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.  :)

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!

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...

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.