Monday, 30 December 2013

Top Ten Books I Read In 2013



TTT is hosted by the lovely ladies over at The Broke and the Bookish.

 I'd ummed and aahed about doing Jamie's epic End of Year Survey again this year, and even started a post... but the truth is, I'm knackered and I just can't be bothered.  The post-Christmas pre-New Year rush at work has been crazy - far busier than before Christmas! - and I've spent every day dusting and sweeping and cleaning the shop from top to bottom ready for the new owners to take over.  Our last day was yesterday, we're doing the last round of mopping and vacuuming this morning (after treating ourselves to a Full English at the lovely coffee house over the road, which we've always said we'd try but never had time!), and then... that's it.  Well, we're signing papers in town in a couple of days' time and the official completion date is 6th January, but as far as being at the shop goes...  that's it.  So, yeah, the point is, KNACKERED.  A round-up of my favourite books of the year seemed easier than a huge survey, much as I love huge book-related surveys!

These, then, are my ten 'best of...' candidates for 2013.  They're not in any particular order - reading order, mostly - except for Kevin which had to be at the top because it blew most other books ever out of the water...


We Need to Talk About Kevin
by Lionel Shriver
 Ohhhh, this book.  It was absorbing and gripping and felt so utterly real.  My poor mother had to listen to me ranting all the way to work and back every day, about the US gun culture and school shootings and family dynamics and parental responsibility and emotional damage.  My sympathies shifted backwards and forwards and I was questioning my own morals and responses and feelings every step of the way.  A few people have voiced their issues with combining this sentiment with this book - but I unashamedly LOVED EVERY PAGE.  Best book of the year - in fact, one of the best I've ever read full stop.


Warm Bodies
by Isaac Marion
This was one of those books where I knew by the end of the first PAGE that we were going to get along just fine.  If you'd have said to me, "It's like Romeo and Juliet, only with zombies and a human girl, and it's really funny, and also there are brains", I'd probably have looked at you very strangely... BUT THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT IT IS.  I loved the cheeky Shakespeare allusions, I loved R's deadpan narration, I loved the clever world-building...  Laura found me a copy of Marion's prequel, The New Hunger, during our blogger meet-up in Leeds, so I'll be reading that in 2014!


The Moonstone
by Wilkie Collins
 I've been meaning to read Wilkie Collins for SO LONG, and finally, 2013 was the year!  I was a bit unsure about taking part in Ellie's readalong in case I was... y'know, crap at it... but the blogger peer pressure was too great to resist and I caved and signed up just before it started.  And thank heavens I did, because it was a brilliant read, filled with memorable characters and madcap shenanigans and exotic mystery.  I already have a copy of The Woman in White (courtesy of Laura), so maybe that will appear on my list of favourite books this time next year?


The Shining
by Stephen King (my double review)
 Wooooow.  This was a very, very scary book, saved from being nightmare-inducing by the narrative presence of a very, very sweet psychically gifted small child called Danny, who I already knew survived thanks to the timely publication of the sequel, Doctor Sleep.  It's actually not at all freaky to start with, but King builds the terror gradually so that it creeps up on you before you realise what's happening.  I was seriously disappointed by Kubrick's film, despite the awesomeness that is Jack Nicholson, but the book was intriguing and memorable and utterly impossible to put down.


Vivien's Heavenly Ice Cream Shop
by Abby Clements (my review)
I wasn't that impressed by Meet Me Under the Mistletoe, Clements' debut novel, and I've heard mixed things about her latest too, but I LOVED this summery middle offering.  Katie very kindly sent it to me after she read it on the beach for one of the summer readathons, and I started it almost immediately.  It was the perfect antidote to the madness of working at the shop towards the end of the summer holidays!  I read it with a smile on my face and a very definite craving for ice cream, and it's now firmly ensconced on my comfort reading shelf (with Katie's Penguin postcard tucked safely inside) for next time I need a happy-fix.  :)


Ashfall
by Mike Mullin (my review)
I was actually very pleasantly surprised by this one.  When it arrived it looked suspiciously... amateurish?...  Simple cover, cheap paper, you know what I mean.  But it turned out to be an absolutely superb enviro-dystopian top-end-YA novel about what it might be like if the Yellowstone supervolcano finally erupted.  Every aspect of a brutal new world is touched on - politics, medicine, families, food, violence, farming, power - via the experiences of teenager Alex, alone at his house when the eruption occurs, who sets off cross-country to try to reach the rest of his family at his uncle's farm a couple of hours' drive away.  The next book in the trilogy, Ashen Winter, is up near the top of my wishlist, so hopefully I'll read on with Alex's adventures in 2014!


Attachments
by Rainbow Rowell (my review)
Yup, at the very start of last month I finally jumped on the Rainbow bandwagon - and I FRICKIN' LOVED IT.  If Nora Ephron was still with us, she'd be casting the movie adaptation as we speak, I'm sure.  Chris Hemsworth would play Lincoln, Jennifer Lawrence would be Beth... it'd be beautiful.  I laughed out loud so many times (definitely a rarity with 'funny' novels), and did that ZOMGSOCUTE inner squeal at all the adorably romantic moments.  Needless to say, Fangirl and Eleanor and Park are slap bang at the top of my must-read list for 2014...




The Hunger Games / Catching Fire
by Suzanne Collins
 I was so horrified when I was writing this post and realised that I last read The Hunger Games in MARCH 2011.  How the hell did I not read on before now?!  Still recovering from the Overwhelming Feels, perhaps.  Anyway, this year I reread The Hunger Games, FINALLY watched my long-neglected DVD, and hopped straight on to Catching Fire in the hope that I'd be able to see the movie at the cinema.  Sadly life intervened and I missed it, but I've preordered it already!  The first book was just as fantastic as I remembered - and possibly even better paced this time, because I wasn't breathlessly awaiting the next twist - and I absolutely LOVED Catching Fire.  I thought it was packed with powerful moments, the new arena was absolute genius, and do I NEED to mention my Haymitch crush again?  No, probably not...  On to Mockingjay in early 2014, definitely!


Hyperbole and a Half
by Allie Brosh 
I've been a huge fan of the Hyperbole and a Half website for a while now, and even sent a bunch of people over to Brosh's posts on depression when I was struggling earlier this year because she explains things so perfectly.  That's the amazing thing about her posts - she captures life and emotions and experiences with such precision, and yet also makes you laugh like a maniac every step of the way!  My favourite is probably This Is Why I'll Never Be an Adult, which is so like me it's spooky.  Throw all this together into a multi-coloured book of hilarity, and how could I NOT love it?


The Coldest Girl in Coldtown
by Holly Black
 I'm taking a bit of a gamble with this one, because I haven't actually finished it yet... but so far it's superb so I'm sticking it on here and hoping for the best!  It's a really interesting take on vampire lore - whereby people who get bitten go 'Cold' and either succumb to their thirst and change, or go into quarantine for 88 days until the infection leaves their system - and the lustful tension between (thus-far human) Tana and (all vampire) Gavriel is electrifying.  Happily Tana is definitely a Katniss, a survivor with tough instincts and a kind heart, and she makes a great guide to Coldtown, where vampires and wannabes mingle in a decadent mixture of blood, death and desire.  I hope the end's as good as the rest!

That's my Top Ten (well, eleven, but sssssh) books of 2013, which seems a fitting last post of the year...
HAPPY NEW YEAR ALL!

