Tag Archives: Books

Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks

Use of Weapons: Iain M Banks (Orbit, 1990)I’ve been meaning to re-read Banks for a long time, and his untimely death also meant I wanted to honour his memory in some way too. A small, personal way, for an author who had an impact on me.

This is less of a review, and more of a comparison of reading the same novel almost seventeen years apart, considering the historical context of when I first read it. There will be spoilers. They may be subtle, but if you want to read this book for the first time, don’t read on…

I almost met Iain Banks once. I kicked myself for the memory years later, but… There was a book-signing at The Friar Street Bookshop in Reading. Back in the mid-nineties (which seems like no time ago to me, despite nearly twenty years passing), The Friar Street Bookshop was a science-fiction specialist bookshop and therefore utterly wonderful. It was one of Blackwell’s bookshops and as I came from Oxford and was at university in Reading, it became a favourite haunt.

This was a couple of years before the final collapse of the net book agreement, so all books sold for RRP, and ‘real’ bookshops were rife. That’s not quite true, as Reading also had a shop selling discounted books that I practically lived in, but I think they had to be ‘damaged’ in some way. It was 1994 and The Friar Street Bookshop had a joint signing for two authors: Tom Holt (for Faust Among Equals) and Iain (M) Banks (for Feersum Endjinn).

I was (and still am) hugely fond of humourous fantasy (Terry Pratchett mainly) and had enjoyed all Tom Holt’s books to that point. They’d already lost the brilliance of his first half-dozen and I don’t think I actually read any after then. But at the time I’d been collecting his books, enjoying them, and was excited about the book signing. There was a huge queue. Not to Pratchett (or Gaiman, who I also hadn’t discovered yet) signing-queue standards, but a huge queue none-the-less.

I think no more than half a dozen people came for Tom Holt. I vaguely wondered who this Iain Banks person was but wasn’t curious enough to buy the book so I queue-jumped massively as everyone else was there for Banks, got my signed book, and returned home.

It was another two years before I read any Banks, and Use of Weapons was one of the first handful I read. I’d struggled with Consider Phlebas, but found Use of Weapons far more readable. I’d also read The Wasp Factory and seen the BBC Crow Road adaptation, so didn’t manage to read that for several years until the TV version faded enough. The Wasp Factory stunned me. Use of Weapons stunned me. I remember feeling almost breathless at the end.

I was young, twenty-one, just failed my degree and although ‘well read’, not in a literature sense. I studied (sort of) engineering; my A-Levels were maths and science. I was well read in horror, science fiction and humourous fantasy, with a soft spot for James Clavell novels.

The structure of the novel was new to me. The alternating chapters tell the current plot, and the history of the main protagonist; one narrative going forwards, the other backwards. Throughout there are hints to the chair, what the chair means, why it is so terrible.

On re-reading I was worried that the fact I remember what the chair was would destroy any shock for the ending. As it turned out, I had actually forgotten the part that had floored me all those years ago, but the chair itself was so horrific that it stuck with me. Leaving years between re-reads meant that although much of it was familiar, it was like reading from scratch. Apart from thinking throughout that I ‘knew’ the shocks the ending had in store.

I was thoroughly drawn back into the world of the Culture, and so taken in by all the characters that I didn’t look out for any twists or shocks. These days, with films especially, the ‘twist’ ending is such a stalwart that you can usually guess them a mile off. I’m glad that the memory of the chair was so strong that it became the ‘thing’ that I remembered and I could be shocked again, albeit more mildly.

I’m tempted to start rereading another Banks novel, but as I managed to miss the last three SF novels and have just ordered them, Use of Weapons has probably just set me up to start Matter when it arrives. If I don’t read The Quarry first.

For my twenty-one year old self, this is a five star novel. For my almost-thirty-eight year old self, this is probably a four star novel. I gave it five stars on Goodreads for nostalgia.

Bookish or Literary?

Books old and new

I think it is a case of stating ‘the bleeding obvious’ to write that I love books. I grew up in a house full of books; I’ve always lived with books; I’m bringing my children up in a house full of books. It’s a standing joke that we could open a library, but due to space issues I have actually given away & (occasionally) sold many hundreds of books over the years that if I could I would have kept. I love books.

