11.30.2014

THE SUNDAY REVIEW | SO ANYWAY... - JOHN CLEESE


Candid and brilliantly funny, this is the story of how a tall, shy youth from Weston-super-Mare went on to become a self-confessed legend. En route, John Cleese describes his nerve-racking first public appearance, at St Peter’s Preparatory School at the age of eight and five-sixths; his endlessly peripatetic home life with parents who seemed incapable of staying in any house for longer than six months; his first experiences in the world of work as a teacher who knew nothing about the subjects he was expected to teach; his hamster-owning days at Cambridge; and his first encounter with the man who would be his writing partner for over two decades, Graham Chapman. And so on to his dizzying ascent via scriptwriting for Peter Sellers, David Frost, Marty Feldman and others to the heights of Monty Python.

Punctuated from time to time with John Cleese’s thoughts on topics as diverse as the nature of comedy, the relative merits of cricket and waterskiing, and the importance of knowing the dates of all the kings and queens of England, this is a masterly performance by a former schoolmaster.
- Goodreads


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I'm on a bit of a memoir kick lately, so when I was given the opportunity to review John Cleese's new autobiography, I jumped at the chance. I'm going to assume that most of you know who this legend is, but in case you don't, he's a British comic actor and writer, and one of the brilliant minds behind Monty Python. He also co-wrote and starred in Fawlty Towers, a sit-com about a hotel owner who finds himself in the most hilarious and absurd of situations while trying to run the hotel effectively and keep his wife happy.

But Cleese is much more than comic relief. He's smart, educated, and an excellent writer. The book begins at the very beginning and traces Cleese's life from early childhood through school, his early involvement in theatre, his time at Cambridge (where he completed a law degree), his decision to pursue writing and performing in comedy skits, and how that led to a full and successful career as a comic genius.

What really struck me about Cleese's story was just how normal it all seemed. Even when he got into working for the BBC and performing in New York. He talks about his work as just that - a job. No sense of hubris, no self-importance. He found something he enjoyed doing, that he had skill for, and he worked hard at it - often surprised by his own success. He is a polite, civilized, professional who approached every facet of his career with integrity.

The majority of the book deals with the relatively early years of his career - pre-Monty Python. Perhaps he feels that this was the more important era in his career, perhaps writing made him feel nostalgic for his early years in show biz - before celebrity culture became a monster that makes stars into a different species from us everyday folk. One thing I really admire about British actors like Cleese, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Rowan Atkinson, Helen Mirren etc., is that they have all earned their fame by being outstanding and working hard at their craft. Fame was a by-product. It's a refreshing perspective after being bombarded with tabloid journalism and story after story about which stars had plastic surgery on a daily basis.

I'm glad I read this book. I knew very little about Cleese before reading it, and he's definitely someone worth taking the time to get to know. It wasn't quite as funny as I expected, but it's certainly not dry. For any fan of British comedy, Cleese or down-to-earth celebrity personas, this is a book worth checking out.

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**Thanks to Random House of Canada for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

Book Title: So Anyway...
Author: John Cleese
Series: No
Edition: Hardback
Published By: Doubleday Canada
Released: November 4, 2014
Genre: Memoir, Acting, Humour
Pages: 400
Date Read: November 5-23, 2014
Rating: 7/10

11.29.2014

STACKING THE SHELVES | #49


Time to look at the books I added to my shelves this week with Stacking the Shelves hosted by Tynga's Reviews! Not necessarily books I bought - also includes books I borrowed, was given or otherwise ended up with. Weeks I don't buy any books I'll scramble around my shelves and find some I haven't shared in an StS post yet!


Men Explain Things To Me - Rebecca Solnit
The Unspeakable - Meghan Daum


Lady Parts - Andrea Martin
A Thousand Pieces of You - Claudia Gray


The Routes of Man - Ted Conover
By the Book - Pamela Paul

What about you guys? Did you pick up any great reads this week? Find any long-forgotten books lurking at the back of your shelves? Share in the comments!

11.27.2014

BOOK THOUGHTS ON THURSDAY | WINTER READING


The world of books is never boring. Every week (well, most weeks) I'll discuss a different topic related to books, often inspired by or in response to what's going on in the online book community (or something I've seen another blogger talk about). I call this Book Thoughts on Thursday. Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments, or even write your own post on the topic and share the link with me! 