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Helping the homeless this festive season

When I was a child, I would watch Santa Claus every Christmas Eve (the one with Dudley Moore as Patch the elf), and every year the plight of young homeless orphan Joe would tug at my heart strings and I'd wish I was old enough to do something to help people like him at Christmas.  As Katie mentioned in her post the other day, A Christmas Carol explores a similar theme, with just a little kindness from Ebenezer Scrooge saving Tiny Tim's life and making Christmas happier for everyone.  No matter how we feel about Christmas - good or bad - at least we've all got ENOUGH.  Enough presents, enough food, people around us, or at least a telly to while away the hours.  I think sometimes we get so caught up in all the consumer mayhem that we forget how much we DO have!


Well, now I'm (technically) a grown-up, and although there's a limited amount a non-driving woman in a rural village can do to save the world on Christmas Day, one thing I CAN do is help pave the way for the people out there who ARE in a position to make Christmas a safer and happier one for some of the most disadvantaged people in our society.

I've discovered that each year Crisis runs a scheme whereby people can donate to 'Reserve a Place' for a homeless person at one of their centres for Christmas.  What I really like about this is that it's quite specific about what this 'reservation' entails.  As well as the basics - three hot meals (including Christmas dinner) and a hot shower - it also includes a health check (which is definitely important for someone who's been out on the streets in this awful weather), advice and support, activities, company, and a chance to get some clean clothes and a haircut.  Which might not sound like much, until you consider how much better YOU feel when you're all squeaky clean and tidied up after a long day.  Now imagine that feeling, multiplied by days, weeks or months of living on the street...  Yeah, that's what I thought.  :)

Anyway, I caught myself eyeing up a box set I wanted online the other day, and was literally on the verge of dropping £40 just to have it before Christmas.  Happily I managed to control myself, which is perfect because reserving a place for one person at Crisis costs just over £20.  I'm going to reserve places for TWO people, using the money I would have spent on yet more DVDs to give someone a happier, safer and warmer Christmas this year - plus the chance to access some of the support and advice that might help them long-term too.  No one should be huddling outside, cold, hungry and alone on Christmas Day.

If you'd like to join me, you can click HERE for all the details and to reserve a place for someone right now!
 

Sunday, 1 December 2013

REVIEW: The Rats 3 - Domain, by James Herbert (3.5*)

(New English Library, 1985)

"The man-made caverns shuddered but resisted the unleashed pressure from the world above.  Sections collapsed, others were flooded, but the main body of tunnels withstood the impacts that pounded the city. 
And after a while, the silence returned.
Save for the scurrying of many, many clawed feet."

Is anyone actually going to read this review?  Possibly not, because unless you've read the first two books in the Rats trilogy (The Rats and Lair) you're probably not going to rush out to read the third!  But I'm going to talk about it anyway...  So, the first book dealt with a plague of giant black rats with a taste for blood, rampaging through London.  The second placed the descendants of these rats, four years later, in Epping Forest, with a similar outcome.  Domain is rather different; it opens with a devastating nuclear strike on London that shatters the city, kills most of the population and drives the survivors underground out of the reach of the nuclear fallout that follows.  Meanwhile, in the tunnels under the city, those pesky giant rats have been hiding, multiplying and biding their time...

Our hero this time around is a rugged helicopter pilot called Steve Culver.  He drags a stranger - a man named Alex Dealey, who just happens to be a government agent - out of harm's way during the strike, and en route to the official shelter Dealey knows to be nearby, also saves a young woman, Kate, from the earliest ratty carnage in the tunnels of the London Underground.  Naturally, she and Steve develop an interest in each other, and Dealey's connections prove helpful...  so far so obvious.

What I wasn't expecting was for the focus to be so political.  It's quite a departure from the previous formula of 'unsuspecting person attacked - another unsuspecting person attacked - escalating carnage - investigation - crisis - resolution'.  In fact, given the whole 'nuclear holocaust' thing, the rats are fairly low down on the characters' list of problems, at least until much closer to the end.  A lot of the plot is given over to the ramifications of the attack - avoiding the nuclear fallout, government provision for survival, scoping out the remains of the city, attempting to communicate with other official shelters across London - rather than to the ratty menace. 

Of course, as the novel goes on the rats' presence definitely increases.  A horrific scene inside the government shelter (one of those where you literally can't imagine how it can end well for ANYBODY) paves the way for a group of survivors to return to the surface, where there is more scope for interaction with other people as well as encounters with the rats.  From this point the pace is much quicker, the chapters more brutal, and the double climax arrives with a satisfying dose of adrenaline-fuelled horror.

Although I'm not a huge fan of political thrillers and relentlessly bleak adventure stories, I enjoyed this trilogy finale, mostly because of the dystopian premise and the closer focus on a larger cast of key characters than Herbert perhaps felt the need to offer in the previous two installments.  I did think at times that a glimmer of hope might have been nice - there were moments when it felt like I was reading my way through a nightmare.  One of those where you KNOW there's no way out and no matter how hard you try the predators are going to get you in the end.  Mentally I occasionally wanted to do the inevitable 'give up, turn and face the bad guys, then at least I can wake up' thing.  Buuuut I kept going, because unlike a nightmare, the end was going to come eventually, and I wanted to know how the hell this little group were going to defeat the rats, and what had become of England on a wider scale after London was destroyed...  I'm glad I finished up the series, even if this third book was a bit of a departure from the previous two!

Notable Quotables:
  • "She should have paid more attention to the news...  Miriam recalled hearing something on the radio about tension in the Middle East; but she'd been hearing that for years and years.  It didn't mean anything any more.  It was just news, words, items read out by smooth-voiced young men and women.  It had nothing to do with shopping at Tesco's and washing dirty sheets and spoiling grandchildren and living in Chigwell.  And nothing to do with her."
  • "The sun's fierce rays sucked up moisture from the Thames, so that it looked as if the water were boiling.  Somehow it appeared to him that here were the intestines of the city's torn body, exposed to the light and still steaming as all life gradually diminished.  Masts of sunken, ancient boats, those that had been converted into smart bars and restaurants, jutted through the rolling mist.  Pleasure boats, their surfaces and passengers charred black, drifted listlessly with the current, the longboat funeral pyres of a modern age."

Source:  I bought this book from a seller on Amazon Marketplace.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

REVIEW: Attachments, by Rainbow Rowell (4.5*)

(Orion Books, 2012)

Well, I don't think I'm quite the last person in the universe to read Rowell's debut, but I can't be far off!  I'd already read multiple rave reviews of this book around the blogosphere - which is why I bought it in the first place - but it was Hanna's very recent one that gave me that final push.  Two minutes after I finished reading her thoughts I was plucking my copy down from my shelves and eagerly diving into the first few pages... and I never looked back.  It's one of the loveliest books I've ever read!

If I had to describe this novel in one sentence, it would be: "All my favourite Nora Ephron movies rolled into one, only in book form."  The fantastic thing is that I'd been telling people this all the way through the reading experience - Tweeting about it, nagging my mum and sister to read it - and then in the last third of the book ROWELL NAME-DROPS THE NORA HOLY TRINITY (When Harry Met Sally, You've Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle, OBVIOUSLY), two of which are amongst my favourite movies of all time.  I actually giggled out loud in delight when she mentioned them, and firmly believe that if this movie isn't already in production (with Rowell writing the screenplay herself) it's probably only a matter of time...  

