Wednesday, 20 June 2012

50 Shades of grey by E. L. James **possible spoilers**

WARNING: Mature content will be mentioned & mature language in quotes used as this is a mature book.

There is a section in this book where the male character claims that he is 'Fifty shades of fucked up' and I'll be honest - that's an accurate description for this book and the entire premise behind it.

I thought it was worth me reading at least the first book in the trilogy so that I could form an honest opinion based on actual knowledge instead of listening to hearsay - In a way I'm glad I did that but I would've been happier avoiding it and the furore surrounding it and just carried on with reading Les Miserables.

This is definitely a 'Marmite' book - you'll either love it or hate it. I am now going to try to keep my anger to a minimum in order to not just sound like some harpy spewing hatred through this blog.

The story behind this (I know, there is a story folks, it's not just about BDSM and a virgin who can then have orgasms at the drop of a hat!) follows a completely innocent & naieve 21 year old Anastasia Steele who finds herself interviewing the suave, sophisticated, drop dead gorgeous, billionaire Christian Grey. There is chemistry between them and Mr Grey has taken a definite interest in Ana, showering her with expensive gifts and treating her to helicopter rides. This all culminates in him introducing her to the BDSM lifestyle in the hope that she will accept him and this lifestyle in order to stay with him. However, it must be noted, he doesn't 'do' relationships. It is an arrangement - contract drawn up and everything - that he'd like her to agree to.

What follows is Ana becoming emotional, confused, eager and curious as she debates with herself whether this is something that she really wants. She does work out halfway through that, whilst this may scare her, it will let her be with Mr Grey and that's all that matters to her.

Now, whilst the idea behind this book is a good one, I found there were a few too many instances that had me gritting my teeth and feeling like I was the only one who saw this as a bad way to start any relationship with another person (I'm not talking about relationship in it's romantic sense, I mean what exists between two people getting to know each other). I found the characters were too predictable and cliche. With Ana being your typical clueless main character who admires her best friend for being able to attract all the men but not being able to see that every guy she's come into contact with has fallen head over heels for her and Christian being the billionaire, untouchable, looks to die for guy who happens to have a dark past that's hidden from the world it just all seemed a bittoo predictable and unbelievable.

Throughout this book Ana believes that if she goes with what Christian wants (despite her trying to appear as an independent, strong young woman) then she'll be able to do what no other woman has yet managed and change the unfeeling Mr Grey. This is not a good idea for a woman to take away from this book (yes, it's fictional, but people do still look for lessons to take away) as if I had a man find out where I lived and worked after our first meeting, tracked my mobile phone after our second and then find out where my mother lived and 'conveniently' end up staying in a hotel where my mum and I were drinking - my thoughts would not be running along the lines of 'Oh how romantic'. I also would not be willing to overlook his actions and emotional/sexual manipulations just because he's more knowledgeable than I am - there should be something along the lines of common sense telling me to get out (oh wait, she did want a break from him to think about it but then he followed her).

In my mind there is nothing normal or healthy about what happens between these two in this book but it is made acceptable with the reasoning that Mr Grey was abused when he was younger so he can take it out on any woman who falls under his spell.

What the author initially had here was a good idea for a plot, unfortunately the lack of character building, some rose tinted glasses on certain actions and some rather immature writing let her down. It felt choppy and hard to get into - in fact the best written parts were, surprisingly, the erotic scene, although I have read many people's comments on how it was poorly portrayed and threw a dark light on the BDSM lifestyle and as I personally have no knowledge of this I will refrain from commenting.

All in all I did not enjoy this book at all (as those who have read my social networking posts can attest to) and will not be continuing on to the next book. However, if you are able to gloss over the poor writing and two-dimensional characters as well as passing off questionable actions on just a guy being in love then please, pick this book up. If you want a quick, steamy read and have read the blurb and what others have said and feel it's for you - pick it up. This is just my own personal take on the book and I did not care for it.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

I have a confession to make, before realising this was a book I first saw this as the BBC TV adaptation and fell in love with it (no, of course it had nothing to do with Richard Armitage playing the lead male character, I'm offended by your insinuations). although the books and their screen adaptations always vary I knew that this was a book I HAD to read.