***
I don't know about you, but where I live, winter is really setting in. The leaves have turned, the days have shortened, and there's a distinct chill in the air. There's even talk of snow next week. SNOW.

While the darkness is oppressive, it's difficult to find clothes that match in the dark every morning and I abhor being damp and shivery (I live on the west coast - better known as the WET coast), there are some things I enjoy about colder weather.

I love fuzzy socks. I love thick, cozy scarves. I love warm drinks (especially Starbucks' peppermint mochas). But more than anything, I love the feeling of snuggling up in my flannel pjs with a fleece blanket and a really good book.

http://www.pinterest.com/pin/531424824751387186/

I've got high standards for winter reading, though. In spring and summer I'll push on as far as I can in a book I'm not enjoying. But in the winter, I'm having none of it. I need books that are going to completely immerse me, take all my attention and build a magical world around me to replace the drab reality of west coast rain.

I've always been one to save the best for last. The best cards in Crazy Eights, the best bite of my dinner, my favourite pens and notebooks, my Halloween candy. So it's not surprising that when it's coming up to winter, I start setting aside some of my most anticipated reads so I've got something to look forward to. (If you want to see which books I'm currently hoarding, check my most recent Top Ten Tuesday post.)

But no matter how many fantastic books I've stockpiled, every year, when Christmas is just around the corner, I have an overwhelming urge to retreat to a fictional world that I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, will not disappoint. My go-to? The entire Harry Potter series (and all the movies).

http://rebloggy.com/post/gif-ron-weasley-rupert-grint-harry-potter-daniel-radcliffe-ps-ss-harry-potter-gi/37278557733

http://rebloggy.com/post/gif-ron-weasley-rupert-grint-harry-potter-daniel-radcliffe-ps-ss-harry-potter-gi/37278557733

I'm not sure why. Maybe because it's already on my radar after Halloween (pumpkin juice, anyone??). Or because Hogwarts is my happy place. There's no literary world I'd rather escape to when the real one gets a bit too dreary. Whatever the reason, dipping into the series has become part of my Christmas tradition.

http://giphy.com/gifs/harry-potter-christmas-bSaewGN684o36
 I mean, come on. Who WOULDN'T want to spend Christmas here?

Which has me wondering - do you have any Christmas or winter reading traditions? Do you save summery reads for cold weather, or seek out seasonal stories? Do you like a good re-read to brighten up those short, dark winter days? (What about movies? This might be a book blog, but I love me a good Christmas story!)

11.24.2014

TOP TEN TUESDAY | BOOKS ON MY WINTER TBR


This week's Top Ten Tuesday on The Broke and the Bookish is: Top Ten Books On My Winter TBR. This could get seriously out of hand. I wish I could read all ten books at a time, or absorb them by osmosis if I tucked them under my pillow at night!


The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith
Girl Walks Into A Bar... - Rachel Dratch 
Killer Instinct - Jennifer Lynn Barnes


My True Love Gave to Me - Stephanie Perkins, ed.
Us - David Nicholls
The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern


Bel Canto - Ann Patchett


In Case of Emergency - Courtney Moreno 
A Thousand Pieces of You - Claudia Gray

Of course, if you ask me again in a week you'll get an entirely different list! What I don't have (yet) is a good, solid stack of seasonal reads. I'd love your suggestions of anything Christmassy or wintery or just cosy and fun to read on a cold day with a hot cup of tea and a warm blanket! Share in the comments!

11.23.2014

THE SUNDAY REVIEW | MR. CHURCHILL'S SECRETARY - SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL


London, 1940. Winston Churchill has just been sworn in, war rages across the Channel, and the threat of a Blitz looms larger by the day. But none of this deters Maggie Hope. She graduated at the top of her college class and possesses all the skills of the finest minds in British intelligence, but her gender qualifies her only to be the newest typist at No. 10 Downing Street. Her indefatigable spirit and remarkable gifts for codebreaking, though, rival those of even the highest men in government, and Maggie finds that working for the prime minister affords her a level of clearance she could never have imagined—and opportunities she will not let pass. In troubled, deadly times, with air-raid sirens sending multitudes underground, access to the War Rooms also exposes Maggie to the machinations of a menacing faction determined to do whatever it takes to change the course of history.