So, what is this book actually ABOUT?  Well, it's about two friends, and a man.  The two friends are Beth and Jennifer, who work for the same newspaper and email each other constantly using the company's internal email system.  Unfortunately, these emails regularly break the company rules (mostly by containing flagged words, however innocuously), which is where Lincoln comes in.  He's a twenty-something computer geek who's had his heart broken and now lives back home with his mother.  It's his job to sit in the IT department every night, reading all flagged emails and sending out warnings to offenders about their computer usage.  Except... he never does warn Beth and Jennifer about the frequency of their misdemeanours.  Because he's starting to get drawn into their lives and enjoys reading their funny, compassionate exchanges.  Worse, he's starting to fall in love with Beth, a woman he's never even laid eyes on.  Can he ever find a way to meet her and make this work, despite his (admittedly sort-of legitimate) violation of her privacy? 

This book has SO much going for it - one of the main things, of course, being the wonderful characters.  Lincoln has all the sweetness of a Tom Hanks romantic lead (there I go again with the Nora), mixed with the lifestyle of the boys from The IT Crowd, only he's built like a Hemsworth.  A Thor-shaped Hemsworth.  Jennifer and Beth are so funny and normal and real that reading their epistolary sections (which make up a good chunk of the book) felt more like reading genuine emails or instant messages between friends.   In fact, at times it reminded me of my relationship with my blogging friends - our funny emails and comment-conversations and hilarious Tweeting marathons.  Their emails made me laugh, and occasionally I had to remind myself that these were fictional women, not real ones!

The other HUGE thing Attachments has going for it is the sheer wealth of pop culture references and the nice dose of 90s nostalgia.  I made a list of some of the awesomeness Rowell mentions throughout the novel, which aside from the Nora-ey goodness includes references to: personality quiz websites, Heathers, the Little Women movie with Winona Ryder (which I always loved!), The Matrix, Eddie Vedder, Toy Story, the Y2K millennium bug panic, Superman, Batman, X-Men, Kevin Smith movies, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, the Backstreet Boys, Bridget Jones, Cheers, the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Lord of the Rings, the Pokemon movie (with special reference to Pikachu), Fight Club, Freaky Friday, VHS tapes, VCRs with clocks, The Sixth Sense, The Stepford Wives, Titanic, Christopher Walken, James Dean, Gandalf, Billy Elliot, Jane Austen and Star Wars.  ALL IN ONE BOOK.  I think me and Rainbow would get on just fine...

Hanna mentioned the 'mutual stalking' thing in her review - Beth is sort of following Lincoln around while he's reading her emails - but I think her conclusion was right.  In the wrong hands, it could have been really creepy and uncomfortable to read, but Rowell walks the fine line between 'wrong' and 'kooky' with great precision.  After all, reading flagged emails is Lincoln's job, and it was very easy to imagine him getting drawn into Beth and Jennifer's lives without having any dodgy motives.  Let's face it, fifteen years down the line it's so easy to get drawn into other people's conversations and issues via platforms like Twitter; the only difference here is that more private moments are discussed because it's technically private email.  Likewise, Beth watching out for Lincoln is also totally believable - what girl HASN'T hung around somewhere waiting for their crush to walk by, or sneakily followed them somewhere to find out what they like?  I certainly have, especially when I was a teenager!

Sooooo, what I'm basically trying to say is that this book is really, really good.  It made me laugh OUT LOUD within the first few pages - so much so that I scared the cat - and continued to make me smile and giggle until the very end... Yet it also made me cry, over Lincoln's loneliness and over the sheer perfection of his inevitable declaration of love to Beth at the end of the novel.  It was definitely the 'EEEEEEE!' moment that comes at the end of a good rom-com, only on paper!  Admittedly I was a bit thrown by Beth's behaviour just prior to this declaration (the cinema scene, if you've read it already), which seemed totally out of character and a very bizarre thing to do - but what followed made the suspension of disbelief worthwhile.  That completely incongruous moment was the only thing coming between this book and a full five-star rating.  I'm SO glad I finally read it; the prose is just delicious, the characters are the right side of kooky, the premise is quirky, it may have ruined me for all chick lit ever, and I'm now feeling an urgent need to go and watch every Nora Ephron movie I own.  After that, my priorities look like this: 1) Read Fangirl;  2) Buy Eleanor and Park, and 3) Preorder everything Rainbow Rowell is ever planning to write, even some things she hasn't thought of yet.  If that isn't a ringing endorsement, I don't know what is!

Notable Quotables:
  • "The worst thing about the Internet, as far as Greg's bosses were concerned, was that it was now impossible to distinguish a roomful of people working diligently from a roomful of people taking the What-Kind-of-Dog-Am-I? online personality quiz."
  • "So... I'm larking through the Baby Gap, looking at tiny capri pants and sweaters that cost more than... I don't know, more than they should.  And I get totally sucked in by this ridiculous, tiny fur coat.  The kind of coat a baby might need to go to the ballet.  In Moscow.  In 1918."
  • "Love.  Purpose.  Those are the things that you can't plan for.  Those are the things that just happen.  And what if they don't happen?  Do you spend your whole life pining for them?  Waiting to be happy?"
  • "I know that people change.  I thought... I thought we were going to change together.  I thought that's what it meant to be in love."
  • "There's nothing you could become that I haven't already fallen in love with."  THIS.  This, ladies.  I think it's the most romantic line I've ever read.  I melted.
  • "... what if, instead of thinking about solving your whole life, you just think about adding additional good things.  One at a time.  Just let your pile of good things grow."
  • "I found myself thinking that this is how I would want to dance at my own wedding...  The kind of dancing that's more like touching to music.  That's more like closing your eyes and trying to think how you would tell someone that you loved him if you didn't have words or sex."
  • "I had a wobbly moment at the grocery store last night when I realized I was buying a single banana.  There's nothing sadder than buying bananas one at a time


Source: I bought this book from my local Waterstones.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

REVIEW: Confessions of a GP, by Dr Benjamin Daniels (4*)

(The Friday Project, 2010)

This book, written under a pseudonym of course, didn't get off to the best of starts - not because of the writing or the narrative style, but because of the silly editorial slips.  You all know how much I LOVE those!  Within the first few pages I had noted a 'passed' instead of 'past', the use of 'sixteen' and '16' in the same sentence, and a 'their' and 'there' left side by side, as if the incorrect one should have been edited out but wasn't.  Later on, I even stumbled across an 'illicit' instead of 'elicit'.  Really glaring mistakes, in other words.  FORTUNATELY the actual content of the book was absorbing, interesting and funny enough to redeem it - hence the four stars.

One thing I really liked about Confessions is how 'everyday' this doctor's stories are.  He's not an A+E doctor (though obviously there are one or two stories from his training days) or a surgeon, but a garden-variety GP, a man on the front line and the gateway to most NHS services.  Rather than extreme cases, this book is more concerned with giving insight into the variety of presenting complaints made to a GP on a day-to-day basis and showing how much further a GP's role goes than we might realise.  I reckon I'll be less inclined to grumble next time my doctor's running late, for example, because it's clear that not every problem can be tackled in ten minutes, and often the patients that cause appointments to run late are the most vulnerable and important of the day.

