Sunday, 20 August 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

I've most likely seen an adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express in the distant past but I didn't remember any details of the plot other than Poirot is stuck on a train and murder happens. So it was quite fun to read a bit of vintage mystery.

All around us are people, of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages. For three days these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together.

At the start of this book, Poirot is travelling back from Syria (I know, how things change) which involves boats and luxury, long distance trains. After briefly acquainting himself with everyone in first class, Poirot retires for the night. In the morning he awakes to a train at standstill and a dead body in one compartment. With the train stuck in snow, he might as well go about solving the crime.

He sets about discovering the past of the victim and questioning all the passengers in a very Poirot fashion. Using his little grey cells he pieces together the events of that night by interviews, supposition and very circumstantial evidence. As the investigation goes on it seems there are far too many coincidences but it all comes together in the end.

But have I not heard you say often that to solve a case a man has only to lie back in his chair and think?

It's of the time in the sense there are a lot of stereotypes based on nationality. It is suggested that the murderer can't be English because stabbing is a very Latin way to kill someone. However making Poirot Belgian means he is also harsh on the English too, which stops it from being a bit smug. Still, if you are sensitive to this kind of thing in older books, it might ruin your experience.

When I got to the end, it jogged my memory a bit, at least the idea of how it was carried out. I think the concept of how the murder was committed is one that's not been too overused, but it's probably that which makes it one of her most read, along with the train based setting. Needless to say I found it gripping enough, although it takes while to get into because there's so many characters. If you fancy trying Agatha Christie, this is good place to start.

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Book Source: Purchased

Thursday, 17 August 2017

The Real-Town Murders

Adam Roberts' books are definitely for those people who want extra layers in the stories they read. On the surface, The Real-Town Murders is a locked room mystery, albeit in a future setting, but it's also about how governments seek to control and manipulate their citizens. The future technology is written from the point of view of someone who clearly keeps up-to-date with technological advancements of now.

Conspiracy is possible. Dead bodies appearing from nowhere is not.

Alma is called in to investigate a murder at a wholly automated car factory, where humans aren't allowed on the shop floor, well not in person. The body was found inside a newly made car, with no evidence to how the killer got in or out.

It's not an unusual thought to wonder how VR could transform our work lives. Imagine not having to commute, just logging in from home and interacting with your colleagues as if you were there. Think how liberating it would be not to be restrained by proximity to work when choosing where to live. This future does not have a housing crisis.

Life is all about the compromises people make between desire and finances. Or, more precisely: life in the real world was all about those compromises. The Shine was different.

It's taken a bit further than that, a lot of people now live in cupboards because they rarely leave the Shine. They get their exercise in mesh suits whilst their mind is elsewhere. Towns in the real world have re-branded in attempt to lure people back Real-Town was once Reading, Basingstoke is now BasingStoked! Even the White Cliffs of Dover have had a face lift.

Of course, in this kind of world there's a lot to say about surveillance and data privacy. What exactly do you sacrifice in exchange for the life you have in the Shine? And what are the disadvantages if you're one of the few not connected?

Alma is a carer, as well as a private investigator, one who has no chance to pass her duties on. Her partner Marguerite is living with genehacked malware, which requires treatment every four hours and four minutes. Alma's DNA has been coded into the cure so only she can administer it. As you can imagine, this is problematic when you're wanted by the authorities and it doesn't help that Marguerite is too large to leave their home. It really adds an element of urgency to the story.

The two great dangers of governance are complacency and cruelty.

Women are not sidelined in this science fiction nor are they stereotypes. Alma is tough but she is also capable of crying, of caring deeply for the woman she loves despite hardship. It definitely passes the Bechdel test with most the key characters being women, even the baddies.

The Real-Town Murders is published by Gollancz and will be available in hardback and ebook editions from 24th August 2017. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review via NetGalley.

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Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Top Ten Science Fiction Books to Read if You Think You Don't Like Science Fiction

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

Despite its huge popularity on the screen, readers often shy away from science-fiction, but it's not all aliens, technobabble and space battles. I would say I am a fan of science fiction but I don't tend to read that hard SF that everyone thinks of when the genre is mentioned, there is so much scope in it. So here are ten books I would recommend to reluctant genre readers...

The Machine by James Smythe

This is one of my favourite books but you wouldn't go wrong picking up any of James' books. They are very much character driven but with plenty of thought-provoking themes. This one is particularly good if you like books about memory.

The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

African centred science fiction, you must read Nnedi Okarafor, especially if you're interested in reading about the effects of exploitation.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

It's just the most wonderful, comforting, fuzzy feeling of a book. Honestly the description didn't do it for me when I first heard about it but I was swayed by so many positive things and I beg you to read it!

The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts

One for those of you who like philosophy or want to exercise your brain.

The Fireman by Joe Hill

The science of oxytocin at play in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a self-combusting spore.