Now, I should first like to note that, at the start of my copy there was a preface mentioning that N&S originally came out as entries in a newspaper and so Elizabeth did not feel she had included everything she could and some vital parts to the story had to be omitted, this was corrected in some parts when she was to have the book published but at other parts it does feel that some of it has been rushed *cough* the ending *cough*.

The story follows Margaret Hale as she moves back to live with her parents in her beloved old parish home in Helstone only to be faced with leaving it as her father, the vicar, has a crisis of conscience (not faith, he doesn't lose his faith only finds that his views on it differ from the church's - or something like that, not completely explained).

With their income cut down, and unable to live in the cottage as it is for the parish priest, the Hale's must find a place that is affordable and all signs point to that place being up in the North of England (as opposed to the South where they currently reside). By contacting an old friend Mr Hale finds them a good deal on a house but apart from that it appears that responsibility for everything else falls on Margaret and this seems to remain one of the underlying themes throughout the book.

The differences between the manufacturing North and the agrarian South are made clearly evident through Margaret's eyes, at first as she favours her home the south, and is obviously looking at it through fond memories and rose tinted spectacles. This comes in direct contrast with our male lead character, Mr Thornton, who is a Milton man born and bred and is the epitome of the what Gaskell believes the north stands for; someone who has worked his way from destitution to a place of prominence in the eyes of the other mill owners, who is sought for advice and known for being honest and open. The south is represented in a softer, kinder way that relies a lot on words and less on action, where it would seem the (supposedly) warmer climate and more laid back way of life has become a part of the people themselves.

What follows is a story of understanding, love, tragedy, friendship and one or two things that made me get a bit teary as well as Gaskell's more political views on class barriers, how women are perceived and expected to act as well as the relationship between an employer and his employees. These are usually the lines Austen refuses to step over and barely hints at with her well-veiled hints at her political standings covered in lines of poetic descriptions and fun, light hearted debates.

I found this book to be just as enjoyable, if not moreso, than the BBC adaptation - and I love the adaptation (seriously, it's not all about Armitage, I swear!). Gaskell delivers a work that reminds you of Austen but goes deeper into the personalities and psyches of the main character. Where Austen gives you a strong-willed heroine Gaskell adds on the deeper thoughts this woman has. At some points I truly felt sorry for Margaret, at others I wanted to slap her before then acknowledging that maybe she had a point. Mr Thornton is not just there to be the male lead who has the ladies at his feet but has a brain and business sense that would make even your modern day man proud.

Managing to grasp the changing moods of the time, Gaskell really doesn't sugar coat too much for the poor readers delicate senses at the time, although nowadays we'd barely bat an eye at some of the descriptions of the slums, but then we have history lessons and resources to draw on to already have an idea of how bad it really was.

A brilliant read that will stay with me for a long while. I recommend this to anyone who enjoys fiction from this time period and if you happen to get your hands on the BBC adaptation after reading this I suggest chucking out th other half when watching it!

First Men In The Moon by H. G. Wells

One of H. G. Wells lesser known books (in comparison to the likes of The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, War of The Worlds) I still thought it was worth going into it with the feelings that reading his other books gave me.

First off I’d like everyone to remember that this book was published in 1901 and, as with many of Wells’ books, he is well ahead of his time. 

Set in England, Wells introduces us to Bedford – a man who’s trying to find an easy way to earn money to pay off the debt collectors chasing him. He decides upon writing a play, as he believes it to be relatively easy (someone really should’ve told him the truth) but becomes distracted by a figure out of his window. 

This eventually introduces him to Professor Cavor, your run-of-the-mill eccentric scientist who has just hit upon an idea for an invention but has no idea what to do with it. This is where Bedford spots a business investment and a way to not only pay off his bad debt but to also make themselves rich. The new invention is Cavorite, a material that can block ‘gravity waves’ thus making the object float after the correct scientific treatment. To his credit, Wells doesn't do a Verne and try to go into great scientific explanations, making his narrative character excuse himself as the man with the business brains and not the scientific one.

