Dickens in December: The Pickwick Papers readalong, part 2

So this is going to be short and sweet as I am not feeling particularly well.

I knew that Jingle would be back! Yay, I predicted something correctly for once! (It doesn't happen often).

I enjoyed the side anecdotes more this time round (maybe because I was expecting them and was thus mentally prepared for the break in tone from the rest of the book), but I still don't really think they belong in the story, and I kind of wish that Dickens had had a much more aggressive editor.

Ode to an Expiring Frog was amazing.

I couldn't have cared less about any of the election related stuff. My eyes kind of glazed over for most of that chapter.

I liked the old fashioned mic drop at the end of the story that the old man who was obsessed with inns was telling:

As the old man concluded his tale, he advanced to a peg in one corner, and taking down his hat and coat, put them on with great deliberation; and, without saying another word, walked slowly away.

(Although to be honest I'm not sure that the story that he told warranted it, but whatever)

I left it a bit late to start reading this week's chapters, so I'm going to try and start earlier next week. I definitely seem to enjoy the book more when I'm reading at a more leisurely pace without worrying that I'm getting behind.

I will have a more substantial post next week, I promise!


Mini reviews of end of October/beginning of November reads

Let's face it, I am never going to find the time/inclination to write proper reviews for everything that I have read. So my new plan is to give everything that I have read a mini review at least, and then do individual posts for books that I actually have a decent amount to say about.

And I did actually write this in early November, but then forgot to post it, haha. Oh well.

On with the reviews!

Geek Girl by Holly Smale

If you are looking for a light-hearted, easy to read book that doesn't take itself too seriously, this might be one for you. The story follows Harriet, a girl who is a self-professed geek who hates fashion, but is then scouted at a fashion event that she only attended to support her best friend Nat who actually wants to be a model. Awkward. It is completely ridiculous, and I am pretty sure that the fashion industry does not work at all in the way that it is depicted in the book (although I could be wrong I guess, according to the author biography it seems to have been based on personal experience!), but it was thoroughly entertaining, and I really loved Harriet as a character. I only bought this because it was really cheap, but I think I will definitely read the rest of the series the next time I need something that I know will be very entertaining.

My only complaint isn't anything to do with the book really, but there were "handwritten" sections that ended up being really tiny and difficult to read on my e-reader. I couldn't figure out a way to make the pictures bigger, so ended up having to squint at them. Probably just me being stupid, but I feel like that should be accounted for when it's made into an e-book!

The Dinner by Herman Koch

I'm sure that those of you who haven't read this have at least heard of it. I don't really want to say much about the story as I think it's the kind of thing that works best if you know as little about it as possible beforehand, but it is about a man who goes out for a meal with his wife, his brother and his sister in law, and throughout the dinner it is revealed that all is not as it seems.

I have heard some people say that they couldn't relate to the characters at all, but I didn't find that to be a problem. I enjoyed the book and the revelations weren't at all what I thought they might be. It was quite a tense reading experience, and on the whole I enjoyed it. I did find it slightly annoying that it kept on purposefully not telling you the names of things, like "at a hospital, but I won't tell you which one because..." when there didn't seem to be any need for it to be written that way.

I also went into the book thinking that everything would be revealed through the dinner, but there was a lot of remembering things that had happened, and I think conceptually it would have been much more interesting if it had just been the meal. I'm not entirely sure why I thought that it would just be the meal, I must have misunderstood something that I read about it! (I tend not to read reviews/blurbs too closely if I know I actually want to read something, so sometimes completely get the wrong end of the stick)

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

Creepy cheerleaders? I'm there! This was a pretty creepy sinister book, and although I'm not sure I would count it amongst the best books that I have ever read, it was very well written, atmospheric and above all, enjoyable.

The book opens on some horrible event that has happened involving the narrator, Addy, and then the book goes on to cover the events that led up to it and... well to say any more would involve spoilers.

I enjoyed this, although I found some of the dialogue pushed the lines of plausibility (especially some of the things that Beth, Addy's best friend said). But overall, it was a very enjoyable read.

The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu

This was an interesting one for me, as the book is set in Harare (the capital city of Zimbabwe, obviously, I so knew that before I started reading the book), and most of the books that I read that are set in countries that are not the UK or America tends to be more serious literary fiction (like the two books that I read this year that are at least party set in Zimbabwe and Nigeria, We Need New Names and Americanah - neither of which I blogged about, apparently! Bad Jenny. They were both excellent!), and this was definitely not.

