Armada – Ernest Cline

Let’s set the scene here a little bit. The heyday of my youth – the bit with the music, University, enough energy to do two or three aerobics classes a week, being a size 10 – was in the 80s. However, while I was an okay pool and pinball player at University I left video games well alone – I had a go at games on my brother’s ZX81 but when you realise that you are no good at Pacman and can’t get past the goblin prison in the Hobbit you know its time to leave gaming to the experts and stick to books. I was always in awe of the best video gamers – in an era when arcades were the only way to play, making it a spectator sport on occasion – and can still remember watching Wilf Sylph clocking the counter on an all-night session on Defender (or possibly Elite, as I say I was just a spectator…). Ah, happy days…

armadaLet’s fast forward then (archaic reference to audio/video tapes there…) to the latest book by Ernest Cline, author of Ready Player One. The book is set in modern-day America and opens with the hero, Zack, gazing out of a classroom window, idling away the final weeks before graduation. His attention is seized by a spacecraft, which no-one else spots, and his mind is totally blown by the fact that the ship is an exact replica of one he fights everyday in a hugely popular computer game. And then it turns out that the common gamer legend – that the best-selling arcade and online games are clandestine training for the military – is not a conspiracy theory after all…

What I enjoyed most about this book – apart from a kick-ass plot and a really believable and diverse cast of characters – was the detail. Zack works in a very geeky game store for Ron, who is basically a friendlier version of comic book guy (Best. Boss. Ever.) and turns out to be a huge Rush fan. And figures like Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking pop up all over the place because, well, if there were an organisation committed to protecting the planet from alien invaders these are the guys you would want to be on our team. And if we need to have gamers manning the defenses then I’d be happiest if, as in this book, they were the highest scorers on the game that had been used for the training.

Obviously there is more to the plot than this but I don’t want to give away any of the surprises. But if you are a gamer, or know gamers and what makes them tick (snacks and a really good playlist seem to be key) then this book should hit the spot like a young Luke Skywalker hunting womp rats…


What Milo Saw – Virginia Macgregor

Sometimes in fiction you meet characters who you would do anything to avoid meeting (Dolores Umbridge, Sauron, Scrappy Doo), some that grow on you (Eeyore, Harold Fry, Mr Darcy) and some that you just want to take home and love. Milo Moon, it turns out it one of the latter sort…

what milo sawMilo is nine years old, he lives with his Mum, gran and pet pig and he misses his dad (who now lives with another woman and their new baby in Abu Dhabi). He also has a degenerative eye disease which means he sees the world as if through a pinhole camera and will, one day, lose his sight altogether. This story, however, as the title suggests is not about blindness but about what Milo sees which the adults around him miss. The best part for me was that Milo sees things more clearly not just because of his tunnel vision – that would be a little bit too twee and moralistic for my tastes – but because he is a thoughtful and loving child.

Milo can see that his mum is unhappy, she seeks solace in the biscuit tin and worries that no-one wants to be treated by an overweight beautician, and he can see that his beloved gran needs a lot of care. He can see that the care home his gran moves to is not a good place, unlike all the adults he meets apart from one, and he can see that he will have to do something about it. I love the fact that Milo is the only character who really sees what is going on because he is the only one who really, really looks. Everyone else is willfully blind to facts that they find uncomfortable…

Of course Milo is only nine so often he misinterprets what he sees and his solutions to problems are misguided but he is such a forthright and likable lad that you can’t judge him for it. As the book moves on and Milo finally gets to deal with the dastardly Nurse Thornhill – who runs the kind of nursing home which gets its own special on Panorama – the plot becomes more and more unlikely but I really didn’t mind. These serious subjects, like life, aging, love and loss, are dealt with in a slightly unrealistic and far-fetched way but, all the same, I was rooting for the good guys. I think the novel has covered very adult subjects in the way that they can be dealt with in fiction for primary-aged kids. And I kind of like the way that works. (Also, the denoument made me think somewhat of Brassed Off – always a happy thought).

If you enjoy a book which mixes up its genres, if you like to laugh and cry within a few pages or if you enjoyed Harold Fry and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time give this a try. Hopefully you’ll end up loving Milo as much as I did.


Moving – Jenny Eclair

movingAfter my experiments with an author who turned out to be age-inappropriate for me I have veered the other way and read Moving, the story of Edwina, a woman in her late seventies, who is planning to sell the house she has lived in for over fifty years. We also look back with her over marriages, a career as an illustrator and fractured relationships with children and step-children.  The author, Jenny Eclair, has previously been better known as a comedian and Grumpy Old Woman but on the evidence of this she will also have a great future as a novelist.