Bedford and the professor (mainly the professor) come up with a plan to make a sphere container out of the material that's large enough to carry them and some supplies up to the moon. With a large explosion and then some very complicated shutter opening and closing in certain sequences the two eventually find themselves on the cold satellite. At first all is as it would appear to the reader of the time, freezing cold, rocky with minimum atmosphere, just enough to be breathable. It isn't until the sun shines that things start to change. With quick growing flora sprouting up the two men suddenly find themselves on a wholly different world and the events that ensue would've caused some readers of the time to look at this familiar rock in their night skies in a different way.

Some of the aspects in this book were very much ahead of Wells' time and I enjoy being able to look back with my 21st Century knowledge and marvel at how things were perceived, either accurately or differently from the reality we now know. The idea of the moon coming to life and being inhabited by beings that live underground in it's hollowed out shell may be pushing the realms of belief too far but this is what science fiction is all about and Wells is one of the original masters as far as I'm concerned.

 Wells style of writing can be hard to get into and it is a slow start with some parts that seem to just be put in there for the heck of it, but I imagine they exist in order to pad out the story or give it some depth... or something. Overall I can see why this book has lasted but at the same time there is a reason it is a little less well-known than his others. It doesn't have that extra something (in the case of War of the Worlds we'll call it fear) that draws you so into the book it becomes something you carry with you.

A book that really can be nothing but early 20th century sci-fi it lives up to the expectations but, in certain parts, can't seem to break through and go beyond. From a modern point of view I didn't find myself overly excited upon finishing this, but I can see how it would have grabbed the imaginations of contemporary readers.

If you're a fan of Wells' other works then please, by all means, read this book. If you're interested in early 20th Century works then, again, read it. If you're interested in any part of this book then I can tell you that you will not have wasted any time reading it, but I don't think you'll come away from it changed or affected by it in any way.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Devil In The White City by Erik Larson

Despite reading like a fiction novel this is, in fact, classed as non-fiction. Based upon the events leading up to and during the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago this book interweaves the lives of the the architect behind the fair, Daniel H. Burnham, and Dr H. H. Holmes, a serial killer who lured mainly female victims to his 'Murder Castle'.

This book is filled with accurate details and descriptions that bring the scenes and the troubles and tragedies surrounding the World Fair that has to follow the Paris spectacular that brought about the Eiffel Tower. As well as this we have the facts from letters between architects, from the court documents and police files on the case. Everything quoted is from a source with references at the back.

Having been told that it was a non-fiction I wasn't quite expecting it to have been written in such a novelistic form.

We start with the build up to which city is going to host the World Fair, Chicago isn't seen as a big competitor until later on and the shock when it gets the honour is aptly described with all the reactions from other cities press articles etc. On the World Fair point of view  Larson gives us a comprehensive and intriguing telling of the gambles and high stakes that architects, inventors and engineers alike all had to deal with in order to gain the public's admiration and not be considered a failure after Paris' showing.

Drawing on rich tapestry of press articles and meeting minutes as well as insightful personal journals and letters we get a glimpse into the mind of Daniel Burnham and the pressure he was under to enlist the right architects and engineers and sell them his and his partner's, John Root's, vision. This way of setting things out breaks apart the tediousness that many would feel reading about political movements, weather, money and egos at war and instead brings life to the characters and shows how they had to work around each obstacle to try to get it all to open on time.

On the other side of the story we have Dr Holmes, born as Herman Webster Mudgett (that'd make me change my name too!). Early on he became skilled in scams and later murders, he had a mind that seems just twisted enough to come up with inventive ways to kill and easily dispose of victim's bodies. With a string of marriages, annulments and wives/lovers & their families disappearing he was still clever enough to make sure he didn't get caught.

Holmes created himself to appear as a successful businessman and, with the Columbian Exposition becoming popular, he raised himself in people's expectations and designed a hotel as part of his business, with a few 'extras' that the guests wouldn't know about until it was too late. Holmes himself decided who he would allow to stay at this hotel allowing only women who were travelling alone in the city, especially those whose personalities allowed him to charm them and become the dominant one in a doomed relationship, whilst he turned away any males by claiming to be full up. It was this way of thinking, of choosing his victims, that made him even more fearsome - he could get away with a lot and could've done so a lot longer if he hadn't slipped up near the end.