The story is about a hairdresser, Vimbai, who is the star hairdresser in her salon until a man, Dumisani, shows up and takes a job as a new hairdresser. The story follows Vimbai and Dumi as their relationship evolves from rivals to something else, as we find out more about Dumi's mysterious past.

I liked reading a book set in a country which has a lot of political and economic issues, where those issues were not the main focus of the book, but to be honest, if it wasn't for the setting I'm not sure how far I would have got into the book. I spent a lot of the time that I was reading it saying "ARGH Vimbai stop being an idiot!" in my head, as she was infuriatingly naive about a lot of things, and I didn't find the plot particularly interesting, although it didn't outright bore me at any point. What I did find fascinating were the insights into daily life in Zimbabwe and being exposed to a completely different culture. If this book had been set in... I don't know, Birmingham or somewhere I probably would have read a couple of pages, shrugged and decided that I didn't care.

Also, every chapter seemed to end with a sentence like this: "Little did I know that this small twist of fate would cost me my crown.", which I think is okay occasionally, but gets irritating when it is repeated ad infinitum!


Dickens in December: The Pickwick Papers readalong, part 1

It's time to break out the Dickens again for another Dickens in December readalong, hosted by the wonderful Bex of An Armchair By The Sea.

I totally meant to do an intro post but um, I didn't, so let's just say here that before I started reading it I knew next to nothing about the book. In general I'm not really a massive Dickens fan (I like the stories, not too sure about the writing style), but last year I also joined in with the readalong of A Tale of Two Cities, which overall I would say that I enjoyed, but I did still struggle with somewhat. This meant that I was slightly nervous going into The Pickwick Papers in case it all became too Dickensy for me. But to my surprise, I actually enjoyed the first section a lot!

First of all, it's funny. The first chapter immediately sets up the idea that the whole novel is going to be lightly poking fun at everything, which is sadly necessary for me as otherwise I have a habit of taking things which are supposed to be funny at face value and being confused when I read reviews afterwards talking about how funny the book was (although I don't think it necessarily would have been a problem with this book!)

Another good thing about it is that it's pretty fast paced, so if you aren't particularly interested in what's going on then it's very likely that the next chapter is going to be about something completely different. It feels like it has been a long time since I have read a book that focuses more on small events happening throughout the book than on an overarching plot. It actually feels weirdly nostalgic to read, as a lot of the books (particularly classics) that I read when I was younger were more along those lines - Little Women, A Little Princess, What Katy Did At School, What Katy Did Next (weirdly I can remember these two much more vividly than the first book), a lot of Astrid Lindgren books (I will always love you, Bullerby children). I seem to have fallen out of the habit of reading these, but honestly this whole thing is reminding me that I should probably have some books like that mixed into my reading.

As far as the characters go I definitely love Pickwick and Tupman already, although I feel like the other members of the Pickwick club have not really had a chance to shine yet. Hopefully they will in the rest of the book. I also enjoyed Mr Jingle, and I sort of hope that he keeps on popping up throughout the novel to stir things up.

The one thing that I don't quite get though is why there are so many anecdotes included in it, that are either told by other people or written down and read by one of the characters... like, I don't really get why they're there at all? The ones so far have not really been that interesting to me, and they have a decidedly different tone to the rest of the novel, it just seems a bit odd to have them there. I guess though, it is Dickens, so he has to do some moralizing at some point, and they are there to fill his moralizing quota? Perhaps.

Anyway, I am definitely enjoying it, and I think that one of my main issues with this readalong might be actually making myself stick to the schedule!

Yay for enjoyable, very readable Dickens! Let's hope that the book carries on in this vein.

A few quotes that I enjoyed:

Now general benevolence was one of the leading features of the Pickwickian theory, and no one was more remarkable for the zealous manner in which he observed so noble a principle than Mr. Tracy Tupman. The number of instances, recorded on the Transactions of the Society, in which that excellent man referred objects of charity to the houses of other members for left-off garments or pecuniary relief is almost incredible.

‘Mr. Tupman,’ rise,’ said the spinster aunt, with averted head—‘I can hardly speak the words; but—but—you are not wholly indifferent to me.’

- I wish that I had used this at some point to respond to somebody asking me out.

"Who could continue to exist, where there are no cows but the cows on the chimney-pots"

...who indeed.

P.S. I'm still on the lookout for a pretty printed version of the book, as I could only find very old battered looking penguin classic versions (the ones with the black spine) at all the bookshops (only 2, to be honest, but it's not like I'm surrounded by bookshops with a decent English fiction section) I looked in here, so I ended up getting an e-book version as well (although not a free one, because I don't think I could deal with awful formatting). Anybody have any recommendations? (I can get hold of both US and UK versions equally easily)


The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

A warning before I start talking about the book - I actually lent the book to a friend so I don't have it on hand, and as I never take notes this may not be the most detailed review ever. Ah well!

