Wednesday, 18 April 2018

It Can't Happen Here- Sinclair Lewis, A Review

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that for the last week I’ve been reading Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here. I was really excited to get started on this book, and after I finished NOS 4R2 I pretty much got going on this one straight away. It was recommended through Twitter for anybody who was a fan of Orwell’s 1984, which I am, so I saved it to my Amazon wish list and then when a voucher came my way as a gift this was the book that I went for. So, spoiler alerts if you’re reading on, because here are my thoughts.

There are a lot of things about this book that make it appealing, but I have to be honest; the cover does a lot. It features a torn newspaper article that looks worryingly contemporary considering when my edition was printed. As well as this; the title helps. These days it feels like we are living in a world in which we watch the news, see the horror stories and the political upheaval that makes us all a bit nervous even if it’s not happened where we live, and we quietly assure ourselves with those words ‘it can’t happen here’. This alone was enough to make me want to read this book, but when I got around to seeing the blurb the deal was sealed on me buying it. The sneak preview into the character of President Windrip is somewhat uncanny and there are certain political figure heads out there today in 2018 that I couldn’t help thinking of whenever he was mentioned.  

The main character of this book, Doremus Jessup, is a little weak as protagonists go. I suspect, however, that this has been done on purpose. Given the time that this novel was written, I think that Jessop was designed to represent more than one person; he could be anybody, somebody that the reader could reflect on. It’s an interesting move, and I don’t think it always pays off in this book. However, there is some strong characterisation, and the situation of Doremus in this strange world that he has found himself in is very emotive. There is something very unsettling about the whole thing, especially in the places where Doremus takes us through the manifesto of Windrip. He makes it hard not to compare It Can’t Happen Here to what is happening in 2018.

There were elements of this book that were a real struggle to read. This wasn’t just because of the subject matter. Sinclair Lewis is a very wordy writer; it takes him a long time to get to the point. It’s difficult sometimes to really keep up with what is going on as he wanders from subject to subject with little in the way of signifier that a change is coming. Despite this, the writing is beautiful. There are moments when Lewis really captures the fear that can come from hearing the news, from talking about the state of the world. He manages to tap into those corners of thought that you would rather stay away from. He does this so well though, that the writing really drags you into the story and at times you feel like you are right there with Doremus and his family, dealing with the monster of politics changing to world for the worse and telling you its good for you.

On the whole, I really enjoyed this book. It’s tough going but I feel it is drastically important, especially these days. Apparently it shot into the Amazon bestsellers after a certain election and to be perfectly honest; I can see why. It is definitely worth a read!
Four out of five!

Sunday, 8 April 2018

NOS 4R2- Joe Hill, A Review

I know I’m late with this one, I know I’ve been talking about Joe Hill and reviewing this book for a while now, and I know that I promised this would be up and ready to read sooner than today. But, trust me when I say; this book, Joe Hill’s NOS 4R2, is hard work. It took me a long time to read it, which I find is always a sign that a book is becoming a labour rather than something I’m reading for fun. I’m a fan of Hill’s writing but of the ones I’ve read so far this is by far my least favourite. But it’s not all bad, as you will see.

The gist of this book is quite complex, as it takes place over a long period of time and involves a lot of characters. The main one being Vic McQueen, who starts as a young girl riding her bike through a tunnel to wherever in the world that she needs to go in order to find something lost. As the novel progresses, Vic grows up and we see her life unfolding and unravelling as she deals with past traumas and personal dramas. Of course; it’s not that simple. This is Joe Hill we’re talking about here. Vic’s life is tormented by the children of Charles Manx, a maniacal, vampire-like, man who almost killed her when she was sixteen. Manx is in jail, or dead, or in a coma, depending on which bit of the book you happen to be in at the time, and his unhappy children, all stolen away from their real parents, call up Vic from ‘Christmasland’ in order to torture her with abuse for her role in Manx’s imprisonment.

Manx as a villain, when we see him in the wider story as he is out committing his vile crimes, is really well crafted. He has the sinister villain role perfected and Hill portrays him brilliantly. His motivations aren’t entirely convincing but in the context of the novel I am willing to let it slide. The same goes for Vic; her roller-coaster life is rocked with drama and disaster and it is hard to believe that one person can do so much in such a short space of time. It is also sometimes hard to understand why things are happening for Vic; for example, her fight with her mother as a teenager; it comes from nowhere and feels very forced. Hill recovers it well with a brilliant slice of writing that really did give me the shivers but this book is unfortunately rife with jarringly random moments that throw the reading off, and it does taint the experience a bit.

