Awesome Sauce!!!!! aka, the book for March

Be Awesome by Hadley Freeman

Hadley Freeman might just have the answers to life’s trickiest questions, such as: why does the funny girl in the film never get the guy? Can you read a women’s magazine without damaging your brain? And should you ever buy Hello Kitty knickers? Of course you shouldn’t! Why are you even asking that? With sage advice, some very helpful lists and a killer dance routine to Patrick Swayze’s ‘She’s Like the Wind’, Hadley is here to show you just how awesome life as a modern lady could be.

Do we agree? Read the book and come to the March meeting to find out.

When: Tuesday 11th March
Where: TBC (suggestions on FB please!)

What shall we read next?

It hit me, rather suddenly, in the midst of our conversation about More Than This and gender/lgbt/feminism/etc, that we have read eight books so far, and not one has been by a female author.

I nearly drowned myself in my cup of tea then and there (after handing in my feminist credentials).

Then I figured that this was a bit of an over reaction. And the books we’ve read so far have been enjoyable and weren’t deliberately chosen because they were by men, and I’m not the only one picking books, and we read across a range of genres so it’s not like we’re pigeon holing ourselves…

But it still left a vaguely uncomfortable feeling in my gut and made me think of the ratio of male to female books reviewed in the big press, or on the big prize shortlists, or the many many other examples of the disparity of gender representation in literature.

In order to assuage my guilt (appropriately felt or otherwise) for discussion in March, (and probably for the next few months till I feel less guilty), we will be focusing on female authors.

Fortunately, there is an embarrassment of riches to choose from. So, help us decide –

Cast your vote in the comments below, or on twitter, and help choose what we should read next.

More Than This – February Meeting

More Than This by Patrick Ness
More Than This, by award-winning Patrick Ness, is a tense thriller and an impressively challenging and philosophical book for young adults

I don’t really want to give any more information, as I don’t want to give away any of the twists and turns…

Read, enjoy (or not), and be prepared to discuss at our next meeting.

When: Tuesday, 11 February 2014, 18:30
Where: As ever, Far From the Madding Crowd (tables reserved from 6ish, under the name of the group, so if you want to get there a bit early and grab food you can).

Let It Snow: Three Holiday Romances – Review

cover of Let It Snow

Imagine it’s a snowy evening and you’ve settled down in front of the fire with a big mug of hot chocolate and a fluffy blanket. The hot chocolate is piled high with whipped cream and topped with marshmallows. It’s sweet and frothy and likely to make you feel like you’ve had your weekly allowance of sugar all in one go but it’s perfect for an evening when you’ve nowhere to be and nothing to do. This, for me, is what reading Let It Snow was like.

Let It Snow is a collection of three connected short stories, all of which are set over the Christmas period and during a blizzard. The first story is called ‘The Jubilee Express’ and was written by Maureen Johnson. The story begins on Christmas Eve as the eponymous Jubilee excitedly looks forward to going to her boyfriend’s house for his family’s annual Christmas Eve Smorgasbord (for those not in the know, a smorgasbord is a kind of Scandinavian buffet-type meal). Unfortunately her plans are ruined when her parents are arrested as part of the ‘Flobie Five’; a group involved in an altercation at the showroom of a collectibles company. Jubilee is put on a train to her grandparents but her Christmas Eve is further disrupted by the arrival of the ‘biggest storm in fifty years’, which causes her train to break down just outside of a small town called Gracetown. Jubilee’s decision to abandon the train for the sanctuary of a nearby Waffle House sets off a chain of events that affects not just her own life but the lives of several other characters that will later appear in the book.