Of course, the most delightful moments in the book often stem from Daniels' stories of memorable patients, from the hilarious (an elderly lady's rectal exam had me in fits of laughter) to the tear-jerking (like when the hospital doctors conspired to reunite a lady who had been paralysed by a stroke with her beloved pet cat on her birthday, despite the strict ward rules).  What I also really liked about this book was the fact that because it's written under a pseudonym, the doctor behind it is able to be brutally honest about various political and social issues he has come up against over the years.  For example, he unleashes his contempt over a posh London yuppie who came in with a son suffering from a severe bout of measles.  The boy had never been vaccinated against any of the horrific diseases that can affect children, because his mother was convinced that she could "boost his immune system naturally" with a whole food diet.  As a reader, I was horrified at her na├»vety - and Daniels was understandably even more so:
"I believe the one great achievement of modern medicine is the widespread vaccination of children.  Vaccines are cheap, safe and have saved millions of lives both here and all over the world...  There it was: measles...  As a doctor who had only practised medicine in the twenty-first century, I should never have seen this disease...  He can eat all the organic dates and wholemeal rice in the world, it won't give him immunity to measles, mumps, rubella, diptheria, tetanus, meningitis C, whooping cough, haemophilus influenza and tuberculosis...  Not all children can have vaccines.  They can be harmful to children who have diseases of their immune system such as HIV or those having chemotherapy for cancer.  Previously, these children were protected because healthy children were all vaccinated and so a disease outbreak was prevented... Vaccinating isn't just about protecting your own child."
It is stories - and explanations - like this slotted alongside the funny anecdotes, bizarre patients and heartwarming moments that make the book so thought-provoking and elevate it beyond 'just another doctor memoir.'  Daniels shares his thoughts on everything from a doctor's role in society, doctor-patient relationships, the cost of NHS treatment, privatisation and the differences between hospital and general practice work, to time wasters, sick note scroungers, drug addicts, government meddling, NHS targets and the way drug reps operate.  Not only that, but he manages to do it in a way that is simultaneously funny and telling, pithy and insightful.  In the end, despite those dreadful editorial mistakes, I really enjoyed this book, and might even keep hold of it to reread sometime.  It made me think about certain elements of healthcare in a different way, and made me laugh out loud more than a few times... what more could I ask for?
 
Notable Quotables:
  • "One gripe I have with alternative practitioners is that they are ultimately private.  Somebody is making money out of your illness and having only ever worked for a free at point of access health service, I find that an uncomfortable concept."
  • "Patients often take it upon themselves to bring in various samples of their body fluids for my perusal.  I would like to emphasise that this is normally not appreciated.  A pot of urine is generally not too bothersome.  Often in a jam jar, I hold it to the light, stroke my chin and let out a 'hmmm'.  I like doing this as it makes me feel like an old-fashioned doctor from the nineteenth century."
  • "I listen to Radio 4, grow tomatoes and lately have found myself remarking on how comfortable and practical a combination of socks and sandals is.  Until recently, I thought the Arctic Monkeys were a result of climate change.  Your children will quite rightly view me as a geek and will under no circumstances take any lifestyle advice from me."

Source: I bought this book in a mammoth box of books from Amazon, way back in May 2011.  It's one of the handful from that pile that I've now finally read!

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

I am Bookshop Girl no more!

Okay, so we haven't ACTUALLY sold the shop yet - we've got a second viewing this week though, and quite a bit of interest apparently - but I already knew that when we did I wanted to change my blog name to mark the new phase of my life...  Technically, I suppose, I could have remained Bookshop Girl (let's face it, I'm in them often enough even outside work!) but it didn't really feel right any more.

Sooooo, as you've probably noticed by now, the blog has been revamped!  I saw Library Mosaic's beautiful new look on Monday, hopped over to look at Avery's Designs for myself, and immediately fell in love with one of her newest designs.  I contacted her and chose her $35 package - a premade design, with an avatar and button (plus she made a favicon and custom backgrounds for me), plus installation and general tweaking.  She got back to me almost immediately and started work that very same night!  (Which, if you've looked around at new designs before, you'll know is practically unheard of!)  Over the last 48 hours she's installed everything for me, we've both tweaked things a bit, then last night she sent me everything she'd created and installed for me... and that was that! 

One of the most important changes has been my name; as of yesterday morning, I am now Book Addicted Blonde.  I felt a little sad to be leaving Musings of a Bookshop Girl behind, but the time was right.  That was actually the hardest part of the whole thing - as those who were part of my extremely indecisive Twitter polling conversation will know - but I'm really happy with my new name!

I haven't changed my URL - that just looks too complicated - so I (and you!) won't need to worry about refollowing or anything like that for the time being.  Maybe later...  I'll change my social media names at some point too, and I also have this beautiful new button should any of you care to stick me in a sidebar somewhere...  I've never had a button before, I'm excited!

Book Addicted Blonde

I hope you like the new look!  I absolutely love it - and Avery has been so quick off the mark, so helpful and quick to respond to my questions and anything I wanted changing, I can't recommend her highly enough.  I'm off to carry on reading Attachments and maybe work on some new blog posts now that my double review of The Shining is finally done and dusted...   :)
 

Sunday, 27 October 2013

DOUBLE REVIEW: The Shining, by Stephen King (4.5*)

**THIS DOUBLE REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR THE BOOK AND FILM, JUST BECAUSE IT'S TOO EPIC NOT TO TALK ABOUT PROPERLY!**
 
~ The Book ~
 
by Stephen King (New English Library, 1978)
My rating: 4.5 stars

"It was the place he had seen in the midst of the blizzard, the dark and booming place where some hideously familiar figure sought him down long corridors carpeted with jungle...  It was here.  It was here.  Whatever Redrum was, it was here."

I really only knew the absolute basics about this book when I started reading it.  I'd never seen the film, and the sum total of my knowledge ran to it being about a writer called Jack Torrance, madness, a haunted hotel, a psychically gifted son, and this:


Which didn't turn out to be very helpful, because it's not even in the book, yet DOES manage to spoiler an important twist in the novel.  In fact, as I'll explain in the film section of this post, the movie is so different to the book that I really wasn't surprised by the time that famous scene came around...

Soooo, The Overlook is a hotel in the Colorado Rockies.  A hotel with a colourful history, forced to shut down over the winter thanks to the brutal snowstorms that render the mountain roads impassable every year.  Enter Jack Torrance, the new winter caretaker, his wife Wendy and young son Danny.  On their first day at the Overlook, while his father is being shown around by the manager, Danny meets Dick Hallorann, the hotel cook, who recognises his 'shining', or psychic gift.  Mr Hallorann warns Danny that bad things have happened in the hotel over the years, but tells him he should be alright if he remains calm and watchful... and stays away from Room 237.  Unfortunately, it doesn't take long for Danny's visions to reach fever pitch, as the hotel starts to affect not only him, but also his parents.  What is Redrum?  Who are the masked partygoers in the ballroom?  What did that chambermaid see in 237?  And most importantly, what is chasing Danny through the corridors in his terrifying nightmares?

My synopsis probably makes absolutely no sense - and that's probably because this book is so complex, the storyline slowly filling out, the terror gradually escalating, the themes swelling in importance, that my review is never going to do it justice.  Buuuuut that's kind of the point of having a book blog, so here we are.  This book is so fantastic, the menace so tangible, the characters so real...  To read it is to slowly descend into the Overlook's madness, to become immersed in the claustrophobic atmosphere and to see at least part of this horror through the eyes of a little boy who can't escape his own abilities.  King is an expert at playing on our fears and weaving a plot of such utter brilliance that he draws us in and traps us so that once the horror truly begins to unfold, it's too late.  All we can do is hope and breathe and read on.

