The Art of Asking – Amanda Palmer

I know its a bit weird for reviewing an autobiography, because its this person’s own thoughts and feelings and LIFE I’m essentially critiquing. I like to read autobiographies out of sheer curiosity without feeling the need to judge them. But sometimes I read things that I just need everyone else to read too, and The Art of Asking is one such book.

A couple of years ago punk-musician/artist/general awesome human being Amanda Palmer was invited to do a TED Talk based on her experience of using Kick Starter to finance an album and tour. Her talk earned her a standing ovation and is probably one of the most watched talks on their website. Her Kick Starter earned over a million dollars and more hatred from musicians and the musical community than anyone would have thought possible for someone saying “hey, I need your help” from her fans.

The book sprang from her talk. 12 minutes became 352 pages (or 11 and a half hours worth of audio). It is an insight into Palmer’s mind, her history, her life with Neil Gaiman (my very favourite author), the loves of her life, and it is like she is speaking directly to you.

In her stories, her foibles, her Kick Starter campaign and the backlash from it, you find yourself. How you sometimes desperately need help but think of it as “begging”. I identified within sentences.

A particular similarity is the “money thing”, where I have felt ashamed to ask for help because it has meant I have failed in sorting my finances enough to be able to afford rent or to eat. It made me look at the other side, where my parents WANTED to be asked and will often feel like they aren’t fulfilling their part of the bargain of having children, of being able to afford to help me but having a stubborn child who will insist on repaying them.

Palmer retells her life as a living statue, which made me rethink those I see busking on the street, performing for me and in their own way asking for my help without begging. It’s a good turnaround in my mindset that, recognising that street performers are working not begging.

She talks about how she and Neil came to be together, and how their relationship is a continuous process of learning and working to understand one another. Its another bout of reassurance that life isn’t meant to be rosy and wonderful, it is a commitment and involves hard work.

But the main message of this book, what the stories and the insights into her life tell us, is that when we are open to asking, we open ourselves to possibilities beyond our imaginings.

This book is worth your time to read. Whether you like autobiographies or not. Whether you like Amanda Palmer or not. Whether you know who the heck Amanda Palmer is or not. It has life lessons that deserve to be learnt.

And if that doesn’t convince you at least give her talk a watch. It’s only 12 minutes. I’m sure you can spare them.

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Neil Gaiman looked right at me!

Attention grabbing headline eh? OK perhaps only for those in the world who hero-worship Mr Gaiman as I do. Well sort of. OK yes.

Last night’s talk at Union Chapel was the fourth time I’d seen Neil Gaiman on stage, previously having met him in Portsmouth which I bragged about here, seen him read Fortunately the Milk on stage with lots of amazing helpers (including Sir Leonard Henry), and a couple of months ago I went to the Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture where he was guest speaker.

This talk was actually a conversation between Neil and David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas not Peep Show) and it was organised because they hadn’t actually met in person before, despite being huge fans of each others work.

I was sure they must have met, so thought the evening was probably going to feel a little contrived and less natural than a conversation at the pub would have been.

Oh how wrong I was.

It was brilliant. They asked and answered questions we all wanted to know about each others work. When Neil announced the news that STARZ had green-lit American Gods, David Mitchell proceeded to ignore the question he had been asked and jumped in with questions about how many episodes there will be of AG.

I particularly enjoyed when answering an audience question about handing their books over to film companies, exactly what they could and could not say about said film. For example Neil can now say anything he likes about Coraline or Stardust, but is still restricted to make comments about Beowulf, which came out the same year as Stardust.

Despite the serious nature of some of the talk, it was reassuring to hear persons who I so admire and respect being able to be serious and eloquent on the scary nature of the world and what we rely on (oil). It’s a bit like when Ian Hislop on Have I got News For You starts speaking seriously about a topic, I absorb what he is saying and appreciate being spoken to like an adult. Then Paul Merton will ease the tension by saying something funny, as Mitchell did on stage last night.

All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening in a beautiful venue. And now I have a new author to stalk. You have been warned David Mitchell.

Oh and of course, you want proof Neil Gaiman looked at me:

Neil GaimanWell, it definitely looks like he was 🙂

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The Duff – Kody Keplinger

Yet again a film trailer has led me to read a book, this time a Mae Whitman flick called ‘The Duff’. I was in need of a chick flick last weekend and, failing to find anything decent on Netflix, I resorted to buying a book for my kindle app on my laptop/tablet.

I know. I can’t quite believe myself either. Reading a book from a screen is plain weird, but when I just needed YA mean girls-esque escapism I wasn’t going to fuss about it.