The second story in the collection is titled ‘Cheertastic Christmas Miracle’ and is written by internet-favourite John Green. This story takes place late Christmas Eve/early Christmas morning and focuses on a trio of friends: Tobin, the Duke and JP. The story is told from the point-of-view of Tobin as he and his friends set out on an ill-advised journey through the snow to the Waffle House, where they have heard that a group of cheerleaders (who were travelling on the same train as Jubilee and followed her example after she escaped the train) are taking refuge from the storm and are desperately in need of Twister (the game that is, not a further weather phenomenon). Tobin and JP are very enthusiastic about their quest, the Duke less so, as the only girl in the group she is less enamoured at the thought of a roomful of cheerleaders, although the prospect of Waffle House hash browns ultimately sways her. Over the course of the night Tobin has somewhat of a revelation as he realises that perhaps his prospects for love lie closer to home than he realised and that actually the journey really is as important, if not more so, than the destination.

The third, and last, story in this collection is called ‘The Patron Saint of Pigs’ by Lauren Myracle. It is now Christmas Day in Gracetown and our latest protagonist Addie is heartbroken after splitting up from her boyfriend Jeb (who was also on the train with Jubilee and the cheerleaders, and later at the Waffle House with Tobin, the Duke and JP). Addie’s story develops over Boxing Day as she tries to discover why she sabotaged her relationship with Jeb and also tries to come to terms with the fact that several people in her life think she’s self-centred. As the title suggests, there is a pig involved and it ends up being part of Addie’s redemption quest.

Overall, I liked this book. It was sweet, light-hearted and entertaining. However, I probably wouldn’t recommend it to others unless they were specifically looking for an easy read as I felt it lacked depth, which is perhaps unsurprising in a book about teenage romance. I liked some of the characters (The Duke might have been my favourite) and found some of the others slightly annoying (mainly Addie) but the plot was fairly basic and there were some loose ends that I felt were just abandoned (such as the fate of the Flobie Five). I think the authors did a good job of interweaving the stories and characters and I think the book had a good sense of atmosphere. Let It Snow is worth a read if you’re looking to escape a stormy night, or feeling nostalgic for your years of teenage angst.

3 Stars (3 / 5)

Erasmus Hobart and the Golden Arrow – Review

Erasmus cover

Our December read was a time-travelling adventure by Andrew Fish, following school-teacher Erasmus Hobart as he embarks on a journey to find Robin Hood and learn the truth behind the myth.

For the first time in our (albeit rather short) history, the discussion surrounding the book was slightly over-shadowed by lovely food, courtesy of the very kind and very patient La Tasca, who had ten hungry book lovers invade their peace for a mini-Christmas party. However, from the rather heated, sangria-fuelled debate, it soon became apparent that the over-all opinion of the book was mixed.

As a group made up of publishing/book folk who all read different genres it was understandable that some wouldn’t like this story as at times the narrative appeared to be geared more for children than adults (but yet wouldn’t sit as a YA book), and at times it bordered on repetitive in it’s story-telling. We also felt that, given the blurb, there could have been more time travel – indeed the first chapter entices you, making you believe Erasmus will travel repeatedly through time in the adventure, but, in fact, he only makes two trips during the book. Not that we’re being picky, but maybe the ‘time travelling romp’ was a bit misleading in terms of the blurb.

I tend to enjoy historical fiction, but I found that some things weren’t quite explained enough – firstly where on earth did Erasmus get the selection of accurate period costumes? No school drama department has that good a range! Meanwhile those of The Edge of Reading with slightly poor eyesight picked holes in Erasmus washing his contacts in the stream, which in reality would have been filthy – it turns out we’re a very picky bunch of armchair historians.

We did have some bigger questions, mainly revolving around the ending which we felt was a bit unsatisfactory – for example how did Erasmus not get sacked from his teaching job after disappearing for so long, essentially claiming he’d locked himself in the cupboard?

That being said, I found Fish’s take on the Robin Hood legend to be a refreshing view, if not a totally new approach – fans of the old BBC Maid Marian and her Merry Men series might find similarities. Robin is the villain of the piece (although a somewhat misguided villain), while Marian emerges as the hero and, along with her band of female outlaws, steals from the rich to give to the poor. The discussion we had revolved around how we enjoyed the strong female characters – even the slightly crazed Alice who seems hell-bent on murder – compared to the easily manipulated Robin and the always-evil Sheriff of Nottingham and his clumsy, foolish knights. We also all liked the Friar Tuck character, but his part of the book was over too soon for my liking. Of all the male characters he was certainly the most entertaining. Controversially we found Erasmus to be a bit of a weak lead role, certainly too weak for the formidable Maude, his potential love interest.

