My holiday reading

As mentioned, over the Christmas holiday and a short winter sub break after New Year, I got some good reading done. In keeping with my resolution to review more books, here’s what I enjoyed most from my holiday reading…

0425261018-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir, by Jenny Lawson

If you’re already familiar with Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess, then her work will need no introduction. If you’re not, then GO AND READ HER BLOG RIGHT NOW. Seriously, now. I’ll wait.

Ok, so now you’ve seen Jenny’s blog and fallen in love with her mix of irreverent humour, baffling stream-of-consciousness ramblings, frank honesty about her mental health, and mildly alarming (ethical) taxidermy collection, you’ll be delighted to know this book delivers on all these counts.

Although we’re not even a month into the year yet, I’m pretty confident that this could be the funniest book I’ll read in 2016. (Although I suspect Jenny’s second book, Furiously Happy, could also be a strong contender… Fun fact, I actually bought Let’s Pretend… because I wanted to read Furiously Happy, but I couldn’t read her second book without reading the first. Because I am a librarian, and ORDER MATTERS. Ahem.) As a tip, if you’re by a hotel pool and want to keep the sun loungers nearest to you free, I’d recommend buying this book, and choking with laughter as you read aloud the chapter about “Stanley, the magical talking squirrel” to you confused other half. Worked wonders: no one bothered us for the whole holiday! (I felt like pointing out it could have been worse – I could have been reading out the bit about the cow’s vagina.)

fantasy_59_december_2015-220x330Queers Destroy Fantasy! Fantasy Magazine Special Issue

Queers Destroy Fantasy! was a stretch goal of the Kickstarter-backed special edition of Lightspeed Magazine, Queers Destroy Science Fiction! (which I also read in 2015, and loved, but never got around to reviewing). It was launched following the phenomenal success of 2014’s Women Destroy Science Fiction! special issue Kickstarter, launched to highlight and celebrate women’s contributions to science fiction (and also fantasy and horror, since they raised so much more money than planned!)

The Queers Destroy… Kickstarter was launched to do much the same for LGBTQ writers, and massively succeeded. The SF, Fantasy and Horror (although I am less of a fan of horror writing generally) issues all featured some hugely impressive writing and exciting stories. In the Fantasy issue I read over the holiday, I particularly enjoyed Catherynne M. Valente’s The Lily and the Horn, set in a medieval world where wars are fought by means of lavish, poisoned banquets, with the winning side decided by who survives the longest, and high-born women are trained from childhood in the arts of poisons and antidotes.

As part of my Kickstarter reward for backing these special issues, I also opted for a 12-month digital subscription to Lightspeed Magazine, which has been great for introducing me to a diverse range of talented SFF writers. I’ve really enjoyed reading these each month, and will definitely be continuing my Lightspeed subscription.

Happily, Lightspeed have just launched a Kickstarter for their latest special issue: People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction!  If you love good SFF, and agree that #WeNeedDiverseBooks, I’d urge you to back this campaign. They’re already almost up to $20,000 pledged (four times their initial goal of $5,000!), but it’d be great to see them reach the dizzying heights of the previous two campaigns (QDSF raised $54,000, and WDSF raised $53,000!). Plus, there’s some great stretch goals if they hit their higher targets.

0192729292-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_Wreckers, by Julie Hearn

According to LibraryThing, I bought Wreckers at the start of January 2013 (probably in the Kindle sale, but I actually can’t remember as it was so long ago!) That makes three years between buying a book and reading it. This, THIS, is why I need to be restrained from buying books.

As soon as I’d started this book, I wished I hadn’t waited so long to read it. It’s had some mixed reviews, and I can see it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it.

Set on the Cornish coast in a post-apocalyptic Britain (the details of the apocalypse are sketchy, and fairly incidental to the plot), and inspired by the myth of Pandora’s Box, this story follows a group of young people who, after daring each other to spend the night in an abandoned mansion, inadvertently release an ancient evil.

Which would be a fairly solid young adult thriller, if as described above. What makes this book stand out though is its mixing of the fantastical, mythological elements of the story, with the very mundane world these bored but ambitious teenagers inhabit, with the sense of a doomed world created by the hints dropped about the apocalypse – which seems to have been a combination of a massive terrorist attack on London, swiftly followed by (unconnected) global environmental catastrophe.

I thought the characterisation was excellent. The narrative switches between four of the teenagers as narrators (the fifth we never hear from directly, which is a shame as I think she could have been an interesting character), and they’re all distinctly voiced and well-drawn.

It’s a quick read – I read most of it on the journey home from holiday – but entertaining and thought-provoking. I now feel I need to go through my Kindle to see what other gems I’ve left languishing, unread for years!

2015 Reading Highlights and 2016 Reading Resolutions

Well I had planned to post this follow up to my reading by numbers post around New Year, but between one thing and another I ran out of time! So it’s a bit late and 2015 already feels a very long time ago, but anyway, here’s my reading highlights from the past year.

1. Best Book of 2015: For entirely subjective reasons, I’m going to go with The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett as my favourite overall.

2. Most Surprising (in a good way) Book of 2015The Girl with All The Gifts, by M.R. Carey. I read this for book club, and to be honest probably wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise as I’d assumed it was another fairly bog-standard teen dystopia. I was very, very wrong about that – it’s a fresh, literary and extremely well-written take on the zombie survival genre.

