What I’m reading – Summer 2017

It’s coming to the end of the summer holiday and I’ll be returning to work/school/uni imminently. Here’s a round-up of what I’ve been reading:

The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
I quite enjoy Vietnam war films – Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now – and I had been recommended The Forever War. A good read, with some commentary on how society changes and how this is reflected in the actions of, and the reaction to, those returning from warfare.

The Accidental Time Machine – Joe Haldeman
A good yarn, reminiscent of the fiction on Daily Science Fiction.

Pet Semetary – Stephen King
Slightly predictable, but still an enjoyable and easy read.

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline
Last year I read Cline’s Armada. I wanted to read Ready Player One then, but I’d forgotten about it until I saw a trailer for the Spielberg film adaptation. I’m glad I managed to read it. It was good fun.

Alongside several non-fiction books and articles (mostly prep for the MEd), I’m currently reading REAMDE by Neal Stephenson.

What I’ve read – Summer 2016

Here’s what I read last summer – I’ve been neglecting this website and had forgotten to post this.

2016 Summer:

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

A friend was getting rid of an Asimov anthology – a big hardback featuring several of his novels. While I’d grown up with many of Asimov’s books being available in my house, I’ve never read any of them. So I figured I’d borrow the anthology before passing onto the charity shop, and read the collection. The first novel in the collection was Foundation. So what do I think?

My initial thought was that Asimov writes weirdly. It wasn’t bland, but it wasn’t too descriptive. It’s somewhere in between, but closer to the bland end of the spectrum. It seemed very narrative driven, yet the world seemed to develop naturally and when description did rear its head, it wasn’t poor nor over the top – just in the Goldilock’s zone.

Just as I’d get used to how things were working at one point in tie, the chapter or book would end and I’d find myself transported thirty or so years into the future. This meant that an awful lot of time was covered in a novel that – in my edition – is less than 200 pages long. While I think it would have been interesting to have had more detail, perhaps individual stories or tales that take place within the Foundation or the Galactic Empire (I don’t know enough about Asimov’s books yet to know if these exist), I think that Foundation serves as a good “core” or “skeleton” that tells the story of a changing Universe.

Armada by Ernest Cline

This was fun. With space battles that took all the good stuff from Jack Campbell’s The Lost Fleet and added in more fun, a writing style that isn’t bland but isn’t pretentious: Cline’s writing seems to ooze enthusiasm and a  love for sci-fi. While I didn’t like the ending [tries not to give spoilers] the premise of the story is great.

Good fun, and I can’t wait to read Ready, Player One.

Damnation Alley by Roger Zelzany

I’ve had this in my “to-read” pile for a long time. Last night I was looking for something to read, and I picked it up. I read half of it last night and half of it this morning. It’s not particularly long, and the plot isn’t particularly complicated. The cast is pretty small, and the book is pretty short. Yet Zelzany creates a believable post-apocalyptic world with hints of Mad Max and Fallout (although, that should really be the other way round as this was written first), with a protagonist who is nasty yet nice.

Short, simple and good.

Dangerous Doctorow Double

Several years ago I noticed an intriguingly titled book called The Rapture of the Nerds. I thought it was a pretty cool title and I stood in my campus Waterstones and flicked through it. I wasn’t taken enough by Doctorow’s writing to impulse purchase it though.

Doctorow has appeared on my reading radar many times since. It was only recently that I took advantage of his releasing his books for free under a Creative Commons License, and read some of them.

Specifically, I read Little Brother and Homeland.

The titles allude to ideas of surveillance and security, as well as paranoia.

I can’t help but think that the books are dangerous though. Dangerous in that they leave the reader with an introduction to the world of TOR and the Darknet, as well as internet surveillance. I think that would leave the average teenager – average person really – with just enough knowledge to use these tools, but be not completely understand what they are doing and how to use them safely. However, the ideas of cyber security and internet surveillance might pique the interest of teenagers, leading them to read documentation and articles on how to use the services: this is a good thing.

I have another issue with the books. At times Doctorow’s prose breaks down into a mini-tutorial of how to use the above services. I found this irritating as it detracted from the story. Starting every chapter with a dedication to a bookstore, while having good intentions, also detracted from the story, pulling the reader out of the narrative. Perhaps having these in an “Acknowledgements” or “Thanks” section, outside of the main narrative would have made more sense.

As for the actual story?

Little Brother was pretty cool, I’m not going to lie. I enjoyed the story although I found the speed at which the US Government upped the surveillance and tracking of their citizens to be a little unbelievable.

Homeland was pretty cool too. In some ways I enjoyed it more than Little Brother. That might be because I didn’t read it in one marathon sitting.