I don’t read anywhere near as much as I used to. As a teenager & early twenties I’d easily read a minimum of 100 novels every year. This dwindled over time to around 15 or 20 post-children which is why I’m making a concerted effort to read (and finish) novels (for me) this year.

Picture books don’t count for this ramble. We’re going to reach the 300 different picture books read this year by the end of May, but that won’t mean we’ll get to 600 by the end of the year. In fact, I’ll be surprised if we reach 400 different picture books across the year, because favourites cycle over and over.

I am digressing massively from my planned ramble. Which is that I love books. We own thousands. I’ve read thousands.

However, I am not in the slightest bit literary. I do not particularly like literary fiction or make much of an effort to read it. I don’t really like classics. I’m aware of the titles and authors; of famous first lines; of general plot points; and of certain characters. But I have no particular desire to read Dickens or Austen; Melville or Tolstoy; Bronte(s) or Hardy.

Another digression: I had to read certain things at school. Which put me off classics for life. Silas Marner, Jane Eyre and The Mayor of Casterbridge were dull and lifeless and uninteresting. I never bothered finishing them outside whatever we were prescribed in lessons. I think I was working my way through Stephen King’s back catalogue outside lessons at the time (age 14/15) Earlier (age 11/12) I didn’t mind Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Children of Green Knowe, My Family and Other Animals, even Of Mice and Men but getting towards GCSE it got more and more boring. Apart from A Room With a View, which may have had a lot to do with our middle-aged English teachers giggling at that scene in the film adaptation…

I’m not bothered about literary awards. I don’t chose what I read based on what award it’s been nominated for. I once (as a teen) read the first page of Foucault’s Pendulum (Umberto Eco) about a dozen times and it was at that point I decided I would read what I liked. If the synopsis sounded interesting but the writing didn’t appeal, I’d stop reading. Sometimes I’ve attempted books three times before finishing and loving them; sometimes I’ve given up and never bothered to finish. I’ve never read Foucault’s Pendulum.

I am bookish. I am not literary.

I only have C’s in English GCSE; and have not studied any humanities subjects beyond GCSE level. But I am well read. I have read a lot. I don’t know the technical terms for grammar, but I know how to use it (when I can be bothered) because I’ve read so much. I have read widely, despite my preference being in fantasy and science fiction. I can spell quite well because I read so much when I was younger.

I learnt from books because I was introverted and I loved to read. I can spell words I can’t pronounce because I read them in a book at some point! I don’t confuse pacific for specific; or albeit as all be it; or for all intents and purposes as for all intensive purposes because I read them before hearing them.

I’ve been lucky in my life to have always been described as intelligent. Being quiet and wearing glasses can be a useful stereotype! My lack of reading literary fiction has not dumbed me down. Not knowing the technical terms for grammar has not stopped me being able to write. My point in all this ramble is that people should read whatever suits them. Whatever it is. Literature should not be snobbish. I find myself utterly switched off by pretentious twaddle in book reviews websites and newspapers but because I love books I carry on reading what I want when I feel like it.

My new favourite author blogger is Matt Haig. He writes much sense at his own blog and Booktrust. He’s written (with far more authority) on what’s wrong with ‘literary’ fiction and literary snobbism and why people don’t read. I recommend you read them all. And then carry on reading whatever you want, including literary fiction if you like it!

This Is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E Smith

This Is What Happy Looks Like: Jennifer E Smith (Headline, 2013)

This Is What Happy Looks Like: Jennifer E Smith (Headline, 2013)

This is far removed from my usual book preference, being a contemporary teenage romance with no supernatural elements at all. I ought to dislike it intently, it starts with a random mistyping of an e-mail address connecting two people, who happen to both be seventeen, and happen to get along wonderfully, and one of them happens to be a famous film star who is practically a Mary Sue in talent and good looks. Except… I loved it!

My inner sixteen year old loved the budding romance and the ups and downs in it. My adult self cringed in the first few chapters when an accident meant a change in top (with name label) leading to a mistaken identity… Oh no, I thought, this is going to go on far too long when in reality as soon as the characters speak to each other they’d realise their mistake. What a cliché… But the characters did speak to each other and instantly realise the mistake – joy! I do like a plot that follows some logic, and this one does.

