Monday, September 30, 2013

My Recent Reads & Recommendations

Summer is usually my down time from reading. Throughout the school year, I read a lot of books outside of my course curriculum in order to stay sane, and then summer is dedicated to binge-watching an entire series in a day.

But this summer I've been incredibly fortunate to stumble across some really excellent reads, and I thought I'd post some overdue mini-reviews and recommendations for some fantastic books to read this fall.

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)

In case you don't own a TV or a computer or a phone or ever check Facebook or Twitter or the internet ever, I have a surprise for you: J.K. Rowling released a book under a pseudonym this year!

You can only imagine how elated I was when I heard the news. I mean, she gave us The Casual Vacancy not even a year ago, and now another book!? I was in reading heaven.

I have a lot of good news about The Cuckoo's Calling. First: for those who were underwhelmed - or wholeheartedly disliked - The Casual Vacancy, this book is nothing like it. The Cuckoo's Calling is a classic "who done it?" story. We're presented with a mystery at the very beginning, and the protagonist - none other than the incredibly named Cormoran Strike, a private investigator who's down on his luck - sets out to solve the murder. It's a classic plot structure accompanied by a great story that truly keeps the suspense until the very end.

Second: In true J.K. Rowling fashion, the writing is incredible. As always, she provides a great deal of detail and commentary on small, seemingly insignificant people and events, but it's what makes her writing so fantastic. It's a joy to read about the way Strike's secretary types or how she adjusts her engagement ring, because it says something about her character.

Which leads me to point number three: the characters in The Cuckoo's Calling are fantastic. Rowling's meticulous attention to detail ensures that secondary and even tertiary characters are three dimensional. She is able to not only create a world within a book, but also a sense that the world within it is much larger than what fits between the pages. It's a smashing read and I think you should read it. If you already have, then read it again.

A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

My favourite thing about A Spot of Bother is not the characters, or the story, or the setting. No, what I think is so charming and endearing about this book is how incredibly British it is.

In telling the story of George Hall, a retired man in his mid-fifties who is slowly losing his mind, Haddon has managed to capture the essence of a culture - the culture of a family, the culture of masculinity, the culture of a country.

George is, and has been, happily married to Jean for many years. Unfortunately, he doesn't know that she has been having a wild affair with his ex-coworker for many months. When his daughter Katie announces she is getting married (for the second time) to a man no one really approves of, his gay son Jamie loses the love of his life, and George finds a spot of eczema on his leg that he's convinced is cancer, every element of his peaceful existence starts to unravel.

A Spot of Bother is funny. It's sad and it's real and it's hopeful. And it's a pretty great read.

Every Day by David Levithan

While I'm actually not really a huge fan of David Levithan's work (I find him trite and overrated and a mediocre writer), Every Day has got to be the most interesting and original concept I've read since The Hunger Games.

The protagonist of this book is a soul. Yep. A soul. The soul wakes up in the body of someone new every day and must adjust to the new body, surroundings, routines, and calendars of the person's day. The soul has done this for sixteen years without struggle, until one day it meets Rhiannon and falls madly in love. The soul then struggles to find her, contact her, and see her every day in every new body.

This story is fascinating, and Levithan navigates the hiccups this sort of complex plot brings with grace and ease. The story never feels forced or strained, and he manages to make this outrageous plot plausible. It's definitely the best young adult book I have read this year, and is so interesting that anyone and everyone should check it out.

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

I'm late to the The Things They Carried party. It was first published in 1990 and has been on lots of "best books" lists in the years hence. I picked up my copy on a whim at a yard sale, having a vague recollection of hearing about it once, and I'm so glad I did!

The Things They Carried is a semi-memoir of O'Brien's experience in the Vietnam war. Except it isn't, really. But it sort of is. The war is the setting of the novel, and his memories are the filler, except he uses these as a way of exploring narrative. He examines how we tell stories, and how events are misremembered and reimagined and rewritten every time we tell them. He explores trauma and recollection and how we fuse pieces of narrative together to tell a story that explains our pain.

It's intense, and it's sad, and it's interesting, and it's one of the best books I've ever read.

Well, there we go! If you read any of these books, or have read any of them, please share your thoughts on them with me! I love a good chat about a novel. As always, you can check out my Goodreads for other books I've read and rated.

Current book: Lullabies For Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill
Current TV seriesThe IT Crowd series 1
Current nail colour: "Watermelon" - Barry M Gelly Nail Effects

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Top 5 British Shows You've Never Seen

A few months ago, I wrote this piece about British shows I loved and tried to get it published across the internet. I didn't have any takers (although it did get me an in to write other things for, but I still wanted to share it somewhere. I cannot deny the internet knowledge of fantastic television.