In a tiny way, the book had already been spoilered - not just by the iconic moments in the film (which sort of relate to the book even if they don't actually appear in it), but also by the reemergence of Danny in King's newest novel, Doctor Sleep.  In some ways, that was quite reassuring for me: "Even if everything else falls apart, if other people die, at least I know that little boy escapes with his life."  It allowed to me to absorb the themes outside the horror without being too preoccupied; as always with Stephen King, this isn't merely a horror story - it is a novel about growing up, facing loss, inner demons, alcoholism, writing, domestic violence, winter and childhood fears.  Stephen King writes people, writes humanity, so perfectly that once again I was blown away.   

More than anything, it is a novel about bravery in the face of danger and grief.  The hotel coming alive is so scary because it is inescapable and inevitable.  Danny has seen the future, and the bitter storms mean there's no getting away - but thanks to a handful of good people with great strength - Danny's bravery, Wendy's maternal selflessness and Dick Hallorann's all-round good nature - they somehow manage to beat the unbeatable and stop the hotel's rampage.  There are some genuinely awful moments that more than counter the interesting-but-gentle buildup, and the tense, moving and truly haunting ending likewise balances against the gradual onset of Jack's madness.  When the hotel possesses Jack, the novel becomes truly nightmarish - the image of the "thing in the lift", with its bloody, rolling eyes, a horrific mimicry of a human being, pushed beyond lunacy to monstrosity, is still lurking at the back of my mind despite the fact that I finished the book nearly a month ago.  *awed clap for Stephen King, Master of All*

Soooo, yeah, I loved this book.  It was one of those horror novels where the actual horror creeps up so gradually yet so inescapably that by the time it starts to manifest itself more strongly, you're already hooked and have to read on, and on, and on...  The supernatural elements are so well done, and although they are undoubtedly real, they are so entwined with Jack's madness and the hotel's history that the reader begins to question everything, both on the page and off.  It gets under your skin, dropping hints and placing symbols and filling you with a sense of foreboding.  It's maybe not for the squeamish - there are some truly gruesome moments - but if this review has made you even vaguely curious, then give it a go...  It's definitely going to be one of my top books of 2013!
 
Notable Quotables:
  • "The truth is that monsters are real, and ghosts are real, too.  They live inside us, and sometimes they win.  That our better angels sometimes - often! - win instead, in spite of all odds, is another truth of The Shining.  And thank God it is." - Stephen King's introduction
  • "In that instant, kneeling there, everything came clear to him.  It was not just Danny the Overlook was working on.  It was working on him, too.  It wasn't Danny who was the weak link, it was him.  He was the vulnerable one, the one who could be bent and twisted until something snapped."
  • "Now his ears were open and he could hear them again, the gathering, ghosts or spirits or maybe the hotel itself, a dreadful funhouse where all the sideshows ended in death, where all the specially painted boogies were really alive, where hedges walked, where a small silver key could start the obscenity.  Soft and sighing, rustling like the endless winter wind that played under the eaves at night, the deadly lulling wind the summer tourists never heard.  It was like the somnolent hum of summer wasps in a ground nest, sleepy, deadly, beginning to wake up."

Source: This book came into our bookshop a few months ago and I pilfered it to add to my King stash!


~ The Movie ~

Directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall (1980)
My rating: 3 stars
 
Aaaaaand so to the movie.  Which really did NOT impress me, especially coming so soon after my reading of the original novel.  Perhaps if I'd seen the film first I'd have been able to appreciate both individually, but I had such high hopes given how amazing the book was and how highly rated I know the adaptation to be...  Well, let's just say that the three stars I've given it were mostly for the clever cinematography and the awesomeness that is Jack Nicholson.  (By the way, I find it quite creepy that Jack played Jack and Danny played Danny... that must have made it difficult to separate out character from actor sometimes?)  The rest was... what the term 'meh' was made for.  Sadly.
 
I guess my problem with the film can be very pithily summed up in one sentence: It's not The Shining.  It's set in a hotel and scary stuff happens and the characters' names are the same.  But the plot, the focus, the characters' personalities and motivations... all changed.  To illustrate: in the book, the hotel wants Danny, because of his Shining.  In the film, it wants Jack, for unknown reasons that may or may not have something to do with reincarnation, or maybe the old 'Indian burial ground' cliche that is quietly mentioned at the beginning of the film.  In the book, Jack is a family man who descends into madness.  In the film, he's clearly veiling violent insanity from the onset.  In the book, the dark forces are supernatural and the characters are victims.  In the film, the dark force is largely Jack.  In the book, Jack is a recovering alcoholic and writer.  In the film, JACK IS FRICKIN' INSANE.  In the book, Danny manages to get through to his father so that he regains 'himself' long enough to allow his family to escape.  In the film, the hotel maze somehow aids Danny and traps his father, who doesn't stop until he's exhausted.  In the book, the previous caretaker Grady and his family are just another part of the hotel's history.  In the film, his tragedy - and his daughters - are a key element.  I could go on...
 
 
I think the worst thing was the way the characters are changed.  I mean, Jack Nicholson is Jack Nicholson (and who doesn't love Jack Nicholson?!), but he in no way comes across as a loving family man, a father and husband, which somewhat diminishes the sense of loss and the terror at his madness.  Magazine writer Frederick Clarke once wrote that "Instead of playing a normal man who becomes insane, Nicholson portrays a crazy man attempting to remain sane."  I couldn't agree more - but then, that's how Kubrick chose to play it.  Shelley Duvall is hideously wooden, like a doll with an annoying accent, and I hate to say it because he seemed like a bit of a jackass, but I think Kubrick was right to be irritated by her.  Little Danny is... well, okay for a kid... but what they did to his 'shining' was fairly unforgiveable given that IT'S THE NAME OF THE FILM.  It's almost an afterthought here, not the focus, and the scene with him crossing the bedroom croaking 'Redrum! Redrum!' was just ridiculous.  I wrote down near the start of the film that the main characters seemed 'more like an antisocial man, a nanny and her completely unrelated charge' than a tight-knit family.  It's hard to feel sad for a family falling apart when they don't feel like a family in the first place!  I also didn't like Dick Hallorann.  As the hotel cook and the man who recognises Danny's 'shine', he is one of my favourite characters in the novel.  He is kindly, strong and reassuring, a figure of comfort and reason and dignified calm.  A beacon in the dark.  He just doesn't have that in the film.
 
Sooo, what did I like?  I thought some of the sound and cinematography was very clever: I particularly liked the scenes where Danny is pedalling around the hotel on his little tricycle, the sound changing dramatically as he rides on and off the rugs laid out on the hard floor.  The 'finger puppet' trick was an interesting way of getting around the 'Tony' thing - Tony being a manifestation of Danny's shining, someone who tells and shows him things - but by the end it just felt a bit embarrassing, to be honest.  The banging noises seemed to fit the book for a while - Jack playing ball against the lobby wall sort of echoed the recurring theme of the roque mallet hitting the corridor walls in the book, for example - but it never came to anything in the end.  The music itself was terrifying - layered and chaotic - but it was so loud in comparison with the general sound level that it was giving me a headache by the end of the film.  Jack Nicholson's dangerous mania was half-frightening, half-sexy, which is usually when he's at his best, let's face it.