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Weird and biological science fiction, the first instalment of the Southern Reach trilogy is also on the eery side.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Or any of Margaret Atwood's speculative fiction works. There's this one called The Handmaid's Tale too...

The Mad Scientist's Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke

The most feelings I've ever felt for a robot.

Saga by Brian K. Vaughan +Fiona Staples

(Contains graphic imagery) A tale of two parents from opposing sides of an intergalactic war trying to raise their mixed race child whilst running for their lives. It's THE best comic out there.

The Humans

Warm and funny, with a serious message at its heart.

Monday, 14 August 2017

A Quiet Kind of Thunder

I loved this adorable story about Steffi and Rhys, filled with so much damp-eye inducing kindness, which can be so hard to come-by (although I hear a rumour that kindness is all set to be the next big publishing trend).

Meekness is my camouflage; silence is my force field.

Steffi suffers from anxiety which results in selective mutism, meaning she doesn't speak except in situations she feels comfortable doing so. She is silent at school but talks to her family and best friend. She wants to go to university and her family want to see that she'll be able to cope. She must try talking more.

It's the start of senior year and Rhys is one of the new kids. Steffi is baffled to why the headteacher thinks she should be personally introduced but soon it becomes clear that he is deaf and she knows basic BSL (British Sign Language). Turns out that Steffi is much more comfortable talking with her hands and their friendship quickly blossoms.

The thing with having limited BSL skills is that it forces you to condense complex emotions into their simplest form in order to communicate them.

I loved her friendship with Tem and her relationship with her parents. They are separated and her dad is so lovely. Her mum is devil's advocate, some might she her as the bad guy, but both of them have Steffi's welfare at heart. Everyone in this book is so accommodating, it's really nice to see a book about anxiety that doesn't make you feel anxious yourself.

I'm not sure selective mutism was a term when I was at school but I relate a lot to Steffi's experience. I was just labelled one of those quiet kids. I could talk to teachers, especially if it was a subject I liked, but I really struggled with talking to classmates (other than my best friend, just like Steffi). Away from the school environment, things got easier but I still sometimes have to psyche myself up for talking to strangers, especially on the phone. The internet was a revelation to me, because sometimes a different form of communication can be liberating.

It's hard to say if it does a good job explaining that kind of anxiety to someone who has never felt it, but it does feel spot on from my point of view. I can imagine for some people it's hard to get your head round the idea that words just don't come out because you're too busy worrying about the consequences.

I found there was a bit too much exposition around both Steffi's muteness and Rhys' deafness. It wanted to explain a lot, which on one hand is noble, but it could have been shown a bit more through the story. It does highlight some of the things you can do around deaf people to make them feel more included, things hearing people take for granted.
Little victories are everything in a world where worst-case scenarios are on an endless loop in your head.

I was recommended this book for Diversity Bingo and so I'm going to use it for a square even though the protagonist isn't deaf. Rhys is still a major character, if not the main one, and it is the spirit of showing a disability in a positive light.

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Book Source: Purchased

Saturday, 12 August 2017

The Reading Quest

Hosted by Read at Midnight, character art by CW @ Read, Think, Ponder.

I saw Charlotte tweeting about this super fun reading challenge yesterday and I think there's enough books on my immediate TBR that fit the Mage path so sign me up! The quest runs from Sunday 13th August to Sunday 10th September, 2017.

MAGE: As wielders of spells and witchcraft, these players will conjure and summon their way through the First Down path on the quest. Their tomes contain magic and whispers of alternate lands.

One Word Title: Release by Patrick Ness
Contains Magic: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
Based on Mythology: Antigoddess by Kendare Blake OR Circe by Madeleine Miller OR Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Set in a Different World: Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo
--> Expansion: The Witch of Duva by Leigh Bardugo
First Book of a Series: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

I will be trying to keep track of my XP and levels and I'll sort out my super duper cute character card later on. For more information on the rules and to sign up please visit Read at Midnight's original post.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

The Underground Railroad

It's possible that you've been hiding from the book world for the past year and haven't heard about The Underground Railway. It's been nominated all over the place and won the Pulitzer Prize and Arthur C. Clarke award.

Look outside as you speed through, and you'll find the true face of America.

The actual underground railway of history was a network of abolitionists and freeman, providing sanctuary and transit to slaves on the run, delivering them to the relative safety of the free north. In Colson Whitehead's novel, the railroad takes on physical form; a steam train running under the earth, the stations hidden under the houses of the network's operatives.

I do think it's important to educate yourself on the awfulness of the wholesale slavery of the African people. This book is set after the international slave trade ended but it was clear the plantation owners weren't going to let that stop them. They would just have to start breeding. If this is the first book you've read on the subject (and you didn't watch 12 Years a Slave) expect it to be eye-opening and harrowing.

Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.

