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!

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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

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!

Books I rather enjoyed in February and March

With February being a short month, and having read fewer books than usual in March due to spending half the month on an AWESOME holiday in New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville (post on that to come!), I decided to roll the months together for my reading round-up. Here’s some of the books that have been keeping me quiet over the past two months…

Mind Afire book coverMind Afire: the Visions of Tesla, by Abigail Samoun and Elizabeth Haidle

A 64 page graphic novel for teens and adults exploring the wondrous life of Nikola Tesla: Inventor, visionary, and unsung scientific genius…His story is inspiring in that it suggests that the greatest scientific discoveries require bold visions, unfettered imagination, and an uncommon mind, but it also serves as a warning that vested capital can be the enemy of the visionary—that great advances rarely come from within the system.

This is a graphic novel that I backed on Kickstarter, many moons ago – I’d actually almost forgotten about it when it turned up in the post! That’s one of the things I like about Kickstarter – I know some people who dislike the lag between funding a project and actually seeing the outcome, but to me that makes it feel more like a surprise present when it actually turns up!

And what a lovely surprise it was. Tesla’s life story is fascinating, and it is beautifully told here, with plenty of reference to Tesla’s own writings and letters to illuminate the tale. It is gorgeously illustrated, as well as beautifully printed – that seems a nerdy observation to make I know, but it really is! I do appreciate good quality paper and binding, especially in a graphic novel – that’s one of the things that makes it worth buying a paper book over an ebook!

The Kinckstarter is long done, but the book is available to order online, either in beautiful print form or, if you just want to read it, as a PDF.

The Daylight Gate book coverThe Daylight Gate, by Jeanette Winterson

Can a man be maimed by witchcraft?

Can a severed head speak?

Based on the most notorious of English witch-trials, this is a tale of magic, superstition, conscience and ruthless murder.

It is set in a time when politics and religion were closely intertwined; when, following the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, every Catholic conspirator fled to a wild and untamed place far from the reach of London law.

This is Lancashire. This is Pendle. This is witch country.

I adore Jeanette Winterson, and The Daylight Gate had been on my wishlist for some time. Based on the true story of the Pendle witch trials in 1612, Winterson spins a dark, bloody tale of black magic, abuse, betrayal and revenge. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, as it’s masterfully done, so I won’t put any more details in than that! I will say that this is probably the most accessible of Jeanette Winterson’s books that I’ve read – I love her as a writer, but some of her books can be very heavily literary which, while not a bad thing (at least in my opinion) can mean that you don’t get really stuck into the story. This, on the other hand, was an absolute page turner – without losing any of Winterson’s beautiful, carefully crafted sentences in the process. Wonderful.

Runaway book coverRunaway, by Alice Munro

The matchless Munro makes art out of everyday lives in this exquisite collection. Here are men and women of wildly different times and circumstances, their lives made vividly palpable by the nuance and empathy of Munro’s writing. Runaway is about the power and betrayals of love, about lost children, lost chances. There is pain and desolation beneath the surface, like a needle in the heart, which makes these stories more powerful and compelling than anything she has written before.

I picked this up at the library on National Libraries Day. It caught my eye as I remember hearing loads about Alice Munro and what a wonderful short story writer she is, when she won the Nobel Prize for literature last year. I must admit, I hadn’t actually heard of her before this point! It seemed like something I should rectify – especially after reading the glowing, bordering on gushing, introduction to this collection by Jonathan Franzen (another writer I’ve never read, incidentally).

I’ve got very into short stories over the past couple of years. I never used to have the patience for them – I got irritated at being given a snippet of a story, only to have it snatched away and replaced with another just as I was getting into it. I don’t know if I’ve just read better short stories in recent years, or if I’ve developed more appreciation for the craftsmanship of a short story, but I’ve discovered that well-written short stories can capture my attention way beyond their brief length. And going by this collection, Munro more than deserves her reputation as a master of this form of storytelling. I found some one-line summaries of the stories in this collection on Wikipedia, which made me laugh because they all look so flimsy! Had I looked this up before I read the book I may well have decided against wasting my time with such dull stories.

However, the bare scenarios are misleading – Munro packs easily a novel’s worth of story, nuance, and above all character development into each short tale. Her writing is beautiful, and the stories never feel samey (occasionally a risk with short story collections by less talented authors). I was absorbed by each story to the point of being taken by surprise when it ended – but I never felt like I’d been cheated out of a “proper” story, the way I used to with short stories. Alice Munro has instantly gone onto my “favourite authors” list, and I can’t wait to get my hands on more of her books.