This book is nothing like the movie plot, which I have not seen but thanks to the joys of Wikipedia I now know every detail I could possibly desire.

What became clear within minutes of reading is that Hollywood have seriously toned down the content of the book and changed it to be more like a teen rom-com. Bringing a little more of Mean Girls and less sex. Also substituted a depressed alcoholic father with the awesomeness that is Allison Janney, who I suspect will be the reason I watch the movie.

In the original tale then we have Bianca, a high schooler who is deeply cynical about love, teenage relationships, and PDA (public displays of affection). She is told by popular-but-slutty Wesley, the hot guy at school, that she is The DUFF. The ‘Designated Ugly Fat Friend’ – basically the one who makes her friends look good by comparison. This earns him, quite rightly, a cherry coke in the face.

However Bianca is going through some turbulence at home, with an absentee mother and a father turning to alcohol, she needs distraction. Wesley becomes that distraction, and to the detriment of her friendships she turns to him more often to escape a world that is slowly tumbling down. As she gets more involved she realises Wesley may not be such a bad person after all, with a lot of home issues himself, and perhaps he may be the one for her…

This book felt quite honest. The voice was definitely that of a teenager, and I was unsurprised to find out Keplinger was 17 when she wrote it. It was frank and quite refreshing, without being crude or graphic. The technique needed work for sure, but actually the book held together and the loose ends that were created were tied up neatly. It felt like it wanted to be a screenplay toward the end, with a Hollywood ending and a didn’t-we-all-learn-a-good-lesson vibe. But I still liked it enough that I read it in a morning.

The main characters, Bianca and Wesley, had the chemistry and the kinship of any great ‘love/hate’ relationships. They were both trying so hard to be grown ups and yet were entirely teenage, Wesley living alone and using sex to distract from his problems and Bianca doing almost the same as she failed to communicate properly with either parent.

The supporting characters were interesting and had their own woes to contend with – the best friend who is model pretty but her tallness in fact made her feel like the ‘ugly’ one of the group. The father whose alcoholism created an emotionally fraught scene which juxtaposed with a previous calm, I found that to be quite a clever bit of writing.

Even so, this isn’t prize winning literature but it has heart and a frankness that I enjoyed. Worth a read, and I suspect probably a more realistic message than the film adaptation will prove to be.

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The Sleeper and the Spindle – Neil Gaiman

It has finally happened. I have found a Neil Gaiman story I’m not sure I like.

I know. I’m in shock too.

The Sleeper and the Spindle is Gaiman’s take on two classic fairy tales that have both been doused in Disney magic in the last century: Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Of course the original tales are darker than the Disney take, with the evil Queen in SW dancing in red-hot iron shoes until she died and Sleeping Beauty, rather than being kissed awake by a handsome Prince, is actually awoken by one of her children who she has given birth to while asleep after being raped by the King….

In fact the Grimm version of the Sleeping Beauty yarn is actually tamer than the above – leaving out the rape and involving a wicked fairy and a handsome prince. Luckily, there is no rape in Gaiman’s version either.

What we have is a combination tale, with Snow White (never named as being so) the Queen who is to be married, deciding to rescue the Princess from another land from her eternal sleep, which is spreading fast throughout the Kingdoms.

I won’t say what happens, because that’s just mean. What I will say is that it it follows Gaiman tradition of being dark and unexpected with an ending to leave you not entirely satisfied. Or at least I wasn’t.

It is normally one of the great things about a Gaiman novel – the ambiguous end. However I fear I was not happy this time because I am so involved with the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty. As a child I was scared out of my wits by Maleficent, loved Prince Philip, had a Sleeping Beauty cake for my 6th birthday, had the dolls, and believe very much so that the power of the story lies in the good fairies who fight to protect young Briar Rose and are the real reason the Prince could climb the tower and kiss the girl awake.

I love it so much I won’t even watch Maleficent.

Never a fan of Snow White though, I think because the evil Queen was terrifying in a human sense (vanity) and Snow was a bit rubbish. Although I do really enjoy the film Mirror Mirror.

What I loved about The Sleeper and the Spindle was Snow, she was formidable and fun – a great role model. I also enjoyed the idea of the Kingdom’s being so close to one another, bringing them into the same Universe and stopping enchanted sleep from being such an alien concept.

Gaiman’s use of language, as with all his works, is almost faultless – especially when combined with the stunning illustrations of Chris Riddell (never have an author/illustrator been so well matched in tone since Quentin Blake and Roald Dahl). It is by far the prettiest book I own and I highly recommend buying the hardback copy.

