re:view – The 2013 Bookshelf II

Blimey. Ages since I’ve done a Bookshelf. I can’t even remember half the books I read six months ago. But I’ll try.

This time, we have funny feminists, scandalous classics, a wizard who would totally make Harry Potter cry, the new George Saunders, epic American history, and assorted randomness.

The usual health and spoilers warning applies.

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
When Caitlin Moran’s book appeared in the shops, I was intrigued. Then she said some stupid things and I decided not to buy it. But then a friend recommended the book forced me to read it by simply dropping it on my desk – and I’m a sucker for a free read. I’ll admit, it’s a good book. Maybe not the “best / funniest / most relevant for women ever book” as some reviewers raved, but still, a good read. What it isn’t, IMO, despite how much Moran tries to push it that way, is an agenda for the feminist of today. (And let’s not even talk about the title.) It’s a book about one woman and one woman’s opinion – and that’s cool. The memoir bits are funny and actually made me feel a little less isolated about some things I thought were just weird about me. The rants are even funnier; and she does have a lot of good points (it’s ok not to want children, high heels are stupid, expensive weddings – stupid, fashion – stupid, Katie Price – stupid, strip clubs – evil, porn industry – stupid/evil, etc). Some I didn’t agree with (giant underpants, free-range pubes), but hey – it’s her opinion, and clearly her opinion is intelligent and informed. And the whole thing is bloody well written, too. I don’t think I want Moran as our poster girl for feminism, but she’s a good writer and a cool lady, and this book is clever, entertaining and enjoyable.
Pens: 4 out of 5

The X-Files: Ground Zero by Kevin J Anderson
I’ve been obsessed with The X-Files since I was 12. This, of course, included reading all the episode novelisations and the independent books, multiple times – Ground Zero, I’d guess, around ten times. While most of the X-Files spin-off novels are fairly entertaining, the majority are horrendously written. Not so the ones by Kevin J Anderson. As a widely published Sci-Fi author (his bibliography literally scrolls into infinity!) he’s the perfect match for the subject, he clearly knows his stuff when it comes to the X-Files mythology and characters, and he writes with the kind of intrigue that’s got you staying up all night, gripping the book with shaking hands, reading the entire story in one epic, breathless go. Had Ground Zero been adapted for the series, this scary and thoughtful comment on nuclear weapons with a tense, paranormal-fantastic plot would have been way up there with the top ten classic episodes.
Pens: 4 out of 5

The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis
Probably the most random book I’ve ever picked up. A friend bought The Monk because she liked the feel of the (Penguin edition) cover, and I just couldn’t resist the intrigue of evil goings-on behind convent walls. Hardly a surprise that this book caused a public outrage when it was published in 1796: Murderous monks! Naughty nuns! Vulnerable virgins! Satanic Seduction! (Ok, I’ll stop now.) But seriously, this read like the A-Z of the Gothic Novel, and as such it is a perfect guilty pleasure that has you pining for more blood, more rotting bones, and more sacrificial sex. I don’t think Lewis intended it as a satire but read today it is simply hilarious. Sadly, the ending lets it down a bit. For most of the book Lewis’ keen eye offers a delightfully wicked look behind the hypocrisy and human weakness, but literally at the last minute he ruins it all by swinging back round to the traditional view of his time. (I can’t spoil this bit though!)
Pens: 3 out of 5

Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams
Thank God (or whoever is sitting out there running things) for this book. Thank you, Douglas Adams, for finishing off the Hitchhiker trilogy (of five) with this crazy and funny little epilogue, and not leaving us stranded with the horrid disappointment that was So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish. After a terribly boring and utterly pointless spell on Earth in the fourth book, Arthur Dent is back out in the universe – in multiple parallel ones even, it seems – revolutionising one world with his sandwiches, nearly destroying another with his overly complicated family drama. This is Hitchhiker as I loved it in the first three parts, and in true style it all ends with a big, blinking, neon-sign of WTF?! Yay!
Pens: 4 out of 5