The story also manages to avoid what could be a trite family reunion by… Well, that might give too much away. It also avoids an overly cliché ending. Even if teenage contemporary romance isn’t your thing, this is compelling enough to grab your attention and keep it (I read it in one sitting), it’s not cliché-filled and although at the start the description of Graham makes him seem one-dimensional, the characters are all well-rounded. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Disclaimer: We were sent a copy of This is What Happy Looks Like by Headline for review thanks to a nomination from Jax at Making It Up. No other financial reward was given and the opinions are my own. I was not asked to write this post.

Red Riding Hood and the Sweet Little Wolf by Rachael Mortimer and Liz Pichon

Red Riding Hood and the Sweet Little Wolf: Rachael Mortimer & Liz Pichon (Hodder Children's Books, 2012)

Red Riding Hood and the Sweet Little Wolf: Rachael Mortimer & Liz Pichon (Hodder Children’s Books, 2012)

The story follows the Red Riding Hood plot from the wolf view-point. Sweet Little Wolf is sent out by her parents to get dinner (one onion, two potatoes, one tender and juicy little girl…) but gets sidetracked by listening to Red Riding Hood’s fairy tales and dressing up in Grandma’s lovely pink nightgown! Red Riding Hood finds Sweet Little Wolf snoring and screams, so a woodcutter runs in to help. But all ends happily with Red Riding Hood writing a nice letter to Mr and Mrs Wolf.

Interview with DG about the story:

Me: What did you like best?
DG: The sweet little wolf. When she dressed up. The little girl had lots of apples.
Me: What didn’t you like?
DG: Mummy and Daddy wolf. They were naughty.
Me: Is this a good book?
DG: Yes!

This book is worth having for the illustrations and the focus on writing lists and letters – great encouragement for early school-age children – you could do some lovely writing projects based on this book as a starting point.

Disclaimer: We were sent a copy of Red Riding Hood and the Sweet Little Wolf by Hachette Childrens Books for review. No other financial reward was given and the opinions are my own. I was not asked to write this post.

Splat says Thank You! by Rob Scotton

Splat Says Thank-You!: Rob Scotton (HarperCollins Children's Books, 2012)

Splat Says Thank-You!: Rob Scotton (HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2012)

It’s hard not to like Splat the Cat. This is his seventh picture book and in it his friend Seymour is feeling sad because he’s ill. Splat tries to cheer Seymour up with his friendship book, a list of all the things Splat wants to thank Seymour for.

“When I broke my mum’s favourite ornament, you fixed it for me,” said Splat.
Except somehow, Mum noticed and I had to have a bath and go to bed early.
“Thank-you, anyway.”

The humour oozes though the pages with the pictures telling more of the story and lots to laugh along with, although tinged with feeling sad for poor Seymour too. But mainly lots of giggles at all the scrapes Seymour has helped Splat out of, for which Splat is genuinely grateful no matter how it turned out.

“You are my smallest friend and my biggest.”

That line makes me have a bit of dust in my eye… 😉 Beautifully illustrated, funny and with a great message too.

Disclaimer: We were sent a copy of  Splat Says Thank-you! by HarperCollins Children’s Books for review. No other financial reward was given and the opinions are my own. I was not asked to write this post.

[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=og9dxHWnnNg”]

Come On, Daisy by Jane Simmons

Come On, Daisy: Jane Simmons (Orchard Books, 1998)

Come On, Daisy!: Jane Simmons (Orchard Books, 1998)

This is a fifteenth anniversary re-issue, and therefore completely new to me! Fifteen years ago I was… Um… I was 22, not quite two years out of university and just about to leave home and move into a rented bedsit. It was not a time when I took much interest in picture books!

Daisy is a curious little duckling who is more interested in investigating the world around her than listening to her mother’s calls of “Come on!” It’s an all-too familiar scenario for any parent of small children. Come on; Keep moving; Keep Close; Don’t stray… We constantly tell these things to our children, knowing that we have to get somewhere, knowing that we want to keep them safe. But children need to explore and discover, and learn danger. I’d rather they learnt danger from Daisy’s worries than in real life, but I think this book also has a message for parents too: allow time for exploring. I think Mamma Duck has slowed down a little at the end so Daisy can look at the butterflies while staying close, and Daisy has learnt that she needs to listen to Mamma Duck too.

A lovely message in a beautifully illustrated book. Suitable for toddlers and up, we’ve all enjoyed this story in the Chaos household. It’s no wonder it’s been popular for fifteen years, here’s to the next fifteen and beyond.

Disclaimer: We were sent a copy of Come On, Daisy! by Hachette Children’s Books for review. No other financial reward was given and the opinions are my own. I was not asked to write this post.

Ant and Bee by Angela Banner

Ant and Bee: Angela Banner (Egmont, revised ed. 2013)
Ant and Bee: Angela Banner (Egmont, revised ed. 2013)

People of a certain age will remember Ant and Bee from their childhoods. Actually, people of several certain ages as Ant and Bee were in print from 1950’s to early 1990’s. Anyhow, some people (me included) remember Ant and Bee with a sense of nostalgia and love, so hearing that Egmont was starting to reprint them was hugely exciting.

I pre-ordered a copy of the first Ant and Bee from the lovely Mostly Books and it was with some trepidation that I collected it because nostalgia is a funny thing… I needn’t have worried, the new and updated*  versions were an immediate hit with MG and DG and have been read innumerable times in the three days we’ve owned it.

*(I suspect the original language would have been very dated but don’t have an original copy to compare, I hope Storyseekers will do a comparison post with her loft treasures!)

Ant and Bee, drawn by me Bee, by MG

Ant and Bee is a quite surreal story in order to fit the introduction of 26 three-letter words alphabetically (in order) throughout the text. As each new word is introduced, it is given a page to itself (double page) and then the word is included in red text throughout the book to encourage young children to join in. As a method of learning to read, this will work for some children and not others.

I never learnt to read with Ant and Bee but they were great as early readers. The same is true for MG. She has learnt to read phonetically, is currently on Blue/Green book band level and can read the entire book. The pride from reading such a long (over 100 pages!) ‘real’ book is wonderful to see and the mad story is appealing to her. DG loves shouting the words as we get to them, but is not at a stage to recognise the red symbols as being a word yet, although she does recognise letters, so cannot read along other than with the first introduction of a word.

MG has already requested another Ant and Bee book for her birthday later this month, and I can see us collecting them all as they are published. Three were published today, with another three following later in the year.

MG reading an extract from Ant and Bee, with DG in the background not listening 😉
[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KVqahI4JpJc”]

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time: Mark Haddon (Vintage, 2003)This novel probably needs no introduction but in summary it is written from the viewpoint of Christopher John Francis Boone, who is 15 years old. Christopher finds his neighbour’s dog dead and sets on a course of events to discover the murderer that instead unlocks family secrets.

It is never explicitly stated in the story, but Christopher appears to have a form of high-functioning autism. He is very logical and does not understand people. He starts to write his detective story for his teacher at school, and adds descriptions of random things because she says he needs to include more descriptions. It’s probably the only fiction book with the answer to an A-Level maths question in it, not to mention being my first introduction to the Monty Hall Problem.

I love most of this book. On the first reading I related to much of Christopher’s viewpoint of the world and the disconnection appeals to me. However, Christopher’s disconnection to the world is severe. On being told his mother has died, he feels no sense of emotion. Autism is a spectrum disorder and there are as many different versions as there are people but in the years since I first read this I feel that the emotional disconnect applied to people with Autism is taken too much for granted.

I think this is the original book of this kind. Mockingbird is a poor relation whereas Room (Emma Donoghue) is probably more comparable being written from the viewpoint of a hyperlexic five-year old with limited world knowledge. I like how this book doesn’t have a neat ending. The investigation is completed and things are found out but life for Christopher has changed irrevocably and there are no neat endings for life. There are no ‘happy ever afters’ here but you’re not left feeling cheated. It is right, it finishes in the right place, and in keeping with the personality of the story, it ends with something completely disconnected!

The title is taken from this quote, which I include because I also like it:

Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

“Silver Blaze”: Arthur Conan Doyle, 1892

Ruby, Blue and Blanket by Jane Hissey

Ruby, Blue and Blanket: Jane Hissey (Scribblers, 2013)

Ruby, Blue and Blanket: Jane Hissey (Scribblers, 2013)

This is Jane Hissey’s first book in ten years and although in some ways a complete departure from her earlier, much loved, Old Bear stories, it is still very much a ‘Jane Hissey’ book thanks to the beautiful pencil drawings which are so real they seem three dimensional and just ready to pounce off the page into your arms.

