Jen reads... Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I think that the whole blurb on this book is slightly misleading (more on that later), but here it is anyway:

What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath. 

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.

What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

The first time I heard about this book I knew that I wanted to read it. Not only did I find the premise fascinating, but I am also interested in how ordinary people reacted to World War II. I have also really enjoyed other books by Kate Atkinson

I was not at all disappointed by the book - I found it really interesting seeing her go through Ursula's (the main character) life, and seeing how she not only learnt from each life how to stop herself from making mistakes, but also how she grew as a person.

One of the most interesting things about the book for me was the fact that due to the nature of the story, Ursula is able to personally see World War II from a lot of different positions - from being an ARP warden, to being a normal person, to.. other things that are potentially too spoilery to mention here.

I also really loved the fact that there were so many strong female characters in the book. Not only Ursula herself, but her sister Pamela, her aunt Izzie, and even her mother. Not all of them are likeable all of the time, but they show the kind of restrictions that women had at the time, and Ursula herself some times does exactly what women of the era were expected to, and at other defies the conventions.

In general, I had a few issues with the ending (see below), and the way that the book is presented, but I really enjoyed reading it, and would recommend it to anybody who likes books set around that era, or finds the premise interesting. Just be warned that the first section is slightly misleading, and that the ending may not be to your taste.

*Spoilers below*

The end of this post goes into spoiler territory, so consider yourself warned!

The first part of the book shows Ursula confronting, and possibly shooting Hitler. Which makes it seem like the whole book is leading up to that, but it REALLY DOES NOT. It's a pivotal moment in the story, sure, but it makes it seem like Ursula is much more aware of what is happening than she is, and makes it seem like she forms this grand plan to kill Hitler before he has a chance to do anything. I just think it's completely misleading, and could lead to people potentially being disappointed with the book. I had heard before reading this that it is really not a particularly big part of the story, and I'm glad that I did, it made me more able to enjoy the book for what it was.

And the ending... I just found it a bit confusing, to be honest! I have tried looking online for theories as to why the final chapter is what it is, but I couldn't find anything particularly satisfactory, and it seemed to me like the author had a bit of a... AHH I HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO END THIS BOOK! moment, and just ended up doing something that would be seen as some as sort of mysterious and deep, but just kind of annoyed me. I don't mind there being some mystery left at the end of a book, but I just found the last few sections completely confusing. I think that it might fare better if I reread it, but I just wanted something slightly more satisfying than what was there. Still, I did really like the rest of the book, so I'm not going to let the last few bits spoil my enjoyment!

..Maybe I need to start reading the ending first, so I can know what to expect before reading the rest of the book? But I hate spoilers so much, I don't want to go out of my way to spoil myself... hmm...


Jen reads... Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

'My name is August. I won't describe what I look like. Whatever you're thinking, it's probably worse.'

Auggie wants to be an ordinary ten-year-old. He does ordinary things - eating ice cream, playing on his Xbox. He feels ordinary - inside. But ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. Ordinary kids aren't stared at wherever they go.

Born with a terrible facial abnormality, Auggie has been home-schooled by his parents his whole life. Now, for the first time, he's being sent to a real school - and he's dreading it. All he wants is to be accepted - but can he convince his new classmates that he's just like them, underneath it all?

My thoughts

Since discovering that the internet is an amazing place to talk about books, and starting listening to bookish podcasts, I have heard SO MANY good things about this book, and have wanted to read it for a while.

Not only did I really like it, but I think that it should be compulsory reading, not only for young people, but for adults as well. It is aimed at the 10 to 13 age range, which means that the writing style is fairly simplistic, but in spite of that it does a good job in showing how August's appearance not only affects him, but affects everyone around him, without making him into an angel who can do no wrong.

One of the ways in which it does this is to have a range of people narrating the story - it starts off being told by August, but then moves through some of the other characters in the story, including his sister and the friends that he makes at school. I found Via's (his sister) viewpoint to be one of the most interesting, as I know people who have been in similar situations. It showed how difficult it must be to cope with having somebody like August in your family, and how to deal with the fact that your parents are, completely understandably, going to end up spending more time and energy dealing with that sibling than they are going to be able to spend on you.