British television is great. The internet knows that British television is great. It’s practically impossible to scroll through Tumblr or watch a YouTube vlog without seeing a reference to Doctor Who, or hearing a mispronunciation of Sherlock actor Benedict Cumberbatch’s name, or catching a spoiler for an episode of Misfits that you haven’t yet gotten to in your Netflix queue. There are some great series that have made it across the pond and into North American vernacular – Being Human, The Inbetweeners and The Hour, to name a few.

But there are a slew of other brilliant British series that remain unknown to North American audiences at large. Luckily, I spend a great deal of time scouring the Internet for great British telly, and thus I am happy to spread the love for the top 5 British shows you’ve never seen.

5. The Big Fat Quiz of the Year
Since I discovered it in 2008, I’ve spent that weird limbo week between Christmas and New Years waiting impatiently for The Big Fat Quiz of The Year. Hosted by the ubiquitous comedian Jimmy Carr, three teams of two – composed mainly of British panel show comedians, late-night talk show hosts, and an occasional TV celebrity – compete in a pub trivia-style quiz about the previous 12 months. There are “mystery guests,” renowned actors such as Ian McKellan reading from poorly-written pop-star autobiographies, and plenty of Quality Street chocolate. While every year’s show is great, I strongly recommend starting with 2006 for two reasons: Noel Fielding and Russell Brand, AKA the “Goth Detectives.” You shan’t be disappointed.

4. The Law of the Playground
Grade school was both the worst and the best. The Law of the Playground doesn’t really care about the “best” part, and gets right to the heart of the matter: the most embarrassingly hilarious memories of growing up at school. Each episode features a revolving cast of comedians and TV personalities remembering their school days based on a variety of different themes: mean teachers, parties, first loves. The show only ran for two seasons from 2006-2008, which is a crying shame, but luckily each episode gets funnier with repeat viewings.

3. Gavin & Stacey
Think of the slightly embarrassing, often frustrating, but ultimately endearing people in your life. Put six or eight of them in the same plot line, and you’ve got Gavin & Stacey. The show centres around the long-distance romance between the title characters and the way they and their families from two separate worlds - Essex, England and Barry, Wales - interact. And oh! it is funny. Its brilliance stems from the general likeability of each character despite their quirks: Pam is so concerned about making everyone comfortable that she pretends to be a vegetarian for a year; Uncle Bryn is tediously na├»ve but protects his family fiercely; Smithy is an uneducated, foul-mouthed chav with a heart of gold. It’s truly comedic genius when a scene of four grown men discussing the texture and durability of an oven mitt can reduce you to a fit of laughter and tears.

2. 8 Out of 10 Cats
The British have a penchant for “panel shows,” which are essentially game shows where no one actually wins anything, but are instead an excuse for comedians, TV personalities, and C-list celebrities to have a bit of a chat. And I love them. Of the seemingly endless number of these series, 8 Out of 10 Cats is my favourite for three reasons: 1. The premise is to guess statistical information about pop-culture and news headlines, which is basically just an excuse for guests to talk about life and be satirical for 35 minutes. 2. The team leaders, Sean Lock and Jon Richardson, are truly quality comics; not only are they funny in stand-up routines, but they’re naturally witty in conversation, so the show’s dialogue flows smoothly. 3. The same guests pop up often, so it sort of feels like you’re watching a weekly family dinner, albeit with neon lights and one-sided tables pointed at a camera. Best of all, there’s 15 seasons, plus countless spin-offs where the 8 Out of 10 Cats cast does different British game shows, so it will be a while before you’ve exhausted the 8Oo10C vault.

1. Friday Night Dinner
There are shows that make you laugh, and then there are shows that make you cackle so much that you have to pause the show, get up out of bed (because we all watch TV in bed, let’s be real), wipe the tears from your eyes, and sit heaving until you’ve caught your breath. Friday Night Dinner is that show. It revolves around a Jewish family of four who observe no traditions – except, amazingly, Christmas - save a weekly dinner on Friday evening. The adult brothers Johnny and Adam still act like teenage boys, the father Martin is partially deaf and consistently over-heated, and Jackie the Jewish mother cooks and sighs in exasperation at her family. Add to these four a creepy yet well-meaning neighbor, an invisible girlfriend, and Horrible Grandma, and you’ve got one of the most clever, funny, and underappreciated shows ever to grace the television. And I’ve saved the best news for last! A third season is scheduled to start filming this fall, so not only are the endless hours of laughter a treat, but you’ll be rewarded with more episodes early next year.

Armed with this new arsenal of BBC brilliance, all that’s left to do is don your Union Jack, type a title into YouTube, and settle down for some quality telly with a cuppa and a scone. You’ll be adding to your Tumblr tags in no time.

There you go! Let me know if you've watched any of these, or if you plan to!

Current book: A Spot of Bother - Mark Haddon
Current TV show: The Thick of It series 2
Current nail colour: Dior - "Plaza"