I’m not going to write too much about the story – that wasn’t why I created this post.

Overall? Doctorow’s books might be dangerous, but they could do a good job in getting teenagers who don’t read, to read.

More reading!

Amazon had their 12 Days of Kindle sale recently, during which many books were discounted. I picked up a few more to read:

  • Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell
  • City of Bones – Cassandra Clare
  • Magician – Raymond E. Feist
  • The Final Winter: An Apocalyptic Horror Novel – Iain Rob Wright
  • Crimes Against Magic – Steve McHugh
  • Half a King – Joe Abercrombie
  • Consider Phlebas – Iain M. Banks
  • Alone in Berlin  – Hans Fallada
  • The Testing – Joelle Charbonneau
  • The Lean Startup – Eric Ries (Non-fiction)
  • The $100 Startup – Chris Guillebeau
  • Far Orbit: Speculative Space Adventures – Ed. Bascomb James

(Not all of these were on offer.)

That’s a fair few books, and my digital to read pile is growing (as is the physical one on my bedside table…)

 

Reading outside the “Zone”

Let’s face it, we all have a reading “zone”. This might be one genre, it might be more. But usually adults don’t read picture books aimed at children (unless they have young kids) and vice versa.

Sometimes it does us good to read outside the “zone” and read something that we don’t usually read. This was suggested to me when I started my A Level in English. I then picked a book at random off of Amazon (it ended up being Bookends by Jane Green).

As a trainee English teacher, it’s important that I have a broad knowledge of literature, as well as being aware of what the students are reading. (It also gives me an excuse to read and watch Diary of a Wimpy Kid).

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell was on offer on Amazon kindle, and the title seemed intriguing. I figured it was worth a shot. I sat and ploughed through it.

It was good fun, with the protagonist’s fanfic placed at the start of every chapter. In some ways it’s just a coming-of-age story from the point of view of a young woman, but it also captures the influence of series such as Harry Potter (Simon Snow seems inspired by Harry Potter) upon people’s lives. Cath is just a normal American teenager who has gone off to college, with the main focus of her life being her Fanfic.

It was definitely worth the money, even though it didn’t really do anything “new”, but I doubt that those who would find Fangirl in their “zone” would mind too much. As for someone who is reading out of their “zone” it seems like a book that teens would read, and does give an insight into how important the world of fanfic is to some people.

Recent Reading

Thinner – Richard Bachman/Stephen King

While I’ve enjoyed most of King’s books, I don’t rate Thinner as one of his best. This might be because he was writing it under his Bachman alias. I just didn’t really like the “curse” idea.

Holes – Louis Sachar

I actually re-read this a while ago, as I was teaching it to a Year 7 class.  It’s still as good as I remember it, and it was fun to see how the students responded to the novel.

Animal Farm – George Orwell

I read this many years ago. I got a new copy over the Christmas holiday, so that I could re-read it in preparation for teaching it to GCSE students. It’s amazing how much I remembered from my first reading. However, having a greater understanding of the world and of political movements enabled me to develop a far stronger understanding of the novel.

The Dragon Done It – Ed. Eric Flint and Mike Resnick

I’m currently working on a series of fantasy crime novels, and I was interested to see what was already out there – beyond the shelves of urban fantasy a la The Dresden Files. After a bit of searching, I stumbled across this anthology.

While many of the stories feature fantasy elements, many of them seemed to heavily inspired by Raymond Chandler and Co – they were definitely detective fiction. This doesn’t mean that they were bad though – far from it. I enjoyed most of the stories, especially how they carried over tropes from detective fiction and mingled in the fantasy elements. Overall? The anthology adds weight to my idea that there isn’t much crime fiction set in a fantasy world.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – Jesse Andrews

An excellent book that was recently made into a film – I haven’t seen that yet. The book itself is great and manages to capture elements of being a teenager while covering pretty similar ground to The Fault in Our Stars… Except I think Me and Earl and the Dying Girl did it better.

SNAFU: An Anthology of Military Horror

The second anthology of short stories on this update. While the stories were of varying quality (from good to great), they were all good fun and had a few slightly disturbing ideas as well as a lot of monster-killing violence. Probably not suitable for the kids, but a good read nonetheless.

What I’m reading: Gavin, Larkin, and more

The reading journal has been a little neglected of late. It’s time for an update.