Although I try not to be judgemental, and to put myself in other people's shoes, I definitely do not manage it half of the time, and this book really made me think hard about how much I make assumptions about people that I don't really know, and how, although I feel (and hope!) that I am a good person at heart, there is little point in that if I actually lack the courage to act for fear of what other people think of me.

I think (and hope!) that this book will stick with me for a long time!


Jen reads... The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

There is still one catch-up review post to come, but I haven't written it yet so... have a normal book review instead! Yayyy!

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro*

Difficult to give an idea of what this is about, but here goes...

The story is told by Stevens, a butler who has been persuaded to go on a motoring holiday as he reminisces about his past and realises some things about himself and his past along the way.

...oh dear, that sounds a little bit cheesy. Which this book definitely isn't!

To be honest, I really wasn't that into the book for all of the first section. I wasn't put off it particularly, but nothing really drew me in, until Stevens started delving into his past. He is a man so completely out of touch with his emotions, and so desperate to be the most dignified, stiff-upper-lipped butler there ever was that the narration, which is all in first person, reads like it is written by someone who doesn't feel anything at first. Like it was written by my husband when he is pretending to be a robot (my husband is a bit odd).

I think it was this that stopped the book from grabbing me at first, but it was also this precise thing that drew me in as the book went on. I found myself desperately trying to piece together how he felt about everyone around him, and what had actually happened in his past. He is quite an unreliable narrator, as he points out several times, but even before he does that it's made obvious that if nothing else, he is unable to read the emotions of others as much as he is unable to show his own (or is completely unwilling to talk about anything as undignified as his/other people's feelings). So the reader ends up having to infer 99% of what happened, which could have been frustrating in a lesser author's hands, but was one of the best parts of the book. I honestly think that this might be one of the best examples I have ever read of the narration showing rather than telling.

This definitely falls square into the literary fiction category (e.g. not a lot happens. His road trip doesn't suddenly turn into a magical adventure with unicorns and a dragon and stuff). But once I got past the first section, I really didn't want to put the book down, and I ended up staying up way too late to finish it, which is not something that happens that often with literary fiction (unless it's written by Margaret Atwood!).

The premise of the book didn't particularly entice me before reading it (the main reason I picked it up was that I'm on a mission to read all of the books that I already own** before buying any more***. Although this one is technically my husband's!) but I really liked it! So even if reading about the motoring adventures of a butler doesn't sound that interesting to you, I think it's worth giving it a chance. Um, if you haven't already, seeing as it's super famous.

*Writing Japanese names in the non-Japanese order makes me cringe slightly... a far cry from my first essay at university where I got the name order wrong for about half of the sources I cited written by Japanese people, haha.

** Due to being a cheapskate, not having much shelf space (or space to put more shelves) and generally not allowing myself to go too mad buying books for my e-reader, this is only about 8 or so English books (many more in Japanese, which sucks because I read so slowly in Japanese!), so not too daunting. Much as I love buying books, I think I would implode from stress if I had as many unread books as I know a lot of book bloggers do!

*** I'm currently only averaging 1 book for every 3 or so read, so I think I'm doing okay.. maybe? Bearing in mind that I haven't actually calculated this properly, and might be lying to myself. Hehe.