 
One of my favourite things about the whole DVD (perhaps sadly) is the half-hour behind-the-scenes documentary, shot by Kubrick's 17 year-old daughter Vivien.  I suppose because she was an 'insider', the actors are that much more relaxed and candid, so it feels like a genuine peek at life on a movie set rather than a staged tour.  We get to see the actors rehearsing their lines, Nicholson cheekily playing to the cameras, Duvall and Kubrick arguing (about how bad her performance is, ha!) and even Duvall's 'breakdown' on set (such a delicate flower...).  There's a mini focus on the huge ballroom scene, and we also get to see the way the maze was built and filmed.  The most impressive thing was watching 'the filming of the filming' - seeing Jack playing Jack.  Seeing him maniacally laughing and threatening Wendy from the inside of the fridge then snapping back to normal the second the cameras stopped rolling...  watching him jumping up and down, limbering up, his voice changing to a furious growl, swinging the axe experimentally, becoming the character, right before the filming of the Here's Johnny scene...  It felt like a bit of a privilege, seeing a real old-fashioned actor at work, a legend in the making!  *Jennifer Lawrence fangirl moment*
 
 
Soooooo, yes.  I can see why King reportedly didn't like the film (at least to begin with), because IT'S NOT HIS BOOK.  I wish I'd seen it before I read the original, because then I might have seen what all the fuss was about instead of being disappointed.  For me, the characters, the plot, the whole feel of the book was changed too far, completely missing that fine balance between the original material and the compromises necessitated by the shift in media.  3 stars, mostly for some clever scenes and for the fact that Jack Nicholson can still make me come over all unnecessary even when he's bat-shit crazy!

Friday, 18 October 2013

Booking by Numbers

This meme was created by Jess at Jess Hearts Books back in September, but since I'd just done the A-Z Book Survey AND my bookcase was almost completely full of spooky novels for the run-up to Halloween, I thought I'd wait a while, until I'd mixed all my books up again, to take part!

The idea behind Booking by Numbers is simple but ingenious.  You take a set bunch of questions, then for each question, you use a random number generator (I used random.org) to pick the book you'll use in your answer.  Not only is it a lot of fun, but it gives your readers a peek at your bookshelves at the same time (and let's face it, we ALL like nosing through other people's books!).  I've used the 79 books currently jumbled up on my new bedroom bookshelf.  It's only a snapshot of my library, and it's heavily biased towards things I've bought recently, but it's easier to count through them on the shelf than to dig through all my overflow book boxes multiple times!  Here we go...


Book number: 37  Book: The Library Book by various contributing authors
Q1)  Have you read this book?  If so, what did you think of it?
I haven't read it yet!  Hanna bought it for my birthday this year - right when I was in the depths of depression - and it put a smile on my face just for being so cute and little and cheerful-looking.  It's a collection of short essays about libraries, by all kinds of authors and other bookish people, and I NEARLY took it on holiday with me but I didn't want to accidentally get it wet or something, it's so nice.  I'm thinking it'll make a gorgeous read for the depths of winter - books about books really do seem to WORK when it's cold outside and all you want to do is curl up and read!


Book number: 31  Book: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Q2)  Why did you buy this book?  Was it recommended to you?  Or was it a random purchase?
For some reason I keep thinking Charlotte sent it to me - probably because she recommended it so heartily after she read it earlier this year -  but actually I received it for October 2012's RAKI'd sent a copy of Mary Roach's Bonk to another participant, Beth, and she returned the surprise later that month with this book!  I was already dying to read it, and I'd nearly picked it up from the hotel lounge on holiday the previous month, so I was well chuffed to have a shiny new copy instead of a battered one that had been bashed about in someone's beach bag all week!


Book number: 57  Book: Amelia Grey's Fireside Dream by Abby Clements
Q3)  Based on what you know about this book, which other book blogger would you recommend it to?
I think one of the first places I saw the author's debut novel, Meet Me Under the Mistletoe, was over at Books, Biscuits and Tea.  Vicky read and reviewed the book late last year, and also did this gorgeous nail art to match the book cover, so maybe I'd recommend it to her, if she hasn't got it yet?  I know that several other book bloggers I read regularly already have this one lined up on their autumn TBR piles, so I'm fairly sure a lot of my potential recommendations would be redundant anyway!



Book number: 39  Book: The Accidental Billionaires: Sex, Money, Betrayal and the Founding of Facebook by Ben Mezrich
Q4)  What are this book's bookshelf neighbours?
As you can see from the picture above, this one is currently sandwiched in between my Penguin Modern Classics edition of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and Dave Cullen's non-fiction Columbine.  My books are pretty mixed up at the moment, because I basically only have this one bookcase and currently own a good... 700 books?  Maybe more?  When we first moved I filled the bookcase with stuff that might make good Halloween reading - horror, crime and paranormal novels, mostly - but on Tuesday I took a lot of those off and replaced them with a mixture of books that I want to read over the next couple of months.  Having them jumbled up makes it more fun picking my next one!


Book number: 73  Book: Redshirts by John Scalzi
Q5)  How many books have you read by this book’s author?
This will be my first John Scalzi book.  I'm ashamed to say that I thought maybe he was a debut novelist, but it turns out he's already a hugely successful blogger and science fiction writer with a range of projects and books to his name, AND he's done a fair bit of fundraising for various charities as well.  If Redshirts is as fantastic as Katie says it is (which is why I bought it - no pressure, or anything!) then I'm sure it won't be my last Scalzi reading experience...  Some of his other books sound interesting, and I might check out his blog too!



Book number: 36  Book: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Q6)  Do you have any special memories attached to this book?
Sort of, yes.  The first time I read A Christmas Carol, a few years ago I think, I read an old Dover Thrift paperback - one of those super-skinny ones with the naff covers and cheap paper.  Then this copy arrived in some books donated to the shop a couple of years ago by a family friend, Richard, and his wife Ruth.  Although we aren't religious, my dad plays the organ and when we were little he used to help out playing at services at a nearby village church.  Richard, a local choirmaster and school Head of Music, also ran the choir there, and as such was a big part of our childhood; he and Ruth, and their friends, sort-of took us under their wing and looked out for us when we went along with Dad on Sunday mornings.  This edition of the book is already beautiful - old, small, with gorgeous illustrations - but now has added meaning because last year Richard died after a very short and vicious battle with a brain tumour.  Now when I dig it out at Christmas I'll think fondly of him alongside my inspiring festive reading... 


Book number: 19  Book: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Q7)  Is this book part of a series?  If so, are you up to date with the series?
Nope, I don't think this one is part of a series.  It's actually been YEARS since I read an Agatha Christie novel, but I'd heard that this one was super-brilliant and (to my delight) was sent a copy by another blogger.  If it was you, let me know - I thought it came as part of the bookish Random Acts of Kindness project, but I might be completely wrong...  Maybe I won it in a competition?  Anyway, it'll be nice to return to ol' Agatha again, and maybe I'll pick up some Marple or Poirot books after that!