Book review: Fair and Tender Ladies, Chris Nickson

Fair and Tender Ladies book coverRegular readers of this blog (both of you! 😉 ) will know that I am a big fan of Chris Nickson’s Richard Nottingham novels, a series of historical crime novels set in 18th century Leeds. Fair and Tender Ladies, the sixth (and, apparently, final! Boo 😦 ) book in the series, continues the winning combination of strong characters, plenty of historical detail, a genuine love of Leeds and its history, and a gripping plot.

1734. When a young country lad comes looking for his sister who’s run away to Leeds, Constable Richard Nottingham isn’t optimistic; too many girls come seeking their fortune. But before a day has passed the young man is found dead, his throat cut. Who could have wanted him dead?

The Leeds Nottingham knows is changing. Someone is vandalising the charity school his daughter has founded. There are plans to reopen the workhouse. And Tom Finer, a criminal who vanished years before, has returned.

Then the girl the young man came seeking is dragged from the river, drowned. Nottingham, John Sedgwick and Rob Lister find themselves investigating killings where nothing is as it seems.

Warning: spoilers for previous books in the series.

Fair and Tender Ladies takes a more sombre, reflective tone than the previous books. His wife dead, the victim of a murderer Nottingham was trying to bring to justice, Nottingham is disillusioned with his job and considering retirement. His only remaining family is his daughter, Emily, who is being her usual kick-ass self by founding a charity school for poor girls. When the school is vandalised, and Emily starts getting death threats, it becomes clear that someone in the city objects to the daughters of the poor being educated – because, presumably, they should know their place, and that place doesn’t require an education.

I actually found this the most compelling plot line in the book, partly because I thought it was a rather timely reminder that people not wanting girls to be educated is still a thing that happens. It also made me think about some of my Mum’s stories from when she taught at a school in a particularly deprived area of Portsmouth. She always said that the thing that broke her heart the most was seeing bright, capable kids, who at one point had actually been excited about learning, have that gradually ground out of them by being continually told (by messages from society but also in many cases, sadly, being directly told this by their own families) that there was no point, they weren’t worth anything and weren’t going to achieve anything anyway, so school was just a waste of time. It was interesting to see this considered from an historical perspective – I would have loved to have seen more of this!

I knew when I started reading this that it was the last in the series (I say again, boo! 😦 ) so I wondered what kind of body count we’d see among the main characters. Nickson has proven himself to be willing to kill off beloved central characters in the previous books in this series, so I did wonder – would we see the end of Richard Nottingham in this book? Well, I won’t give that away! I will just say that there are deaths (of course, it’s a crime novel!), and that one in particular caught me completely off guard, with its shocking violence and utter senselessness. Once again, Nickson has really brought home the desperation of ordinary people’s lives during this period in history.

Although I am disappointed that there aren’t to be any more Richard Nottingham novels, I have to say this was a fitting end to the series. Not every loose end is tied up – and rightly so, I can’t stand it when writers try to be too neat about how everything ends (step forward, JK Rowling…) – but the characters that I’ve grown to know and care about over the course of six novels, and the Leeds that Nickson has conjured up so vividly, are given a satisfying conclusion.

Book review: Headlong, by Ron MacLean

HeadlongI got Headlong as a LibraryThing Early Reviewer giveaway. The plot sounded intriguing, and I haven’t read nearly enough thrillers recently, so I thought I’d give it a go.

It’s a hot Boston summer, and Nick Young, a washed-up journalist back in town to care for his dying father, is feeling the heat. Using his old skills to solve a mystery before the police do – to connect the dots between a major labor strike, a violent Occupy-style movement, and a murder that may involve his best friend’s teen son.

All in all, this is pretty solid crime-thriller writing. The story threads – Nick’s relationship with his dying, cantankerous father, his odd friendship with an old friend’s teenage son, the industrial action hijacked by various gangs of activists – are masterfully woven together. I always like a book that can make things matter on both a personal and wider level, and MacLean succeeds here with aplomb. His depiction of an initial strike by the city’s janitors spiralling out of control as activist and anarchist groups co-opt the dispute to further their own agenda is well-drawn. I enjoyed Nick’s internal reasoning, and his debates with his teenage friend, about the ethics of direct action weighed up against the need for change – it felt very true to life.

The actual crime isn’t clear until quite late on in the book, but I didn’t mind that. It could have felt very slow-paced, but the build-up to that point was so well handled that it managed to maintain a good pace. On the other hand, the ending felt a bit rushed: once the action arrives, it’s all over within a few pages, with one character unceremoniously killed off via an off-hand sentence at the end of a chapter.