Catch-up mini reviews! Part 6 - Non-fiction (2)

Stiff by Mary Roach

If you are at all squeamish, scared of flying (there is a section on how cadavers can help people work out what went wrong in plane crashes. That I read just before getting on a plane, haha), or if the thought of anything to do with dead bodies makes you feel uncomfortable, then DO NOT GO ANYWHERE NEAR THIS BOOK. If like me, however, you have a bit of a morbid side anyway, and are fascinated by anything to do with the human body, then this book is amazing! Mary Roach writes in a really interesting way – although she is obviously taking everything seriously, she is also not afraid to laugh at the more ridiculous aspects of the subjects she is covering and the people she talks to, and it makes the whole book both fascinating and really entertaining. Even though the subject matter theoretically doesn’t bother me, I did find myself fluctuating between laughter and cringing in disgust while reading it, and I had to put it down a few times as it all got a bit much, I still really recommend it, if finding out a lot about what can happen to people's bodies after they die sounds interesting. I’m really glad that I got in on my kindle on a whim while I was at the airport waiting for an 11 hour flight after finding myself unable to concentrate on any of the other books I had bought with me. I am currently in the middle of reading Packing For Mars which is also by Mary Roach, and is also fascinating and keeps on making me laugh.

One caveat to this recommendation maybe is that the book is a bit old, so the information in it may well have been proved to be wrong in the meantime (as happens so often with science), and some of the things that she talks about may have ceased to exist since it was published, but that didn’t really bother me personally.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

After reading this book, I think I can say with some confidence that I definitely have introvert tendencies. I’m not sure that I come off like this to people I know (I tried talking to my mum about it and she said “You?! An introvert?! Pfft!”), but some of the stuff that was written in this book about how introverts and extroverts differ really made sense to me, and reading it made me realise that not wanting to go out with friends every night was not some sort of failing on my part, and the fact that I need wind down time after spending time with other people isn’t just me being weird, it’s quite a common thing! I did feel like the book was slightly too harsh on extroverts (by constantly talking about how great introverts are at various things, it seemed to imply that extroverts couldn’t be good at them. I’m not entirely sure that that was the author’s intention, but that is how it came off!), and actually made me feel a bit worse about myself in some parts, as although I would probably mostly identify as an introvert, I’m not sure that that means that I am in possession of all of the amazing qualities that the Susan Cains talks about introverts having. I also think that it was a little bit too long, I think that I might have been happier just reading an essay about it rather than a whole book.

This was actually one of the first books that I bought for my kindle, but it took me almost a year to actually finish it, which is partly because my kindle was telling me that I had loads left when in fact it was mostly endnotes, and because after a certain point I wasn’t sure what more I could get out of reading the rest, although when I actually came back to the book about 11 months after unintentionally not finishing it, I only had one chapter left!

This is turning into a much longer series of posts than I had intended. I think I've been reading too much, haha. Only one more (maybe?) to go though. Woohoo!


Catch-up mini reviews! Part 5 - Fiction (2)

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I have been meaning to read this for ages, and I was pretty sure that I would like it because it has lots of things in it that I love/am really interesting in, with the first one being lots of German! I studied German for 7 years at school and still like trying to read/watch things in German (just don't ask me to speak!), so I liked the odd sentences and things that were in German. Yay! Secondly, I like things to do with world war II, and apart from lots of things focusing on the holocaust, I haven't really ever read anything that explores what it was like in Germany for normal German people. I think it's very easy for people to say that they would have actually stood up for what they thought was right, but if you had been sort of brainwashed into believing certain things, and if you knew that acting on what you thought was morally right would probably end with you suffering the same fate as those you were trying to fight for, I think that most people would end up not speaking up about anything. So I really liked seeing how much each character in the book stood up for what they thought was right.

I know that some people have accused the book of being emotionally manipulative, but honestly I didn't really feel like I was being manipulated into reacting in a certain way, I think I reacted the way I did because of what actually happened rather than how it was written, so I would have reacted the same way even if the writing had been completely manipulation free (um, unless it was written like the first twilight book*, in which case I would have ended up crying for different reasons). I think I'm contradicting myself, but I know what I mean! I did end up sobbing, and my husband who was sitting next to me on the sofa at the time got really confused, haha.

I did have slight issues with the fact that Liesel's adopted father, Hans, was a bit of a manic pixie dream dad (if that's a thing, which I don't think it is), and that didn't really come off as THAT realistic (I think he needed to be a little bit more flawed to be believable). I also had a hard time separating death as portrayed in the book from death in the discworld books, haha. Which wasn't entirely appropriate. All in all though, I really liked it.