3. Book You Recommended the Most to People in 2015The Wicked and The Divine, by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. This is the best comic book/graphic novel series I’ve read in a long time, and I’ve been pressing them on everyone I know. Volume 3 of the trade paperback is out next month, hurrah!

4. Favourite New (to me) Authors Discovered in 2015: Kieron Gillen (The Wicked and the Divine), Clare North (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Touch), Marlon James (A Brief History of Seven Killings)

5. Most Hilarious Read of 2015How to Build a Girl, by Caitlin Moran – had me crying with laughter throughout!

6. Most Thrilling Unputdownable Read of 2015The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Clare North. I almost raced through the entire thing in one sitting, and enjoyed it so much I immediately went out and bought Clare North’s second book, Touch.

7. Favourite Cover of a Book You Read in 2015: Very difficult to judge this one – I’ve read some books with some very beautiful cover art this year! I’m actually going to go with On Liberty, by Shami Chakrabarti, as I like the boldness and simplicity of it. (I also have a massive fangirl crush on Chakrabarti after seeing her speak at a conference this year!)

8. Most Memorable Character of 2015: Tough call, but probably Holly Sykes from The Bone Clocks.

9. Most Beautifully Written Book of 2015: Another tough one! I’m gonna go with The Goldfinch, by Donna Tart. I just love her writing.

10. Book That Had the Greatest Impact on You in 2015H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald (this was also in the running for “most beautifully written”, above!). This is a truly extraordinary meditation on bereavement and grief, wrapped up in a fascinating exploration of hawking. I’d recommend it for anyone who’s ever been bereaved and struggled to explain how it felt and what it does to your life.

11. Book You Can’t Believe You Waited Until 2015 to Read: I haven’t really read any “classic” literature this year! I’d probably go with Fragile Things, a collection of short stories by Neil Gaiman published in 2007, just because it’s been on my wishlist for several years but I hadn’t got hold of a copy until this year.

Reading Resolutions

Before I set some reading goals for this year, I’m going to have a look back at my 2015 resolutions and see how I did…

  1. Finish the year with fewer than 100 books on my TBR list… Um, no! I managed to finish 2015 with 129 books on my TBR list, more than the 104 I started the year with!
  2. Explore books by more diverse authors… Last year I read 7 books written by people of colour, and and one translated book. That’s pretty poor if I’m honest, but at least I’ve started to pay attention to it now. The same thing happened when I started making an effort to read more books by women – I didn’t realise how badly skewed my reading was in favour of male authors until I started counting them!
  3. Read at least five books that are 600 pages plus… Almost! I read 3 books that were longer than 600 pages (the longest being A Feast for Crows, George RR Martin, at a whopping 976 pages), and the next two longest were 592 (so close!) and 576 pages. I’m going to give myself a pass for this one, as taking my five longest books together, the average page count is 732 pages.

So out of three resolutions, I’ve… almost managed one. Ah. Ok, let’s see if I can set some more realistic goals for 2016!

  1. Seriously, stop buying so many goddamn books. I need to be more realistic about the books I pick up and when I will actually have time to read them! I’m going to set myself the same goal as last year: try to end the year with fewer than 100 books on my TBR list. Let’s see if I actually manage it this time!
  2. Read at least 10 books by people of colour, and/or in translation.
  3. Review more books!

Re no.3: I’ve been thinking a lot about how hard writers work to get an audience, and how difficult it is to compete for attention and book sales in an increasingly crowded market. I have a few friends who are writers, and I follow a lot of writers on Twitter, so I’m aware of how hard they work. The most consistent advice I’ve seen for writers on promoting their books is to rely on readers to do it for you – nothing sells like word of mouth!

I didn’t actually post any book reviews here in 2015 (although I did a couple on the Leeds Book Club blog), and I kinda miss reviewing books. I also know how helpful a good review is, particularly for less well-known writers, and especially somewhere like Amazon where most people will look for book reviews! I’m therefore going to make more of an effort to blog book reviews here, and post reviews of books I enjoyed on Amazon. This is partly for selfish reasons – I enjoy reviewing, and I also want writers I like to do well so they’ll continue to write books – but also I do love recommending books to people, and reviewing is really an extension of that!

I’m actually going to start my third resolution right now, as I read some great books over the Christmas holiday that I’d love to shout about! So look out for my next blog post, I promise it won’t be a three-week gap this time…

2015 Reading by Numbers

Well it’s been a quiet year on the blog, but a busy one on the reading front! As is traditional, I’ve run some numbers, made some pretty charts and tried to quantify my reading for the year. Look out for my second post (probably tomorrow) on my favourite reads of the year if qualitative is more your thing…

01-totals

I read a grand total of 93 books this year, beating my previous record of 91 books in 2013! I had a quick look comparing total number of pages for the past few years, to see if I genuinely did read more this year and in 2013 than in 2014, or if I just read fewer but longer books in 2014…

02-pages

As the chart shows, going by page numbers I still read significantly less last year than I did this year or in 2013! Interestingly, although I read 2 more books this year than in 2013, in 2013 I read more than 1,200 more pages than this year – so I must have read some significantly longer books in 2013!

03-pages-month

Month by month, the number of pages read each month correlates pretty well with number of books read, as a percentage of the totals. As in previous years I seem to read a lot more in the Autumn months – probably due to my reading the Booker Prize shortlist and trying to fit in other things I want to read at the same time! There was a pretty big dip in July this year, I think that’s because it was such a busy month – my twin got married on 1st August, so July I was mostly busy with first the hen weekend, then helping out with wedding prep!