This is my second proper Neil Gaiman book, and it made me feel that in time, he may well become one of my favourite authors.

The Graveyard Book tells the story of a toddler who manages to escape from his crib and make his way to the local graveyard on the same night that a man comes to his house to murder his family. Naturally, the ghost residents of the graveyard agree to take him in, with the help of a mysterious friend of the graveyard called Silas. So the toddler is adopted by the ghosts of Mr and Mrs Owen, and they decide to call him Nobody Owens, or Bod for short. The book follows Bod as he grows up and gets up to all sorts of mischief.

Now looking at that summary of the story, that is a pretty depressing way to start a book, but as it is a children's book we are spared the horrible details. The book has a sort of loose ongoing plot to do with the initial murders weaved through it, but it is mostly a collection of short stories featuring the same characters, that involve Bod going on some kind of adventure, learning something, and growing. In other hands this could be very boring, or far too childish for an adult to read and enjoy, but Gaiman seems to be the perfect person to tell this kind of story. All of Bod's adventures are very entertaining and a bit dark, which is the ideal combination for me.

I really loved all of the characters in the book, from the adventurous, curious Bod to the mysterious Silas, and could happily have read several more volumes detailing Bod's adventures. Alas, the book did not last forever.

My one complaint about the book (because I can never just like anything, apparently) doesn't really have anything to do with the writing. I don't know if all copies of the book have pictures, but mine did, and although I didn't dislike them, they showed Bod wearing normal clothes and then on the next page there were descriptions of him just being wrapped in a grey sheet, and that kind of thing drives me slightly crazy when reading books! But that is literally the only thing that I disliked about the book.

If you are looking for a charming, easy to read novel that you could easily read in chunks and then put aside for a while (although why you would want to, I have no idea), then I definitely recommend this.

I definitely need to try more Gaiman, I think I might read more of his children's books first before anything else, because I'm a bit scared of not liking some of his adult stuff. I know that when I read Smoke and Mirrors, a few of the stories weren't quite my cup of tea, which is fine for a short story but would make me sad it if was a whole novel.

I actually finished this in October (even though I am actively trying to update my blog more often, I am wayyyyy behind in writing stuff about things that I have been reading), so for once I read a spooky book in the run up to Halloween. Yay me!


Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

 I don't think that anything that I say here is going to actually fully express how much I liked this book. But honestly, I loved it from the moment that I started reading it till I finished.

Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

This is the twelfth expedition.

Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.

This book made me change the way that I normally read, which is quite an achievement - Normally when I really get into a book I start trying to read as fast as I possibly can (and thus miss bits and get confused later, haha), but with this book I actually slowed down. It's not a particularly long novel, and I didn't really want to leave the world that VanderMeer created, it was so creepy, atmospheric, and above all, fascinating.

One thing that I really liked about the book was the way that it captured the narrator's voice. The narrator, the biologist (she isn't named in the novel) obviously has a scientific background, and her narrative style reflects that really well. It was sort of detached at times, as if she was stepping back and observing what was happening, which perfectly fit her character. There was a distinct lack of flowery language (always a good thing in my book!), and I thought that the biologist, and the other characters in the book were all drawn really well, and seemed like real humans who are reacting in very human ways to what happens to them. I think this is an excellent example of how to write a strong female character (for men, women generally don't have issues with this!). The character doesn't have to be some kind of warrior, you just need to give them a personality that isn't purely defined by the fact that they are female, and give them agency.

This has nothing to do with the content of the books, but I really like both the UK and US cover art for the whole of the trilogy. They both do an excellent job of conveying the mood of the book. In fact, although I have got all of the novels digitally, I am quite tempted to buy physical copies as well. (Plus, I got Annihilation for free (presumably to entice people to spend money on the rest of the trilogy? It worked for me!), and I feel that this is wayyyy too low a price for a book that I enjoyed this much!

I'm really curious as to where the series will go next. There's still a lot left open and unknown at the end of the first book, and I know that the second one focuses on a completely different thread of the story and completely different characters. I already bought it, so I'm excited about reading it! Although I am also a bit wary that it might let me down. With a book where half the fun is reading about all of the mysterious happenings and trying to figure out what exactly is going on, I think it would be very easy for the explanations (if they do come by the end of the book) to be slightly disappointing. I hope not though.

On a random tangent, the weird creatures in this book reminded me that I still need to read Maddadam. In fact, it's been too long since I read any Atwood at all. Hmm...