Another character who, for me, was a problem, was Bing Partridge. There is such a thing as too much. Bing was a lot more worrying for me to read about than Manx. Manx was threatening in a way was enjoyable to read; suspension of disbelief was perfectly fine in his scenes because everything about his villainy made sense. With Bing, this is not the case. He is worse than Manx even though he is the sidekick, he is volatile, predatory and down right horrifying in a way that isn’t fun to read. Unlike Manx, you don’t love to hate him; you just flat out dislike him. All of this is intensified when you factor in that his name is Bing. The sidekick shouldn’t be worse than the villain; that’s a fact.

Characters in general are an issue in this book. There are too many of them. They pop up and then pop off and are never seen again, or, even worse, briefly reappear and it’s difficult to keep track of who is who with so much going on. The size of the novel compensates for that, it allows Hill to explore every inch of the story in great detail, and that’s fine, but there are huge chunks that could have been left out. NOS 4R2 is a brilliant concept and the story itself, when you break through the waffle, is fantastic and it’s a shame that it gets lost in all of the strange moments of filler plot that Hill stuffs the book with.

As I’ve said, the actual story of NOS 4R2 is fantastic. The idea of cars and bike and even scrabble tiles being the keys to special powers really lends itself well to Hill’s style of writing and he executes these moments perfectly. One of the best scenes in this book is when young Vic McQueen flees her house and her rowing parents, grabs her bike and races through the trees in the woods and off across the bridge, her bridge, and into the place she needs to be in order to find her mothers lost bracelet. It is such a well written moment; he describes that feeling of free-wheeling your bike down hill beautifully, you find yourself right there with Vic, racing down that track. It’s moments that this that Hill does the best; real moments that the reader can process in a way that goes beyond just the suspension of disbelief. His horror writing is good, but these moments are his best.

One the whole, I really struggled with this book. The random intersections of filler chapters, jumping timelines and huge cast of characters drown out the more important plot. It’s difficult to follow and relief only comes when Hill dwells on a time period for more than two chapters. When he gets it right; he really gets it right. There’s no doubt that he is still one of the best writers around at the moment but this one is, unfortunately, not his strongest work.

Three out of five stars.
Bye for now!

Monday, 2 April 2018

April Reading List!


Two blog posts in two days? Whatever next? I was going to wait until Wednesday to post this but then it occurred to me that by then we’d have lost four days of April and at the rate this year seems to be going it would be better if I got the reading list posted sooner rather than later. I’m unsure how much of this list I will actually get through this month, as I am currently still working on Joe Hill’s NOS 4R2 from last month. It’s over 600 pages long and I won’t lie; I’m feeling every one of them. It’s a real struggle to read, so bear with me. However, all being well I’ll have it done with, one way or another, very soon and this is the list of what I plan to follow!

It Can’t Happen Here- Sinclair Lewis

I am very excited about this book. Orwell’s 1984 is one of my favourites and I noticed on a Penguin Random House Twitter feed that they were recommending this one to anybody who was a fan of the chilling Orwellian novel. I was mostly attracted to the book because of the title; it speaks in a strange kind of voice that I think we are all familiar with, particularly in recent times. We often see footage of war torn countries or films with dystopian settings and think to ourselves ‘it can’t happen here’. Then you look out of the window and start to wonder if maybe it already is. That’s the appeal of this book; it was written in the 1930s but the blurb reads like something out of a newspaper printed just this week. If I ever get the end of NOS 4R2, then this is what I’ll pick up first. 

The Silo Books- Hugh Howey

This is a series of books that I am really looking forward to starting. I’ve heard a lot about Howey’s writing from a number of sources and was gifted this trilogy for my birthday this year. The first in the series; Wool, has a blurb that really captures my attention, so I am hoping that it lives up to my expectations. I am a little worried about it,though, as the front of Wool and Shift, the second part, suggest that this series could well be the new Hunger Games and that was a series of books that for me, didn’t really get going, and films that fell flat of their potential. I’m happy to give Wool, Shift and Dust a shot though because it is part of my new mission to read more science fiction novels, as I have barely stepped outside of the crime and horror genre in recent years. Also, I’ve never read a post-apocalyptic novel before. I want to; The Road is on my To Read list and when I get a copy I’ll put it on one of these reading posts. For now though, I’m starting with Hugh Howey. I’ll defiantly be posting a review of these books so keep an eye out on here and on Twitter for any updates.