In theory there is something in there for everyone – time travel, romance, action and the legend of Robin Hood, but yet something was missing that meant that this wasn’t quite the book we had hoped it would be. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a cheery Christmas read in front of the fire then you could do much worse than settling down with Erasmus Hobart and the Golden Arrow. I’d rate it a fairly generous 3 Stars (3 / 5) (knowing full well that this will spark further debate, but it is Christmas).

Festive Frolics in the Snow

cover of Let It Snow

You know what we’re going to be doing this yuletide? Curling up by the fire with a good book. And Let It Snow by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle wants to be that book!

An ill-timed storm on Christmas Eve buries the residents of Gracetown under multiple feet of snow and causes quite a bit of chaos. One brave soul ventures out into the storm from her stranded train and sets off a chain of events that will change quite a few lives. Over the next three days one girl takes a risky shortcut with an adorable stranger, three friends set out to win a race to the Waffle House (and the hash brown spoils), and the fate of a teacup pig falls into the hands of a lovesick barista. A trio of today’s bestselling authors – John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle – brings all the magic of holidays to life in three hilarious and charming interconnected tales of love, romance, and kisses that will steal your breath away.

When: Tuesday 14th January, 18:30
Where: Far From the Madding Crowd (tables reserved from 6ish, under the name of the group, so if you want to get there a bit early and grab food you can).

PS. The book is 20% off at Blackwells right now 😉

The Psychopath Test – review

psychopath-test-fc-LST085048Psychopathy itself is a difficult thing to pin down – perhaps as a result, the ladies of The Edge of Reading found John Ronson’s The Psychopath Test is a difficult book to get to grips with.

Billed as ‘a journey through the madness industry’, the book has several narratives. Ronson starts off looking into a mystery which leads him deeper and deeper into the world of psychopaths. He meets them, learns to diagnose them (by using the Hare checklist, a chapter which had us all looking at friends and family with intense scrutiny) and tries to understand them. It’s compelling stuff – finding out about efforts to treat them, and learning how their brains differ from others, has filled several books already. The second half of the book is a series of stories, as Ronson travels all over the world to investigate the way we view, treat and publicise mental illness today.

We all enjoyed it while we were reading it, but still…there was something we couldn’t quite work out.

Maybe it’s the tone. The book is amusing (though never as funny as the reviews made it out to be) and Ronson’s engaging, anecdotal style is easy and enjoyable to read – it’s like having a really interesting conversation in a pub. But in trying to be entertaining he glosses over things, raising more questions than he answers. He’ll write a fascinating chapter and then drop it, never analysing what it really means.

For instance: a group of Americans in the ‘70s faked symptoms of mental illness and were admitted to hospitals when they were completely sane. It’s an interesting story, but what’s the real significance? Doctors can only go on what they are told, and if a patient says she’s hearing voices, the doctor will assume she is. Ronson tells the tale well, but never informs us of what happened afterwards. What did they prove, or accomplish? Did the test affect the psychiatric community in any way? Did they change their diagnostic methods? We never find out.

It was that lack of detail which bothered us – as a journalist Ronson is never going to speak with medical detachment, but there were moments when diving deeper into a story would have been more rewarding than starting a new one.

With members of The Edge of Reading largely being publishing bods, the editing of the book also came under scrutiny – it’s very patchy, with various stories and theories needlessly repeated. It felt as if the ‘blood-drinking lizards rule the world’ theory was mentioned every other chapter, and explanations were often given for things which had previously been explained.

Each story is riveting, and Ronson’s examination of the often Kafka-esque world of mental health is a good read – but as soon as we started really thinking about the book, we found that we stumbled. Read it, enjoy it – but make sure you have someone to talk to about it afterwards.