So what’s this? Recommending you guys actually spend money on a book your reviewer still isn’t sure she likes? Yes, yes I am.

For without my Disney-bias and with my anti-genderism hat on I cannot applaud this book enough. This is the one to tell your daughters after they’ve seen the film or the ballet, just to show there are other ways this tale could have gone. And this version feels truthful, beautiful and terrifying in a whole other way than the originals or the Disney’s.

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Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

In the last month I have joined a podcast dedicated to book reviews. This is a totally alien thing for me as I am SO much more comfortable typing out my criticism or praise rather than speaking out loud. This is partly due to my entire life feeling like the more I speak the less interesting I get – sisters can do permanent damage to your self-esteem – but also because I can edit what I type. You can’t edit what you say once its fallen out of your mouth.

Why am I telling you about the podcast? Well apart from a cheap plug (Dewey Decibal System) the second podcast concerned the book I am about to review on here. Between myself and the two hosts there was a huge difference of opinion – namely that they loved it and I hated it.

OK perhaps hate is a strong word here, I mean I finished the damn thing so it wasn’t so bad that I threw it in the bin. It just wasn’t to my taste.

Ready Player One concerns the near future when life has become all about escaping the real world and immersing yourself into an MMORPG (massively multi-player online role playing game) called the OASIS. The creator of this world, James Halliday, has recently passed away and set the world a task – find the Easter Egg he has hidden somewhere in this Universe he created and you can inherit the Earth, almost literally.

This sparks a hunt so massive that people forego their real lives and become almost permanently immersed in the OASIS as whatever avatar they have chosen to be, calling themselves ‘Gunters’ (honourable) or labelled ‘Sixers’ (corporate drones attempting to gain the key to the OASIS for evil corporation IOI – see Empire/Alliance/Umbrella/Weyland-Utani Corporation).

The protagonist of this story is Wade Owen Wilson, a poor boy from the ‘stacks’ (trailers stacked 20 high) whose sole enjoyment from life comes from being a Gunter. This teenager sparks the biggest race in online multi-player game history when he finds the first key (and clue) to pass the first stage of finding the elusive Egg, five years after Halliday’s death.

We follow Wade in the OASIS and outside of it, battling the evil Sixers, joining up with fellow Gunters, falling in love, having his heart broken, all the while being almost constantly barraged with the most obscure references from the eighties.

So why did I dislike this book so intensely? For starters it was written like a teenager. Not in the sense of ‘yes I can really believe this is a kid in trouble here, I can hear his voice’. It was amateur and focussed on bombarding me with detail I neither needed or wanted rather than develop the characters.

Cline created a world that was scarily believable – at least the glimpses of the real world he shows us – while the OASIS, though magnificent in concept, has too much time spent on it with explaining all the nerd-tastic references to old computer games and the endless god-awful eighties moments. This is because Cline made Halliday obsessed with the eighties, rather like himself I suspect.

Now I can forgive references to gaming, old computer systems, arcades and the sci-fi TV shows that make countless appearances despite me not fully understanding them. I can forgive them because this is a book called Ready Player One and is about a quest to find a hidden Easter Egg. I’d be an idiot to complain about gaming references.

What I could not stand was being hit over the head with the nineteen eighties, an era I was barely part of but have seen enough of on film and heard through music to know it was partly awful and partly magnificent. Within pages I was sick of reading about teenagers arguing over the merits of Ladyhawke and Sixteen Candles (the latter by the way is an awful film that glorifies rape of inebriated girls). And it just didn’t stop, the whole way through I got increasingly bored of the eighties because how it came into the story wasn’t clever or interesting. Take the latest Marvel film, Guardians of the Galaxy, it used the eighties to punctuate jokes and was the only pop-culture that Peter Quill could reference. Wade and the rest of the OASIS have no excuse apart from Halliday’s obsession, which Cline gave him.

Something else that irritated me was that Cline clearly used Wade as a mouthpiece for his own frustrations with the world. Within pages our protagonist tells the world how stupid it is for believing in God and destroying the Earth. Cline didn’t give me a chance to know Wade before finding out how angry he was so I did not read the Atheist rant and cheer (despite being of the same opinion) because it was just that, a rant. Cline ranted at me using Wade. It was not appreciated.

There were elements I enjoyed in the story. Sometimes Cline managed to capture small moments of true teenage awkwardness between Wade and his lady love Art3mis, while toward the end of the book he created tension and excitement in places as the quest for the Egg got closer to its conclusion.

But overall this book was two dimensional reading when it should have been a sense overwhelming experience. The writing was flat, the eighties just too much and I failed to care about any of it enough to want to finish the story for any other purpose than to have read it for the podcast.