That’s it for now then folks; it’s only a short list as I am going for a trilogy this month. Hopefully, I’ll find my way to the end of NOS 4R2 sometime soon as get the review of that up so I can commence this month’s list. Wish me luck!

Until next time!

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Ready Player One- A Review

Good morning, welcome to the first day of April!

Today’s review, and yes; I am aware that I am late posting, is about Ready Player One; the nostalgic adaptation of the Ernest Cline novel that I reviewed here. It’s taken me a few days to put this together because I had a lot of thinking to do regarding what to say. I don’t want to give much away but the inevitable spoilers will no doubt slip through so if you haven’t seen or read Ready Player One yet, and you want to go in blind, look away now. This is your official spoiler alert!

Ready Player One hits every nail exactly where it should. There is just enough variety of nostalgic references to 80s, 90s and 21st Century pop culture for there to be something in there for everybody. My partner spotted stuff that I didn’t, and I saw things he missed. Some of it is so subtle you’d really have to look closely to pick it out, other stuff glares at you from the corner of the screen, forcing you to say ‘oh that’s this person from that thing’. I love that. I also love that Ready Player One is going to be one of those films in which you will always see something different every time you watch it. I wouldn’t advise trying to turn it into a drinking game though; there isn’t a liver in this world strong enough to take this many hits. By capturing such a huge variety of popular culture, Ready Player One has made itself into a film for everybody. There’s stuff for those longing for 80s nostalgia while also playing up to today’s gaming community. You cannot possibly see this film and feel left out.

Another hugely great thing about Ready Player One is the amazing soundtrack. It is almost entirely hits of the 1980s, all recognisable in some capacity or another but also totally amazing in their own right. The film opens with Van Halen’s amazing tune Jump, and this pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the film. Among others there were hits of A-Ha, Hall and Oats and Twisted Sister. I’d love a copy of this soundtrack for my car; it would make for some pretty epic driving.

The story itself of Ready Player One is very simple; James Halliday, a socially awkward genius has died and is leaving his entire fortune to whoever can find the hidden Easter egg in his game The Oasis. Enter Wade Watts; named because, actual quote, ‘it sounded like a superhero’. He’s poor, he’s trapped in the horrific looking Stacks, and he’s desperate to find the egg and get himself out of there. There are some glaring problems with the way that Wade’s story is told. Although the film tries; it never quite manages to get the intensity of his situation across. It’s attempts to do so fall flat. This is true of, unfortunately, a lot of this film; it tries to get itself going but it never quite manages it. Personally, I was so invested in this film that I’m willing to let it go but I can see why this film is taking a bit of a hit from the critics.

I was also a little disappointed in the ending. Like so many other films, Ready Player One felt the need to try and force the romance plotline down the viewers throats. It didn’t come across with ease; it felt like they knew they wanted to get this storyline in but they didn’t have much of an idea how to do so. It’s a shame that they felt they had to shove this in there. It’s integral to the book but it is executed so much better than it was in the film, I wish they’d have followed it a lot more closely.

Despite it’s faults; I think Ready Player will become one of my favourite films. It’s easy to watch and it doesn’t require much thinking about. The soundtrack is brilliant and the acting is fantastic. It’s a film that you could watch over and over and never get bored and it would also make a good one to watch if you just want something that everybody can get something out of. I defiantly recommend you read the book first, just to make up the differences on the bits lost in translation from page to screen. But also; see this film. You won’t regret it.
Four out of five!

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury- A Review

March is nearly over, can you believe it? I’m somewhat behind on my reading so I have been a bit stuck on what to talk about for the Sunday blog post lately. I did read The Hobbit, but I can’t bring myself to write a review yet, so bear with me on that one. This week I’m going to talk about a book I genuinely loved reading; Fahrenheit 451. It’s hailed as a modern classic and Ray Bradbury is regarded as a genius, so I had pretty high expectations for this one. I was not disappointed, but I was a little surprised. Usual warnings apply for this post; spoilers will feature so please be aware if you want to read on.

The first thing I have to say about this book is that it was totally different to what I was expecting. The blurb on my edition only gave a small hint at what it was truly going to be like so right from the off I was surprised. I don’t want to say that this disappointed me, but I couldn’t help but feel a little bit cheated from all the build up to reading it. That’s not the book’s fault though, that’s mine for not thinking it through properly.