On a personal note, I’m not convinced. Jon Ronson wants to entertain, and he succeeds, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. Mental illness isn’t a subject I can find funny, and I felt that the book often confused psychopathy and other mental disorders. Ronson does a great job of finding the surreal side of a serious issue, but in the end I was left strangely cold. I feel like I missed the point.

…Or maybe I’m just a psychopath.

P.S: Jon Ronson did a TED talk about the book, which is worth a watch. Take a look.

The Curious Incident of the Hound in the Night-Time

Thoughts on The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

‘You ain’t nothing but a hound-dog, cryin’ all the time…’

Elvis Presley, Hound Dog, recorded 1956, written by Lieber & Stoller

As with so much in life, Elvis cuts straight to the point.

My first thought upon sitting down to review this Sherlock Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, serialized 1901-1902, was not of Watson, Holmes, Sir Henry or any other human character in the book, but in fact of the Hound.

The titular dog (which I personally picture as some sort of oversized mastiff gone mad) is a truly fantastic gothic literary device, serving as the ‘ravenous beast’ that terrorizes the people of the rural area of Dartmoor which surrounds Baskerville Hall. In the same way that myths of a hideous and hungry monster living in a nearby forest might have circulated through villages and campfires ‘back in the day’ (so to speak), this hound is the figurehead on which all the horror of the novel is centered. Take, for example, the most oft quoted sentence and climax of the first ‘act’ of the novel, uttered by Dr Mortimer:

“Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”

All this drama- and just for footprints! The presence of the animal itself is not necessary, even, to stir unease within a reader. This suggestion of, and then focus on a figure of horror, especially when also featured in the title of the work (‘The Monk’, ‘Dracula’ etc), is a standard and effective feature of Gothic storytelling. In fact, it is almost an authorial standard recipe for increasing the fear factor of your ‘beast’- introduce the possibility of a supernatural threat, strengthen the evidence for its existence, then produce it at a suitably theatrical peak for maximum horror. However, rarely is it done in such a short space, with such good effect, without their actually being a supernatural component to the threat- the mark of quality writing, I feel.

The backdrop effect of the almost medieval setting of the Hall is remarkable in itself. Set in isolation, with few servants, and all the creepy horror paraphernalia weather and location can produce for atmosphere (including fogs, mists, swamps, deep dark nights, significant amount of moon presence/absence, and of course the chilling baying of the hound on the hunt…) these important items increase the ‘dread’ factor of the story, and support the heroic qualities of Watson and Holmes in tackling the mystery. The chills and sense of creeping threat gained from the inclusion of these in the work cannot be undervalued, especially when the threat of the hound is most strongly present in the story, boosting the urgency and driving the plot, as the mystery must be solved before Sir Henry is literally killed by the unknown.

My favourite passage from the book, in fact, begins when a dark and foggy evening descends across Dartmoor. While Holmes and Watson stake out Merripit House, Sir Henry leaves a friendly dinner, not aware that while he walks, the vile character Stapleton has unleashed the hound! What a great moment of transformation from normality to gothic horror…

Imagine- you’re stumbling, slightly tipsy, home across the dark fields at night, warm and cosy from dinner. Finally you’ve had a night off from thinking about murder, and time to relax! It’s a misty night, and you just bumble along, full of food and warm thoughts. Perhaps you have a small lamp or torchlight to see where to put your feet (watching out for the quicksand, you see), but it barely shines a meter ahead of you. Then, startling, in the distance (or is it closer?) a mournful howl… Creeping fear of the predator sets in. It’s baying at the moon, demanding blood, and then- only then- does the cold dark creep in across the miles of empty moorland and surround you, along with the knowledge that wherever it is, it’s coming for you…

Eeek!