04-gender

I’m happy to report that I’ve managed to maintain a pretty even split of identified genders in the books I’ve read this year, with a slight favouring (52%) of female-identified authors. I have worked to get to this point – in previous years, despite always assuming I read mostly books by women, in fact I had either a 60-40 or even 70-30 split in favour of male-identified authors! So this is something I’ve continued to bear in mind, to try to redress this balance.

This year, I also tried to keep track of how many books I read were written by people of colour. I haven’t done this in previous years so I can’t track any progress here, so no pretty chart, but looking at my LibraryThing, this year I’ve noted down 7 books I’ve read as being by people of colour (the rest are either by white authors or I didn’t know) – just 7.5% of the total. That seems pretty poor to me, so I’ll try to improve the diversity of what I read over the coming year.

05-sources

I didn’t do so well at the whole “stop spending all your money in bookshops” thing this year… I bought nearly half of the books I read this year! That being said, I did make good use of the library this year – 29% of the books I read this year were library books, as opposed to just 19% last year.

06-year

Probably as a consequence of buying so many books (!!), three-quarters of the books I read this year were ones that I picked up this year, rather than ones that had been languishing on my shelves from previous years! I must work harder to clear my backlog this year…

One of my reading resolutions last year was to finish the year with fewer than 100 books on my to-read (TBR) pile. I’ve utterly failed at this – at time of writing, LibraryThing tells me that I have 129 books in my possession that I have not yet read! That’s even more than this time last year – I managed to end 2014 with just 104 on my TBR list. That means I must have bought, borrowed, been given, or otherwise acquired 118 books this year!! This is getting out of hand…

Let’s be honest though, it’s never going to change. I love reading and I love books. And although I know full well that I’ll never have enough time to read all the books I already have, somehow I convince myself every time I pick up a new book that of course, I’ll have time for this one!

Next up, I’ll be posting some thoughts on what I’ve read this year, and some reading resolutions for 2016.

Tattoo

Today, after years of planning and wavering, I finally got the tattoo I’ve been hankering after. Here it is:

My tattoo!There is a bit of a story behind it. I’ve always loved tree designs, and had vaguely considered getting a design based on Yggdrasil before, though never seriously enough to do anything about it.

I always thought if I did get a tattoo, it would be something related to my family – I’m incredibly close to my family, they’re the most important people in my life, so my family is the only thing that’s really important enough to me to get something permanently etched into my skin for.

A few years ago, when my mum was first diagnosed with terminal esophagus cancer, a family friend said something to us that’s always stuck with me. She was talking about how she knew we would get through all the pain and sorrow by sticking together as the strong family we are, and said “Your name should remind you of that: a Woods has strong roots”.

I found that really comforting at the time, and kept thinking of it when we lost Mum to the cancer, and when a year later my eldest sister died from a sudden, unexpected heart attack. We went through some pretty dark times as a family, but we always held on to and supported each other: I know I can rely on my family for anything, like the deep roots of the Woods.

So that was the inspiration for the design. I thought of it shortly after my sister died, and the idea just kept getting stronger, so I decided that this year I would finally take the plunge.

My tattoo was done by Claire Jones at Black Crown Tattoo in Leeds – a very talented lady, as well as being really friendly and reassuring about it all – I was quite nervous going in! Mainly I was scared about how much it would hurt, but it actually wasn’t that bad. I did take some painkillers before I went in, but to be honest I’m not sure I even needed those. It’s more of an annoying pain than anything else, just a sharp scratching. Claire described it as being like someone drawing on you with a sharp biro when you’ve got bad sunburn, which is pretty close I’d say. I am glad I didn’t go for anything bigger – this took about 15 minutes, which was long enough! I was pretty shaky when I came out, though I think that was from the adrenaline.

I’m so happy with the design, and really proud of myself for going through with it! It wasn’t a decision I took lightly – I’ve had this design in mind for almost three years, so I know it’s not something I’m going to regret. It’s a permanent reminder of my family, and the support we all give each other, and of my strong roots.

 

Goodbye, Sir Terry

This afternoon I heard the sad news that Sir Terry Pratchett had died. There’s not much I can say about this that isn’t already pouring out over Twitter, and I’m sure we’ll see plenty of thoughtful articles and obituaries in the coming days from those lucky enough to actually know him.

I didn’t know him of course, but I still had a small cry at the news this afternoon (only a small one as was still at work, and didn’t want to have to explain why I was crying over the death of someone I didn’t know). I started reading the Discworld books aged about 13, and haven’t missed a new one since. I’ve also read a number of his other books, most recently the Long Earth series, which I’ve been hugely impressed by. I learned so much from Pratchett’s take on the world – the voice of my conscience always sounds something like Granny Weatherwax…

I have also never found a writer better for encouraging reluctant readers. My brother hadn’t picked up a book since being forced to at school, and had long declared himself a committed non-reader, until in his late 20s he finally let the teenage me persuade him to read one of these great comic fantasy books I wouldn’t stop talking about. He was hooked after The Colour of Magic, and still has a couple of my Discworld books in his possession (I know exactly where they are…). He is far from the only person I’ve seen convinced that there might be something to this reading lark, after all, thanks to Sir Terry. For Christmas last year, I bought my brother’s 8-year-old son – a similarly reluctant reader – Pratchett’s latest children’s book, Dragons at Crumbling Castle. My brother said nothing when he saw it, just gave me a massive hug.

