Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Review: 'Running Like a Girl' by Alexandra Heminsley

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


Alexandra had high hopes: the arse of an athlete, the waist of a supermodel, the speed of a gazelle. Defeated by gyms and bored of yoga, she decided to run. 

Her first attempt did not end well. Six years later, she has run five marathons in two continents. But, as her dad says, you run with your head as much as with your legs. So, while this is a book about running, it's not just about running. You could say it's about ambition (yes, getting out of bed on a rainy Sunday morning counts), relationships (including talking to the intimidating staff in the trainer shop), as well as your body (your boobs don't have to wobble when you run). But it's also about realising that you can do more than you ever thought possible. 

Very funny, very honest, and very emotional, whether you're in serious training or thinking about running for the bus, this is a book for anyone who after wine and crisps for supper a few too many times thinks they might...just might...like to run like a girl.

Review

“Lacing up and leaving the house is the hardest moment of any run. You never regret it once you are en route”

If you spend longer than half an hour in my company these days, the odds are excellent that I will mention running at some point. I’m also likely to mention that I'm loving it and that I whole-heartedly believe that exercise is the only way I'm avoiding becoming all balled up with stress as a result of the 10 hour plus days I usually work..  The thing I probably won’t tell you (even though I really should) is that Running Like A Girl is in no small part responsible for getting me back to pounding the pavement with such enthusiasm.  Thank goodness Ellie Lit Nerd recommended it!

On the face of it, Running Like a Girl is “just” a running memoir; a book full of tales of the trials and tribulations faced by one woman as she starts out running, completes her first marathon and battles down a few more milestone runs.  Two things make it different.  The first is that Alexandra Heminsley isn’t a professional runner recycling inspirational but slightly unrealistic material about how there’s a runner inside all of us and we just need to focus on a goal and write down a plan and blah blah blah; she started out running as an adult with no experience and recounts what she's been through in a self-deprecating (and very funny) manner.  When I read it, I was still bearing the vestiges of an injury and I was dying to put my trainers back on and get running.

One of the things I love the most about Running Like a Girl is that it neither makes light of running nor makes it seem like something only "real" athletes can do.  Running is completely accessible and can feel liberating; a good run on a bright day (with a light breeze, ideally) makes me feel proud and healthy and on top of the world.  For every one of those runs, though, there are probably two hard ones where I’m tired or haven’t drunk enough water or it’s raining in my face or it’s super hot and I’m sweating all over the place (the latter being less frequent in Yorkshire but still…) and keeping running is hard.  I love that Heminsley admits that running isn’t always a glorious activity that has us all bounding around happily with neat hair and pleasantly rosy cheeks and that not everybody is a natural runner (if there even is such a thing) but that, regardless of how much of a hot mess we might look while we’re mid-run, it’s totally worth it.  Because even with the stories of the falling off toe nails and the inconvenient calls of nature, Running Like a Girl makes running sound like the best thing you could ever do with your spare time.   

It’s perfect reading for anybody that is either starting out running, wants to start out running, is getting back into running or has even just lost the love a little bit.  There’s just so much to identify with if that’s the angle you’re reading from – like the nerves of the early runs and the utter certainty that people are looking at you and noticing how much of a plonker you look .  Every question you never wanted to ask but are the things that you really want to know.  I, for example, have quite long hair that will not sit neatly in a bun or a plait while I run and will whip me in the face with unnecessary vigour if it’s in a ponytail – enter Alexandra Heminsley and the plait that has a bobble at the top and bottom.  Genius.

Amongst the humour of the early chapters are more intense ones of Heminsley’s marathon experiences.  The chapter about her first marathon actually made me cry.  I couldn't even really tell you why except that it so perfectly evoked the harrowing experience that I felt completely involved.  It's funny, it's completely charming and has chapters like the one covering the “myths” about running that I'll dip back into again and again, I expect.  I hear a lot of things like, “Oh I don’t run because it’s bad for your knees/shins/hips/other random joint or bone”.  I don’t know the science (although I do need to bone up (haha) on it so that I can start to refute these comments properly) but I do know that I've been lucky enough not to suffer an injury while running that was attributable to the actual act of running (I do have a teeny scar on my right hip from where I clipped an iPod mini onto my leggings during a half marathon that somehow managed to get stuck to my skin and was pulled off over-enthusiastically in a post-race haze but that was really down to my own stupidity and running can’t be blamed…).  It's good to know that I haven't been deluding myself and engaging in an activity that is trying to kill me.