The Queen and I by Sue Townsend
I first read this in my final year of school on recommendation from my English teacher, and loved it. Picking it up again after having lived in England for five years, I re-discovered this delightfully crazy tale of the Royal Family in the council estate on a whole new level. Most of Sue Townsend’s lovely satire was probably lost on me ten years ago, when I had little clue of how the UK’s political or social system worked. But now, having been Briticised at least 46%, I’m loving this book even more. The great thing about Townsend is – as I’ve already found with Adrian Mole – how lovingly she takes the piss, wrapping a whole load of social commentary into one innocent little phrase. I guess that’s what being a good satirist is all about. And Sue Townsend is clearly top of her league.
Pens: 4 out of 5

Queen Camilla by Sue Townsend
Queen Camilla takes the Queen and I premise to a whole new level. Where in the first book, the Royal Family was merely abolished and moved into a council estate, their neighbourhood has now been turned into an ‘exclusion zone’ where they are locked up, under constant surveillance, with the country’s scum and criminals. The PM has clearly lost his mind, banning stepladders and slippers, and shipping most of the innocent population off to said exclusion zones. When the last of the loyal monarchists plan a coup to restore the family but neither the Queen nor Charles are too keen on claiming the throne back, and a new, illicit heir to the throne emerges from Charles and Camilla’s past, the course is set for a national disaster. Once again Sue Townsend excels at caricaturing political stereotypes and figureheads, effortlessly throwing in a load of social criticism of the surveillance state as she goes along.
Pens: 4 out of 5

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett
As I already said about Good Omens, Pratchett on religion is one of my very favourite things to read. When you’ve been trough 18 years of Catholic upbringing, including nine years at a girls’ convent school, all the while asking yourself what the hell was wrong with these church people, you need all the comic relief you can get. And Pratchett is simply the best when it comes to doing comedy around touchy subjects, at the same time bringing up a whole lot of uncomfortable questions about pretty much every major religion around. Whether you’re a firm believer, or find organised religion somewhat suspicious – you need to read this book in either case.
Pens: 5 out of 5

Storm Front by Jim Butcher
This book was a present from a fellow bookworm hoping to get me hooked on one of her favourite fantasy series. I did enjoy the first adventure of wizard-slash-private-detective Harry Dresden – it is a very entertaining supernatural murder mystery – and there were moments when I nearly fell under the spell of the scruffily charming Harry. But overall I found it all just a tad clichéd – the plot, the timing, the rather one-dimensional representatives of evil…it felt a little bit constructed. Maybe it’s characteristic of the genre; I wouldn’t know. I’ll have to read another one, or some other supernatural detective stuff, to form an opinion.
Pens: 3 out of 5

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter
Oh I do love a good re-told fairy tale, although, after my recent encounter with Red as Blood, I have become a bit wary of the dark, adult fairy tale genre. Luckily, Angela Carter is amazing and has given us a collection of sexy – and sometimes sick – interpretations of classic fairy tales. At the beginning I almost began to suspect that she’s just going for the cheap trick of throwing some sex into the old tales, but as the book goes on the stories become more complex and disturbing. I don’t want to give away too much as the joy lies in figuring it all out as you read, but let me just say Sleeping Beauty has never been so tragically doomed and Little Red Riding Hood has never been braver.
Pens: 4 out of 5

Tenth of December by George Saunders
Oh, wow. Mind blown again by the genius that is George. I found this one more accessible than his previous story collections, but that may just means that I’ve gotten used to Saunders’ style. Tenth of December is essentially more of what he does best: Dystopian alternative futures (or pasts?), characters you can associate with flung into freakish situations that are yet close enough to home to chill and terrify. George Saunders is the master of the American Nightmare, and in some way I haven’t quite figured out yet his work stands for everything I love about American literature.
Pens: 5 out of 5

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