I may not have known Terry Pratchett, but I will miss him. Rest in peace.

2014 Reading Highlights and 2015 Reading Resolutions

Following on from yesterday’s reading by numbers, here’s what caught my attention in 2014…

1. Best Book of 2014: A tough call! I’ve read some excellent books in the past year. I think it’s got to be either The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon, or How to be both, by Ali Smith (the latter completely robbed of the Booker prize this year!). If I had to pick one… probably Kavalier and Clay, just because I found it so immersive.

2. Least Favourite Book of 2014: Mad About the Boy, by Helen Fielding. I loved the previous Bridget Jones books (and refuse to describe them as a “guilty pleasure” – I don’t feel guilty about it, and don’t think anyone should feel guilty about enjoying any books), but this felt like a real let-down. It had its moments, but didn’t have the sharpness of the previous books.

3. Most Disappointing Book of 2014: Divergent, by Veronica Roth. I’d been really looking forward to reading this, as I love a bit of YA dystopia, but I just couldn’t get into it.

4. Most Surprising (in a good way) Book of 2014: Augustus, by John Williams. When this was picked for book club I thought it’d be very dry and I’d struggle to get through it, but quite the opposite was true – I couldn’t put it down, and devoured it in a few days. Very highly recommended – most of the book club raved about it too, it was one of our best discussions!

5. Book You Recommended the Most to People in 2014: We are all completely beside ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. Loved this, bought it for a couple of people for Christmas too.

6. Favourite New (to me) Authors Discovered in 2014: Junot Diaz, Michael Chabon, Alice Munro. Also Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling, who I’m including here because I finally read her adult fiction this year, having grown up on Harry Potter, and loved it!

7. Most Hilarious Read of 2014: Looking at my list, I don’t really seem to have read anything particularly funny in the past year, or at least not anything that’s stuck in my mind as a funny read. I shall have to address that in 2015!

8. Most Thrilling Unputdownable Read of 2014: The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

bernadette9. Favourite Cover of a Book You Read in 2014: Where’d you go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple. I picked this one up purely because of the cover, and happily the contents were a good match!

11. Most Memorable Character of 2014: Definitely Scarlett O’Hara, from Gone With the Wind. Although a lot of this book was incredibly racist, which made parts very difficult to read, I did love Scarlett’s unrepentant selfishness and toughness. She’s not at all likeable, which surprised me – I didn’t really know much about the book before I read it, so I’d assumed Scarlett as the heroine would be one of these impossibly perfect and gentle ladies you find in Victorian fiction. She’s not of course – she’s a cast-iron bitch (which I absolutely mean as a compliment), and I loved her for it. After I’d finished it I filled my Tumblr with choice quotes from Scarlett, like this one:

I’m tired of everlastingly being unnatural and never doing anything I want to do. I’m tired of acting like I don’t eat more than a bird, and walking when I want to run and saying I feel faint after a waltz, when I could dance for two days and never get tired. I’m tired of saying ‘How wonderful you are!’ to fool men who haven’t got one-half the sense I’ve got, and I’m tired of pretending I don’t know anything, so men can tell me things and feel important while they’re doing it.

Marvellous.

12. Most Beautifully Written Book of 2014: How to be both. I just adore Ali Smith’s writing.

13. Book That Had the Greatest Impact on You in 2014: We are all completely beside ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler. It hit me right in the feelings.

14. Book You Can’t Believe You Waited Until 2014 to Read: I didn’t read too many older books this year, so I’ll have to go for Gone With the Wind – which I mostly enjoyed, despite the unbelievable racism (seriously, I cannot stress enough just how racist this book is, even allowing for the time when it was written), and I do think Scarlett O’Hara is a fabulous creation.

2014 Reading Resolutions

I thought I’d look back and see how I did on last year’s reading resolutions, before setting more:

  1. Read more books by women – succeeded!
  2. Finish 2014 with fewer books on my TBR pile than at the start of the year – succeeded! At the end of 2013 I had 116 books in my TBR pile; at the end of 2014, that was down to 104.
  3. Write more reviews and other blog posts here – failed. I only managed 9 posts on this blog in 2014, compared to 12 in 2013. That’s pretty poor to be honest! I would definitely like to boost my blogging again in 2015, both here and on my other blog.

2015 Reading Resolutions

This year, I will…

  1. Finish the year with fewer than 100 books on my TBR list. I think that should be achievable, providing I don’t go mad and acquire so many more books this year!
  2. Explore books by authors of various nationalities. This is a difficult one to measure as I haven’t to date kept track of the nationalities of the writers I read, but I have a pretty strong hunch that I read mostly books by UK and US/Canadian writers, and they are probably mostly white. Which is no bad thing, but #readwomen made me think about broadening my horizons further. I would like to read more books by writers from around the world, more translations, and more books by people of colour.
  3. Read longer books. I’ve got a few hefty books on my TBR list which I just never seem to pick up. A quick look at my LibraryThing data shows the average length of a book I read in 2014 was 333 pages; most (65%) were in the 200-450 page range. I think that’s partly because if I take too long reading one book, I start to worry about all the other books I won’t have time to read in the meantime. Which is silly really – it should be quality not quantity! I think I just need to relax and accept that I am never going to read all the books, so I should really stop trying. In 2015 I would like to read at least five books that are 600 pages plus.