So it's fun to read, it's inspiring and it's practical.  What more could you possibly want?!

Overall:  What I’m saying (obviously) is that if you’ve ever even half-fancied running, I honestly can’t recommend Running Like a Girl enough.  Heck, read it even if you despise running with every fibre of your being but want to achieve something that requires commitment and hard work and that others might be sceptical about but that you believe that you can do.  Read it and get the kick up the bum you never knew you needed.


Please don’t blame me when you’ve read it all in one go and signed up for a marathon, though.

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Date finished: 30 March 2014
Format: Paperback
Source: Bought
Genre: Non-fiction; sports
Pictured edition published: by Windmill Books in January 2014

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Review: 'Echo Boy' by Matt Haig

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Audrey's father taught her that to stay human in the modern world, she had to build a moat around herself; a moat of books and music, philosophy and dreams. A moat that makes Audrey different from the echoes: sophisticated, emotionless machines, built to resemble humans and to work for human masters. Daniel is an echo - but he's not like the others. He feels a connection with Audrey; a feeling Daniel knows he was never designed to have, and cannot explain. And when Audrey is placed in terrible danger, he's determined to save her. The Echo Boy is a powerful story about love, loss and what makes us truly human.

Review

At the end of 2013, I rambled and raved about how much I loved The Humans and then posted an adoring review of it earlier this year.  It was easily one of my favourite books last year so I was extremely excited to be approved for Haig's first foray into the world of YA fiction on NetGalley.

When I read books like Echo Boy, I kind of wish that they'd been around when I was younger.  Maybe they were and I just missed them but my early teen years were populated by Point Horror, Sweet Valley High and a miscellany of random sleuthing novels.  Although I was as much of a sucker for the Point Horror novels as many other teens of the 90s, I sort of skipped "YA" and went from Goosebumps to the adult section.  What I think there seems to be much more of being done particularly well these days (over a decade later) are genre books that tackle more adult themes, such as grief, love that doesn't revolve around the cutest boy in school and mental health issues in a more accessible way.  Echo Boy takes a version of the future (that is actually worryingly believable) where technology has been developed in sort of an I, Robot type way, with families relying on computers and robots for education, travel (or the virtual variety), as well as for housework and for generally tackling the grungier side of life.  Audrey's father is out-spoken in his belief that humanity should be getting back to being more self-sufficient, warning of the dangers he sees in a world where robots are everywhere. 

It's a tried and tested premise and I enjoyed Echo Boy. It was well-paced and kept me entertained on a good few nights while I was facing down a sleep-defying bout of sciatica earlier this year but it didn't stack up against The Humans.  I was going to try to avoid the comparison but there were a lot of similarities in the themes.  Both have a non-human learning more about what humanity is and what it can mean and both have a pressing risk of danger borne out of a protaganist's difference (weaving in a bit of dealing with prejudice for good measure).  Echo Boy was a perfectly adequate (good, even) sci-fi tale but it wasn't outstanding.

I think that what my disappointment really came down to was that everything was just a little bit too predictable or a little bit too light (albeit with a couple of notable exceptions).  It's tricky to explain because the blurb doesn't give away a lot so I'm reluctant to either but Audrey deals with grief and depression; patches have been developed that can suppress negative emotions but the benefits (or otherwise) of using them is dealt with neatly and sensitively.  Much of Audrey's decisions and actions, though, are either obvious or a bit...stupid.  She's remarkably slow on the uptake, particularly when it comes to who she should or shouldn't trust, and it's more than a bit frustrating.

Daniel is a stronger character and much more interesting but isn't exactly perfect.  I loved how he was an echo (the name used for robots) but so irrepressibly human, an individual experiment designed to imitate emotion.  It's all well done; is it our feelings and desires and flaws that make us human or is it our flesh and bones?  The only point I wasn't sold on was Daniel and Audrey's relationship.  I know that Haig can write believable, meaningful love but this wasn't it.  I was ready to buy into Daniel being more than a robot and I would have bought into his being able to love but, as ever, I just can't get on board with InstaLove.