Would I recommend it? If you are a gamer, grew up in the eighties and didn’t hate it, then yes – read this book. But if your nostalgia only goes so far to know that Simple Minds was the final song in The Breakfast Club then I think perhaps this is one to miss.

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Divergent; Insurgent; Allegiant – Veronica Roth

I realise my last review on here was entirely on Divergent, but in the last week or so I have completed the trilogy.

What I came to notice, quite strongly in the second book, is that the author had probably embarked on this project without fully knowing how to portray her central character. Tris has a great beginning in Divergent, finding her feet and negotiating obstacles, but in Insurgent the lasting impression I have is that Tris cried. A lot.

I also felt that Roth borrowed a style from Stephanie Meyer in the final book, which put me off initially, until I realised she did it better. Allegiant is separated between two narratives, Tris and Four, and though at first jarring with the previous installments style, I got used to hearing Four’s thoughts and enjoyed getting to see his perspective.

This trilogy was definitely weak, weaker compared to The Hunger Games. Except, like the Games, it ended powerfully and with more strength of character from the author than I expected.

I also sort of hated the ending because of it. But I know it couldn’t have ended any other way.

I am glad I have read them, because it will be interesting to see how the movies play out. But I think that they will make much better films than they do books. So I’m leaving this trilogy a little disappointed, though hopeful for what is to come on screen.

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Divergent – Veronica Roth

Hi book review blog – its been a while and I am sad about that. Mostly because it means it has been a really long time since I read something I wanted to blog about.

If you read my film blog you’ll know I have been on somewhat of a film binge of late – 48 new movies in 30 days folks, not counting the ones I have re-watched and others I have been watching on Netflix. Which was why on Saturday night, having dedicated the last weekend to being as antisocial as possible, I was a bit movie-d out and decided to pick up a book instead.

I had seen Divergent on the plane to New York a few months ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, so when I saw the trilogy for a tenner I had to buy it. The film helped me to visualise the dystopian future set out by Roth and determined what Tris, Four and the majority of characters looked like. No bad thing as I think they actually cast everyone pretty much spot on, even if physically Eric should have looked a lot different to Jai Courtney.


So, the story:

Set in an unknown time in the future, the city of Chicago has separated into factions in order to survive. Amity, who believe in love and peace above all else; Erudite, who value intelligence and knowledge; Candor, who always speak the truth; Dauntless, who see cowardice as the world’s main flaw; and Abnegation, whose main purpose is to be as selfless as possible.

Beatrice is a sixteen year old living in Abnegation, who has to be tested for which faction her personality fits best before choosing which faction she will spend the rest of her life in. While the tests should be a simple way to decide where to go, Beatrice is informed that she could belong in any of three factions and is, in fact, Divergent.

Divergent’s are not welcomed, wanted or even encouraged to keep breathing in this new world. They cannot be placed in boxes, made to follow one simple line of thought, and frankly because they are different they scare those in power. Beatrice must keep her secret whilst trying to pass initiation in her new faction, falling for a mysterious man and avoiding being killed by her peers, mentors and even her friends.


Verdict: I was incredibly surprised to even like the movie, so having demolished this book in one day it is safe to say I was pretty hooked.

There are of course similarities with a lot of other young adult literature, notably The Hunger Games owing to its central female heroine. To me though, that was where the similarities ended. Yes Beatrice has the strength of mind to survive, but this isn’t a fight to the death scenario where everyone except a few are starving and our girl is thrust into a fight she doesn’t want to be part of. This is a different form of dystopia where Beatrice chooses her fate and decides to become a fighter.

I actually think there are more similarities with the movie Equilibrium – where peoples emotions were found to be the underlying cause of the human race’s continuing to destroy itself in ever more creatively violent ways. This book takes on the premise that, rather than subdue emotions like in the aforementioned film, people would follow their strongest personality trait to the benefit of all, be it a leaning toward violence or hugging.

The love story element too differs, in that there is no love triangle. Even James Dashner’s Maze Runner had a kind of love triangle. Thank god I haven’t found one in this series (yet, I’m not even halfway through Insurgent).

The writing isn’t Dickens, but then not many people can write that well. I would say the quality was a little less than Collins but hugely superior to the likes of Meyer. Beatrice is an evolved character who you get to know and to really like throughout this book, which is good because its her point of view we are getting.

I have to say a genuinely enjoyable reading experience came from my night with this book. Definitely worth a try if you enjoy dystopias, young adult fiction, or enjoyed the movie.

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