2014 Reading by Numbers

I realise I’m a little late with my annual round-up of my reading stats from the past year – I’ve just moved house and haven’t had a computer or laptop available to make my pretty charts on until now! Hopefully this has been worth the wait…

This year I’ve decided to split my usual long post in half. This first part will feature all the pretty charts and number-crunching on my reading, and my next post (coming soon, I promise!) will give my reading highlights of 2014 and reading resolutions for 2015.

So, on with the numbers…

Total books read per year

I read fewer books in 2014 than in 2013, but still more than each year 2010-2012, managing a grand total of 81 books. I did read an unusually high number of books in 2013, so I doubt I’ll manage the giddy heights of 91 again any time soon! I’ve thought about setting myself a goal of how many books to try and read in a year, as I’ve seen many people doing on Twitter, but I’ve decided against – I think I’d rather just read what I fancy, rather than pushing myself to pick up books I might not really enjoy just to boost my total.

02-2014-monthly

This year my LibraryThing exported data gave me the page numbers for each book I read, which I don’t think it did in previous years, so I thought it’d be interesting to compare number of books read each month, with total number of pages read each month. I was wondering if, in months when I read lots of books (such as November, when I read 11 books), I’d just read lots of shorter books! Going by the graph above though, percentage-wise it looks like book count and page count are actually pretty close. The only really big gaps are in January (8 books read, but all quite short), and March (only four books read, but one of them was Gone With the Wind, at a whopping 960 pages).

I’m not really sure why I apparently read so much more in November than in every other month!

Gender of authorNow this, I am really proud of. I wanted to take part in the Year of Reading Women this year, for reasons I’ve gone into before. I decided that rather than only reading women (I couldn’t quite bring myself to give up Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and Patrick Ness for an entire year!), I would aim for a 50/50 split in my reading, to make up for the gender imbalance in previous years. Happily, I’ve succeeded – in fact, I have tipped the balance slightly the other way – I read 40 books by women and 36 by men this year! (Yes, I know that doesn’t add up to my total of 81 – the remaining 5 are books with multiple authors of mixed genders).

I really enjoyed this experiment this year, but I was surprised at how much conscious effort it took. It’s made me actually think about who wrote the next book I pick up, rather than just grabbing whatever I fancy, which I’m inclined to see as a good thing – I think it’s worthwhile questioning our unconscious biases in these areas. Before starting to make these annual number-crunching posts, and before #readwomen, I would have confidently stated that I mostly read female authors – but the numbers show that just wasn’t true. I’d like to continue to do something similar for 2015 – I’ll come back to that in my “reading resolutions” post!

Fiction vs non-fiction

I didn’t read much non-fiction this year – less than last year in fact, which surprised me a little. I felt like I’d read more non-fiction this year. Maybe it’s because I read it so seldom, when I do it tends to stick in my mind!

Sources of booksPleased to see that I managed not to spend too much on books this year – I only bought 49% of my reading in 2014, down very slightly from 50% in 2013! Library use is still looking a bit low (19%, same as 2013, and down from 29% in 2012), although I think that’s because I’ve been focusing on trying to get through my ridiculously huge TBR pile! Speaking of which…

06-2014-acquired

I didn’t do so well on stopping myself buying new books in 2014, although the proportion I read in 2014 that I acquired that year was slightly lower than in 2013 (62%, down from 68% in 2013). I am slowly reducing my TBR pile though! At the end of 2013 I had 116 books in my TBR pile; by the end of 2014 that was down to 104. So, that’s progress, right?? A quick check of my LibraryThing also shows that I only added 81 new books in 2014, compared to 124 (!!) in 2013. I also culled a few books from my TBR list that, realistically, I was never going to read. So I should be able to get my TBR list to a more manageable level, I just need to learn to walk past bookshops, charity shops, libraries, and book exchanges… Although, I did buy two new books earlier today, so perhaps I’m just a lost cause!

That’s it for my reading round-up! The second part of this post, with my reading highlights and resolutions for 2014, is coming soon…

 

 

Man Booker Challenge 2014

As is becoming an annual tradition, over the past six weeks I’ve been reading and blogging my way through the Man Booker Prize shortlist. My goal is always to attempt to finish the lot before the winner is announced – however I’ve never actually managed it, and this year has been no exception! I’ve managed five out of the six this year, but having only just started the sixth I’m extremely unlikely to have finished it before the winner is announced this evening!

I’ve been hugely impressed with the shortlist this year. There’s only been one I didn’t enjoy – the rest are all incredibly strong, and I don’t envy the judges needing to pick just one winner!.

Every year when I’ve read the shortlist, I’ve attempted to guess which should be the winner. So far I have a 0% success rate at this – but that’s not going to stop me from trying again😉

My reviews of each book are up on the Leeds Book Club blog. Links below, along with my brief thoughts on each…

  • J, by Howard Jacobson – wonderful. Important, disturbing and thought-provoking but also witty and human.
  • To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris – probably the weakest on the list. Entertaining enough, but not really Booker material!
  • We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler – bloody marvellous. Had me in tears more than once – I’ve been recommending it to everyone I know!
  • How to be both, by Ali Smith – beautiful! Challenging and experimental, but well worth the effort
  • The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan – gripping and thought-provoking, but let down by the under-developed female characters.

