21 February 2013

A Night To Remember

Title: A Night To Remember
Author: Walter Lord
Year published: 1956
Pages: 215
Time It Took To Read: A day

If you, like me, are around your mid-late 20s, you probably had a monstrous, all consuming crush on Leo DiCaprio or Kate Winslet's nipple in 1997. Titanic, the film, was a big deal. It had everything: romance and heartbreak for the girls, action and death (and Kate Winslet's nipple) for the boys, boiler rooms (and nipple) for the men and period finery for the women. I cried the first time I watched it, as a 12/13 year old girl. Since then, I've seen it many times, often mocking it roundly with my sisters. At the time, I became a little obsessed with the Titanic, and had several books on it which I pored over. I also had the Titanic: Adventure Out Of Time video game, which was AMAZING - if you completed it, history got revised and there were no World Wars! I also had a Titanic film tie in game, which wasn't really a game, more a collection of information and inquest reports from the initial disaster. 
It's been nearly sixteen years since then. Last year was the centenary of the Titanic's loss. This was marked by a Titanic film 3D re-release, a shonky ITV Titanic special by Julian Fellowes (dubbed Drownton by the internet) and a legion of teenagers expressing shock that the Titanic was real. And this little book was reissued. My mum got it for me for my birthday last April, and I decided to read it today, while still hopped up on Victoriana and class history from Mr Briggs' Hat.

It's astonishing. It opens as the ship hits the ice berg; no endless scene setting or discussions of social context necessary. The thing about Titanic (and Drownton) is that they needed fictional characters to weave the story together. A Night To Remember doesn't. It tells the story chronologically through direct quotes and descriptions from the real people who were there. Some of the most influential people in the world were travelling on that ship, alongside some of the poorest, and Walter Lord wrote this book at a time when many of them were still alive and happy to be interviewed. All of their stories are given equal merit and allows the goings on of the first class smoking room to segue into the horror, sweat and fear of the boiler rooms, without it jarring. It flows beautifully. There is no extensive description, no fawning over the lovely first class suites, but you get a clear mental picture (augmented if you've watched the film, obviously) of how the ship looked and how it was physically linked up. The ship was a microcosm of society, with social strata kept distinct, yet interconnected.
There is so much more detail than in the film. The experiences of people are touched on briefly, but illuminatingly: like the Italian steerage woman on the Carpathia who was hysterical at being separated from her two babies, and one was found defrosting in the pantry. There is no hand-wringing at the treatment of third class passengers - it is accepted as both the way society was then, and the catalyst that began to change things. Lord never pretends to have more knowledge than he does, admitting omissions and contradictions in the story. It is, however, as complete and lucid an account as you could hope for. I can't recommend it enough.

Book count: 18/50

20 February 2013

Mr Briggs' Hat

Title: Mr Briggs' Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain's First Railway Murder
Author: Kate Colquhoun
Year published: 2011
Pages: 288
Time It Took To Read: A week

My eldest son went down with chickenpox just as I started this book. Ah, chickenpox, bane of my life. The next few days were taken up with endless screaming, begging me to stop him itching, asking WHY, WHY MUST HE HAVE THE POX? (he's not quite 4, and prone to melodrama) and howling for help. On top of this, I had a uni essay due in today, so I had to write that as well. My children are only ever ill when I'm on a deadline. It's quite irritating. The youngest has yet to become spotty, but it's coming...oh yes, it's coming

Anyway, I decided to read this book, which has been sitting on my shelf for over a year, because there's a dramatisation of the case on BBC2 on Thursday night. I realised I couldn't possibly read the article about it in the Radio Times until I'd read the book. And I goddamn love the Radio Times. 
I finished it last night, sat on my eldest's bed, trying to will him into unconsciousness (he's better, but he doesn't sleep well). I love true crime. I have a shelf and a half of it in my 'library'. My mother fired this obsession in me when I was young. If there was a particularly grisly murder, or (even better) series of murders, she would buy every paper covering the case she could find, to compare details. Then, afterwards, she'd buy all the biographies and autobiographies to pore over after the case. I read them in bulk, from the age of around 11 (far too young to be reading about Fred West or the Moors Murderers). As I got older, I found I had a preference for older crimes, especially the Victorian sensations, covered in minute detail and description, working without photographs, without CSI. I also developed a lot of love for forensic methodology, probably because I'm obsessed by human pathology, but my taste for modern crimes has dissipated since I became a mother.
Mr Briggs' Hat does not disappoint. It has all the elements of a good yarn: a shocking murder, a transatlantic flight, a mass of circumstantial evidence, but nothing concrete. It's also a study of society and cultural values at a time when public execution was the penalty for murder, at odds with an incredibly prudish and religious  world. The only thing I didn't like about it was the author's habit of putting quotes in italics, rather than quotemarks. If you loved The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (and if you haven't read that, go and get it, AT ONCE) then you'll enjoy this.

Book count: 17/50

12 February 2013


Title: Mockingjay
Author: Suzanne Collins
Series: The Hunger Games Book 3
Year published: 2010
Pages: 455
Time It Took To Read: About a day

And so, the Hunger Games comes to an end, and revolution is in the air. Only revolutions aren't usually led by a 17 year old girl.