I did enjoy this, but – and it’s a big but – I found the protagonist, Nick, astonishingly unlikeable. Now, it’s not necessary to like the main character in order to enjoy a book. Some great works of fiction have absolute monsters at their heart, and noir fiction (clearly an inspiration for this book) has a long history of thoroughly unpleasant protagonists. However, I’m not sure we were actually supposed to dislike Nick. I got the impression (and I could be wrong) that we were supposed to sympathise with him, as an everyman. I absolutely didn’t sympathise with him: he is selfish, self-centred, at times bull-headed and at others frustratingly passive.

The thing that got me the most was his vile lecherousness. He openly lusts after teenage girls, which is bad enough, but he also appears incapable of interacting with any woman without sizing up her attractiveness. This got really tedious after a while: it’s one of my pet hates in books, when male narrators continually introduce each female character with an appraisal of her fuckability. Particularly when, as here. the narrator in question is never called on his behaviour, and the reader clearly isn’t meant to see it as the massive character flaw that it is.

Overall, this is a decent thriller. It didn’t blow me away, but it was a good commuting read. I enjoyed it, but it loses points for the tedious sexism of the main character.

Verdict: 5/10

Booker Shortlist 2013

As last year (and the year before, although I didn’t blog them then!) I have been reading my way through the Booker shortlist. My goal was to read all six before the winner was announced, but as that’s tonight and I’m less than 100 pages into the last of them (Eleanor Catton’s doorstop of a book The Luminaries), that isn’t going to happen! But, 5/6 isn’t bad I suppose…

I’ve been blogging them over at Leeds Book Club (links below for the reviews that are up already, I’ll update this post accordingly as more are posted), but thought I’d share my brief thoughts and predictions here, ahead of tonight’s winner announcement.

  • The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin: LOVED this. A beautifully-written, elegantly crafted novella, I’ll be delighted if this wins.
  • Harvest, Jim Crace: Another very strong contender. Subtle but gripping.
  • A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki: Ambitious, but ultimately left me cold, and not as well-written as I’d expect from a Booker nominee
  • The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri: My favourite so far. A beautiful, complex intertwining of the personal and political. I would really like to see this win.
  • We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo: Good, but not as good as I expected it to be. More like a series of short stories than a novel.
  • The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton: Only just started this one, but very gripping and well-written so far!

I am always wrong when I try to guess the winner, but that’s not going to stop me trying it again! For me, it’s between The Testament of Mary and The Lowlands. I would love it if Lahiri scooped the prize tomorrow, I think it would be very well deserved, but Toibin’s feels slightly more like a Booker winner to me. I’ll be waiting for the results with bated breath!

Update: So, the results are in… and it’s the one I haven’t read yet. Typical. I’m disappointed that my favourite didn’t win, obviously, but very much looking forward to finishing The Luminaries now! Many congratulations to Eleanor Catton for becoming the youngest ever Booker winner (and no, I’m not at all feeling both old and inadequate on realising that she’s a year younger than me… OK maybe just a tad…)

Books I have read and rather enjoyed

I know I’ve somewhat neglected this blog lately – only one new post since March! Bad Woodsie! *smacks hand*

This isn’t because I haven’t had anything to blog about – it’s mainly lack of time and energy. I’ve read loads of great books recently that I fully intended to review, I just can’t seem to find the time or work up the effort to write full book reviews. So, I am stealing an idea (and shamelessly, most of a title) from the rather wonderful Jen Campbell’s blog, and am planning to do some semi-regular posts containing one-paragraph reviews of recommendations of books I’ve read lately. So, here’s what I’ve read and enjoyed over the last few months:

The Fictional ManThe Fictional Man – Al Ewing

This was a book club pick that, sadly, I didn’t make it to the actual book club for! I really enjoyed this – I’m not saying it’s the best-written book I’ve ever read, but a it’s very interesting idea, well-executed. The premise of this sci-fi novel is that popular fictional characters are routinely “translated” into living human beings, grown in tubes, for the purposes of appearing in TV and film instead of actors. Then of course, once their film franchise has ended or series has been cancelled, they end up trying to make a living as normal people. The book is part noirish murder-mystery, part satire, and part philosophical examination of what it is to be human. It doesn’t completely succeed at all of those, but it’s very entertaining along the way. It’s strangely structured: starting out light-hearted and often very funny, it takes a much darker turn about half way through and turns into something much more interesting. There’s a great “story-within-a-story” device going on to, which really made the book for me.

