Thursday, 11 October 2012

Summer Reading: Part 2

Yes, I'm aware that it is now autumn! Therefore I will attempt to finish posting my summer reads and move on to the current season. So, one more post to come after this and I'll be all caught up!

The Whitby Witches by Robin Jarvis
A fantasy-horror for children, drawing on Whitby folklore. The set-up is common fare: two orphaned children go to live with an old lady; strange things start to happen; adventures follow. Jarvis writes in a fairly straightforward way, and his characters are rather caricatured, but none the worse for that. The plot is rather grim, with more death than I was comfortable with in a children's book. (I mean for me, now. I'm sure as a child I wouldn't have had a problem with it!). I felt as though the mysterious and goblin-like fisher folk almost didn't fit in with the rest of this novel, and the conclusion was unfulfilling. Although, I have since learnt that this is just the first book of a trilogy, so that may explain it. I've read a few Jarvis, and I always feel that they are ok but with reservations. I think it's that his writing style just doesn't hold me in thrall, in the same way that other children's authors do. A pleasant enough read though (apart from all the death).

Hidden Turnings edited by Dianne Wynne-Jones
This is teen short fantasy, and I think that if I had read this book twenty years ago (probably around how long it's been sitting on my bookshelves!) I would have really loved it. The stories have that angsty, haunted, questioning feel that teens identify so well with. As it is, reading it in my late thirties, I merely enjoyed it. Several of the stories - by Tanith Lee, Lisa Tuttle, Geraldine Harris - are about being on the cusp of adulthood, growing up, wondering about the future. Here is Roman myth, twisted fairytale, dark fantasy. Here is death. All the things that we love when we think we are immortal. A well-crafted 170-odd pages, out of which I couldn't pick a favourite.

The Human Mind by Robert Winston
A tie-in to the BBC series that ran several years ago. Obviously science moves on, and we know a little more about the brain now than we did then. But it's still an excellent introduction to the way that our minds work. Something that we all should know, no?

Friends Like These by Danny Wallace
Now you all know that I love Danny Wallace's books. I love the comedy, I love the earnestness, I love the crazy adventures. Most of all I love the positivity. The quote from The Guardian on the back of this book says "The poster-boy for positive thinking", and yes, that's exactly what he is. This adventure sees Danny feeling nostalgic and deciding to track down all the kids from his class at primary school, and tripping over some wonderful coincidences in the process. It is, by turns, moving and hilarious, and - as with Yes Man and Join Me - makes the reader think about their own life, circumstances and attitude. Thank you Danny, you've done it again. You look lovely today, by the way.

Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier
'Burning bright' is a line from William Blake's poem 'The Tyger', and indeed Blake appears as a character in this novel, as a neighbour of the Kellaways, a family recently moved to London from their countryside home. Teenagers Jem Kellaway and streetwise Londoner Maggie Butterfield become friends with the intriguing Mr Blake, learning to respect his odd views on life. They also become involved with another historical figure:  Philip Astley, father of the modern circus. This is a novel of contrasts: the seediness of London set against the freshness of the countryside; the moral differences between the Kellaways and the Butterfields; the low culture of Astley's Circus versus the high culture of Blake and his printing press. This is a novel that has rape, murder, and unwanted pregnancy as well as poetry and radical thought. It is well-researched and well-written. But despite liking Tracy Chevalier's earlier works this just fell flat for me. It has all the right elements to make it great but somehow the magic just doesn't happen. It never comes alive, never (ironically) burns bright. It's readable -  and if you like Chevalier's previous works there is no reason not to read it - but it's also forgettable. I'm not sure whether to hang on to it for a complete collection of Chevalier, or let it go because I'm unlikely to read it again.

And some that I dipped into:

A Good Old-Fashioned Future by Bruce Sterling
One of the founders of cyberpunk in science-fiction, Bruce Sterling is very precise in his writing, going so far as to casually explain terms that the reader might not understand. I loved the first two stories in this collection. Maneki Neko (those Japanese, lucky, beckoning cats) is set in a future where the internet knows us well enough to set us small, seemingly unconnected tasks that link up in a way that we can't predict but it can. Big Jelly is about an oil tycoon, and a man who creates artificial jellyfish. Both stories are beautiful in their ideas and precision. The following stories, all set in the same universe, with continuing characters and situations, just didn't grab me in the same way, and I ended up skimming through to the end. The stories all have that written-in-the-90s feel to them, which personally I really like, that sense of fear and wonder about where the future is taking us, and although I didn't enjoy them all, I would give Sterling another try.

Nerd Do Well by Simon Pegg
It's clear that Simon Pegg doesn't really want to talk about his private life. He says as much. So this is an autobiography that spends most of the time dwelling on rather dull stories from his childhood. So, skip to the end... and in the short space where he talks about his career, and the TV shows and movies that he is famous for, he is quite interesting. But not funny. On paper, it would seem, he just isn't funny at all. And I only said quite interesting. This book has very little meat on its bones, and unless you are as much in love with Mr Pegg as he is in love with himself, I really wouldn't bother.

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