Review: I Should be Writing by Mur Lafferty

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Photo credit: http://www.netgalley.com

With NaNoWriMo just around the corner, it’s time to get some inspiration – and what better way than with the bluntly named “I Should be Writing”. My internal monologue reads this as *screams* “I SHOULD BE WRITING!!!” in a harried, overly-caffeinated way so quite why there isn’t an exclamation mark on the end of the title is (spoiler alert) a mystery that is unfortunately left unresolved within the pages of the book. Perhaps I equate a different level of stress to the knowledge that I’ve wasted two hours looking at videos of puppies vs stairs when I know that I SHOULD BE WRITING!!! – and is possibly the reason that Mur Lafferty has a book and I… well, I know all the ways that a puppy can fall down the stairs. So cute!

I digress…

I Should be Writing (bet you screamed that in your head) is part self help book, part constructive guide to get you to, well, write. There’s a big focus on motivation (“You’re a writer. Get over it” (seriously, what does Mur have against exclamation marks?)) with plenty of tips for avoiding common mistakes, improving your manuscript and a brief discussion on the different ways to sell your work. There’s also lots of writing exercises to spark your imagination, should you be a bit stuck. The book is pretty brief, but it’s the sort of guide that you can dip in and out of to get an overview on a particular topic, because, you know, you really should be writing…

I found the actual advice given in the book to be pretty useful, if a bit basic (my favourite thing that I learnt was if a character can be replaced with a sexy lamp, you need to make her have more agency). There was some good stuff on character development, passive language and plot devices that helped me to think about the structure and direction of my work (I say that as if I have actually written something – I haven’t – but I do have ideas) which again was quite useful. I’m sure that if I do actually sit down and write something I will become immediately sidetracked by the pretty shiny on Pintrest so knowing that I have some constructive advice to fall back on is quite comforting.

I found that when I was reading the writing exercises at the back of the book I was immediately trying to answer the prompts in my head. I think it was the way they each headed a blank page – it felt like I was in an exam and I had to draw a spider diagram to get all of my ideas down before I forgot them. I might still get a mark even if I don’t get round to writing about them! After all, I’ve only got an hour! Aargh! How many points is the question worth? I’m going to need extra paper! Why is Clara using a highlighter pen? It never leaves you…

I could easily have smashed out a few hundred words for each of the writing exercises so I’d recommend this book on the strength of these prompts alone. I think they could definitely help authors with writers block as they were all clear, non-repetitive and easily relatable; no weird shit like “you look out of the window and there’s a dinosaur in your garden. Write about what happens next” (Answer: you die from the seizure which initiates such  bizzare visions) or “A horse opens its mouth and…” which makes you churn out such nonsense that you question your integrity as a person, let alone a writer. Top marks for Mur. They probably used highlighters too.

The only thing that this book was missing was advice on literally how to write; where you should start, how you can plan a novel out, how to remember which character is which etc. I would have liked some input on these topics over and above “just start writing”. For me that way madness lies but I guess I just enjoy having a proper structure to stick to. To each their own.

Overall, I enjoyed reading “I Should be Writing” (punctuation optional) and I think it would be a good, basic guide for the aspiring novelist. It’s a fun, quick read that avoids all of the dry, textbookyness (I know that’s not a word but Mur said I’m a writer so I can do shit like that) of other writing guides. The focus on motivation and procrastination could be really useful and the writing exercises gave me some great ideas. All in all, a great introduction to writing and a useful book to have around. 

Overall rating: 3.5/5
Solid, basic advice written in a light hearted style. Fun to dip in and out of when you need inspiration.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley! I also read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 # 20 Read a Book With Career Advice.

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Review: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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Photo credit: http://www.netgalley.com

I’d been hearing about the HBO series Big Little Lies for a while now, but not being much of a TV fan it kind of bypassed me. Imagine my excitement when I found Netgalley had the book the series was based on available for request! Yay! (Word of warning – this was a while ago now, I have no idea if it’s since been archived.)

The book is based around three women whose children are all starting at the same school. There’s Madeline, the down to earth, making-it-up-as-she-goes-along mum; Celeste, the beautiful, rich, slightly vacant mum; and Jane, the downtrodden young mum. The three women become friends, but an incident involving Jane’s son and another little girl creates escalating tension between all of the parents at the school. Everyone seems to have their own take on the matter, and as the parents form allegiances they’re forced to act in a way that protects their own secrets from becoming public knowledge. As the parents become more polarised, emotions are heightened until everything comes to a head at a fateful school fancy dress party – the scene of a terrible crime.