I sound like I'm moaning.  I'm not trying to, I'm just trying to say that this is a good book and that how much you enjoy it will probably depend upon what you're expecting (i.e. whether or not you've read and loved that book that I'll try not to mention again until I wrap up...).  I like the ideas and Haig is a great writer so they're done well, just in a way that I felt lacked depth.  I wanted more of Daniel, more of his background and more on the world and the background.  There was a bit set in a zoo that featured creatures (including some Neanderthals) brought back from extinction that was both fascinating and kind of heart-breaking and it was over too soon.  So this is a good, light touch sort-of moral book with plenty of action and some classic bad guy behaviour but it wasn't the tear-jerking, twisty science fiction tale that it I really felt like it could have been.

Overall:  Although Echo Boy won't be one of the best books of the year for me, it is one of the considerably better shifts from adult to YA by an author that I've read.  I wouldn't think twice about recommending it to young adults or to the more dedicated YA fans but if I were to be recommending a book that looks at inter-species relations, loss or really what it means to be a human, it would be The Humans every time.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Date finished: 04 March 2014
Format: eBook
Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley - thanks, Bodley Head Children's Books!
Genre: Science fiction; YA fiction
Pictured edition published: by Bodley Head Children's Books in February 2014

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: It's Summer TBR time!

Hosted by The Broke and the Bookish
It’s the Summer TBR edition of Top Ten Tuesday, which means that it’s time for setting some over-ambitious targets! It’s no real secret around here that my reading pace has slowed recently but I’m really enjoying audiobooks at the moment and it’s making me feel as though I’m reading and enjoying books in general, even though I don’t get to spend as many hours as I’d like curled up in a corner with Garfield (the Kindle) or a “real” book.

So what’s on the agenda for this summer? And these are in no particular order so even though I’m saying ‘agenda’, I mean ‘hodge-podge list of things I’ll pick up at some point soon’. My next holiday is early September (long haul flights being the best for reading – Manchester to Boston via Frankfurt has to equal at least one book) so I can at least pick up the stragglers then if my summer is a bit of a bookish bust.


1. Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas – another book that I picked up during the Leeds book blogger extravaganza and was dying to read but then didn’t. With the last in the series due out over the summer, it is long past time to get started.

2. Crushed by Eliza Crewe – I read the first in the Soul Eater series, Cracked, last year and really loved it so I was over the moon to snag the next one on NetGalley and not have to wait until August. I’m a little wary of the blurb (which refers to good girls having a weakness for bad boys…ugh) because one of the reasons I was super keen on the first was that it didn’t major on stalker-romance. Not wary enough to avoid the book, though, obviously.

3. The Lie by Helen Dunmore – I know, a book about World War I doesn’t exactly scream summer read but both my Dad and Ellie Lit Nerd recommend it and I am powerless to resist. Bring on the tissues.


4. Running Away: A Memoir by Robert Andrew Powell – I’m currently in the last few months of training for the Great North Run in September. After the roaring success that was Running Like a Girl by Alexandra Heminsley, I’m really looking forward to another inspirational running story to keep me on track (which I’m going to let you think is a pun even though I run on roads…). Maybe the hardest thing is going to be to resist the urge to go haring into signing up for a marathon, instead of the half marathon events I’m currently pumped for.

5. The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker – I’ve seen so many positive reviews of this (the latest being Sam’s over at Tiny Library) and I need to read it. I’m not-so-patiently waiting on my library’s list for the audiobook and when I get to the top of the list, this will be in my car straight away.

6. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – another not particular sunny read but one that I came across over the weekend while I was consolidating my boxes of books so that they were a little less sprawly. We aren’t really close to getting the study done yet so they’ll be living in boxes a little while longer but at least this one is now at the top because I spotted it and remembered how much I wanted to read it. Plus, short.


7. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas – only partly inspired by the TV series featuring handsome chaps! I figure that a bit of sword-fighting and general daring antics will be spot on for lazy afternoons in the garden.

8. Poison by Sarah Pinborough – these books look gorgeous and I’ve been eyeing this one up since Ellie ever so kindly bought it for me for Christmas.

9. The Stepsister Scheme by Jim C. Hines – another book that I’ve had for such a long time but must get to. The ever lovely Hanna bought this for my birthday last year and I really want to read it. Really, really. It’s time.