So, thoughts on a likely winner? Well, history suggests it’ll probably be the one I haven’t read yet, so perhaps the smart money should be on Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others! Out of the ones I’ve read though, my favourite is probably We are all completely beside ourselves, or How to be both – picking just one favourite is very hard this year! Picking who I think could/should win is even harder. Out of those two, I think How to be both is the stronger novel, so my fingers are crossed for Ali Smith to be the first Scottish woman to win the prize!

Books I enjoyed in July and August

I actually got a lot of reading done over July and August – 17 books, according to my LibraryThing (although this included four graphic novels and one novella, so that’s not quite as much as it sounds!). However, not many of them really stood out for me. Not that any of them were particularly bad as such (although I did not enjoy re-reading Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, a book I last read, and hated, when I studied it for my English Lit A level 12 years ago. The intervening years had not improved it!). I just didn’t read a lot that really grabbed me – I think I’ve been doing lots of shallow reading lately. Probably my July and August reading was quantity over quality!

That is, with the exception of the following four books. These were the only really standout books I read over the last couple of months – but they definitely made up for the rest!

Book cover: The Liars' GospelThe Liars’ Gospel, Naomi Alderman

‘He was a traitor, a rabble-leader, a rebel, a liar and a pretender to the throne. We have tried to forget him here.’

Now, a year after Yehoshuah’s death, four people tell their stories. His mother flashes between grief and rage while trouble brews between her village and the occupying soldiers. Iehuda, who was once Yehoshuah’s friend, recalls how he came to lose his faith and find a place among the Romans. Caiaphas, the High Priest at the great Temple in Jerusalem, tries to hold the peace between Rome and Judea. Bar-Avo, a rebel, strives to bring that peace tumbling down.

Viscerally powerful in its depictions of the realities of the period: massacres and riots, animal sacrifice and human betrayal, The Liars’ Gospel finds echoes of the present in the past. It was a time of political power-play and brutal tyranny and occupation. Young men and women took to the streets to protest. Dictators put them down with iron force. Rumours spread from mouth to mouth. Rebels attacked the greatest Empire the world has ever known. The Empire gathered its forces to make those rebels pay.

And in the midst of all of that, one inconsequential preacher died. And either something miraculous happened, or someone lied.

Probably the most gripping book I’ve read this year. The Liars’ Gospel is an historical retelling of (some of) the story of Jesus (or Yehoshuah, as all the characters in the book are given their Hebrew names), after his death, through the eyes of some who were close to him and some who were caught up in the events around him.

What really struck me was that you barely see Yehoshuah himself – most of what you see of him comes in the section narrated by Iehuda (Judas), his once-close follower who betrayed him to the Romans for what he believed were the right reasons. Mostly though, the book is less concerned with the actions of the “one inconsequential” preacher himself, than in the wider historical context of the time.

Alderman really brings the period to life – and explains an awful lot that I had no idea about the period. I am not religious, but I was raised a Christian, went to a Church of England primary school and regularly went to Sunday school as a child, so obviously I’m reasonably familiar with the life of Jesus. However, this book made me realise how little I knew about the time in which he lived. This might seem like a really obvious point to make, and maybe I’m just making myself look a bit of an idiot by writing this, but I’d never considered the context of Jesus as a preacher of the native religion in a country occupied by a conquering foreign force. That is the context Alderman puts his life in with The Liars’ Gospel, and it makes for an incredibly powerful read. The last section does this particularly well, narrated by Bar-Avo (Barrabas), leader of a resistance movement against the Roman occupying forces, freed by Pontius Pilate thanks to the agitation of his friends and followers while Yehoshuah is sentenced to crucifixion. His story continues from this point, and leads into the epilogue describing the eventual fall of Jerusalem.

I have no idea how this book would come across to someone who is a practising Christian – I’d be interested to hear actually. For my part, I found it incredibly gripping, moving and thought-provoking. It’s evident from Alderman’s historical notes and acknowledgements at the end of the book that she put a lot of careful research into writing The Liars’ Gospel, and that really shines through, as does her evident passion for and fascination with this historical period.

Book cover: Long Hidden

Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History

In 1514 Hungary, peasants who rose up against the nobility rise again – from the grave. In 1633 Al-Shouf, a mother keeps demons at bay with the combined power of grief and music. In 1775 Paris, as social tensions come to a boil, a courtesan tries to save the woman she loves. In 1838 Georgia, a pregnant woman’s desperate escape from slavery comes with a terrible price. In 1900 Ilocos Norte, a forest spirit helps a young girl defend her land from American occupiers.
These gripping stories have been passed down through the generations, hidden between the lines of journal entries and love letters. Now 27 of today’s finest authors – including Tananarive Due, Sofia Samatar, Ken Liu, Victor LaValle, Nnedi Okorafor, and Sabrina Vourvoulias – reveal the people whose lives have been pushed to the margins of history.

I backed this anthology on Kickstarter. It’s a collection of short stories, submitted with the following criteria: “stories from the margins of speculative history, each taking place between 1400 and the early 1900s and putting a speculative twist—an element of science fiction, fantasy, horror, or the unclassifiably strange—on real past events.”

The result was a fascinating collection of stories, featuring the kinds of events and protagonists that aren’t generally standard fare in mainstream speculative fiction. Particular standouts for me were “Ffydd (Faith)”, by S. Lynn, about a group of Welsh pacifists and conscientious objectors in 1919, “Collected Likenesses”, by Jamey Hatley, about the legacy of slavery in 1913 New Orleans, and “The Colts”, by Benjamin Parzybok, about an almost-successful peasant revolt at the end of the Crusades, in Hungary, 1514.