The Rosie ProjectThe Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion

This was pressed on me insistently by the lovely Niamh of Leeds Book Club, and on finishing it (in a matter of days) I immediately went out and bought a copy for my sister. She read it and immediately bought copies for several of her friends too. It’s that kind of book. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it – despite not generally being a fan of the quirky rom-com genre! The Rosie Project is narrated in first person by Don Tillman, a socially inept genetics professor (it’s strongly implied, though never actually stated, that he is on the Aspergers spectrum) who has decided that he wants to get married. He just hasn’t decided on a wife yet – but believes his academically rigorous questionnaire and screening process is sure to find the perfect candidate for him. When he meets Rosie, a young woman who wants his help finding her biological father, she’s everything he doesn’t want in a wife – she smokes, drinks, is perpetually late and disorganised. But of course, things aren’t that simple… I have to admit, this book sounded like the kind of twee romance i’d usually hate – but it’s just lovely. It’s heartwarming, occasionally very moving, and often very, very funny – I did lots of giggling out loud on the train with this one! The only note of caution I’d sound is that I’m not sure it’s hugely sensitive in discussing mental health generally and Aspergers in particular – something one person has told me put them off reading it. I loved it though, and I’d like to see what Graeme Simsion writes next!

Captain of the SteppeCaptain of the Steppe – Oleg Pavlov

This was one of the books-on-subscription I got from indie publisher And Other Stories this year. It’s translated from Russian, and is a fairly bleak satire based in a Siberian prison camp “where the news arrives in bundles of last year’s papers and rations turn up rotting in their trucks”. It follows Captain Khabarov, the Captain of the title, who has decided to plant some of his potato rations in order to better feed his men. What follows is, as the book’s blurb describes it, a lesson in “the unsettling consequences of thinking for yourself under the Soviet system”. It’s a black comedy, piling ever-more tragic and farcical twists of fate, bureaucratic incompetence and malicious backstabbing onto the hapless Captain, keeping the misfortunes and bitter ironies coming right up to the very last page. It’s not the easiest read – personally, I always find it difficult keeping the names straight in Russian literature, if nothing else – but it’s well worth sticking with.

Emerald CityEmerald City – Chris Nickson

I’m a big fan of Chris Nickson’s historical crime novels set in 18th century Leeds, so was interested to read something so different from him. Emerald City is also crime, but set in the Seattle music scene in 1988. When an up-and-coming local musician dies of a heroin overdose, music journalist Laura Benton thinks there must be more to the story – but soon finds herself caught up in a more dangerous situation than she’d realised. I really enjoyed the scene-setting: Chris Nickson obviously knows Seattle very well, and his background as a music journalist himself has clearly informed his writing. His love of the scene and of the characters he portrays (I suspect many of them are inspired by people he knows, or knew) shines through, and make it a joy to read. I think I do prefer his historical books, but this was a very interesting and enjoyable departure. I know he’s writing a follow-up, so I’ll be interested to see where he takes it as a series.

World War ZWorld War Z – Max Brooks

I know, I’m so incredibly late to the party with this one! I picked this up as it was a Kindle 99p deal a while back, but never got around to reading it. I finally read it on holiday this year, and was gripped within the first couple of pages. It’s fascinating: written as a sociological history of the “zombie war”, really a historical document made up of eye-witness interviews from people who were witness to and involved in various stages of the war: from the early, disbelieved reports of the dead rising, to various countries’ initial efforts to contain the plague, to full-scale retreat and survival, to the beginnings of the fight back and the eventual “clean up” operations. It is truly a world war, too – too often this sort of thing only really focuses on the US, and perhaps a little on other Western countries. While there is a large portion of the book devoted almost entirely to the USA’s “home front” war, the book does go into equal depth on the rest of the world – and even beyond, one chapter focusing on the astronauts who were on the International Space Station when the plague hit. It’s very cleverly written, and scarily real – although I felt it was probably a bit over-optimistic in some areas! I’m told the recent film is nothing at all like the book, but I’d still quite fancy giving it a watch, if only so I can sit and snark my way through it about how the book was sooooooo much better (yes, I am the MOST fun to watch films with!)

Old Man's WarOld Man’s War – John Scalzi

I got this as part of the Humble ebook Bundle well over a year ago, and only recently got around to reading it – and was instantly sorry I’d left it so long! As a frequenter of some of the geekier corners of the internet I had heard of John Scalzi before, but never actually read any of his books. On the strength of this, I will certainly seek out more. The premise is that some years into the future, humanity has colonised the universe – but travel off-Earth is strictly controlled. The only option for most to travel to the colonies is to enlist in the Colonial Defence Force – and they exclusively recruit people aged 70+. The assumption is that the CDF has some kind of technology to reverse the ageing process – but why? And what is really going on out there in Earth’s colonies? This is a proper ripping yarn of a sci fi, filled with fascinating ideas, snappy dialogue, great action scenes and believable characters. It’s the first in a series, so I will definitely read the rest!