Thankfully, in my opinion, Larson doesn't go into analysing Holmes' mind, instead he sticks to giving us the facts (apart from one or two injectures that are mainly there to make it appear more like a novel) and allowing us to come to our own conclusions. We are left to come to our own conclusions and search out the juxtaposition of the two stories ourselves, with barely noticeable nudges from Larson.

The contrast between Holmes' psychopathic mind and the glory of human achievement created from those of the fair's directors can fail to impress upon the reader at first, but it is there, somewhere amongst the tragedy and horror and the glorious descriptions of the breaking ground architecture.

I have never been a big non-fiction fan but if it were all written like this, with such an eye for detail and an engaging way of writing, I'm sure I'd invest in more books. Larson has created a time machine in his book yet still managed to leave enough unsaid for the reader to fill in themselves. Sometimes a book can be better for what is left out.

A highly recommended read that I didn't put down (seriously, done in a day).

Saturday, 9 June 2012

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

The first in a fantasy series (the First Law trilogy & two stand-alones) I have been keeping this book in the back of my mind for a while now.

As the first in a trilogy we are given the introductions to the main (and not so main) characters: Logen the barbaric Northmen who actually has a good head on his shoulders and has quite a few pacifist moments, Inquistor Glokta the crippled soldier turned torturer who has a dry, slightly twisted sense of humour (he made me laugh!), Captain Jezal dan Luthar the epitome of careless selfish officer/playboy/man about town who is only taking part in a tournament for the glory it'll bring him and then we have the Magus Bayaz who remains mysterious and aloof from the moment we meet him to the end of this book.

This book is split between different character's viewpoints (which I'm rather enjoying recently) and each point of view gets something worthwhile or significant before moving on, thus making sure we don't feel the need to start skipping over any particular character's section.

The book begins with Logen Ninefingers (go on, guess how many fingers he has :P) being chased/attacked in a forest by Shankas - what appear to be a ruthless race of creatures that are trying to take over the North lands. From there it moves south to the main city, Adua, where we find most of the Union's army, including Captain Luthar - the current golden-boy, practising or getting excited for the upcoming competition. Deep in the dungeons of the castle we find the crippled Inquisitor Glokta and his dry sense of humour, working away to get prisoners to confess by any means necessary - and he has some rather effective means. We learn that he had once been the golden boy and competition winner before being captured and held by enemies for two years, returning as just a shadow of his former self. This past doesn't exactly make him enamoured with Captain Luthar (though Luthar's attitude alone would turn most people off, I'm sure).

Unfortunately events are unfolding that will make the competition seem like child's play, if events weren't happening in a fantasy book I'd probably be rather disappointed to be honest, and Logen finds himself brought down from the North Lands to Adua in fairly intriguing circumstances that he has absolutely no interest in. Where most heroes/anti-heroes would want to know the ins and outs of what's going on Logen just needs to look out for himself, have a small bit of revenge on an old foe and make sure not to die. Outside of this he doesn't want to get involved in the politics.

The set up of the 'Union' kingdom itself reminded me slightly of the Roman Empire with the main, more civilised city in the centre of things but it's more outlying settlements facing threats. The first book is more concerned with Angland's threat from the Northern ruler Bethod, who brought together the warring tribes of the north under him in order to all focus on taking on the Union. We do, however, get hints of trouble down south from an empire that surrounds their most southern settlement.

In all I found this book to be rather a good read and much different from a lot of your average fantasies, even some of the ones that are trying to be different. Joe Abercrombie has given us a different insight into your typical fantasy characters and has done it well. The descriptions he gives and lack of reader's hand holding that he doesn't do helps you get into the story more without having to worry about stopping mid-flow for a quick run-down of why someone is doing something.

If you enjoy fantasy but find that most of the books on offer are becoming a bit too predictable then I suggets this as a way of getting out of that slump. Funny at times, dark and confusing at others this was definitely a good choice on my part - but might I suggest getting the second book on hand before starting - these first in a series books do leave you hanging!