Ensnared in a web of spies, murder, and intrigue, Maggie must work quickly to balance her duty to King and Country with her chances for survival. And when she unravels a mystery that points toward her own family’s hidden secrets, she’ll discover that her quick wits are all that stand between an assassin’s murderous plan and Churchill himself.

In this daring debut, Susan Elia MacNeal blends meticulous research on the era, psychological insight into Winston Churchill, and the creation of a riveting main character,  Maggie Hope, into a spectacularly crafted novel.
- Goodreads

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I am a huge fan of a show by the name of The Bletchley Circle. Unfortunately some idiot the powers that be decided to cancel it, so I've been trying to find something to fill the void ever since.

For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about The Bletchley Circle was a brilliant British show set in the years directly after the second world war. The show follows a group of female friends who worked at Bletchley Park - a code-breaking division who were secretly decrypting German intelligence during the war. Of course, once the war was over, these women's brilliant minds were put in storage as they were expected to return to the more traditional (read: limited and boring) roles of wife and mother.

Needless to say, this transition did not always go smoothly. The show sees the group of women re-united, and despite their efforts to assimilate, they can't help but see more going on in the world around them - including mysteries that need solving. They can't help but be brilliant.

This book appealed to me because it was set in the same era (though earlier - this first book took place just as the Blitz began), and also featured a strong female lead who chafes against traditional gender roles, yearning to prove that she has more than what it takes to work alongside the men.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The setting is intriguing to me (I recently found out that my grandmother became a reader after passing man long hours reading in shelters during the Blitz) and stepping into WWII London was at once familiar and jarringly foreign. Both the time-period and the context were flawlessly evoked, and I had no trouble imagining it as I read.

The story itself didn't lag, brought just the right amount of character development and dark suspense to ensure that putting the book down was next to impossible. It's a relatively quick read, but an entertaining and enjoyable one - I'll be rationing out the remaining books in the series (there are 4 in total so far) and saving them for times when I just need a book I know I won't have any trouble getting into.

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Book Title: Mr. Churchill's Secretary
Author: Susan Elia MacNeal
Series: Maggie Hope #1
Edition: Paperback
Published By: Bantam Books
Released: 2012
Genre: Historical Fiction, WWII, Suspense
Pages: 349
Date Read: October 11-19, 2014
Rating: 8/10

11.22.2014

STACKING THE SHELVES | #48


Time to look at the books I added to my shelves this week with Stacking the Shelves hosted by Tynga's Reviews! Not necessarily books I bought - also includes books I borrowed, was given or otherwise ended up with. Weeks I don't buy any books I'll scramble around my shelves and find some I haven't shared in an StS post yet!


Alphabetique - Molly Peacock
Sweetland - Michael Crummey
The Moment of Everything - Shelly King


Hold the Dark - William Giraldi
In Case of Emergency - Courtney Moreno
The Blazing World - Siri Hustvedt

I'm particularly excited to read In Case of Emergency, which is about an EMT who struggles to manage the trauma she has dealt with in her past and continues to encounter every day of her professional life.

I find the stories of those who work in high-pressure, potentially traumatic fields like law enforcement, medical emergency response, and fire fighting fascinating. I think we all do. These are the people we rely on to keep us safe, protect our homes and save our lives. They are underpaid, overworked and spend their days dealing with and witnessing some of the most dangerous and emotionally traumatizing events in the human experience. And yet, for whatever reason, they continue to do their jobs and put their own welfare (physical and emotional) in jeopardy for the good of the communities they serve.

Right now I'm reading Newjack by Ted Conover, which is a first-hand account of becoming and being a corrections officer at Sing Sing, and it has me craving similarly well-written accounts of real-life extremes.

What about you guys? What did you pick up or pull off the shelf this week?

11.20.2014

BOOK THOUGHTS ON THURSDAY | THE SUBJECTIVE NATURE OF BOOK REVIEWING


The world of books is never boring. (Almost) every week I'll discuss a different topic related to books, often inspired by or in response to what's going on in the online book community (or something I've seen another blogger talk about). I call this Book Thoughts on Thursday. Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments, or even write your own post on the topic and share the link with me! 