Big Little Lies is written partly in the format of a police investigation, so the reader instantly knows that the story is going to end in some kind of criminal incident. I really liked the way that the narrative was often juxtaposed with a witness statement from another parent which put a totally different spin on the situation – it was really cleverly done and showed how perceptions can be so distorted based on our own prejudices and preconceived ideas.

Despite the playground politics and petty bitchiness, there’s a central theme of strong female friendship and loyalty which was really refreshing to read about. I loved how different Madeline, Celeste and Jane were, yet they all found common ground and faced many of the same issues. I also loved how the different family types were shown – the single parent, the blended family and the traditional two parent setup, and the problems and pitfalls of each.

The book is very female-centric and there’s a fantastic portrayal of lots of different female relationships – as wives, friends, parents, enemies, grandparents, step parents, victims…the list goes on. All of the characters were totally unique and I loved watching their lives unfold based on the way that they reacted to each other.

I loved the ending to the book and the big plot twist that I didn’t see coming. I can’t believe the novel is 480 pages long – I tore through it as it was really fast paced and the characters were all really interesting and well developed.

I’m sure that Big Little Lies will get tarred with the “chick lit” brush but this isn’t some silly romance, it’s a really unique psychological thriller – that just happens to be based at the school gates. It reminded me a lot of Desperate Housewives (season one, before it went downhill) so any fans of that will definitely enjoy it, although I think there’s something in it for everyone. It’s a big thumbs up from me.

Rating: 4.5/5

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley!

Review: All Day by Liza Jessie Peterson

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Bugger me, America is messed up. I’m sure the UK has some pretty shocking practices when it comes to children awaiting trial for criminal offenses but as far as I’m aware we don’t lock them all up together and stick them on an island, like some kind of Lord of the Flies for black kids. However, that’s exactly what happens in this true-life account of incarcerated children – children! – who are awaiting trial for seemingly minor misdemeanors on Rikers Island, New York.

The book is the account of one teacher’s perspective on what it’s like to work with these kids. Locked up, far from their families, with just the clothes they were wearing when they were arrested, the full extent of what happens to these poor (in both senses) young men is portrayed with brutal honesty. From gang fights to mental health issues everything is recounted with no sugar coating. It’s a morbidly fascinating glimpse into a world very few of us (hopefully) will ever get to see first hand.

*At this point, I am going to have a little bit of a rant. This is tenuously linked to my review but only because of my involvement in the UK justice system. You have been warned*

As someone who spent a few years working in the UK police force at a time when they had just been branded “institutionally racist” I have a little bit of experience of the ways that we worked to change the organisational culture. We aimed to include diversity in everything we did, not just with training (a full two day session that was actually really fun) but by embedding it into everything we did, from appraisal and job interview questions to marketing and branding. We had area Diversity Action Groups with targeted action plans. We attended events like the Caribbean Carnival and Pride. We targeted recruitment adverts to specific interest publications to increase the number of female, LGBTQIA+, disabled and minority ethnic applicants. We had support groups for all the different diversity strands that reviewed all of our policies and procedures to ensure fairness and transparency. We monitored the ethnicity of anyone stopped and searched and published the figures on a monthly basis (if anyone is interested, they were always overwhelmingly white men). Of course there were still problems, but I witnessed myself the amount of work and the dedication of many, many officers and staff to really engage with the idea. And things changed. Slowly, teeny tiny bit by bit, things got slightly better. We recruited record numbers of females and minority ethnic staff. We had awareness days for religious and cultural celebrations where staff and officers brought in food and talked about what the day meant to them. It was really fun (and the free food was a huge, yummy bonus). Everyone seemed really positive about the changes that were being made. I believe (obviously I can’t prove this) that as a result, Drtection rates for hate crimes increased as more emphasis was put on outreach work within communities that were previously very hostile towards the police. I really felt like the actions that we took were having an effect on the community that the police force served.

So I was horrified to read that almost every single inhabitant at Rikers Island was black or Latino – and that it was just accepted that if they had been white they would have been let off with a slap on the wrist. I literally can’t believe how blatantly racist the system is -and that no-one is doing anything about it.