The set up on this book is not as simple as it seems at first. Bradbury presents his story as if you should already know exactly what he is talking about. This does make reading the book harder in places, I had to read a few pages more than once just to keep up with what the characters were talking about. It is a very clever tactic for writing something like this; it puts you in the centre of that world along with the characters, standing shoulder to shoulder with Guy Montag in his upside down life. I wasn’t exactly sure, at certain times, what was going on on the page; Bradbury has a habit of jumping from dialogue to a stream of consciousness and not always making it clear which is which. He has an undeniable talent for crafting his work and it is these huge blocks of text that his writing comes alive. One of my favourite moments in the novel is when Montag plays one word against its opposite to express his anguish. It is beautiful writing.

I wish I had found this book sooner. I think it will be one that I will come back to a lot; and there are not many books out there that make me do that. Really, it’s a wonder why I keep so many as long as I do because there are maybe a handful that I will read over and over again. Fahrenheit 451 will be one of them.

The ending of Fahrenheit 451 was not the inevitable path to recovery that I was anticipating. I expected Guy Montag to turn against the society he was shoehorned into, I expected him to get caught and I had a feeling that his wife was going to be a nightmare throughout the book. But I did not see the sudden, and somewhat random, onset of war and mass destruction that comes in the final section of the novel. I wonder though, did Bradbury do this on purpose? War is always a jarring event and when it climaxes with this story it all feels disjointed but appropriate at the same time; it is an accurate reflection of what war, and living in a war zone, must feel like. I don’t know, maybe I’m reading to much into it. But maybe not.

 I can’t fault this book. I really can’t. I think it a very important novel, with a message that resonates from the time it was written all the way through to today. I want to see it being more widely shared around; I have heard rumours of a film or TV Series, which I’m excited for. But this book important, it’s an experience to read but it is definitely worth it. I encourage you all to go out and get it; it is worth it. I promise.

Five out of five stars!

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Creative Writing Is Not A Soft Option!

Writing is wonderful. It is a path to new worlds, it can be therapy, is can be a release from the real world. You can channel emotions into characters and deal with them in ways that you might not be able to out loud. Writing can convey messages that have changed the world; think about Harry Potter. How many people started reading again because those books? Think how much of our world would be too dull to participate in if creative writing didn’t exist. With that in mind, think how it is not something that you can sit down to one day and expect to be perfect right from the word go, how could it be? I know that whatever career path I follow I will always write. I can't imagine what else I would be doing, other than writing. I'm not a perfect writer and I don't think I ever will be but the thing about writing is that it is about always being able to learn from what you are doing. It is a never ending process of creating and learning.

When I was first applying to university I became uncomfortably aware that when people heard the words 'creative writing' in my degree title they would make a strange face that told me they didn't understand. There would be questions, such as; "What's the point of that? What can you do with that? Can you get a job doing that?". I learned, quickly, that when people heard that I was studying English alongside Creative Writing, they would recover their doubts in my decisions and ask me; 'so why not just do English? Creative Writing is a bit...well, you know?'

No I don't know. But I do know that if I had £1 for every time somebody asked me this; I could have paid my  tuition fees off long ago.

This, combined with years of careers advice meetings in which I was told that being a writer was an impractical ambition and that I should get a back-up plan, taught me that subjects like creative writing are somehow seen as soft options. While most people are interested, keen to find out more and positive about my ambitions, there are always some who look down their noses at it. Among this community it is commonly mistaken for being a topic in which you can score easy points to boost your grades, that passing requires little to no effort and that it is a subject built for the lazy and unambitious. I've even heard the words 'Mickey Mouse Subject' muttered in reference to my studies. People like to sneer at it and ask ‘what are you going to do with that?’ and point out that surely such a topic must be super easy to get good grades on. The grades that I receive in English are nearly always valued as being of higher importance the Creative Writing grades, even if those are better.

