Victorian atmosphere, I personally find it more effective to have a novel written in the style of the time period in which it’s set.

The Sealed Letter is told alternately from the viewpoints of Fido, Helen, and Helen’s husband Harry, and Donoghue uses this very effectively to portray alternative perspectives on the same events and to get a different narrative voice for each character. The treatment of ambiguous sexuality is subtle and effective, and this novel manages to turn an historical court case into a very personal and engaging view of an unhappy marriage.

This is a very readable window into Victorian life, especially the unequal legal conditions that made the lives of women difficult, and, as long as you don’t mind the present tense too much, is well worth giving it a try if you are a fan of historical fiction.

Next up: Dark Fire, by C J Sansom

Rainy day

It's Thursday again, and this week's question on Booking Through Thursday is:

For most of the east coast, at least, it’s a wintry, snowy day today, so … How do you like to spend your snow days? Feel free to gloss over the obligatory parts like shoveling unless you LIKE it. We’re talking ideal, best way to spend a snow day kind of thoughts, here.

For those of you who live in places where snow days simply don’t happen? Feel free to substitute “snow” with “rain” and think about the kind of days when you just want to cuddle up inside where it’s warm and dry.

Sadly, I definitely fall into the 'no snow' category. I love snow, but we almost never get a fall of snow that stays here in the UK, and this winter we've had none at all so far. We have had plenty of rainy days, though - I'm sure some of you have seen on the news (or experienced) the recent storms over here, and while there's been nothing dramatic where I am, it's been pretty wet, windy and unpleasant.

The first thing I need on a cold wet day is a blanket, and then a nice big jumper. Then, curling up on the sofa with a pint of tea and, predictably, a book, is my favourite thing to do. I wish I could add a cat to get in the way and cover everything with fur, but I'm not allowed pets here. Books aside, some trashy TV always goes down well with a blanket and cup of tea too.

In other news, I've almost finished The Sealed Letter - more on that later today, or tomorrow.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

The City and the Stars - Arthur C Clarke

I’ve always loved early sci-fi for the sense of originality and exploration it gives. Modern sci-fi can be great, but I find it’s often self-consciously aware of the existing canon and tropes and always pushing to reach beyond them, whereas sci-fi stories written in the 50s and 60s (and earlier!) seem eager to simply explore their own ideas without being coloured by those of others.

I have to admit I’ve never read any of Clarke’s other works (although 2001: A Space Odyssey has been on my must-read list for a long time), so I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one.

The City and the Stars opens, millions of years in the future, with the human race having developed a form of immortality in which, at the end of each life cycle, a person’s mind is stored by a super-computer and reborn into a new, fully formed adult body at a later date. This continual recycling of minds and the fact that physical reproduction no longer takes place has led to stagnation, and only one strictly enclosed city on Earth remains in existence.

What really grabbed me and pulled me into this novel was this, at the end of Chapter 2:

‘You, Alvin, alone of the human race, have never lived before. In literal truth, you are the first child to be born on Earth for at least ten million years.’

The protagonist, Alvin, is the only inhabitant of the city of Diaspur who is not content to live encased in their safely regulated environment, and yearns to escape and wander among the stars as his ancestors once did. His discoveries overturn his established beliefs and set in motion events which have been anticipated for millennia.

While many of the scientific technicalities have been glossed over or only vaguely alluded to (one habit of early sci-fi writers that does grate with me), The City and the Stars is a great exploration of stagnation vs. potential and the damaging effects of wilful ignorance. For me, the best science fiction is more about human nature than about science, and that certainly applies here.

So, if you want high-octane spaceship battles and slime-covered aliens biting peoples’ heads off, maybe this isn’t the science fiction for you, but if you like insightful, imaginative writing with a wonderful turn of phrase, Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars is well worth reading.

Next up: The Sealed Letter, by Emma Donoghue