Much of my (fiction) reading has been related to my PGCE studies. Here’s a brief list of what I’ve been reading:

  • Coram Boy, Jamila Gavin
  • A Girl in Winter, Philip Larkin
  • American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis
  • Divergent, Veronica Roth
  • Ghosts In Shanghai, Julian Sedgwick
  • The Circle, Dave Eggers

What I’ve got recently that I still need to read:

  • The Children Act, Ian McEwan
  • Boo, Neil Smith
  • Stone Mattress, Margaret Atwood
  • Thinner, Richard Bachman/Stephen King

I’m bound to get some more books that I’ll be teaching after Christmas – I’ll be (hopefully) finding out what these books are on Wednesday, as I have my induction day at my PP2 school.

Let’s take a look, one by one, of what I read in November:

Coram Boy

I had to read this as part of my course, so that we could practise our medium-term planning skills. We were also treated to a visit by the author – Jamila Gavin. A few pages into the novel, I realised that I had actually read it many years before, but could barely remember it.

Then I remembered why I could barely remember it.

While the premise of the novel and its narrative are brilliant, I found Gavin’s writing hard to read. At times the sentence structure seemed too complicated, and some of the words used didn’t seem to fit correctly with their context; it seemed as though another (or a different) editor should have had a look over the work. That criticism (which might be misplaced as the novel did win a few awards) aside, the novel is good: interesting characters, super premise, enthralling story which was, at times, harrowing and disturbing.

Meeting Gavin was an interesting experience. It was really insightful to talk to an author about the processes behind their writing – where the idea came from, their other influences etc. You can read a more detailed account of her visit here – written by a fellow PGCE student.

We were also fortunate enough that there was a performance of the play version happening at the Amateur Dramatic Club in Cambridge – so we went to see that. Again, it was interesting to see how a text can be transformed for the stage.

A Girl in Winter

I had a bit of a “Larkin” November. I read a lot of his poetry, taught and discussed several of his poems, and learnt a lot about his life. It was helpful, when teaching his poetry, to have lived in Hull; very close to where he had lived.

A Girl in Winter is one of Larkin’s two novels (the other being Jill – still in the post), and A Girl in Winter is the first that I have read. It’s different to his poetry, but the novel is definitely “Larkinesque”, and it is clear that he is the author.

For many years, Larkin was the librarian at the Brynmor Jones library at the University of Hull… I’ve spent many hours in that library. Although it looks rather different now (thanks to a mega-million pound refurb), some of the details that Larkin describes about the fictional library’s entrance conjure up images of the entrance to the Brynmor Jones library in my mind.

The novel itself is nothing ground-breaking. A tale of love-lost and found, it’s interesting and fun but not astonishingly amazing.

As to whether reading it adds much to his poetry, I’m not sure. While I’ve read The Whitsun Weddings thoroughly, I’ve only had a cursory look at much of his other poetry (I do own the complete works), so perhaps a more detailed reading might illuminate further links.

American Psycho

I gave up. I managed about 40 pages of this before I decided that I’d had enough. The crazy attention to minuscule details got a bit too annoying and just made it hard to read – I don’t need to know the make of every individual piece of clothing that someone wears. Just throwing in a couple of names is enough to tell me that they’re loaded.

Bit disappointed, as I had heard great things about the novel and I know that it’s probably really good.

Perhaps I’ll come back to it in the future.

Divergent

A victim of being binge-read. Although I’m not sure that victim is the correct word there. If anything, it shows that the book was engaging enough for me to read it in one sitting.

A fun read, but at times too similar to The Hunger Games… fits well into the current dystopic YA trend.

Ghosts in Shanghai

Sedgwick visited my previous school while I was there, and gave a number of speeches to the students – I was lucky enough to watch one of them and get a signed copy.

Interestingly, Ghosts in Shanghai is written in the present tense. I’m not sure why, but this always seems harder to write and to read and seems, therefore, an usual choice for a children’s book.

Mixing in various bits of Pinyin adds to the vivid descriptions to create a sense of verisimilitude.

A fun book, if a little confusing occasionally.

The Circle

I loved this. A satire on the dangers of allowing a fictitious company to have all our information. The fictitious company is clearly a blend of Facebook and Google, and the novel shows that while many of their programs have helpful applications, there is something sinister going on in the background.

I just didn’t get the bit with all the animals. I sorta skim read that bit. It’s a shame as the rest of the novel was pretty great.

 

 

 

 

The Reader Problems Book Tag

Tl;dr version: I saw this on a friend’s blog and thought it would be fun to do. Feel free to skip, or to leave your views in the comments.

1) You have 20,000 books on your TBR. How do you decide what to read next?

Pick one at random. Perhaps pick by the cover. Whoever said to not judge a book by its cover was wrong. I have a lot of self-published books on my Kindle, and there is a strong correlation between crap cover and crap literature.

2) You’re halfway through a book and you’re just not loving it. Do you quit or are you committed?