The first section of the story follows Edwina, then the next deals with a young drama student who became involved with Edwina’s beloved son Charlie. Finally, we hear from Lucas, the step-son whose actions caused the whole family to self-destruct. I loved the way that we got to see the story from so many angles and really appreciated the way that each point of view was delivered in its own voice. Edwina starts out as a rather typically confused older lady but we quickly see beyond that to the passionate and free-thinking young woman she was. The budding actress, Fern, and her early 80s student life is equally well drawn (and I know, I was there…) and then we have Lucas. We see him as an enemy for the first parts of the book – he is a very unsympathetic character when seen from Edwina’s point of view – but there is a great deal of poignancy to his version of events.

Overall this book reminds me of Mary Wesley’s novels. It is a rare thing for an author to be able to depict both age and youth with equal flair – the young can’t quite understand how being old will really feel and the older writers sometimes seem to idealise youth. Jenny Eclair does it really well and I will look forward to reading her earlier books. Add to this the fact that the writing is both moving and, from time to time, laugh out loud funny and I may have found someone to add to my list of favourite authors.


Landline – Rainbow Rowell

I feel as if I have been very brave reviewing Rainbow Rowell’s most recent book, Landline. She is one of those authors who has dedicated fans (in fact Bex has reviewed both of her YA novels, Fangirl and Eleanor & Park on this blog) and she mostly writes in a genre, Young Adult, of which I am not a regular reader. This novel, however, was an adult romance so I felt I would be on more solid ground. After all, I may enjoy sci-fi and dystopias but many of the books I love and reread regularly – Pride & Prejudice, Enchanted April, the early works of Jilly Cooper – are, essentially, love stories.

Landline-Rainbow-RowellSo, having established I am as susceptible to a bit of romance as the next woman, I was quite looking forward to this book – as a sorbet to counter a recent diet of courtroom dramas, gruesome crime and bittersweet stories of aging. However, sadly for me, it never quite hit the spot.

The basic plot of a woman who rediscovers how much she loves her husband through a series of phone calls made on a landline which seems to transcend the normal constraints of time didn’t bother me. I love a bit of the unexplained. My problem was mainly that I really, really didn’t like Georgie McCool. I liked her husband Neal, a dedicated house-husband whose masculinity was, refreshingly, not tied up in his career or earning potential and I warmed to her smooth-talking best friend and collaborator Seth and her rather kooky family. In fact I can probably cast the ‘chick-flick of the book’ quite easily – the characterization was clear and lightly handled – until it comes to Georgie.

It took me a while to work out what my problem was and it is possibly related to my age. Georgie is in her late thirties. She is married, with a successful career and two charming children and yet all her internal dialogue reads as if she were the eighteen year heroine of one of Rowell’s YA novels. She is a comedy writer so maybe growing up isn’t a good option for her but it jars me slightly that she is so immature. In fact in conversations, via the ‘magic phone’, she seems younger (in her late thirties) than Neal (who was in his early 20s). If I were in my twenties, or even early thirties, I may not notice this but because I am older I do.

I liked the whole timeslip idea – a bit of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff is always good – and felt that was well handled. Although I did worry at one point that it would all be resolved with a ‘Bobby Ewing in the shower’ moment – showing my age again…I would read another Rainbow Rowell but I think I will stick with the YA stuff as I, personally, feel this is where she is most comfortable. In fact her next book, Carry On, looks quite interesting…


Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf – Catherine Storr

I read a lot. So much that I have admitted defeat in trying to review everything I’ve read (or even just the ones I’ve liked) and have even, very occasionally, left books unfinished. Which is, as far as I can see, a rather passive-agressive way of saying I didn’t enjoy a title. And I try to read all kinds of books – fiction (literary, chick-lit, crime, sci-fi and lots of dystopias), non-fiction (mostly history, science and travel writing) and children’s. And sometimes the kids stories are the ones which give the most pleasure.

clever pollyClever Polly and the Stupid Wolf, first published in 1955, seems to me to be everything you’d want a collection of stories for 5-8 year olds to be. They are funny, deceptively simple and, sometimes, they have a gentle moral message. And they also look to have dated fairly well – although children are not left alone in the house these days it is the kind of exciting fantasy situation which kids seem to enjoy – but their slightly old-fashioned nature means they will appeal to grandparents as well as the younger generation. I managed to devour this book (rather wolfishly) in a 45 minute break but I expect it could keep a young child engaged for quite a while. Choosing your favourite story could take a while each night at bedtime – mine is the zoo one I think. Or possibly when the wolf thought he was invisible. Oh, they’re all good!