*Ok, rant over. Back to the book review…*

It was really interesting to see how working in such a place was incredibly difficult for the staff – something that often gets neglected in such stories. Peterson is understandably frightened at being left in charge of a class of potential criminals who are disinterested in learning – what’s the point when your life will forever be tarnished with a criminal record? The way that she engages with the kids, enlightens them about their options and inspires their creativity is really impressive. However, the anxiety that she has about taking the job, the sheer effort of designing interesting ways to teach the curriculum and the massively long hours (not to mention the incredibly low pay) all take their toll and I really felt for her when she had to make tough decisions about continuing in the role.

It’s a shame that, as a reader, you don’t get to understand more of the back story about the inhabitants of Rikers Island. Understandably, Peterson has to maintain a professional distance but it would have been fascinating to understand what the young men had been through in order to end up where they were. There are certain issues that get alluded to (violence, drug abuse, sexual abuse etc.) but you never get to find out a full back story.

Despite the fascinating subject matter, I also found the storytelling a little clunky. There were parts that went into massive detail and parts which were skimmed over. I thought that with better editing the book could have been really great, but as it was I gave it…

Rating: 3/5
Could have been more engaging with emphasis on the background of the inhabitants and needed editing – but worth a read for a glimpse into the murky world of reform for minors.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley! I also read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #19 Read a book in which a character of colour goes on a spiritual journey and the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #32 Read a book about an interesting woman.

Review: The Summer of Impossible Things by Rowan Coleman

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Oooh, 1970’s New York. That’ll be crime and corruption, disco, rap and punk, the emerging gay scene, social unrest, racism and violence and drugs and gangs and prostitution. What a rich tapestry to pull some threads from, I thought to myself. You could write a brilliant novel in that setting. So I was pretty disappointed when Rowan Coleman chose to pretty much ignore all of those things and instead wrote a fairly bland story about time travel between then and the present day, where the characters mostly hang out in someone’s house.

The story begins with Luna and Pia, two sisters who go back to Brooklyn after the death of their mother to tie up the loose ends of her estate. They find that their mum has posted them a box of films of herself from years ago, telling them the secret which has haunted her for her whole marriage. But – and this is where it gets weird – Luna discovers that she can time travel. At first she thinks she’s having some kind of hallucination but then decides that it’s happening for a reason – and that reason is to stop the events that lead to her mother’s depression. The story then bounces about between the present day and the 1970’s, where Luna gets to know her mum as a young woman and starts to work out who was involved and how to stop it all from happening.

I found this premise pretty ridiculous. Everything else in the book is set completely in the real world so the whole time travel thing came out of nowhere and didn’t really fit into the story well. For example, Luna tells Pia about her newly acquired skill and with very little persuasion and no evidence Pia accepts it. Surely any normal person would be convinced that their sister was ill?

There’s also a love story between Luna and Michael (who she meets in 1970’s Brooklyn). I thought their relationship was very sweet but nothing much happened between them, so I felt the whole thing fell a little flat. I also thought it was a bit far fetched for a couple to fall completely in love with each other when they’d only met a few times.

There’s a further additional side story where we find out that Pia is a recovering drug and alcohol addict. Because this was mostly glossed over I wasn’t sure why it was mentioned within the narrative – I thought that the author could have done a lot more with it (or not mention it at all).

However, the one thing that stood out for me was the character of Luna’ s mother, Riss. I loved how she was depicted as a young girl, full of sass and excitement. It’s just a shame that the other characters weren’t written as vividly as she was.

Overall, I felt that by adding in storylines which the entire novel could have been based on, the narrative became a little confused. To me, it felt like five or six different stories all mashed into the same book, with no room for any of the ideas to be properly explored. I would have loved for the characters to get out more, with better descriptions of Brooklyn in both time periods. I really struggled with the time travelling idea and thought that the situation was dealt with in quite a clumsy manner. However, as the novel progressed the main storyline picked up pace and I was genuinely interested to see how things turned out. It’s just a shame that I had to get two thirds of the way through the book before it really grabbed my attention.

Rating: 2.5/5
Fairly indifferent to the book, the annoying/far fetched elements were balanced out by a decent ending and a well written prominent character.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley! I also read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #6 Read a book with a season in the title.

Review: We Are Data by John Cheney Lippold

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Well, it’s not often that I hate and love a book in equal measure – but that’s what happened with We Are Data. On the one hand, it’s a completely fascinating, sometimes scary and often unbelievable text but on the other it’s super dry, technical and complicated. I suspect it was conceived from the embers of a Ph.D thesis – and as someone who was forced to review their partners Ph.D write up let me tell you, those things are no fun to read.