***
It's no secret that there are few (if any) books that are universally liked. Especially amongst book reviewers. A book that is given 10/10 by one reviewer might only rate 2/10 for another. Is one wrong? Is there even a "right" rating? Or are they both right? What factors contribute to a numerical book rating - and why such variation?

I struggle with assigning numerical values to books. I do it, because I know that often readers just want to know if a book was good, and if so, how good. But I regularly have to refer back to my own guidelines for what each numerical value means, and even with that reminder I have an incredibly hard time deciding which number fits a particular book.

The reason it's so hard to pin down a number is, of course, that opinions on a particular book aren't based on any kind of formula. They're based on a wide and hugely varied set of criteria. Often different criteria for different books and different readers.

There are the obvious things that all reviewers consider: writing style, plot, character development, consistency. These are all equally important in any story, but it's difficult to put a number rating on a book that would be a 10/10 for plot, but is a 2/10 for writing and a 4/10 for character development (or any other combination of disparate values).

On top of that, there are less quantifiable aspects that inform my impression. A certain character that I just don't like. A plot that doesn't appeal to me. A subject that doesn't hold my interest. The book could be well written, the characters may be fully realized and the plot might move along with good pacing and flow - but something about it still just doesn't work for me.

Conversely, there are books that are very close to my heart, even though they're not objectively great works, because they connected with something in me on a personal level. Perhaps I read them when I was going through something similar or they provided exactly the humourous escape I needed to get me through a bad spot.

Further muddying the waters are my feeling towards and impressions of the author. This is a rich topic to be explored further in a future post, but I am someone who has a hard time loving a book by an author I don't like. I know that a book is not its author. I know that despicable human beings have created truly breathtaking works - and that people I have immense respect for have turned out duds. But that doesn't change the fact that, as I'm reading, whatever I know about the author sits in the back of my mind and informs my enjoyment of it.

And don't even get me started on how difficult it is for me to give a negative or even just slightly unfavorable review to a book I've been given for free. I do it, because my ethics trump my emotional discomfort, but I can't honestly say I've never given a book a slightly better review than it probably deserved because I felt guilty saying everything I felt. It takes a lot of practice to steel oneself against reviewer's guilt. 

Because of these factors, I have struggled (and continue to struggle) with how to rate and review nearly every book I read. Should I rate them based on how I feel, regardless of objectivity? Or do I have an obligation to remove any kind of emotional bias I may have and try to base my rating solely on what the book technically merits?

In the end, I've discovered that it's impossible not to allow my own emotional experience of reading a book to influence my rating. It just will, because the joy of reading is in the emotions it evokes. And even though two readers may read the same words, they will not experience the same story. A large part of what makes reading so magical is the connection experienced by each individual reader that allows them to feel their way into text.

I'm not a professional book critic. I don't have the terminology or experience to break down books into their component parts and bring literary theory and comparison into the mix. I'm not going to tell you whether The Goldfinch was a brilliant work of modern fiction or a derivative, overly long opus of mediocrity. But I will tell you if I got along with the main character, if the plot held my attention, what moments stuck with me by the end and whether I think it was worth its page count.

So the conclusion that I've come to is that it's okay if my emotional response to a book informs my review of it a little bit. I try to give "fair" reviews, but I'll occasionally let my feelings for a main character, plot or setting bump it up (or down) a half star or so. I justify this by trying to identify my particular bias in my review in the hopes that readers can decide for themselves if they'll share my reaction.

And I think that one of the main things to love about both being a book blogger and reading book blogs is finding readers who have similar tastes and biases. I've discovered countless new favourites based on rave reviews by bloggers who, in the past, have liked some of the same books I have. I've also found fantastic friends in bonding over these books. I hope that others have had the same experience with what they've found here - a personal reading history that, while still giving  useful critique, provides a sense of the reviewer, too.

***

What about you, readers and fellow bloggers? Do you like reading reviews that are informed by personal bias, or do you prefer objective assessments of books? Do you struggle with assigning ratings to books? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

11.19.2014

WWW WEDNESDAY | #40


It's time for this week's WWW Wednesdays, hosted by Should Be Reading blog (head over and check them out!).