10. The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan – I’m not sure whether this will pop up but I have been having super bad cravings for some Wheel of Time and I have the final books (I think I have three left to go) but it’s been years since I read Book 10 from the series and I want to really love the last few books and I don’t think I’ll be able to do that based on hazy memories. I owe it to teenage me to re-read but I’m really not much of a re-reader so if this does make the cut, colour me surprised.

A bit of a mixture, actually! Just writing that has made me super excited for summer reading and itching to get home and get started! What have you got lined up for the next few months?! Sharing is caring!

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Review: 'The Mangle Street Murders' by M.R.C. Kasasian


Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Gower Street, London, 1882: 
Sidney Grice, London's most famous personal detective, is expecting a visitor. He drains his fifth pot of morning tea, and glances outside, where a young, plain woman picks her way between the piles of horse-dung towards his front door. Sidney Grice shudders. For heaven's sake – she is wearing brown shoes.

Set between the refined buildings of Victorian Bloomsbury and the stinking streets of London's East End, THE MANGLE STREET MURDERS is for those who like their crime original, atmospheric, and very, very funny.

Review

I'll be honest: the reason I requested this book on NetGalley was only partially because I have a weakness for Victorian detective romps; it was also because the author originally hailed from my home county (Lancashire) and I will take any opportunity I can to bang on about how great things that come out of Lancashire are.  Particularly seeing as I now live in Yorkshire, where people enjoy telling you how rubbish the things that come out of Lancashire are.  Let's proceed with the banging on about how great The Mangle Street Murders is.

The cantankerous male detective with the intelligent female sidekick defying convection to fight crime isn't exactly new but it's a formula that I will always love.  Maybe it's the feminist in me but I just don't ever seem to tire of women standing up to their counterparts and vying for a piece of the action but there are enough twists in this iteration that it's worth reading even if you think you've had enough of Victorian crime novels.  March Middleton, our leading lady, stays on the right side of plucky.  She's witty and gets stuck in but without being so cavalier that she jumps into ludicrous situations without thinking of the consequences.  Feisty I am fond of; disrupting investigations by requiring saving, not so much.

Sidney Grice isn't your usual grumpy detective either in many ways.  Sure, he consistently underestimates his peers and is aloof and utterly mercenary (and is generally faintly reminiscent of many people's favourite eccentric crime investigator).  But he's also fallible, has a fake eye that won't stay put, and lacks the charm or allure that I'm more used to finding in the detectives whose exploits I'm following about town.  There is little really to like about him other than the fact that his dry sense of humour was spot on...and that made me utterly adore him as a character.  I'd never want to meet the chap but I can't wait to read more about him.   In fact, the characters are generally just great and the dialogue is sharp and doesn't feel clumsy or as if it's straining under the weight of trying to be funny.  Tick, tick and tick.

I seem to be saying this a lot recently (and perhaps it speaks of the optimism in me) but what surprised me, and where The Mangle Street Murders breaks away from the usual, is how dark the story is.  There are murders, of course, but it's the way the plot plays out where things get really gloomy.  I was actually quite taken aback by some of the turns (and the ending!) - I was convinced that eventually it would turn out to be similar to other books of this genre (sub-genre?), with some red herrings, mild peril and a happy ending.  It took me nearly two thirds of the book to appreciate that I really was reading something a bit different and just surrender to the melancholy. 

My only slight criticism is that the way that March's back story is woven in is a little stilted.  The plot is interspersed with letters/journal entries and it isn't really clear at the outset how they fit in with everything else.  I'm not sure what else I would have preferred but I just felt that there could have been a less disjointed way of working in that character development.  Not enough to spoil an otherwise very enjoyable murder mystery but a niggle nonetheless.

Overall:  If you aren't from the north west of England and need a little more convincing to pick up The Mangle Street Murders, let me assure you that it really is rather good.  It plays around with what is usually quite a light-hearted trope and I never really got a handle on the mystery until everything was revealed.  I will definitely be keeping an eye out for the next Sidney Grice investigation, The Curse of the House of Foskett.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Date finished: 25 February 2014
Format: eBook
Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley - thanks, Head of Zeus!
Genre: Historical fiction; crime
Pictured edition published: by Head of Zeus in November 2013

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Jolly, jolly holiday, Rhodes style

Contrary to popular opinion, I am still alive and I'm still reading.  I could bemoan my lack of internet time but you all know the story and it's just the way things will continue to be for the time being.  I'll post when I can, I won't when I can't.  Deal?  Deal.