Life on the Randall plantation was never easy, with rape and floggings part of everyday life. But when the property (which you will soon learn includes people) is left in the hands of the remaining, cruel brother, Cora knows her days are numbered. She's been singled out. Years ago, her mother ran away and never came back, maybe she found the underground railway and is living a life of freedom. Maybe Cora can too.

In a way, the pages are tinged with hope for Cora. She escapes, although her journey is never easy. Whenever she believes she is safe, there is always something round the corner. She experiences paid work, learns to read, but whatever freedom she gains, she remains a prisoner.

The weak link - she liked the ring of it. To seek the imperfection in the chain that keeps you in bondage. Taken individually, the link was not much. But in concert with its fellows, a mighty iron that subjugated millions despite its weakness.

As Cora moves between states, the narrative is broken up by sections from other character's perspectives. Usually of those whose paths have crossed Cora's and met their fate. I certainly was not expecting Cora's mother's story to be what it was.

My only gripe about it was the fact I was left not really knowing what was history and what was made up. Colson condenses many aspects of the horror of the antebellum south into Cora's journey. The depiction of eugenics and sterilisation was definitely something that happened, the banning of black people from an entire state, I'm not so sure, although this section has similarities to events in Nazi Germany, so sadly I would not be surprised. I mean it shouldn't matter, but I like learning things from my reading so my flow was interrupted a lot by wanting to look things up.

Each one a state of possibility, with its own customs and way of doing things. Moving through you'll see the breadth of the country before you reach your final stop.

That quote pretty much sums up what Colson is doing, with each state Cora passes through showing how things could have gone. Each state holding a truth about how white Americans perceived black people.

If you're picking it up because of the Arthur C. Clarke award, don't expect the steampunk vibe I saw one broadsheet said it had. It's magical realism I suppose, maybe alternate history. However I think what it does contribute to science fiction is the context of many a dystopian system. We usually read sanitised versions but this is reminder that what may seem far-fetched is often based on our terrible histories.

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Book Source: Purchased

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

10 Reasons It's OK If You Don't Get That ARC

It happens to the best of us, a pang of jealousy that everyone else seems to have got a copy of the next big thing before you. Have a moment of envy and then remember these ten things:

1. You won't feel any pressure to read it quickly

2. You can support the author by buying a copy

3. You can support a bookshop by buying a copy there

4. You can support your local library by borrowing it

5. People will have read it before you and can discuss the ending with you

6. You won't make other people feel jealous that they can't read it already

7. If you do review it, people can go out and buy it straight away

8. You don't have to struggle through weird formatting or loads of typos

9. If you don't like it, no one needs to know

10. You aren't faced with the dilemma of what to do with it if you don't want to keep it

How do you cope with the green-eyed monster? Or does ARC envy pass you by?

Disclaimer: I know some people buy the final book after reading an ARC, but there is less incentive.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Oxford Bookshop Crawl

Bex can be blamed for many an empty bookworm pocket and this time the bookshop crawl hit the beautiful city of Oxford. I got up early yesterday morning, laden with books to give away and came back even more laden! The first stop was Waterstones where everyone checked in and I got a much needed coffee. I did have a list of about 30 books which I had planned to stick to when choosing but this soon went out the window. I collected The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley off Bex as I had bought this from her Ninja Book Box online shop previously.

One thing I have learned, is that if you're shopping for non-fiction, it's more useful to know what category it will be in rather than the author. Anyway, after much going up and down stairs, I picked up One of Us is Lying* by Karen M. McManus, Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moïra Fowley-Doyle and Inferior* by Angela Saini.

Our next stop was a little Oxfam bookshop. Oxford actually has two of these and some of the group who got separated went to the other one. There was an obscure non-fiction book about cod (yes, cod) that has been on my wishlist for years but I did ask myself if I would really read it any time soon, and therefore left it behind. I did spy a copy of Our Endless Numbered Days and managed to convince someone to buy it.

As we gathered outside Oxfam, the storm clouds were gathering. We were huddled across the road from the Oxford University Press Bookshop hiding from torrential downpour. We made a run for it and disturbed the decorum of the shop somewhat as we piled, rather soggily, through the door. However we were welcomed very kindly by Joseph who offered us drinks, cookies and a goodie bag (mine contained a proof of Perfect Prey by Helen Fields).

The shop, unsurprisingly, stocks books published by OUP and, like many Oxford bookshops, was a bit Tardis like, with many levels at the back of the shop. I hadn't added anything from OUP onto my list but I did find a little book about Philip K. Dick; The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick by Kyle Arnold. Whilst queuing to pay, I spotted Living with the Living Dead by Greg Garrett, which sounds like my kind of academic analysis! The OUP Bookshop kindly gave us a 10% discount and free tote bag with our purchases.