This link up asks three questions
  • What did you recently finish reading?
  • What are you currently reading?
  • What do you think you'll be reading next? 
Here are my WWW answers!

What did I recently finish reading?

I have not finished a single book in two weeks.

http://whatshouldwecallhomer.tumblr.com/post/85973538218/reading-greek-after-studying-abroad-for-4-months-and

Ugh. I don't want to talk about it.

What am I currently reading?

 
Well, if you can call it that. Obviously I'm not getting much reading done lately, which is making me VERY cranky. I'd advise avoiding me until I finish off at least two books. Preferably in a sitting.

What do I think I'll be reading next?


A new friend of mine lent me Newjack after a (somewhat heated) discussion of Orange Is the New Black. This is the real story of life behind bars from the perspective of an undercover journalist who secured himself the ultimate insider's view of the prison system - that of a prison guard. Piper Kerman's book has directed some light onto the issues intrinsic to the criminal justice system in the USA, which is a good thing. But while she spent time behind bars, she is not your typical inmate. Your typical inmate doesn't get a chance to share their perspective - and they definitely don't get heard if they do (let alone a book deal and TV adaptation). So I'm interested to read this account which I expect to be darker but more important. Us is a book I've been wanting to start for a while, and hopefully will be a lighter counterpoint!

Well, obviously my reading hasn't been up to much lately (I haven't finished a book in ELEVEN DAYS), but there's still hope that I can turn it around before the end of the month with a bit of effort and luck.

What about you guys? You can't possibly be having as much of a slump as I am, so let me get my vicarious thrills by telling me which books you've polished off recently in the comments!

11.17.2014

TOP TEN TUESDAY | SEQUELS I CAN'T WAIT TO GET


This week's Top Ten Tuesday on The Broke and the Bookish is: Top Ten Sequels I Can't Wait to Get. Hmmm. I am not currently reading much in the way of series - they're just so much investment and I hate the waiting. So I'm including sequels that are already out, but that I haven't read yet, series I haven't started and some books I wish had sequels.

Sequels I Can't Wait to Read

1. The Rosie Effect - Graeme Simsion (Don Tillman #2)

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22845605-the-rosie-effect

This one has been out for a couple of months now, but I haven't found time to dive in!

2. Killer Instinct - Jennifer Lynn Barnes (The Naturals #2)

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20409231-killer-instinct?ac=1

Another book that I've been itching to binge read! But part of me wants to keep saving it...

3. I Am the Traitor - Allen Zadoff (The Unknown Traitor #3)

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23271231-i-am-the-traitor?from_search=true

One of the few series I've kept up with. I read the first two books in this series, and while they're not perfect, they're entertaining and I definitely want to read what comes next.

4. Under Cover - Chris Ryan (Agent 21 #5)

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22822954-under-cover

Another series I will keep reading - it's hit or miss, but there have been a couple I really enjoyed.

5. Mr. Kiss and Tell - Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham (Veronica Mars #2)

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21437200-mr-kiss-and-tell?ac=1

Can. Not. WAIT.

Books I WISH Had Sequels

6. Not That Kind of Girl - Lena Dunham

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20588698-not-that-kind-of-girl?ac=1

Because there just has to be one. Or two. Or five.

7. Good Omens - Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/474059.Good_Omens

It actually doesn't need to be a sequel. Just anything by this dynamo team would be snapped up by me so fast you wouldn't even see it happen.

8. Harry Potter - J.K. Rowling


Prequel, sequel, side-story, other perspectives.... this is one world I'd happily move back into and live in forever.

9. The Silver Linings Playbook - Matthew Quick

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13539044-the-silver-linings-playbook?ac=1

This book was just so quirky and whimsical. I loved the characters and the premise.

10. The Fault In Our Stars - John Green

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20821174-the-fault-in-our-stars

In this case, it would be more of a prequel. I'd love to read Augustus Waters' pre-Hazel story - or even the same story from his perspective!

Alright, guys - your turn! Which series do I need to read? Which sequels are you counting down the days to read? Share in the comments!

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