Many of the stories are based on the wolf’s interpretation of popular fairy tales involving wolves (Little Red Riding Hood, the Three Little Pigs and the Wolf and the Seven Little Kids) but he proves that he hasn’t learnt much from his study of literature. So you can add feeling superior to the wolf to the list of benefits a child could get from this book…

When my nieces were very small I used to tell them stories I had made up about a little girl called Baby Katy. I can still remember the whole of When Baby Katy Wouldn’t Eat Her Vegetables and When Baby Katy Wouldn’t Change Her Socks (and I bet my nieces do too). If I’d had a copy of the Clever Polly stories available I wouldn’t need to have made them up!


Walking Away – Simon Armitage

Last year I read Simon Armitage’s Walking Home, his tale of how he walked the Pennine Way (well, most of it) the wrong way round (North to South as opposed to the usual direction). I enjoyed its blend of humour, travel writing and description of the trials of a modern-day troubadour, paying his way on the journey by passing a sock round at poetry readings each night. It was particularly interesting to me as I have done bookstalls at a couple of poetry reading events with the author – he is widely read and even shows up on school syllabuses – so I could amuse myself by trying to read it in Armitage’s actual accent in my head. (This did work fairly well, but he does have quite a soothing tone of voice so I did drop off occasionally when reading in bed….). I even tried to persuade my other half to read it – he is a Yorkshireman, enjoys long walks and poetry; what could go wrong? Oddly, he didn’t enjoy it at all. I was informed that the author had lost his respect for getting lost almost at the beginning of his walk despite having a map and compass unused at the bottom of his pack. Also there wasn’t enough poetry in it.

Well, fair enough. We can’t all enjoy the same stuff. But he’s wrong about the poetry…

walking awaySo, Simon (the poet, not my other half, Rob – keep up…) has been at it again. This time he writes about walking part of the South West Coast Path, still giving readings each night and still relying on the hospitality of strangers. And for this walk he has a very expensive hat and a holly stick – well, for most of the journey, anyway. What is the same though is the humour and the poetry.

Now, don’t assume that this means there are sonnets and odes dropped in all over the place. This is more in the nature of stealth poetry – the descriptions of scenery, weather, other walkers and the natural world in particular are not just written in everyday language. Coleridge once described poetry as ‘the best words in the best order’ and that seems to be what we have here. The language is, on the whole, nothing that is hard to understand or obscure but it is wonderfully evocative of the sights and sounds which the poet experiences. And it’s still frequently very funny.

I may try to convince Rob to give Simon Armitage another go – but this time I may get him to read some of the actual poetry first (maybe his translation of Gawain and the Green Knight would be a good place to start – we’ve got history with that poem).


Enchantment all year round…

enchanted aprilOne of my very favourite books of all time is Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim.  A deceptively simple story of four English women in the 1920s who are oppressed – not politically or physically but by age, domesticity, husbandly expectations and beauty – and who discover their own versions of true happiness in an Italian villa. The plot is slight but the characters seem very realistically drawn and the descriptions of the villa and its garden make me feel that I am sat in warm dappled shade, scented by lilac and jasmine. It is an unashamedly feel-good book and one I turn to whenever I am in need of a dose of the warm-fuzzies.

So far, so good.

It was, therefore, with some hesitation that I opened up a copy of Enchanted August by Brenda Bowen since the blurb suggested that I was about to read a version of my old favourite, updated to the present day and reset on an isolated New England island community. Lets be honest – I was very much afraid that someone was about to walk over all my memories of a beloved story.

enchanted augustAs it turns out I was to be very pleasantly surprised by this update. The author obviously loves Enchanted April as much as I do and may even well have read it as many times as I have! The characters have retained their original charms, personalities and problems (even most of the names are the same) but are well-drawn as 21st Century individuals. I particularly liked the way that Mrs Fisher has been brought up to date (since her nostalgia for the days of the great Victorians seemed to be the hardest to modernise) and I appreciated the way that Rose and Lottie are now mothers (yet not to perfect children…).

If you fancy reading something light I can heartily recommend either of these books. April first if you appreciate the historical context but either way round would work. And then hang on to your copy to reread whenever April, or August, seem too far away…