So after a few months of considerably more working hours than is probably strictly sensible (because starting a new job, being a keen bean and never complaining about the work piling on is hard), Boyfriend and I took off for Rhodes, Greece for some sunshine, feta and some general sitting around and unwinding.  It was wonderful.  The island is gorgeous and we stayed within the medieval walls so spent many a happy hour bumbling around random alleys and happening across beautiful churches, medieval ruins (of which there are many) and plenty of bars with spots in the sun.  We did a lot of wandering around and exploring and took a trip to a water park to frighten ourselves silly with kamikaze death slides but also managed to squeeze in plenty of time to just relax in the warmth with a cold beer.  Winning.


On to to the books.  I didn't really have a plan when I set off and just took my Kindle (knowing that it was stuffed full of books that I really wanted to read) and one paperback (just in case). It was fun to just pick at random and generally I was pretty happy with the choices I made and the books I read. 3 and a half books in a week! Happy days indeed.

First up was finishing off Thief's Magic by Trudi Canavan, which I'd started the weekend before.  Canavan's Black Magician trilogy is one of my favourite series so I was rather over-excited to get approved for the first book in her latest series, Millennium's Rule, on NetGalley.  To be honest, I was a little bit disappointed not to be head over heels with it. There were two storylines (one of which I liked considerably more than the other) but they didn't interact and left me feeling like the whole book was just set up for the later ones.  It was readable and it has't put me off keeping up with the series but it's not a new favourite.

I've been meaning to read Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell ever since I grabbed a copy on the particularly epic blogger shopping trip last year but I've just never got round to it.  I dug out a bunch of books for Boyfriend's sister to read just before we set off and this was lurking near the Hunger Games trilogy (which she devoured, incidentally) so I grabbed it and packed it on a whim.  And it was every bit as fabulous and charming and funny as I'd been hoping for.  I am beginning to believe that Rainbow Rowell can just do no wrong.  I whipped through it, adored it and cried over the ending before immediately passing it to Boyfriend's sister and insisting that she read it before we went home.  She did and loved it just as much as me.  If you own this but haven't read it yet, fix that.  If you don't even own it yet, fix that.  Just wonderful.

Then I guiltily browsed through the NetGalley folder on my Kindle with the intention of catching up on some of the books that I was excited enough about to request but not quite excited enough about to get straight to.  The Returned by Jason Mott was the first as I remembered downloading it at around about the time the TV series was on, which was months ago.  It was good.  Really good, in many ways.  I'm not sure how I'm going to go about reviewing it but it was full of the kind of moral quandaries that are great for chewing over while indulging in too much wine and too much delicious Greek food (more kleftiko, please).  The Returned (people who have been dead but are seemingly dead no more) are viewed by some as a miracle and some as an abomination.  The idea was really fascinating and it was well-written and the more I think about it, the more I realise that the 3 star rating I gave it on GoodReads as a gut reaction was harsh.  It isn't the most well-rounded story but it's a heck of a good one.



Last up was The Miniaturist, another from the NetGalley folder, albeit one that hasn't languished there for very long at all.  I love the cover and the story more than lived up to it.  It was a darker book than I was expecting but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing.  A historical fiction tale of a girl married to a much older man that she doesn't know, trying to establish herself in her new household and puzzling over the mysterious miniatures she receives that seem to hint at the future...I finished this on the plane on the way home and it was a gut-wrencher of a book.  With hindsight, it wasn't the greatest beach read but it was the perfect travelling read because it was such a terrific evocation of another time and place that I almost managed to forget that I was jammed into a tiny seat, surrounded by other passengers and leaving the guaranteed sunshine behind.  There will be much to say when I can muddle through my thoughts on it.  

In the meantime: definitely recommended. 

All in all, I got the rest and relaxation that was long overdue, caught up on some reading and spent plenty of time with Boyfriend just roaming around and making merry.  Just three months to go until our next break!

Oh, and one final sappy thought for good meausre: I love the friends that I've made through this blog a whole bunch and it brightened my day no end to hear from lovely, lovely fellow bloggers making sure that I hadn't dropped off the face of the planet.  You're all the bestest.