The book looks at data in the modern world – how it is created, stored, captured by third parties, analysed and ultimately put to use. That sounds quite abstract, but when you realise that the data we’re talking about is the stuff you create yourself by searching the web, using social media, reading a blog…yeah, the fact that you’re reading this right now means that you’ve left a data trail that someone, somewhere is recording. Now you’re interested, right? Maybe a little creeped out? That’s how I felt for pretty much the entirety of the book.

Because We Are Data focuses on the information created at an individual level, it suddenly makes it much more relevant to real life. For example, did you know that just by owning a mobile phone (even one that’s turned off), you create data through it’s inbuilt GPS? And that not only will your movements be tracked by your phone company, they will also know who you spend time with in real life (through your proximity to other mobile phones)? If you use a smartphone or computer, your data will also include who you talk to (via calls and texts), who you’re friends with (via social media like Facebook), what your interests are (via your web searches), where you work (via phone GPS co-ordinates and logging on to certain sites from your unique IP address during working hours) etc. Basically, everything we do digitally is monitored at some level, and is used to infer all kinds of things about us as individuals. If you don’t believe me, or think this sounds a bit far-fetched (and you have a Google/Gmail account) you can read who Google think you are by going to http://www.google.com/ads/preferences. This information hasn’t been volunteered by you – it’s been discerned by algorithms using the data the company has logged about you from your online activity. Pretty scary stuff, right?

We Are Data explores how analysis of the metadata of daily life can be algorithmically interpreted to deduce “facts” about us (gender, age, socio-economic background, income, education level etc.) and how that impacts on us. This can be seemingly innocuous, such as Facebook placing adverts in our news feeds targeted to what it believes our interests are to the utterly terrifying actions of the US military sending drone strikes to kill individuals based purely on the data they have created. I know this is all starting to sound like a dystopian fantasy novel or a crackpot conspiracy theory, but We Are Data is meticulously researched and referenced. Big Brother really is watching.

Personally, I found the information contained within We Are Data to be completely fascinating BUT it does read like a textbook. There are so many technical phrases and bits of theory used that I can easily see the book being used as a core text for a number of degree programmes, in everything from Sociology to Technology. It’s not light reading, it definitely would only appeal to a small number of people and if you’re not used to reading scholarly articles then you’ll find it a total slog to get through – but there was just enough mind blowing research contained within the pages to keep me reading to the end (well, not quite the end, as the last 15% is references). If dataveillance is your thing then you’ll love it. It’s not really my cup of tea so I gave it…

Rating: 3/5.

Technical, complicated, scholarly text with just enough gems hidden within it to keep me interested – but I did struggle to read it all.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley! I also read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #13 Read a nonfiction book about technology.

The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Loveitt by Chelsea Sedoti

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Photo credit: http://www.netgalley.com

Wow, so, like, this is like a totally annoying way to write, right? So, like, you probably wouldn’t have the main character of a book, like, totally talk like this, right? Well, not if you’re Chelsea Sedoti.

In fairness, this weird Valley Girl vernacular drops off pretty quickly, but after reading the first few pages of The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Loveitt I really wasn’t sure if I could keep going. I did, and it did get better, but unfortunately there was plenty of other things to get annoyed about.

The book itself is about a girl called Hawthorne, who gets completely hung up on the disappearance of Lizzie Loveitt, a girl she vaguely knows from school. I didn’t understand exactly why Hawthorne got so involved in the case (we’re told she has an active imagination – more on that later – and Lizzie does sound like a very engaging individual) but I don’t get why she got so wrapped up in events. Was it a girl crush? Was it just the excitement of the disappearance? I’m still not sure.

Through Hawthorne’s own investigations, she meets Lizzie’s boyfriend and begins a kind of relationship with him. That might sound all sweet and adorkable but frankly, it was just a bit odd. Normally I’m firmly in the corner of the weirdo’s but as a character, Hawthorne was just too random, even for me. She had the most bizzare ideas about what had happened to Lizzie and seemed to want to convince herself and everyone around her that she had figured things out, even when her solutions were ridiculous and she knew that everyone would laugh at her. I found Hawthorne to be so lacking in rationality that it was impossible to follow her train of thought, which got on my nerves.