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang

My mum bought this in a 3 for 2 or something deal while I was back in the UK, and gave it to me to read after she finished it. It's a fairly short, but charming story about a Sprout, a hen who really wants to be a mother, and ends up leaving her hutch and pursuing her dreams.

I liked the illustrations in it, and it was nice to just curl up on the sofa at the end of a stressful day and read it.

There isn't really that much to the book, and to be honest I think that it was a little bit overpriced for what it was and that if I had bought it myself I might have been a little bit annoyed (if it was put together with another story of similar length, or was being sold much cheaper, it would be just right). Although having said that, I like the cover art and the book itself is really nice! But the story has stuck with me, and I think that if I'm ever ill and need something easy to read, it might be a good one to go to!

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

I read this as they talked about it on Literary Disco and made it sound interesting. I did enjoy reading it, and I liked the way that it explored race issues, but I didn't find the plot at the centre of the story to be THAT intriguing, and to be honest, I had to read a synopsis to remember what had actually happened before writing this. I do remember that the characters were well drawn and pretty believable, although the female characters were a little bit disappointing. I also kept on being thrown out of the story by use of dialect things which just REALLY confused me, at some point I was wondering if there were just typos in the copy that I was reading. I think this is a failing on my part, but if you are as unfamiliar with Mississippi dialect as I am then you might find yourself similarly thrown. Maybe I don't read enough of this kind of book (crime... mysteryish.. thing? Urgh, I'm bad at genres) to appreciate it? I feel like it might be a bit convention breaking, in that the characters are more interesting than the plot? I don't know. It might just have been me.

I didn't hate it, but it was just okay.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

On the other hand, I LOVED this. I think this might be my favourite Gillian Flynn book Pretty much all of the characters in it were really messed up (as seems to be the case in all of her books), but all in a way that completely made sense once you knew more about them, and the tone was deliciously dark. I think it was a really good look into what really insular communities are like when you return to them after having escaped, and disfunctional families, and the investigation of the crime that the main character, Camille, had been sent to her old hometown to report on was also really interesting.

There was one point where a certain detail was revealed which made me actually go "ARGH!!!" out loud... I am very grateful that I was at home at the time.

Although I do wonder how her books would hold up if you read them again, the first time through was completely addictive and I honestly had problems tearing myself away to do things like go to work and eat.

I'm really really looking forward to whatever she does next!

Only a few more of these posts to go!  I've noticed that I'm gradually writing more and more about each book, which kind of defies the point, but it's my blog and I'll do what I like! So there, imaginary critic who probably doesn't actually exist outside of my head!

* Honestly, the worst written novel that I have read, and that includes some idiotic chick-lit that came free with a magazine about some woman who falls for her decorator. Or something. I realise that the writing probably isn't the point, but I thought that I would get a stupid book that I would enjoy reading (yes, I read it thinking that I might actually like it!), rather than something that made me want to gouge my own eyes out. And that's not even saying anything about the gender politics in the book that you do not want to get me started on. Okay, no more twilight ranting!


Catch-up mini reviews! Part 4 - Non-fiction (1)

I was only going to do one non-fiction post, but I ended up rambling about all of the books too much, so I split it up instead. Yay!

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

I LOVED this book. Really really loved it. I had never heard of Dear Sugar or the Rumpus before reading this, and I’m kind of sad that I hadn’t as I’m sure that a few years ago when I wasn't particularly happy I would have really appreciated reading them! As it is, pretty much none of the advice columns in the book were particularly relevant to anything that I'm struggling with now, but in spite of that I found all of the advice interesting, and really nicely written, and I think that almost anybody could read this and get something out of it (even if, like me, it’s just a feeling that were any of these things to happen to you, you would be much better emotionally and mentally prepared!). I really wish that this book had been around when I was a teenager, as I really could have done with some of the advice then (although I wasn't really open to listening to other people at that time anyway, so it probably wouldn't have helped much, hehe). 

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

I really wanted to love this book. I really did. As I wrote above, I REALLY enjoyed Tiny Beautiful Things, but in the end I think that I just wasn’t at the right place in my life to get much out of this. I found the bits about actually walking the trail really interesting, but I think that that kind of experience was much better covered by Bill Bryson in A Walk in the Woods… and I know that this shows a huge lack of empathy on my part, but I just ended up screaming in my head “AHH STOP BEING SUCH AN IDIOT!” a lot of the time… I think that had I read this when I was a teenager, or even 5 or 6 years ago I would have loved it, but I’m just not in that place at the moment, and I found it hard to find sympathy for the author while reading it. That isn’t to say that I don't understand and feel sympathy on some level, obviously a lot of messed up and not very nice things happened to her, but... I'm just not sure that I needed to read about her dealing with it in so much detail. This was obviously something that she had to go through in order to become the awesome person that she is today (or that she comes of as in Tiny Beautiful Things!) but I would have been much more interested in something that focused on the big picture of how she is now, and not a book that focuses so narrowly on one particular experience. I didn't hate it, but then I didn't feel particularly moved afterwards, and although it kept me reading, I'm not sure that I took anything away from it at all. Sigh!


Catch-up mini reviews! Part 3 - Graphic Novels

Graphic novels! Or comics, I guess! I don't know! Yayyy!

Saga volumes 1 and 2 written by Brian K Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples

I had a book token which I won at work for being awesome, and decided to try saga, as I kept on hearing it being recommended, and I find it hard to justify buying graphic novels normally. I also wasn’t entirely convinced that I would like it. But I did! It’s insane! I can’t be bothered figuring out a way to describe it, so here’s what it says on Wikipedia:

"(Saga) depicts two lovers from long-warring extraterrestrial races, Alana and Marko, fleeing authorities from both sides of a galactic war as they struggle to care for their newborn daughter, Hazel, who occasionally narrates the series."

What that description fails to tell you about is all of the side characters who make it really interesting – the ghost of a girl whose bottom half is missing with her guts hanging out of it, the giant cat thing which can tell when people are lying and says so (even when it gets their owner in trouble), weird spider lady… and so on. If you’re looking for something that’s insanely creative, and are not bothered by graphic (I really mean this. This is DEFINITELY for adults) depictions of things like sex, violence, etc, then you might like it!

This is the one of the few graphic novels that I’ve read which is not biography or sort of gothy, and I liked it! I need to get hold of volume 3 now.

(I could not find a good picture of the cover of volume 2, but maybe that's a good thing if anybody squeamish reads this!)

Hawkeye, Vol. 1: My Life as a Weapon written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by David Aja and Javier Pulido

I bought this as a Christmas present for one of my colleagues who really likes the Marvel films… and he lent it to me once he’d finished reading it! Yay! This was my first foray into normal superhero type graphic novels, and I really enjoyed it! Even though I didn’t really care about Hawkeye in the Avengers film (I had no idea who he was, and kept on getting confused, hehe), I heard that this was good, and what I heard was right! It was very entertaining, and I slowly grew to like Hawkeye over the volume. I also liked the art! At the end, there was a Young Avengers story which lost me a little bit as I had no idea who anybody is (this is what puts me off superhero things – there’s waaaaaaaaayyy too much history for most of these characters for someone who has problems jumping in in the middle like I do). Still, it was all enjoyable! Yayy!

Must read more graphic novels!!!


Catch-up mini reviews! Part 2 - Fiction (1)

First of two posts covering non-YA, non-short story fiction. Yayyy!!!

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I had really high hopes for this… and to be honest, they weren’t really met. I read a few reviews online of it after reading (to check that I hadn’t just been idiotic and not understood it or something!) and they point out that the main character, Guy Montag, fluctuates wildly from being intelligent and acting logically to being a complete idiot. The ideas in it were interesting, but I just really didn’t enjoy the way that the story unfolded or how it was written, or how it ended. Sigh! I might try more of Ray Bradbury’s stuff though, just to see if I had wayyy too high expectations for this! (I feel this way about a lot of older science fiction/dystopian fiction - the ideas are interesting, but something about the way that it is written puts me off. Not that it was written badly, but.. the character development and the plot just lack something.)

Mind you, as I always do with books like this, I don't feel like I wasted my time reading it. Yay!

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan

I enjoyed this, although I’m glad that I read it after the hype had died down, as I think I might have been disappointed if I had gone in expecting more. I felt like most of the characters weren’t really that likeable, so if that’s an issue for you this might not be the best book to read. It’s well written, but I did feel that there was something… lacking, although it’s hard to put my finger on what exactly. I would like to read The Engagements, which has a more interesting sounding premise!

The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder by J.W. Ironmonger

I LOVED THIS! It was fun, quirky, and of personal interest to me, as the two main characters, Maximilian Ponder and his friend, Adam Last both spend some of their childhood living in Africa, and my Granddad also lived in Africa as a child, (although a few decades earlier than the story is set).  I highly recommend this to anyone who wants a fun, interesting read. Yay!

The Crash of Hennington – Patrick Ness

Yup, more Patrick Ness! Haha. This is his first novel, and is not YA. I really enjoyed the characters, and the idea of a herd of Rhino just wandering through a city, but I feel like it might have been a bit too overly complicated for its own good. I was forced to take notes to keep up with who everyone was! I also didn’t care that much for the ending… there wasn’t anything wrong with it per say, but I think it could have been more interesting. I enjoyed every second of reading the book though, which isn’t always the case!


Catch-up mini reviews! Part 1 - YA

Okay… let’s face it… there is NO WAY that I am actually going to get round to writing proper reviews of all of the books that I have been reading for the past few months. So instead, I’m just going to split the books into categories and ramble about each one a bit. Yay! This first post is for YA. Coming up will be posts covering graphic novels, short story collections, non-fiction and non-YA fiction (I guess literary fiction? But I’m never entirely sure what should go into that). And I am actually going to try and write all of the posts today and tomorrow, so this won’t turn into a thing where I say I’ll do something but don’t. Huzzah!

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Finally got round to reading some Rainbow Rowell! I LOVED IT. LOVED LOVED LOVED IT! I started reading it while I was on the plane on my way back to Japan, and basically got addicted to it and couldn’t put it down for the rest of the flight (I normally am not a good reader on planes, so this is an excellent sign!) I have Fangirl in a pile of actual physical books at home, and I’m looking forward to reading it! I’m so glad that everyone was so right about Rainbow Rowell!  (Also, speaking as someone who is married to a Japanese man, Asian men are VERY underrated in general, so it was nice to see someone of Asian descent as a romantic interest!)

Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo

Second book in the “The Grisha” series. I feel like I read this AAAGES ago so I can’t remember it amazingly well, but I do remember that I enjoyed it and it wasn’t a letdown after the first book at all. Looking forward to the next one!

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

This started out annoying, but I got really into it halfway through and found it really difficult to put down. Weirdly, the bits set in another universe/world were much more believable than the stuff set in this one.

Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor

The second in the “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” series, was just as enjoyable as the first, but occasionally said stupid things like “She wasn’t actually old enough for a license, which struck her now as funny. She didn’t know about Morocco, but in Europe you had to be eighteen, which she wouldn’t be for another month…” …what? Because Europe is just one big country which has the same rules everywhere? Hmm. Still, I enjoyed it and am looking forward to reading the next book!

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Very enjoyable, the love story bit didn’t annoy me as much as it can do in YA, and I really liked the main character.

Fire by Kristin Cashore

The second in the “Graceling Realm” series, and sort of a prequel to Graceling. I still enjoyed it, but the romantic elements in it were too confusing and didn’t strike me as realistic at all. But if you ignore that and just focus on the plot, it was okay! I’m looking forward to reading the next in the series.

I'm pretty sure that's it for YA! Yayyyy!