This book was not quite as good as the other two - the energy that drove the first two, the quest for survival is enlarged far beyond just being about Katniss and Peeta, and loses its intensity. Even though you know what the people are fighting for, it feels a somewhat pointless, aimless exercise. Katniss becomes ever more grumpy, distant and cold. There is a lot about training and planning, but Katniss doesn't witness it. Then again, Katniss notices bugger all. People die in front of her, and the pace is so breathless that this is noted two paragraphs on. 
The ending was unsatisfactory. Maybe a teen audience want a happy (ish) ending, but it rang false with me. I expected questions to be answered, to know whose side people were on, to understand why this regime had been allowed to continue, but the story checks out of the action and never finishes it up. I also thought that it would be better if Katniss has died, her survival seems hollow and pointless against the rest of the story.
But in another way, that is the truth of oppression and revolution. Blood is shed and people are scarred for life, and the trauma doesn't vanish with the overthrow. Katniss feels like an inhuman instrument of war, because that's what she has become.
I enjoyed this book. I wanted to see how the saga ended; who lived, who died, and who Katniss would choose if the choice was given to her. The book did all that and added a wealth of information about Panem. But it could have been much more.

Book count: 16/50

9 February 2013

Catching Fire

Title: Catching Fire
Author: Suzanne Collins
Series: The Hunger Games Book 2
Year published: 2009
Pages: 480
Time It Took To Read: Four hours

Well, when I said I'd read this today, I meant it. I've been reading them on my crappy e-book that only has two hours of battery life, so I've had to keep charging it up as I go along. Frustrating! Anyway, I devoured it, and look forward to reading Mockingjay tomorrow.
With it being part of a book series, it's really hard to give any outline of the plot without spoiling book one. I mean, I'm fairly sure most people who would read it have done so, or seen the film by now, but even so... Katniss has tried to return to normal life after the games, and has MANY FEELINGS about the men in her life. These feelings make this book feel rather more teenage than the last, despite Katniss feigning asexuality most of the time. However, politics are conspiring to make her a figurehead for rebellion, and Capitol make their money through oppression. This book largely charts the president's attempts to quell, and then crush Katniss.
It reminded me of 1984 rather more than the first book in the series. Actions have consequences across the full length of the book, rather than just in the next day or so. It's not quite as brutal as the first book: the evil is insidious and inescapable and there's slightly less emphasis on violent interactions.
I didn't enjoy it quite as much as The Hunger Games, but the inevitable sense of hopelessness, anger and rebellion drives Catching Fire. I hope Mockingjay proves as satisfying a read.
I'll let you know tomorrow... ;-)

Book count: 15/50

Three Good Things

Title: Three Good Things On a Plate
Author: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Year published: 2012
Pages: 411
Time It Took To Read: About 10 days

This is the first Hugh book I've read since the River Cottage Fish Book. I wasn't massively impressed. I like the idea of cooking meals based on a few ingredients, as I don't like spending hours cooking with ALL THE THINGS. Saying that, his pheasant curry in the Meat Book is pretty damn good if you fancy something overly complicated that takes two days.
I like Hugh best in righteous fury against the meat and fish industry. This book has no such moral or ethical message. The three ingredient premise is fine, but most of the meals comprise rather more than three ingredients, not all of which I class as storecupboard standbys. He also mithers on about the amount of sugar in the dessert section. I dislike being told how to eat healthily by chefs, who make their fortune on tempting us into eating overpriced meals. There's no nutritional information on any of the recipes, which makes the knowing asides about sugar consumption ring rather false.
Each recipe takes up a double page, one page for instructions and ingredients, one for a large picture of the finished dish.The whole recipe to a page principle is one I heartily endorse, after having to hold a book open with elbow while mixing a cake and looking for the next instruction. 
I made a Courgette, Mozarella and Pasta bake for lunch for me and the kids today. It took 40 minutes, and I made slightly less than the recipe called for. It also included double cream and parmesan. I think it could have benefited from an onion fried with the courgette mush. It was nice, but rather bland. The kids refused to eat it. They prefer their pasta in swathes of tomato sauce. I enjoyed it though :-D

Book count: 14/50

8 February 2013

The Hunger Games

Title: The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Series: The Hunger Games Book 1
Year published: 2008
Pages: 454
Time It Took To Read: Five greedy hours

Wow. I've literally just finished this and I am slightly in awe of how good it was. I was expecting something between Twilight and His Dark Materials: with Twilight being a waste of paper bound in black, and His Dark Materials being a dystopian religious allegory. It was neither, thank God.
I don't tend to read a lot of teen fiction. In truth, I never read much of it when I actually was a teen. The exceptions were the gloriously bad Making Out series, Point Horror and the Diving In books by Kate Cann. My experience of teen fiction is mostly overblown MY FEELINGS emo rubbish, where everyone's called Tripp.

The Hunger Games doesn't disappoint on ridiculous names - the heroine is called Katniss - but this is explained by the alternate universe of Panem. The world has been split into districts which serve the capital (usefully known as Capitol, which kept reminding me of CAPITAL CITY in Simpsons) in a feudal manner. As punishment, Capitol holds annual Hunger Games, which are a parody of the Olympics, an excuse for district pride. Each district is forced to send two teenaged tributes, one boy and one girl, to fight it out to the death, a la Battle Royale. Obviously, our heroine Katniss becomes a tribute.
The book then goes into detail explaining the farcical measures which Capitol take to turn this bloodbath into a commercial event, detailing the betting system and the pre and post games interviews as a media event. The author has taken note of Big Brother and the ilk in her fantasy world. Once the games begin, it becomes a study in survival, and really comes into it's own. I absolutely LOVE methodical survival/kill stories; Day of The Jackal is one of my favourites.
And so children kill other children in the name of entertainment. The idea that this might be the natural conclusion of the current swathe of entertainment shows is absurd, but it makes for compelling reading. There is just enough humanity to keep it realistic all the way through, even with the psychotic sci fi twist towards the end. 

It never once struck me that I was reading a book aimed at teenagers. The frailty and vulnerability of life shone throughout, the teen streak of rebellion mixed with compliance was totally believable. I loved it. Tomorrow, I start on the second book!

Book count: 13/50