Quit. Life’s too short to read something you don’t like – there are plenty more books waiting to be read. I said a while back that I had started American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. I’m sure the book is good, but I found it too dense and overwhelmingly concerned with detail that I got bored and stopped reading.

3) The End of the Year is coming and you’re so close, but so far away on your Goodreads Reading Chalenge. Do you try to catch up and how?

Nope, I’m useless with Goodreads. I forget I have it and then never update it. Perhaps next year?

4) The covers of the series you love Do. Not. Match. How do you cope?

Meh, the story inside is still the same. That said, I do occasionally get a book based on its binding/cover/style. I got a book called Dickens at Christmas which has a wonderful cover and is hardback… I could have got the same stories on my Kindle or in a cheaply produced paperback. I tend to bulk buy (paper) series so I can binge them… that means that they tend to all have the same cover.

5) Everyone and their mother love a book you really don’t like. Who do you bond with over shared feelings?

Hmm. Not sure. I’ll come back to this in the future.

6) You’re reading a book and you are about to start crying in public. How do you deal?

Suck it up (dry your eyes mate), and carry on reading. It’s unlikely that I’ll be about to cry though.

7) A sequel of a book you loved just came out, but you’ve forgotten a lot from the prior novel. Will you re-read the book? Skip the sequel? Try to find a synopsis on Goodreads?

Depends on the series, how long the book is, how long ago I read it. I’d probably just find a synopsis on Goodreads/Wikipedia and then read the new one.

8) You do not want anyone – ANYONE – borrowing your books. How do you politely tell people nope when they ask?

I generally let people borrow my books. Books are meant to be read, and I don’t see why someone else can’t read my copy.

9) You’ve picked up and put down 5 books in the last month. How do you get over your reading slump?

Find something that I haven’t read for a long time but like, or something by an author that I know I enjoy and read something by them.

10) There are so many new books coming out that you’re dying to read! How many do you actually buy?

Not that many. I’ll use a blend of libraries (University, school, public) to get notable releases, birthday’s and christmases to pick up a few more.

11) After you’ve bought the new books you can’t wait to get to, how long do they sit on your shelf before you get to them?

You think I can put them on a shelf? They’re all full! I’ll probably binge-read one straight away, then feel guilty as I should be working, so go and do some work. Then forget that I have bought new books. Repeat the process.

 

 

 

Breaking Bad + Zombies = ???

As part of the prep work for my PGCE course, I have been asked to keep a journal of the books that I’m reading. So here’s the start of that.

I read “Noughts and Crosses” by Malorie Blackman. I’d heard good things about this, and it was on the recommended list sent to me by the University. The premise was interesting – an inversion of the positions of black and white in history. At times the novel is insightful in its descriptions of discrimination and thought processes of minority groups. I do wonder, however, whether teenagers will be completely able to grapple with the subject matter. With young protagonists the novel does feature elements of the coming of age story, which (I guess) gives young people something to identify with.

Fiend by Peter Stenson is a book that I picked up in a local charity shop, after reading it’s blurb. The phrase “Breaking Bad + Zombies” seems to encapsulate the book. Waking from a meth-induced trip, protagonist Chase initially struggles to distinguish between the trip and reality. The only people to survive the zombie apocalypse are meth-addicts. Cue Breaking Bad style drama as he and a group of fellow survivors attempt to score, attempt to get ingredients to score, and then score. Scoring becomes necessary not just because of their addiction, but because they need it to stop themselves turning into the zombies. It’s violent, and contains a heck of a lot of swearing, but it’s a fun read. The only thing that lets it down is the ending, and I’m still two minds about that. Definitely not one for the kids though!

I buy a lot of books off Amazon (Kindle Daily Deals), as well as through HumbleBundles and the like. It was through these that I got copies of “Swarm” by B. V. Larson and “The Lost Fleet: Dauntless” by Jack Campbell. At the end of the novel he discusses his experiences in the American Military and how this affects his writing. It is clear that he has much experience and knowledge about combat. To me, his descriptions of tactics and strategy within the novel are too detailed could have been used to build up more suspense and tension. It’s a shame, because the premise – a mythic hero figure returns and battles with expectations is promising. Other than the drawn out bits, the novel is rather fun to read and is really easy to read. There was nothing in there that teens couldn’t read, although it may not be the best intro to military sci-fi.

While I was working at my previous school, author Julian Sedgwick visited and gave a talk to the students. I picked up a signed copy of his latest book “Ghosts of Shanghai.” I’ve only read the first page, but am intrigued, mainly because it’s written in the present tense which is a little uncommon for children’s literature.

I’ve just started reading “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis, so let’s see where that takes me…