You’ll have to read the story for yourself to find out what happens and feel the truly spine-tingling aspects of this book…

Perhaps my only criticism would be that the mystery is too easily solved, shortening the suspense earlier than necessary. However, this is after all a mystery novel of the Great Detective, and not in fact, an Ann Radcliffe gothic novel, and so perhaps better suited to those who like a touch of horror with their mystery, rather than vice versa. However, it is worth noting also that this is one of the stories which shows Conan-Doyle’s interest in the supernatural, and as such may be a reflection of his interest in (and eventual adoption of) Spiritualism, which is recorded significantly in another novel called ‘The Land of Mist’ which I thoroughly recommend to anyone who enjoys a good ghost story.

All in all, having re-read and enjoyed this book, I can definitively confirm that Holmes and Watson are far braver than I. Call me overly imaginative, but I would most certainly not walk the moors at night….

Winter Read: Erasmus Hobart

erasmuscover

For December, we are going on a travel through time to uncover the truth about Robin Hood in Erasmus Hobart and the Golden Arrow.

Robin Hood was a crook! But was he as good a crook as the legends suggest? That’s what Erasmus Hobart – school teacher, history fanatic, time-traveller – wants to find out. In this, his first adventure, Erasmus takes his time-travelling privy back to mediaeval Nottingham in his quest for knowledge. But with homicidal knights, amorous female outlaws and mischievous squirrels complicating his investigation, will he uncover the truth in time to get back and mark 4A’s history homework?

The blurb goes on to say “Andrew Fish brings a new slant to the classic legend. Erasmus Hobart is the perfect new adventurer for fans of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett“.

What do you think? Read it and come to the meeting in December to find out what the rest of us thought.

When: Tuesday, December 10th, 19:30 (note the slightly later start – we expect a later finish as well).
Where: La Tasca at the Castle. Tapas and drinks and fun, guaranteed.
How do I get a copy?: email the group/use the contact form and Cas will arrange 🙂

As well as the usual book group chatter, this will be a festive party type event, with fun and frolics aplenty. We might even be able to get Beth and Polly to do a Strictly reenactment. Who knows?!

Also, just FYI, I (Cas) am incapable of saying the word “squirrel”. It’s a thing. Don’t judge me. Apparently squirrels feature heavily in this story. This could be a problem when it comes to discussing the book…

The Hound of the Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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A month before Halloween, the members of The Edge of Reading got together to discuss what book we should read for our late October meeting. Something scary, we all agreed…but not too scary, we quickly amended. None of us were especially interested in reading a horror story – we wanted to be mildly spooked, not hiding under the duvet, shrieking at shadows, quaking in our boots petrified.

What were we looking for in a spooky read? We tossed around a few ideas: ‘Dracula’? (Most of us had read it at uni.) ‘Frankenstein’? (Ditto.) Something by Stephen King? (Too scary!) Then someone suggested ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ by Arthur Conan Doyle. As a Sherlock Holmes fan I was instantly on board. ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ is one of the Sherlock Holmes stories that I had always meant to read but hadn’t quite got around to yet. The majority of the group felt similarly, and so with our book chosen, we agreed to meet on the 29th of October.

Choosing the novel for our Halloween read meant that there were a lot of expectations for it to meet. There needed to be:
A spooky environment – the Baskerville estate and surrounding moorland definitely ticked that box.
A suspicious death – Sir Charles Baskerville’s death is at the centre of the novel’s plot. Was he just an old man with an overactive imagination and a dodgy heart, or were there other forces at work?
A manifestation of evil – this comes in the form of the hellhound rumoured to haunt the Baskerville men, punishing them for the terrible deeds that their ancestor Hugo Baskerville committed.
A mystery – who or what killed Sir Charles Baskerville? Who sent the mysterious note made up of cut-out letters from a newspaper, issuing a cryptic warning to ‘keep away from the moor’? Who stole Henry Baskerville’s new boot? And why did they then replace it, only to steal another, older, boot?
A protagonist determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, regardless of the risk of personal danger – ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ offers us several of these, in the form of Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson and even Henry Baskerville himself, determined to uncover the truth about the legend that has tormented his family for years, before it can claim his life too.