This is an outstanding collection – I was very impressed with the consistently high quality of the writing (I’ve backed anthologies and collections on Kickstarter before and the results aren’t always this impressive!). It’s a pretty substantial collection too – 27 stories, weighing in at 370 pages in the paperback edition (I had it as an ebook). There’s several writers from the anthology that I will be seeking out further work by – one of the things I love about short story anthologies is that they’re a great way to discover new writers!

Book cover: Gentlemen & PlayersGentlemen & Players, Joanne Harris

At St Oswald’s, a long-established boys’ grammar school in the north of England, a new year has just begun. For the staff and boys of the school, a wind of unwelcome change is blowing. Suits, paperwork and Information Technology rule the world; and Roy Straitley, the eccentric veteran Latin master, is finally – reluctantly – contemplating retirement.

But beneath the little rivalries, petty disputes and everyday crises of the school, a darker undercurrent stirs. And a bitter grudge, hidden and carefully nurtured for thirteen years, is about to erupt.

I got this at a book swap on World Book Night a few months back. I hadn’t read any Joanne Harris in some time – I had a few of her earlier books and loved them, but at some point I stopped picking up her new books. I’m not really sure why, as I do really like her as a writer!

I was glad to have picked this one up. It’s marvellously atmospheric and suspenseful, with a twist near the end that I genuinely didn’t see coming. The characters are all brilliantly drawn – I got very fond of Straitley, and enjoyed the insights into the mind of the probably sociopathic protagonist. I will have to look out more of Joanne Harris’ books that I’ve missed in the intervening years since I inexplicably stopped reading her!

Book cover: The Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling

When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock.

Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war.

Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils… Pagford is not what it first seems.

And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?

I put off reading this for a long time. There was so much hype around it when it came out, with everyone wanting to see if Rowling could write a book for adults as well as she could write for younger readers. I felt at the time that this was an impossible weight of expectation – I thought it would be incredibly difficult to judge how successful the book was with Rowling’s name and reputation attached. So I wanted to give it some time for the initial hype to fade before eventually picking it up myself.

I was prompted to read it after reading The Cuckoo’s Calling, Rowling’s crime novel published under a pseudonym. I was hugely impressed by The Cuckoo’s Calling, and it made me want to read more of her adult work.

I was equally impressed by The Casual Vacancy. Rowling does a sterling job of making a small story about a small town into a very big story about English life and attitudes. It’s a great slice-of-life novel. She draws together an impressive range of characters and brings them all to life – although not all likeable (some of them are pretty despicable in fact), they are all realistic and sympathetic. You don’t like them all, but you do understand them and care what happens to them – something not all novelists (*cough* Ian McEwan *cough*) manage!

I deliberately didn’t read any reviews of this when it came out, as I didn’t think I’d trust either glowing reviews or negative ones! I don’t think this was ever going to be judged on its own merits, with such a big-name author known for such a distinct genre and writing style. I don’t blame Rowling for attempting to get round this by publishing her next books under a pseudonym, even though it was always going to come out that she’d written them. I’m glad I’ve finally got round to reading this and making up my own mind, and I’m looking forward to reading more of her books in future, whatever she decides to write next.

Books I enjoyed in May and June

Here’s what’s been keeping me out of trouble over the last month or so…

The Crane Wife book coverThe Crane Wife, by Patrick Ness

One night, George Duncan – decent man, a good man – is woken by a noise in his garden. Impossibly, a great white crane has tumbled to earth, shot through its wing by an arrow. Unexpectedly moved, George helps the bird, and from the moment he watches it fly off, his life is transformed.

The next day, a kind but enigmatic woman walks into George’s shop. Suddenly a new world opens up for George, and one night she starts to tell him the most extraordinary story.

Wise, romantic, magical and funny, The Crane Wife is a hymn to the creative imagination and a celebration of the disruptive and redemptive power of love.

I’m a huge fan of Patrick Ness, and I’ve wanted to read The Crane Wife since it was first published. I have an unofficial ban on buying new books at the moment (trying to conquer my Mount TBR once again!), and it’s never available in the library, so I was resigned to waiting some time to read this one! Therefore I was delighted to see a copy left on the shelf of the Huddersfield station book swap (a relatively new addition, and one I can see coming in very handy!) as I was waiting for a train a few weeks ago.

I’d only ever read Patrick Ness’ young adult books before, so wasn’t really sure what to expect from this. It’s a fable, beautifully told, but also very much an adult book. I was delighted to discover that Ness is just as accomplished a writer for adults as he is for teens. His prose is absolutely beautiful (a few choice quotes made it into my Tumblr) and I loved the story. I’m not familiar with the original Japanese folk tale that Ness takes as his inspiration (although I understand he’s altered the story a fair amount), but I found the story really moving and simple. One of those books I really didn’t want to end!

The Last West coverThe Last West, by Evan Young, Lou Iovino, and Novo Malgapo

The Last West is an alternate history, noir epic that imagines a world where all progress grinds to a halt in 1945 with the failure of the first test of the atomic bomb. But not just scientific advancement stops—all technological, artistic, and social progress also ceases. The war with Japan continues, unending. And, the one man who knows why this has happened and who has the power to jumpstart the world again must grapple with one of the most important issues of our time: What is the price of progress? And, is he willing to pay it?