Extract from Ruby, Blue and Blanket:
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwyZQYcPbSA]

Oh, this is such a beautiful book, and one that can be enjoyed from very young (to as old as you like!) The text is written in a bouncing rhyme sharing Ruby (the mouse), Blue (the rabbit) and Blanket (the horse)’s game of dressing up. But Ruby cannot decide what to be and tries out being a fairy, a pirate, a mermaid, a spaceman…

I can’t express how much delight this fills me with. Ruby is a girl mouse but she does not choose to be a fairy, a princess and a mermaid only. She chooses all the options. And Blue Rabbit, a boy, chooses a princess costume! Because given a box of dressing up clothes, young children transcend gender stereotypes and choose whatever they want. As it should be!

Jane Hissey in studio (c) Salariya

I especially love how one of Blue’s stipulations in dressing up is to wear “nothing at all on my feet”. Maybe it’s just for the rhyme, but I think actually Jane knows exactly what she wants in this story and knows her audience very well. Shoes can be so horribly constricting for young children.

We follow Ruby through the book as her imagination flits from one place to another. A helmet is all that’s needed to be a spaceman; a sheet makes you a ghost. In the interview (video below) Jane talks about how she sees children in Disney Princess or Marvel Superhero costumes at the expense of imagination (company names added by me, because let’s not forget the branding!)

The interview is a must-watch in my opinion. Only fifteen minutes of your time required to hear an evident expert on children speak so much sense, and the insight into creating her books is wonderful too.

The conclusion to Ruby, Blue and Blanket is perfect and something I see in my children every time they empty the dressing up clothes over the floor (several times a day!) Why be one thing, when you can be many? Life doesn’t fit into neat little compartments, much as we try to fit our children into them. They know better!

Jane Hissey, Ruby, Blue & Blanket (c) Salariya

I had only one gripe with the book, and it’s just a ‘packaging’ point. On the back of the book, there is an illustration of Blue dressed as a mermaid witch. For me, this feels a little like giving away the end of the story before you open the book but as gripes go, it’s not an issue! The text and illustrations are perfect, and we’ve read this over and over since receiving it.

The official publication date is 27th February, but you may already be able to find this in stock at your local independent bookstore. I wholeheartedly recommend Ruby, Blue and Blanket; and so do DG and MG.

Disclaimer: We were sent a copy of Ruby, Blue and Blanket by Salariya for review. No other financial reward was given and the opinions are my own. I was not asked to write this post.

Interview with Jane Hissey:
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mp7_J2izvCU]

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

mockingbirdI tend to be drawn to characters with high-functioning autism / Asperger’s syndrome in books and film. I have a feeling it’s because I can relate to the experience. I therefore wanted to like Mockingbird a lot more than I actually did.

The book is an easy read, and compelling enough to continue to the end but the overarching plot of the aftermath of a school shooting is harder to relate to in the UK where, after a school shooting almost 20 years ago, private ownership of handguns was made illegal. The recent Sandy Hook tragedy has been connected with Asperger’s in the media, an opinion that muddies the real issue of gun control. But enough of my personal opinion on gun ownership, and back to Mockingbird.

I did not connect with Caitlin. I found her character inconsistent. For someone technically highly intelligent, her understanding of particular words did not ring true. Not understanding social situations and how to react in them, and not understanding all the nuances of something is one thing; expecting the reader to believe that she has never come across words such as ‘closure’ and ‘finesse’ is quite another.

Further inconsistencies include where Caitlin misinterprets the phrase “Scout’s honour” as a reference to her brother’s nickname for her. Except, from the first page of the book, we know that her brother was in the Eagle Scouts so there is no reason why she would make this misunderstanding considering how close she was to her brother.

I found the ending rushed and hollow. I think it is supposed to be poignant and fulfilling but it didn’t work for me. I’d wanted to read Mockingbird since Jax’s review last year, and finding it for 99p in the Kindle sale was an irresistible bargain. I’m not sure if I can recommend it, based on my feelings for the main character and the let down of the rushed ending. It’s certainly readable, but not a patch on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.