Dartmoor seems to be the perfect setting for this book. The moors are painted in such a stark and gloomy way that they almost become a character in their own right. It’s easy to imagine the terror that the locals must feel when the howl of an unknown animal reaches their ears from the depths of the moor. For Watson, this nocturnal trepidation is further compounded by the mysterious sobbing of a woman somewhere on the Baskerville estate. The darkness of the moor at night is so consuming that it is easy to believe that it is host to all manner of horrors (and the addition of an escaped murderer lurking within its depths only adds to this impression).

The plot of the book is intriguing, but for me the main draw is the character of Sherlock Holmes and his interactions with those around him, especially with his friend and colleague Dr Watson. Holmes is the perfect mix of wit and condescension (without the hint of cruelty that is occasionally present in the more recent BBC incarnation of Holmes). He has the capacity to downplay his abilities, and often seems to be of the opinion that others could do what he does if they were just willing to pay closer attention to the details available to them. For instance, Watson accuses Holmes of having eyes in the back of his head when he seems to know what Watson is doing, despite not facing him, and Holmes replies, rather drolly: “I have, at least, a well-polished, silver-plated coffee-pot in front of me.” Holmes does have a lot of faith in his abilities but he is fairly subtle in his lauding of them. After he offers a hypothesis to Watson, Watson concludes ‘You may be right’, and Holmes simply replies: ‘The probability lies in that direction.’

Dr Watson is a brave, clever and resourceful man, but it is obvious how much he craves approval from Holmes. We see this when he writes to Holmes about his concern for having let Henry Baskerville leave the house alone:

“I imagined what my feelings would be if I had to return to you and to confess that some misfortune had occurred through my disregard for your instructions. I assure you my cheeks flushed at the very thought.”

Later when he thinks he has solved part of the puzzle he writes: “Congratulate me, my dear Holmes, and tell me that I have not disappointed you as an agent – that you do not regret the confidence which you showed in me.” Watson obviously feels a great deal of pressure to get things right on this case and his relief is clear and deeply-felt once Holmes arrives to relieve him of his responsibilities.

I had already guessed that the unknown man on the moor was Holmes (I have a feeling I’d heard this somewhere else previously) but the part of the book where Watson discovers the hut on the moor and lies in wait to ambush the mystery man was probably my favourite part of the book. I liked that, for once, Watson managed to surprise Holmes.

Another of my favourite parts of the book was Watson’s interaction with Mr Frankland, who was essentially the Victorian equivalent of an Internet troll, inflicting inexplicable frustration on all those around him. He spends his days suing his neighbours purely for his own amusement whilst contradicting himself comically. He explains the events of his day to Watson – he has established a right of way on his neighbour’s land “within a hundred yards of his own front door” so that he can “teach these magnates that they cannot ride roughshod over the rights of the commoners”. And on the same day, and in the same breath, he explains that he has “closed the wood where the Fernworthy folk used to picnic. These infernal people seem to think that there are no rights of property, and that they can swarm where they like.”

But it isn’t just Mr Frankland, all of the background characters in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ are quite well fleshed out, although the female characters have quite limited roles. This book would fail the Bechdel test , although that is unsurprising given the era in which it was written. Beryl Stapleton is a fairly brave character, in that she attempts to impede Mr Stapleton’s nefarious plans even when he becomes violent towards her, which definitely shows courage. It’s just a shame her attempts to warn the other characters of his plans are quite weak and ineffectual.

Overall, I found ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ very entertaining. Although I wasn’t truly scared, I certainly found the idea of a hellhound very creepy and I can imagine that the supernatural elements of the book would seem even more plausible if I were surrounded by the landscape the characters inhabit. I enjoyed the mysteries being unravelled by Holmes, and I appreciated Watson playing a more prominent role in the story than he often does. I was also left with the abounding impression that, if I should ever visit Dartmoor, I would certainly heed the advice passed down through the Baskerville family and “forbear from crossing the moor in those dark hours when the powers of evil are exalted”.
I’m going to give this 3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)