One of my lecturers tells prospective students who visit us on open days that creative writing is actually a desirable subject for employers now; it shows you can problem solve, think creatively, express yourself in spoken and written form, display confidence in your work and, of course; write well! Why would an employer not want that from their employees? Why wouldn’t you want somebody working for you who has all of those skills? I am not saying that other subjects do not teach these skills, but I would like to know why learning such skills in a creative writing classroom is considered inferior to gaining them in another subject. As for employment; I have friends who work in publishing, education, journalism, business, marketing and the NHS, the list is endless! There are no limits to what job you can go into with a creative writing degree and when I tell people this there are always those who are surprised by the broad variety of options open to those carrying this degree. This kind of attitude is just something that I have gotten used to, but it also makes me sad.
Writing is not something you are brilliant at straight away, and trust me when I say it is not easy to score points on for good grades. It takes time and effort; you have to work on your craft and refine your style. It is about learning to take your time and learning to become better at it. I look at things I wrote two years ago, when I started this course, and you can see the difference. Things I would submit now are nothing like what I submitted then. I know I am not the only writer to experience this. Look at the first book published by your favourite author and look at the latest book that they released; you will see a difference. They have learned their style, found the method that works for them and they have refined it to turn it into the book that you go out and buy.

The benefits of writing can be felt in places beyond the page though. As you grow as a writer you have to learn to have confidence to show your work to others; to your peers, your friends and your family. You need to learn to take feedback; good and bad, and learn what is going to work and what isn’t. People won't always hold back for the sake of your feelings and that can be hard to overcome and face up to but if you want to write then it is important, and for survival in the wider world, it can be beneficial to learning how to take and give feedback. You have to learn to stand up for your own work; I’ve had arguments with editors about the ending of something I published before because they wanted their happy ending and I did not. Standing up for your writing is not easy, that is something that you have to learn to do and creative writing at university has taught me how to do that. I couldn’t have done it without. I look back at my writing from before I started, and I think ‘oh my goodness, what was I doing?’. Now I take pride in what I am writing, and I look forward to workshops because I like the atmosphere of sharing and learning. There is no way I would have had the nerve to take feedback face to face prior to university. That is not the result of a soft subject, that's the result of an important one that will take me far. 
If you’re out there thinking of taking a degree in creative writing I encourage you wholeheartedly to do so. It is a wonderful subject and you won’t just lean about writing; you will learn about you. It is not a soft option and it is not going to be easy but I promise you that it is worth it.

Good luck!

See you next time.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

I, Tonya- A Review

Over the last year or so, I’ve developed a bit of a thing for biopics. Something about a film representing a real story interests me greatly so I have been making an effort to watch them whenever I spot one. Recently I’ve seen Spotlight, The Program and the latest one to hit the cinemas; I, Tonya.

It’s difficult to know where to start when reviewing a true-movie, but I, Tonya takes that to a whole new level. For starters, it’s difficult to know exactly what is the ‘true’ part, and what isn’t. The film openly admits that it is based on ‘irony-free, wildly-contradictory and totally true’ interviews with those involved in the events that I, Tonya is centred on. It is cut between Tonya and LaVona Harding (Margot Robbie and Alison Janney) and Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), as well a few others, discussing their version of the marriage, the break up, growing up with LaVona and, of course, The Incident.

I wasn’t born until 1995, so I wasn’t around to see any of these events being reported in the news, but those that I have spoken to who can remember them say that the news story really was the huge controversy that I, Tonya suggests that it was. It is quite interesting approaching a film without any prior knowledge of the events that it is dealing with. I remember the Lance Armstrong news story breaking and although I don’t remember the subject matter of Spotlight when it was a news story I already had an awareness of it by the time I saw the film. I, Tonya, I approached, with almost nothing to go on.

One major thing that I did not understand about this film was why it felt that it needed to market itself as though it was comedy. Yes, there were some moments that were amusing to watch but not enough, I don’t think, to justify it being sold as such. When you strip the content of this film down to what it’s really about, it is not a funny story; Margot Robbie’s character is shot at, and shoots at, she is abused and she even ends up having a knife thrown into her arm and the whole climax of this film is the moment when Nancy Kerrigan was attacked; that is not something you find in a comedic film. If I, Tonya had marketed itself as an unapologetic biopic of Harding’s life, which, on the whole, it was, that would have been fine to. Marketing it as a comedy movie, when it contains so much trauma for the people that it is depicting, seems a little inappropriate.

You can’t deny that this is a brilliant film. It’s complex subject matter had to be handled exactly right and I believe that it does; there is the correct balance between each major moment in the plot and the events that lead up to it. I can’t pick apart the plot of this film because, as Robbie stated in the trailer ‘there’s no such thing as truth, everyone has their own truth’, so I wouldn’t want to try. Taking this film on face value however; I loved it. It’s moving while being shocking entertainment as well, and maybe that was what they were going for when they made it.

If you want a film that will shock you while also telling a true story; watch I, Tonya; it is definitely worth it!

Four out of Five Stars!