Books I rather enjoyed in April

A few weeks late with this update, but better late than never I guess…

I’ve also started a Tumblr recently, which is officially a way to share interesting snippets and quotes from things I’m reading, but really it’s a place to share anything shiny that catches my eye! Follow me over there if you don’t get enough of my inane ramblings here and on Twitter!

Kavalier and Clay book coverThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon

Like the comic books that animate and inspire it, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is both larger than life and of it too. Complete with golems and magic and miraculous escapes and evil nemeses, even hand-to-hand Antarctic battle, it pursues the most important questions of love and war, dreams and art, across pages lurid with longing and hope. Samuel Klayman–self-described little man, city boy and Jew–first meets Josef Kavalier when his mother shoves him aside in his own bed, telling him to make room for their cousin, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Prague. It’s the beginning, however unlikely, of a beautiful friendship. In short order, Sam’s talent for pulp plotting meets Joe’s faultless, academy-trained line, and a comic-book superhero is born. A sort of lantern-jawed equaliser clad in dark blue long underwear, the Escapist “roams the globe, performing amazing feats and coming to the aid of those who languish in tyranny’s chains”. Before they know it, Kavalier and Clay (as Sam Klayman has come to be known) find themselves at the epicentre of comics’ golden age.

This was a Christmas present, of the best kind – a book I had never heard of and probably wouldn’t have come across by myself. I put it in as a choice for Leeds Book Club and it was picked, thus giving me an excuse to read it rather than leaving it languishing guiltily on my shelf as with so many other books I acquire!

I am so glad I read this – it’s marvellous. Through the lens of the golden age of comic books, Kavalier & Clay explores a fascinating period of American history, covering some big themes such as the immigrant experience, Jewish persecution, closeted homosexuality, the inter-war art world, McCarthyism, censorship, intellectual property… and manages to tell a rolicking good story at the same time.

I really can’t praise this book highly enough. It’s a hefty chunk of book (636 pages), but I flew through it – ending up with that bittersweet feeling where you’re racing through a book  because you can’t put it down, but at the same time you don’t want to reach the end because then there’s no more book! The book club (mostly) felt the same – there were a couple of people who hadn’t been grabbed by it, but it mostly scored highly. Two of us (myself included) gave it 10 out of 10 – one book clubber even had a Spinal Tap moment and gave it 11! I stand by my perfect score for this book – it is flawless.

The HumansThe Humans book cover, by Matt Haig

One wet Friday evening, Professor Andrew Martin of Cambridge University solves the world’s greatest mathematical riddle. Then he disappears.

When he is found walking naked along the motorway, Professor Martin seems different. Besides the lack of clothes, he now finds normal life pointless. His loving wife and teenage son seem repulsive to him. In fact, he hates everyone on the planet. Everyone, that is, except Newton. And he’s a dog.

Can a bit of Debussy and Emily Dickinson keep him from murder? Can the species which invented cheap white wine and peanut butter sandwiches be all that bad? And what is the warm feeling he gets when he looks into his wife’s eyes?

This is a lovely, odd book. I picked it up on World Book Night from @callmeliam – I’d heard of it before (mainly I think because someone keeps retweeting Matt Haig into my timeline) but it hadn’t really been on my radar as a must-read. I think I’d assumed it was a sort of humorous exploration of depression/mental breakdown, and I wasn’t sure I was really up for a whimsical view of mental illness. Turns out that’s not what it is, at all, but I almost think the book is better if you start reading it without really knowing what it’s about, so I’m going to hide the rest of my review in a spoiler block – highlight to read!

So, it’s about aliens. Yep, actual aliens. Andrew Martin has been abducted by aliens, murdered, and replaced by an alien clone whose mission is to murder his wife, son, and anyone he might have told about a mathematical discovery he’s made. For quite a while I wondered if we were dealing with an unreliable narrator – i.e. he’s had a mental breakdown due to overwork and just thinks he’s an alien – but nope. There are actual aliens in this book. And I LOVE that. I think I’d have found this quite tedious if it was just all an overwrought metaphor for mental illness! 

Non-spoilery version: I loved it. It was funny, and dark, and surprisingly moving – I didn’t properly cry, but definitely had a tear in my eye at parts. Great stuff.

Dissolution book coverDissolution, by C.J. Sansom

Henry VIII has proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church and the country is waking up to savage new laws, rigged trials and the greatest network of informers ever seen. Under the order of Thomas Cromwell, a team of commissioners is sent through the country to investigate the monasteries. There can only be one outcome: the monasteries are to be dissolved.

But on the Sussex coast, at the monastery of Scarnsea, events have spiralled out of control. Cromwell’s Commissioner Robin Singleton, has been found dead, his head severed from his body. His horrific murder is accompanied by equally sinister acts of sacrilege – a black cockerel sacrificed on the alter, and the disappearance of Scarnsea’s Great Relic.

Dr Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and long-time supporter of Reform, has been sent by Cromwell into this atmosphere of treachery and death. But Shardlake’s investigation soon forces him to question everything he hears, and everything that he intrinsically believes…

This was actually a World Book Night book from 2011 (the first round!), but I promise it hadn’t been languishing on my bookshelf for quite that long – I picked it up at a book swap in September last year. So I read it only seven months after getting it – quite respectable really!

Although I couldn’t help comparing Sansom’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell with Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (and Sansom inevitably came off worst – that’s really not a criticism, Sansom is a good writer but there are very few writers in Mantel’s league), I really enjoyed this. It’s a good, historically detailed, atmospheric, and properly bloody murder mystery. Highly recommended, and I will be seeking out the rest of the series!

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