Book number: 66  Book: Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body by Jennifer Ackerman
Q8)  Is this book something you’d typically read, or is it out of your comfort zone?
I don't read biology books a LOT, but it's definitely not out of my comfort zone either.  I actually really like to pick up interesting non-fiction from pretty much any category when I get chance.  It's much harder to read them at the shop because you really have to concentrate to get your head round things sometimes - which is probably why I tend to read denser non-fiction mostly in winter, when we have more time off and the shop is very quiet anyway!  My sister read this one already this year and apparently it's not too hard going, so I'm looking forward to maybe reading it this autumn.


Book number: 7  Book: World War Z by Max Brooks
Q9)  Have you reviewed this book?  If yes, share the link!
Haha, no, another 'not yet' I'm afraid!  The books currently on my bookcase are mostly unread, which is why they're out and within reach rather than still tucked away in a box somewhere from our move.  There ARE one or two old favourites on there that are ripe for a reread, but everything else is new for me!  I've had this one for years now and I dig it out every time Hallowe'en comes around, but every year it's somehow missed making it to the top of the pile...  I've heard it's amazing though!  Maybe I'll have to bite the bullet soon and read it *gasps* NOT AT HALLOWE'EN.  It'll save it gracing my autumn reading pile a third year in a row, at least!


Book number: 23  Book: It's Not Me, It's You! by Jon Richardson
Q10)  Where did you buy this book?
I first bought this one for my Kindle, back when it was shiny and new and I was buying lots of e-books thinking that this was going to be the start of a wonderful friendship.  I read half of it and sadly, although I was loving the book, I was HATING The Machine, as it came to be known.  So when I spotted a paper copy in The Works for an almost-insulting £1.99, I picked it up immediately!  It was one of those "Why is that book here?!" moments that are happening with increasing regularity in remainder shops these days, and I wasn't going to say no, because Jon Richardson is my spirit animal.


Book number: 8  Book: Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin
Q11)  Roughly how long have you owned this book?
Not very long at all!  First I dug out The Stepford Wives as a potential Halloween read (I've since read AND reviewed that one).  Then I found A Kiss Before Dying in The Works while I was shopping with my sister a few weeks ago.  Aaaand then for some reason everyone was suddenly talking about Ira Levin and Rosemary's Baby and how awesome it is.  So I bought it, in the smart Corsair edition, because I'm independent like that.  In fact, if I consult Amazon, it will tell me that I bought it on... *checks*... 18 September.  So exactly a month ago.  NEXT QUESTION.



Book number: 35  Book: The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
Q12)  Share the first sentence of this book.
"I address these lines - written in India - to my relatives in England."  A rather unassuming opening sentence for the novel widely believed to be the first detective novel written in the English language...  My stepdad read this one very recently and loved it; I'm still debating whether or not to join Ellie's readalong in November, or whether to save it for over the worst of the winter months!  I have two editions right now - a cute little Oxford hardback or this bog-standard Popular Classics copy - so I should probably pick one and discard the other at some point, right?
 

Book number: 41  Book: Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Food Critic by Ruth Reichl
Q13)  What's your opinion of this book’s cover?
I love it!  Between this cover and Ruth Reichl's gorgeously evocative Twitter feed, every time I spot this book on my shelf I feel a little bit warmer.  I think it captures the kind of welcoming 'bright spot in a dark day' atmosphere that the best bars, diners and cafes seem to exude - the kind that draws you in with a happy sigh.  You can almost hear the gentle clatter of crockery and catch the scents of food and coffee on the air.  In some ways it reminds me a bit of Edward Hopper's painting, Nighthawks, which I love because it spotlights a place that offers a welcome to anyone, anytime.  I'm hoping it'll be a fantastic winter read!



Book number: 22  Book: Agorafabulous! Dispatches from My Bedroom by Sara Benincasa
Q14)  In a few sentences, describe this book in your own words.
Sara Benincasa is a comedian and writer.  This book is about her descent into - and struggle out of - agoraphobia, or the fear of being away from a safe space.  In Benincasa's case, this safe space grew smaller and smaller until she couldn't even leave her bedroom - hence the title.  All I really know about the book is that it's apparently very funny, very wise, and at some point she has to pee in cereal bowls because she can't even get as far as the bathroom.  As a pretty much recovered agoraphobic (I didn't leave my flat for well over a year and had to slowly work my way outwards from there), I'm super looking forward to FINALLY reading this! 

Aaaaaand that's my Booking by Numbers! 
 

Saturday, 12 October 2013

REVIEW: The Stepford Wives, by Ira Levin (3.5*)

(Corsair, 2011)

"That's what she was, Joanna felt suddenly.  That's what they all were, all the Stepford wives: actresses in commercials, pleased with detergents and floor wax, with cleansers, shampoos, and deodorants.  Pretty actresses, big in the bosom but small in the talent, playing suburban housewives unconvincingly, too nicey-nice to be real."

Okay, so I mentioned before I went on holiday that I was still owing a review of The Stepford Wives.  I had a template all ready to go, and had even picked the quote I was planning to use to head up my post... and then Laura reviewed it while I was away.  Not only did she say ALL THE THINGS, but she also picked THE SAME QUOTE (which, let's be honest, is a superb summary of the book's major theme) and now I'm not ENTIRELY sure why I'm not just standing here with a neon arrow stuck on a hat wafting all of you over there to read her post instead.  BUT NO.  I SHALL TRY TO SAY A FEW THINGS.  EVEN IF THEY ARE THE SAME. 

I wasn't THAT impressed by the book, I have to say.  I mean, I enjoyed it and all, but I imagine I'd have enjoyed it a lot more if I didn't already know the plot and the twist and everything else that makes it so interesting.  And unlike Psychowhich I reviewed last month, I really DID know the plot, because I already shamelessly adore the Nicole Kidman movie.  Of course, the movie is very different - the ending has been changed, the oddness of the women is far more evident, it's funnier, and the whole thing has been brought right up to date - but the basic plot and characters are still the same...

Sooooo, it's about a fiercely independent feminist and photographer called Joanna Eberhart, who moves to idyllic Stepford with her husband Walter and their two children.  Unfortunately for Joanna, most of the beautiful local women seem to be interested in nothing but waxing their floors and cleaning their windows, while their husbands spend their evenings up at the imposing Men's Association.  It's quite a relief when she meets earthy, wisecracking fellow newbie Bobbie.  As the pair try to stir some kind of interest in women's affairs amongst their bland neighbours, and Joanna delves deeper into the town's past, they begin to suspect that there's something very wrong with the Stepford wives... 

The novel definitely raises big questions about feminism, male backlash, the role of a wife and mother and even pokes itself into the issue of scientific ethics - but it didn't really feel as powerful as I expected.  It didn't help that it was so short - flattening the characters somewhat - and that I was actually quite irritated by Joanna a fair amount of the time.  What WAS a delight was finding that Bobbie was just as smirk-inducingly funny in the book as in the new movie, even if her sharp wit is slightly less rude in the original!  I'm glad I finally read it, just because it's another one of those books that has ingratiated itself into popular culture and vocabulary so completely, but I don't think I'd read it again.  I want to watch the movie again now though, and the original film too!

Bonus points:  for the introduction by Chuck Palahniuk, in which he points out that while feminism was at its height in the 70s when this book was written, these days voluntary Stepford Wives are everywhere - painted and crimped on magazine pages, exulting their inner domestic goddess on cookery programmes, and harbouring ambitions to marry a rich footballer.  These days women are more likely to read about how to please men and dress well in Cosmo than they are to read news and politics.  He discusses the way older women are now more of a threat to young women than men, citing The Devil Wears Prada and the remake of The Stepford Wives as examples in popular culture.  His conclusion probably said more to me as a modern woman than the rest of the book:
"Now everyplace is Stepford, but it's okay.  It's fine.  This is what the modern politically aware, fully awake, enlightened, assertive woman really, really, really wants: a manicure.  We can't say Ira Levin didn't warn us."




