Friday, February 27, 2009

Book Review: Missing the Midnight, by Jane Gardam

From The British Library
Missing the Midnight is a small collection of short stories by English writer Jane Gardam. I have the hardback edition, which has a few more pages than the paperback because of the formatting. It's physically smaller than most books, it's a format which suits the writing, and it would make a cute gift. There are twelve stories in this book, grouped under three themes:

1. Five Carols

These are short stories set at Christmas. The first, 'Missing the Midnight' is from the point of view of a girl who has just dropped out of university coming home on Christmas Eve. 'The Zoo At Christmas' follows a group of animals as they leave the zoo to go to midnight mass. The others are 'Old Filth', about a retired lawyer at home alone on Christmas after his wife has passed away - this character was later the focus of a novel of the same name, 'Miss Misteltoe', about a woman considered a parasite by the people who always have her to dinner at Christmas, and finally 'Christmas Island', a strange story about creatures born to humans who devour the world.

2. Five Grotesques

These are quirky, fairytale-like stories and I enjoyed this section the most. 'Grace' is about a man with a diamond in the back of his neck and 'Light' is set in the Himalayas and tells the story of a girl with no eyes in the front of her head but one in her throat. 'The Girl With The Golden Ears' follows the attempts of fashion editor Eglantine Fosche-Grille to get rid of the golden hair that has started to grow from her ears, whilst 'The Boy Who Turned Into A Bike' is about a bike fanatic called Clancy and Nancy, the woman he loves. This section concludes with 'The Pillow Goose', about two women who find themselves with a flock of geese prized for their feathers.

3. Two Hauntings

'Soul Mates' is a creepy story about a couple who meet another pair just like themselves on a retirement holiday, and 'The Green Man' is a short novella about the mythical figure. I didn't really 'get' either of these stories, the first was short enough for it not to matter but 'The Green Man' seemed to drag.

Some of these stories are quite strongly religious, and I did not enjoy that element of the collection because I am not religious myself. However, Gardam's characterisation is excellent and I enjoyed the stories because the characters were all so interesting even if I didn't like the morals some of them express. The stories I enjoyed the most are 'Miss Misteltoe', because it has a clever twist, 'Grace', 'Light' and 'The Boy Who Turned Into A Bike'. The middle section 'Five Grotesques' was definitely my favourite.

I think this book is best read at Christmas even if you are not a Christian - it can feel strange to read Christmas stories at any other time. It would make a nice Christmas gift for someone who likes books but you don't know very well - there should be something in here that most people will enjoy.

I probably won't read this again but it was a interesting and quick seasonal read.

Book Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Afterimage, by Pierce Askegren

This is a tie-in novel for the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, published after the series finished but set in early season 2 whilst Cordelia and Xander are just starting to go out.

The Sunnydale Drive-In has been closed for decades but has recently been refurbished and is going to be opened with a special all-night multiple-bill. Xander has got himself a job handing out flyers for this event, but none of his friends are interested in going. He ends up convincing Jonathan to go with him and they have a good night, but Jonathan isn't able to stay conscious long enough to get home, and Xander ends up half-carrying him to his front door. The next morning, he won't wake up and many other Sunnydale residents are similarly stricken.

Buffy and Angel are out on patrol when they start getting attacked by demons who won't stay solid enough to be hit, but who can still fight them. All this has something to do with the mysterious and charismatic new owner of the Drive-In, Mr Balsamo, and the Scoobies need to find out what before everyone ends up asleep.

The one thing that really annoyed me about this novel is that in it, Willow has high-speed optic fibre broadband in her house. This novel is set during season 2 of Buffy, which means it's supposed to be taking place in 1997. Most people don't have that kind of broadband now, over ten years later! In 1997 you got mediocre dial-up or nothing.

Technological anachronisms aside, this was an okay read, enjoyable but nothing special and although the concept was pretty original, there just weren't the twists and turns that you get in a really good plot. The final fight scene seemed too short. Giles and Buffy both kept telling Willow not to use magic when she suggested she could try using magic for something, which makes sense in season 6 and 7 but not in season 2. However, the characters were pretty well depicted, particularly Xander, he's really the focus of this book which made a nice change.

I'd recommend it to Buffy fans who want a quick read but it's not unmissable by any means, there have been better Buffy novels written and the graphic novel stories are the best non-tv material in my opinion. I probably won't read it again. The book is quite small in size so it can fit in your bag easily, which would be good for travelling.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Book Review: All My Friends Are Superheroes, by Andrew Kaufman

All Tom's friends are superheroes. Literally. Some of them have more typical superpowers, others are quite bizarre. Tom's wife is a superhero, The Perfectionist. Her superpower is to make anything perfect. The Perfectionist has a nasty, scheming ex who is still in love with her, Hypno. At Tom and The Perfectionist's wedding reception, Hypno hypnotised The Perfectionist so that she can no longer see, hear, or feel Tom. She thinks he's left her, and gets on a plane to Vancouver to start a new life. Tom takes the seat beside her. He only has the duration of the flight to make her realise that he's there - because when she arrives in Vancouver, The Perfectionist will use her power to make her new life perfect - and forget him.

The book is broken into chapters and each tells us about the different superheroes that Tom knows, his relationship with The Perfectionist and his previous attempts to convince her that he was there, or follows Tom on the plane beside The Perfectionist. The chapters are not in a linear order, but each chapter is well placed and the end is at the end!

I really enjoyed this story. It's the kind of book that you will want to give to everyone you know if you love it yourself. I can't see why anyone would dislike this, even if you don't like love stories, this one is completely free of cheesiness.

Kaufman's superheroes are not the comic book, costume wearing, world-saving characters we are all familiar with. There are 249 of them in Toronto. Many of their powers are comedic, others are useless, and nearly all of them you will recognise as belonging to real people as well. I finished the book convinced that some people I know are superheroes too, I may even be one!

A strange but lovely thing about this book is that the pages are really soft! They're quite thick and kind of glossy. I just couldn't stop myself stroking them.

The thing I would criticise about this book is the price. The RRP is £7.99 and it's £5.99 on Amazon. It's a really slim volume and some people will definitely be put off by the amount of book you get for your money. I'm not, because I enjoyed the story so much and the pages are so strokable!

Book Review: The Hawk Dancer, by Diana Saville

From The British Library
Claire Farley, a calm, professional writer of history articles living in Herefordshire, has tolerated her husband's many affairs, forgiving him each time, and after the most recent, believing that she was partly to blame because she stays in the countryside most of the time whilst he goes to London to work. She tries to convince herself that he is getting too old to have affairs, but her unhappiness is growing

When a son of a friend wants a pet hawk, she offers to house it and help look after it. She ends up fully participating in its training, and as she learns to train the wild bird, her confidence grows. She also meets a wildlife photographer and begins to build a relationship with him. She's never been able to tolerate the idea of having an affair herself before, but this time, things might be different.

I did enjoy this book but it didn't "grab" me and I wasn't convinced by the characters. They are all very middle-class, nobody in the novel has anything really to worry about beyond their relationships. The writing style was hard for me to get into, there was some lovely description, particularly of the hawk training around which the story of the human relationships is built, but the author just tells us how the characters felt a lot of the time and avoids showing us their thoughts and physical reactions. They are all very reserved people and this annoyed me, I just couldn't relate to them. The book stays mostly with Claire's point of view but sometimes switches around, and I felt that the characterisation of the other characters was weak, especially Claire's daughters.

I received this book through a swap at ReadItSwapIt and I probably never would have bought it myself. It's unlikely I'll re-read it or bother picking up anything else from this author, but it may be someone else's cup of tea.


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