I backed this graphic novel on Kickstarter, so have been waiting some time to read it! That’s actually one of the things I like about Kickstarter – sometimes the project lead in time is so long, you almost forget you’ve backed something until you get the reward. I’ve heard some people say that’s exactly what they don’t like about it though, so ymmv I guess.

If you like alternate history, I thoroughly recommend this. It’s a really interesting vision of a future (well, present) where all scientific and cultural progress ground to a halt 70 years ago. I really enjoyed all the background detail in it – I tend to read graphic novels too fast and miss a lot of the artwork (because I’m used to just reading words!) but this, I really took my time with and savoured the detail. It’s a cracking story too – I’m looking forward to Volume 2! There’s still (just!) enough time to back the second instalment on Kickstarter – if you missed the first one, there’s reward options that’ll allow you to catch up too.

Sworn Virgin cover

Sworn Virgin, by Elvira Dones (translated by Clarissa Botsford)

Hana Doda is an ambitious literature student in cosmopolitan Tirana. Mark Doda is a raki-drinking, chain-smoking shepherd, living alone deep in the Albanian mountains. In fact, they are the same person. When Hana’s dying uncle calls her home from the city, he asks her to marry a local boy in order to run the household. Unable to accept the arranged marriage but resolved to remain independent, she must vow in accordance with Albanian tradition to live the rest of her life in chastity as a man – and becomes Mark. There is no way back for a sworn virgin.

Years later Mark receives an invitation to join a cousin in Rockville, Maryland. This is Mark’s chance to escape his vow and to leave Albania for modern America. But what does he know about being a woman?

I’ve been a subscriber to ace indie publisher And Other Stories for about a year and a half now, and they keep delivering absolute gems like this! It’s a fascinating look at the tradition of sworn virgins in Albanian culture, a moving meditation on gender, identity, loyalty and family ties, and a cracking good story – all at the same time! Wonderful stuff.

Women Destroy Science Fiction! Lightspeed Magazine special issue

It could be said that women invented science fiction; after all, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is considered by many to be the first science fiction novel. Yet some readers seem to have this funny idea that women don’t, or can’t, write science fiction. Some have even gone so far as to accuse women of destroying science fiction with their girl cooties.

So, to help prove how silly that notion is, LIGHTSPEED’s June 2014 issue is a double-sized special issue: an all-science fiction extravaganza entirely written—and edited!—by women.

Another Kickstarter special! This was a marvellous triumph of crowdfunding – set up as a reaction to some sad individuals claiming that women were destroying science fiction, Lightspeed were initially seeking $5,000 to fund a women-only issue. Ambitious target, yes? Well, with a resounding cry of…

Shut up and take my money!

…science fiction fans from all over the internet coughed up a stunning $53,136 between us. That’s right, more than 10 times the funding goal! Awesome stuff.

I almost thought, after all the excitement of the Kickstarter, the issue itself might feel a bit anticlimactic. What if the stories just weren’t that good?? Delighted to say that fear was completely unfounded – there’s some wonderful writing in this issue. I must admit, I’m a bit out of the loop when it comes to contemporary science fiction, so maybe this kind of stuff is all around but I just don’t see it – but I was really struck by how, well, interesting it all was. I sometimes think, in sci fi, you occasionally have to choose between really interesting ideas and really good writing and storytelling. Not here: the stories in this issue have both in spades. I was hooked from the first story, Each to Each by Seanan McGuire (whose work I will certainly be seeking out!), in which women submariners are genetically modified into mermaids. Other standouts for me included Cuts Both Ways by Heather Clitheroe, about the disastrous effect on mental and physical health of cyborg-created perfect memory recall; and the devastatingly simple and simply devastating flash fiction piece, A Guide to Grief, by Emily Fox.

The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith

When a troubled model falls to her death from a snow-covered Mayfair balcony, it is assumed that she has committed suicide. However, her brother has his doubts, and calls in private investigator Cormoran Strike to look into the case.

Strike is a war veteran – wounded both physically and psychologically – and his life is in disarray. The case gives him a financial lifeline, but it comes at a personal cost: the more he delves into the young model’s complex world, the darker things get – and the closer he gets to terrible danger . . .

Another one I’ve wanted to read for some time, it was a birthday present from my lovely work friends so it got quickly shuffled to the top of my TBR pile! I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, but I’ve yet to read any of JK Rowling’s adult fiction (Robert Galbraith being, for those of you who’ve been living under rocks for the past few years, Ms Rowling’s chosen nom de crime [fiction]).

I suppose I had half a (very unfair) thought that anything that wasn’t Harry Potter just wasn’t going to live up to my expectations. I’m happy to be proved wrong. The Cuckoo’s Calling is a tightly-plotted, complex crime novel that kept me guessing until (almost) the end. Rowling’s gift for observation shines through – the characters are all very well observed, and never feel like cliché. I suppose my only complaint is that it would be nice to see something other than the brilliant but troubled male detective/his sparky, intelligent but underpaid female assistant pairing – but it’s only the first in the series, hopefully the main characters of Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott will develop further into some more interesting directions. I would particularly love to see Robin have more to do – sadly she seemed relegated to making phone calls and occasionally surprising Cormoran with some initiative or insight for most of the book!

Other than that I loved it, and am looking forward to the second instalment. I think I also need to track down a copy of The Casual Vacancy

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