Source: I bought this book from Amazon UK, nearly a year ago.  That's actually not bad time-wise, for me!

Monday, 30 September 2013

DOUBLE REVIEW: Psycho, by Robert Bloch (4*)

 
~ The Book ~

by Robert Bloch (Robert Hale, 2013)
My rating: 4 stars

"You're a Mamma's Boy.  That's what they called you, and that's what you were.  Were, are, and always will be.  A big, fat, overgrown Mamma's Boy!"

I didn't even know Psycho was originally a novel until very recently, but since I wanted to watch the film this year around Halloween I thought maybe I should bite the bullet and read the book as well!

By now most people know the basics - Norman Bates, lonely motel, a girl murdered in the shower, a psychotic mother - but it was interesting for me to go back to the original and fill in the gaps before I watched the now-iconic Hitchcock movie.  The rest of the story was new to me!  It opens with Mary Crane stealing forty thousand dollars and taking off, with the intention of passing it off as inheritance money and giving it to her fiance Sam, who has refused to get married until he has finish paying off his late father's debts.  Losing her way en route to Sam's town, she ends up at the Bates Motel, where she meets overweight, bookish Norman, who runs the motel and cares for his sick elderly mother despite her constant venomous nagging.  That night the supposedly infirm old woman, jealous of Norman's attraction to their pretty guest, kills Mary, sparking off a chain of events that will pull Norman deeper and deeper into darkness and put everyone Mary loves in danger too...

It's actually quite a gripping little novel despite its age - it was first published in 1959 - and if the twist wasn't now so famous it would have been even more effective as a thriller.  Of course, the film has now eclipsed it almost entirely, and in my mind I read the whole thing in that half-English-sounding posh movie-star American accent that is so ubiquitous in old black and white movies.  The psychology behind the villainy is quite fascinating - Norman seems to know quite a bit about it already - and Norman's inner monologues have a kind of intoxicating, brutal poetry to them as he rattles through his conflicting thoughts and emotions.  It was a quick read, but I'll definitely be keeping hold of it to reread again in the future.

Notable Quotables:
  • "Cold-blooded murder is one thing, but sickness is another.  You aren't really a murderer when you're sick in the head.  Anybody knows that."
  • ""It's all right," he said, wondering at the same time why there were no better words, why there never are any better words to answer fear and grief and loneliness."
  • "Funny, Sam told himself, how we take it for granted that we know all there is to know about another person just because we see them frequently or because of some strong emotional tie."
  • "I can't even hate Bates for what he did.  He must have suffered more than any of us.  In a way I can almost understand.  We're all not quite as sane as we pretend to be."

Source:  I ordered this book from Amazon UK.


 
~ The Film ~

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock,  starring Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh (1960)
My rating: 4.5 stars

I actually did a paper on Psycho at school for a creative writing practice exam... but I'd never seen it.  I watched it during my first week at university... but my friend talked all the way through it.  So really, I was coming to this first 'real' viewing of the movie as a kind of half-knowledgeable half-new spectator.  Which was probably the best way to be, because I knew what to look for but couldn't quite remember all the details!

So, let's start with Norman Bates.  In the book, he's in his thirties or early forties, overweight and homely, and in my head I imagined him as a kind of cross between Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons and Chris from Family Guy.

 
Not all that attractive, shall we say.  Aaaaand then there was the movie.  In the movie, Norman Bates is famously played by Anthony Perkins, who looks like this:
 
 
Yup, Norman Bates is cute.  I read that Hitchcock deliberately made the choice to cast a handsome guy in his twenties rather than stick to the description in the book, because he wanted viewers to genuinely sympathise with Norman and see him as a boy-next-door type.  I remember watching Psycho the first time (over the top of my friend's chatter, obviously), not knowing the storyline or the twist at all, and thinking Norman was a sweetheart.  This time, knowing about the murderous Mother and about Norman's psychosis, I STILL thought he was a sweetheart - even more so than the book, where he was a little more aggressive and kind of sad.  Aaaaaaand then this happened:

 
Yeah, that was the moment I stopped watching the film as a proper horror movie and I fell in love with Norman Bates.  Possibly this makes me as psychotic as he is.  :)

Of course, crushes aside, this is a GREAT film.  There are other changes besides the boyish charms of Anthony Perkins, but for me they only added to the movie.  Mary Crane becomes the now-famous Marian (a tiny and fairly pointless change, admittedly), and she gets more attention in the adaptation.  Her part in the story is lengthened and fleshed out, and in turn, the investigation being conducted by her sister Lila, fiance Sam and a private detective after her disappearance is shortened and sharpened (which not only keeps the pace up, but also renders Lila feistier and less whiny).  Hitchcock, though daring for his time, does actually tone down the violence of the book, in which Mary is beheaded, not just stabbed, but he keeps Norman's horrified response at a high pitch to retain the same suspense.  And Perkins IS fantastic, playing a much more sympathetic Norman Bates than the one Bloch wrote: a sweet shy man-boy whose mother has him well and truly under her thumb - in more ways than one.

What I really liked was the ending.  Lila's exploration of the house, particularly the slow panning around Norman's little room, with its small bed, gramophone and childhood toys - that of a boy who was never allowed to become a man - struck a sad note that helped set the tone for the revelations to come.  The famous 'Mrs Bates in the fruit cellar' moment was just as awful and just as tense in the film, even though I knew it was coming (and I DEFINITELY remembered that image from my previous semi-viewing), and Norman's frenzied arrival was that much more 'psychotic' and that much less 'weird guy who needs to get out more'.  The psychiatrist's concise explanation of everything that's happened (no spoilers, just in case!) has greater clarity than in the book, giving it more impact than Bloch's original.

Of course, this is pure Hitchcock, so there's plenty to appreciate in terms of the cinematography.  The camera zooms in through a window at giddy speed; the scenes in which Mother attacks her victims are shot in innovative and interesting ways; tense moments are lit creatively to add to the dramatic feel.  Admittedly, the now-famous 'Arbogast falling down the stairs' moment, then a pioneering piece of filmmaking, actually made me laugh out loud, it was so hilariously awful - but at the time, it would have been the height of special effects!  And the penultimate scene, with Mother's voiceover and Norman wrapped in his blanket, is made utterly memorable by the death's head imposed over his devious smile.  He may have been weird, but Hitchcock was a genius!

Happily I still have the three later Psycho films (NOT with the same director, but apparently still pretty good), plus two more Hitchcock movies (The Birds and my old favourite Rebecca) waiting on my R.I.P. shelf for October, so the fun isn't over yet!



~ The Verdict ~

To read or to watch?  That age-old book-lover's question.  Personally, I'd hedge my bets with this one and recommend that you just do both.  The book only took me about a day to read and does fill in some of Norman's internal confusion via those intriguing flights of thought - but the film is pure Hitchcock magic, beautifully made and with his own distinctive flavour apparent in every camera trick and lighting angle.  Also, the film has that smile, so... *scrolls back up for another look*  Yeah, both.  Do both.