Next stop lunch! Atomic Pizza is a themed restaurant, the outside covered in comics and the inside full of geek culture from the 80s, with a soundtrack to match. I especially liked the My Little Pony garland around the bar area (with actual vintage MLPs). A lot of us had the Messy Jessie burger, me included, which was yummy and much needed by this point.

After an unscheduled stop to stare in the window of a board game shop (great games but steep prices) we all bundled into Inky Fingers. I did have quite a list of comics and graphic novels but I couldn't find any of them. They did have a good selection of first volumes so it's a good place to find a new series, but I was after more second volumes and a few more niche books (some of which I could have got in Waterstones which is a bit annoying, next time I'll buy them the first place I see them). In the end I picked out a comic I'd been reading about earlier on the train, Frostbite by Joshua Williamson and Jason Alexander.

The next stop was the highlight of the day for me. Blackwell's bookshop dates back to 1879 and we were given a fascinating guided tour. When the shop ran out of room, the Blackwells decided to dig down and in 1966 the Norrington Room was opened. This is an amazing space, the largest single room selling books and has around 3 miles of books if you were to line them all up! I could have bought so many books in this part of the shop, their non-fiction selection is amazing.

We were also shown some of their rare books, including their most expensive tome, Shakespeare's 4th Folio (complete with a typo on Hamlet) at £85,000! We also saw a first edition signed Grapes of Wrath at £17,500 and a beautiful copy of The Hobbit illustrated by Moomin creator Tove Jansson. Unfortunately this has never been published in English and we all want to know why not?! However in 2016 a calendar was published with the illustrations so there is a chance to own them in some form.

Whilst I was waiting for the tour I bought four books, three from the 3 for 2 offer that was on a good portion of the stock. I bought two dog related non-fiction titles. What the Dog Knows by Cat Warren and Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz. I finally found a copy of The Zoo* by Isobel Charman, which is about the history of London Zoo. The third book in the offer I picked up was Dramarama* by E. Lockhart which will tide me over until her new book is out.

There were two more stops on the tour after Blackwell's but I had a heavy bag of books already, things were starting to ache and I wanted to get home at a reasonable time. So I missed Albion Beatnik and Last Bookshop (and ice cream, apparently). Thank you Bex for organising another great day! If you'd like to join a future bookshop crawl (usually London in February and a roaming one in the summer) then make sure you're following @NinjaBookBox.

Books marked with * were actually on my list.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Truth or Dare

Non Pratt writes good teens, the kind you can imagine actually existing in today's world. Claire didn't really know Sef's brother Kam before the accident, the fall from a railway bridge left him with brain damage and he's never going to be the same again. But when Sef needs help to raise funds for his brother's care, Claire offers to help. Not keen on being the centre of attention, somehow she ends up starring in a YouTube series with Sef.
Anyone who thinks they're bad at acting doesn't realise they're doing it every single day.

Half way through, you turn the book over to read Sef's perspective of things. I like this in concept, but what I found when I read Replica was that I didn't have much incentive to keep reading what was essentially the same story twice. However this book isn't quite at the end of the story when you turn it over, giving a little bit more momentum to the second half.

I was quite surprised at how Claire's perception of Sef was so different to how he really is. I can't say I liked him much once I started reading his side of the story. It does reflect how sometimes relationships can be one sided. He struggles to come to terms with the extent of Kam's injuries too. Claire is more comfortable with Kam, spending time with him as part of volunteer work separate to her project with Sef.

Death is an ending, but Kam had been given a beginning.

Towards the end of part two, the chapters start alternating between the two characters and picks up from where the first half ended. The cliffhanger at the end of part one will make you want to zoom through the second half to get caught up again.

I think it gets a certain aspect of YouTube culture spot on, although admittedly the part I don't like. Dares and watching people do things they shouldn't be doing just makes me feel uncomfortable. But there are plenty of YouTubers who have become successful by being silly so clearly there's an audience for it.

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Book Source: Illumicrate

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Month That Was... July 2017

+ International Giveaway

I got back into my reading more in July, always helped along by a readathon. I read 12 whole books and portions of three others. I'm trying not to read too much YA fiction right now, because I feel I am often just reading it out of habit, rather than being super excited about the book, and I'd like to get back into reading more widely. The YA community is so enthusiastic it is hard to not follow the buzz sometimes! So yeah, there will be of a mix of genres coming up (but still some YA, cause it's not like we've fallen out).

A new indie bookshop opened near where I used to live. Hoorah! If you are in Bournemouth this summer, please do pop in to BH6.

Scully celebrated her first birthday with a puppy reunion. I think only one of her 11 strong litter wasn't there, it was madness! She's being spayed next week, so we're trying to think of things to entertain her with that won't result in sofa somersalts...

I'm not doing any cons this year but I will be at Oxford Bookshop Crawl this weekend, attempting not to buy too many books. August will also contain many book subscription boxes...