Lots of the other characters in the book weren’t really fleshed out properly so it was hard for me to engage with them. Lizzie’s boyfriend, Enzo, was a stereotypical tortured artist type, Hawthorne’s best friend was a stereotypical nerd, her mum was a stereotypical hippie. They all had side stories that didn’t really go anywhere and their relationships with Hawthorne seemed quite flimsy. A chunk of the story was dedicated to some gypsies turning up and camping on Hawthorne’s lawn, but nothing really happened except a couple of conversations where Lizzie was given advice.

Yawn.

As the title of the book suggests, I thought that Hawthorne and Enzo would uncover some exciting/horrifying/salacious information about Lizzie that would add intrigue to the storyline – but – SPOILER ALERT – instead they just discovered that Lizzie had changed a lot since high school and lived a very minimal life. Quite a lot was made of this (Lizzie was empty inside, always changing herself to fit in with others etc.) but really, who hasn’t changed from their high school self? And so what if she had a minimal apartment? I felt a bit cheated by this.

The ending of the book was pretty anti-climatic and after that I thought that the story dragged. Luckily, it ended pretty soon after.

All in all, I didn’t totally hate the book but I couldn’t really engage with the characters or the storyline. The only thing that kept me reading was the certainty that at some point, something would happen…but it kind of didn’t. Perhaps if you’re more of a fan of YA you might get more from the storyline or relate to the characters better, but it just wasn’t for me.

Rating: 2/5

Bland, unremarkable fiction, vaguely annoying characters, no real storyline. Not truly terrible, but not a book I enjoyed or would recommend. 

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley! I also read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #17 Read a book that’s published in 2017.

Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine…until you scratch the surface of her life and realise that she isn’t. At all.

You see, Eleanor lives a life of pared down efficiency. Her meals are one pot, one plate. Her shoes are smart but comfortable, with Velcro for quick fastening (none of those inefficient shoe laces). Her role as a finance administrator requires analysis and ordering of numbers, which can be broken down into repetitive tasks and scheduled accordingly. All of this means that Eleanor creates minimal fuss and requires minimal interactions with other people. All perfectly FINE, thank you. Until you realise that Eleanor treats vodka like an essential basic grocery and thinks of a pot plant as her one and only friend.

Eleanor struggles with people, and as the book progresses, you start to guess at what might have happened in her childhood to make her so ill equipped to deal with social situations. Apart from having burn scars across her face and body, Eleanor has a very troubling relationship with her mother (Mummy) who she only contacts via telephone for 15 minutes on a Wednesday (and thank God, because this woman is a BITCH). As the book progresses, Eleanor makes some woeful (often hilarious) attempts to make herself more attractive to her crush and through a freak event is forced to spend time with Raymond, who she knows from work. Through this very off-kilter friendship Eleanor begins to accept herself and explore ways in which she can, ultimately, be fine (no capitals).

I have to say that I really enjoyed this book. Eleanor was such a great character and although she is clearly odd and her life is terribly sad, the novel is written in such a way that you don’t ever feel that you’re laughing at her, or at least not in a malicious way. There’s so much darkness in the book and Eleanor is such a bullied, broken individual that you immediately want to defend her, but you don’t just like her out of pity, you want her to be your friend because she’s genuinely funny, interesting and kind. When she acts inappropriately you can see it’s because she doesn’t understand social norms and never because she aims to cause offense – but to outsiders I suppose she seems aloof or downright rude. It’s this constant formality and awkwardness that made me empathise so much with Eleanor – you can’t help but be completely on her side. 

The book is very cleverly written and is such a fantastic achievement for a debut author. The surname Oliphant means a monster or monstrous elephant and the full name of Eleanor Oliphant sounds like a play on the word Elephant. I suspect Gail Honeyman wanted us to think of the metaphor “the elephant in the room” which could often be applied to Eleanor – the strange, silent person that, with her pensioner style clothing and scarred face, is completely obvious but no-one wants to acknowledge.

The ending of the book has a fantastic twist that I half guessed at but the sadness of the whole situation really hit me. I loved how Eleanors past was hinted at throughout the novel and that by the end of the book everything had come to light. It certainly kept me guessing right to the end and I would love to know how Eleanor gets on (although I said this after Me Before You and look how After You panned out).

Overall, I loved the character of Eleanor and seeing how she stopped trying to just survive and started trying to live. I loved how what could have been fluffy chick lit was turned into something much more challenging and emotive by offsetting the lighter elements with something far darker. The book is very well written and is perfect reading for this time of year, when the days are still mild but there’s a bit of a nip in the air.

Rating: 8.5/10
Charming, funny and oh-so heartbreaking, a great debut novel from an author to look out for.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley!