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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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.

Thoughts on #ReadWomen2014

As mentioned in my 2013 reading review, I’ve been fairly surprised and not a little disappointed to discover how (comparatively) few books by women I actually read. Had you asked me to guess, off the top of my head, I’d have confidently asserted that at least half the books I read were by women, probably more. Most of my favourite authors are women, and I feel like my reading list is dominated by women authors. However, looking at the actual numbers, that’s nowhere near true. Last year only 30% of the books I read were written by women. Over the past four years, the closest I’ve got is in 2012, when the female/male split was 60/40.

I recently backed a great project on Kickstarter: Women destroy science fiction, a project to produce an all-female issue of Lightspeed Magazine (and since they absolutely smashed their funding goals, they’re now also producing “Women destroy horror” and “Women destroy fantasy” issues!). The success of this project (having initially aimed for $5,000, they’ve raised more than 10 times that amount!) makes it abundantly clear that there is a real appetite for fresh voices in science fiction, and genre publishing generally – an area all too often dominated by men.

One of the great things about backing this campaign has been the daily updates featuring short personal essays about women’s experiences in science fiction publishing. A recent essay, We are the fifty percent, really struck a chord with me. I’d urge you all to click through and read the whole thing, but here’s a few choice quotes:

Sometimes I catch myself feeling like I only read writing by women. “Ugh,” I think. “That is so skewed.” Then I crunch the numbers.

They are almost always fifty percent.

Sociological research suggests that when women and men speak equally in a conversation, both men and women perceive the women as dominating the conversation.

At the same time as I entered my editorial position and was criticized for running work “dominated” by fifty percent women, the podcast’s male-edited science fiction counterpart hadn’t run a story authored by a woman in weeks. No one said a thing.

That hit home with me, because I can see from my own experience how easy it is to perceive anything more than a handful of women writers as being a majority. Perhaps that’s because, in a patriarchal society, male is the assumed default – anything that deviates from this draws attention, and appears to be demanding more space than it actually is. Conversely, an all-male reading list or collection will not raise many eyebrows, if any, because that’s just the natural state of things.

Before I crunched the numbers from last year’s reading, I genuinely believed I’d read more books by women than by men in 2013. At the very least, I was certain it was at least a 50/50 split. I never would have guessed the actual split was only 30/70. And I’m a self-identified feminist, and very conscious of these issues. How much easier is it for people who don’t actually think about the bias against female authors, who don’t think it’s a big deal, to just assume everything’s fine and this is all just humourless feminists trying to force sub-par female authors on unwilling readers in order to maintain some kind of gender quota?

Joanna Walsh's beautiful #ReadWomen2014 bookmarks

Joanna Walsh’s beautiful #ReadWomen2014 bookmarks

This is why I’m hugely in favour of the Year of Reading Women. There are so many extraordinarily talented women out there – if my reading list is skewed towards male authors, how much fantastic writing am I missing out on? I’ve decided against only reading women this year, simply because there are other books by men that I want to read that I don’t want to miss out on for a year – it’ll just make my TBR pile even bigger! However, I’m keeping note of the author’s gender for every book I read, on an ongoing basis rather than totting it up at the end of the year as I’ve done previously, and I’ve pledged to read at least one book by a woman for every book by a man I read this year. That should ensure that, at the very least, I’ll have an even 50/50 split for 2014. I might even tip the balance the other way, which would make up for the awesome female-authored books I must have missed out on over the past couple of years! So far in 2014, I’ve read 5 books by women and 6 by men. I’m currently reading Zadie Smith’s NW (which is wonderful), so that brings it to an even 6-all so far this year. A good start!

A final quote from the Kickstarter essay, for anyone still looking for inspiration to #readwomen2014:

Women aren’t supposed to talk as much as men. We aren’t supposed to take up as much space as men do. So when we talk, we must be SHOUTING. When we take up space, we must be EVERYWHERE.

If our presence will always be perceived as a taint, then let science fiction be tainted. If our speaking voices will always be perceived as shouts, then let us shout.

We’re here. We’re fifty percent of you.

And we deserve some room to bellow.

Books I read and rather enjoyed in January

I’ve decided to do a monthly round-up of my favourites from the books I read in the previous month. For what’s been keeping me quiet in January, read on…

11 Doctors, 11 stories11 Doctors, 11 stories, by various authors

This short story collection was published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. As the title suggests, each story concerns a different incarnation of the Doctor. I was really excited to read this – both as a lifelong Doctor Who fan, and as a massive fan of several of the authors in the collection – including Patrick Ness, Eoin Colfer, Malorie Blackman, and the ever-marvellous Neil Gaiman.

I was not disappointed – I can’t imagine any Whovian would be! It’s a lovely collection, and the stories are all written with such glee – you can really tell how much fun all the contributing authors had in writing their stories. They’ve all captured their individual Doctors delightfully well. The stories are all excellent, but the ones that stood out for me were Philip Reeve’s 4th Doctor story, ‘The Roots of Evil’, featuring a sort of space station made from a living tree; Patrick Ness’ 5th Doctor story ‘The Tip of the Tongue’, featuring odd little parasites that make everyone tell the truth; and Neil Gaiman’s intensely unnerving 11th Doctor tale, ‘Nothing O’Clock’.

My only small complaint about this book is that of 11 contributing authors, only two are women. Given the wealth of great female sci-fi writers out there, and how many undoubtedly grew up, like me, hiding behind the sofa from Doctor Who baddies (even in the Classic Who era when they were clearly made out of tin foil and bubble wrap – in fact, especially then! Amiright??), I’m disappointed that they couldn’t find a more even balance of writers for this collection.

This is how you lose herThis Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz

This was given to me by my SantaThing – that’s Secret Santa for LibraryThing members, which was tremendous fun! This Is How You Lose Her is a collection of short stories (some loosely linked around the same character)  all featuring working-class, Latino (predominantly Dominican) Americans. All the stories centre around relationships and infidelity, usually from the man’s point of view. It’s the sort of matter I usually find pretty tedious – if you’ve read one account of a male protagonist basically whining about how women are bitches and monogamy sucks, you’ve read them all – but Diaz’s flawless prose and pitch-perfect characterisation lifts these stories above what could just be tired cliche. I was warned by my SantaThing to keep a Spanish dictionary handy while reading it (I actually used Google Translate, but hey!) and that was good advice – Spanish phrases and slang terms are liberally scattered throughout. Some I could work out in context, but some I did have to do some Googling to work out what was being said or implied.

This wasn’t the sort of thing I’d normally have picked up, but I’m delighted to have done so. I’m hugely impressed by Diaz’s writing, and although his female characters left a little to be desired I will be seeking out more of his work.

The Crooked SpireThe Crooked Spire, by Chris Nickson

Regular readers of this blog will know I’m a bit of a fan of Chris Nickson’s series of historical crime novels set in Leeds. The Crooked Spire is a bit of a departure from this – set in 14th century Chesterfield, rather than a historical almost-police procedural like the Richard Nottingham series, The Crooked Spire put me in mind most of all of a sort of dark-ages noir. It follows the story of a wandering carpenter, John, orphaned by the Black Death that has so recently ravaged the country, and seeking work on the ambitious new spire on the church in Chesterfield. The title is a reference both to the (now) famously wonky spire in Chesterfield, and to the web of corruption John stumbles into. It’s a vivid picture of greed, murder and the worthlessness of human life to those in power – at least, of a certain class of human life.

As always with Chris Nickson’s books, he has evoked a vibrant sense of place. I’ve often wondered if I’d enjoy the Richard Nottingham series so much if I didn’t know Leeds so well. I think The Crooked Spire has answered my question: I have only visited Chesterfield once (it was for a funeral, so I wasn’t really in the mood for sightseeing!) and don’t know it at all, but the evocative descriptions made me feel like I was wandering the streets myself.

Fun HomeFun Home: a family tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel

Ok, technically I read this one back in December, but I read it in that dead period between Christmas and New Year, which as far as I’m concerned exists outside of time itself, so I’ve made a decision to count it as a January read. Because I can, and this is my blog, so there! Ahem.

And yes, I know I’m about a million years behind the entire world in finally reading this. I have no idea what took me so long to get around to it, but I’m glad I finally did! It’s wonderful. Just flat-out wonderful. For those not in the know, Fun Home is Alison Bechdel’s (she of the Bechdel test) graphic novel memoir of growing up in a funeral home (the ‘Fun Home’ of the title) and her complicated relationship with her emotionally distant, closeted father. Intertwined with this narrative is her own coming of age and discovery of her sexuality.

It’s a really beautiful read, honest and unsentimental without being cynical. The artwork is gorgeous – the final panel, showing Alison as a little girl diving into her father’s arms at the swimming pool, had me in tears. I really can’t recommend this highly enough, and will be seeking out a copy of the sequel, Are you my mother?, as soon as possible!

Why give blood?

I started giving blood just over a year ago. I’ve since gone back for regular appointments, and in December I made my fourth donation (women can donate every four months, men every three).

I was prompted to start giving blood when my mum was going through chemotherapy for oesophageal cancer. She caught what may have been a very bad cold, or may have been flu – either way, her chemo-ravaged immune system couldn’t cope with it and she became very ill, very quickly. She went into hospital and was given a blood transfusion. Without the blood, she would almost certainly have died.

As it was, she died about four months later – it was an aggressive cancer, we knew there was nothing that could save her at that point. But the generosity of unknown people who had turned up to blood donation centres, sat for 10 minutes with a needle in their arm and given a small amount of blood, saved her life that day and gave our family a few precious extra months with her. I can’t express just what that meant to us. I became a blood donor so I could pay that forward, and potentially protect other families from the pain of losing someone they love.

I was prompted to write this blog post today because the @givebloodNHS Twitter account started a hashtag called #bloodreasons, asking for people’s reasons for starting to donate blood. I would urge everyone to click through and have a read, just for the sheer number of different stories and scenarios that led people to become donors.

The thing that struck me is just how many people have a family member or loved one who has been saved by a blood transfusion. Giving blood is something that almost anyone can do, and it has such a huge, life-saving impact. I spoke to my twin about this recently: she’s a nurse in an Accident and Emergency department, and she was emphatic about how often donated blood is used to save lives. In her words, they get through “buckets of the stuff” on a standard shift! It’s such an everyday thing that I think we almost take it for granted – but it wouldn’t be possible at all without blood donors.

My main reason for writing this post is to give a bit of a nudge to anyone out there who’s thought vaguely about donating blood but just hasn’t got around to it yet, or anyone who wants to but is nervous about it. For the former camp, it’s simple: just visit the NHS blood donation website, type in your postcode to find a session near you, and book an appointment online (or, find a walk-in centre where you don’t need an appointment). Done!

If you’re nervous about it, I sympathise. I left it more than a year between my deciding to become a blood donor and actually doing it, just because I was very scared of needles! For those who want to donate but are nervous about it, I thought it might be helpful to write a bit here about my experiences of donating blood, to hopefully provide a bit of reassurance.

First things first: does it hurt? Well, obviously – I could write something here like “oh no, you’ll never feel a thing! In fact, it’s just like being nuzzled by kittens!” but that would be a lie and you’d all know it. We’re talking about sticking a needle into your skin, of course it’s going to hurt a bit. However, it really doesn’t hurt very much – nothing at all like I was expecting. Before you give blood they prick your finger with a pin and squeeze out a drop of blood to test your iron levels. That stings for a second – it feels a bit like if you catch yourself on an unexpected sticky-out staple in a pile of printouts – but that’s it. It stings for a bit longer when they actually put the needle in your arm to draw your blood, but once the needle is in it doesn’t really hurt any more. I can usually feel the needle there while the blood is being taken, and sometimes it’s a bit uncomfortable, but it doesn’t really hurt as such. I’m told that I can probably feel it more than others would because I’ve got skinny arms and narrow veins – so if you’ve got thicker arms you probably wouldn’t feel much at all.

Afterwards, my arm usually aches a bit, but that’s always stopped by the following morning (and is a convenient excuse not to have to carry shopping, do the washing up, or any other housework-type stuff that requires the use of both arms! Hehehe 🙂 ). Probably the most painful bit of the whole process is removing the plaster afterwards – they use these hardcore medical plasters that must contain some industrial adhesive. I do feel sorry for men who donate blood – removing that plaster is hard enough if you don’t have hairy arms! I recommend having a good soak in the shower or bath before attempting plaster removal – that moves it from “OH MY GOD IT’S TEARING OFF MY SKIN” to “Hmm, that was slightly unpleasant”!

So, that’s it in terms of pain. Pretty minimal really, and much, much less than I had ever expected! Whatever minimal pain/discomfort there is, it is more than outweighed by the good feeling you get from giving blood. I was actually taken a bit aback my this the first time I donated, but I did feel really, genuinely good about myself for quite some time afterwards. It puts me in a really good mood for days. I think it’s the knowledge that you have done a completely, unambiguously good thing. Also, all the medical staff at donation centres are completely lovely – particularly if you tell them you’re nervous! – so I don’t think you could leave in a bad mood. Plus, they give you free tea and biscuits after you’ve donated. Wins all round!

I know lots of people who can’t donate for various reasons, so it feels even more important that those of us who can, do. If you can give blood (check here if you’re not sure if you can or not) but you don’t currently do so, please consider registering as a donor. Giving blood is one of the simplest, easiest ways to save a life. The blood you donate could mean the world to another person or family.

2013 Reading by Numbers

As is becoming an annual tradition, I have totted up the books I read in 2013 and made some pretty charts to illustrate my reading habits. I’ve also listed my 2013 reading highlights at the bottom of the post, so feel free to scroll straight down to there!

2013_totalsMy amount read by year has been steadily increasing, although I’m not really sure why. I read a whopping 91 books this year! Maybe I’m just reading faster in a desperate attempt to keep up with all the many, many books I want to read? My TBR pile is rapidly getting out of control again, I may have to ban myself from buying new books until I’ve got it to a more manageable level!

2013_monthlyI kept track again of how many books I read each month, so I could try and compare to last year and see if I’ve got any usual patterns. Nothing’s really leaping out at me here, except that both this year and last I didn’t read much in August. That surprises me actually, as I’d always thought I read more in the summer!

2013_genderLooks like I still read significantly more male than female authors. Again, that surprises me as I did feel like I’d read more books by women this year! I would like to do something about this, actually, as I don’t think it’s great to have such an imbalance. There’s some fantastic women writers out there, and I don’t want to feel like I’m missing out! I found this article by a person who decided to only read women writers for an entire year, and thought that was pretty inspiring. I don’t think I’ll go quite that far, but I would like to prioritise the female writers on my TBR pile. In fact, I think I’ll make that one of my reading resolutions for 2014!

2013_fictionLooks like my proportion of fiction vs non-fiction read has stayed about the same. I still read far more fiction than non-fiction, and I don’t think that’s likely to change. Although I have read some great non-fiction this year, I do tend to find it more of a chore than fiction! Maybe I’ll try to read a bit more factual stuff this year, but I doubt it to be honest.

2013_sourceI’m pleased to see that my reading this year shouldn’t have made too much of a dent in my bank balance! I only bought half of the books I read, and I think most of those will have been discounted (for example, I only really buy ebooks when they’re on sale, as I resent paying full price for something I don’t really own!). Looks like I used the library a bit less this year than last year (library books made up 29% of my reading material in 2012), not really sure why. I’ll have to try and make that up again in 2014!

2013_acquiredAlthough I didn’t do a Mount TBR challenge again this year, I did try to read at least some of the books I already had on my shelf rather than ones I bought, borrowed or received this year. As you can see above, I didn’t do too well at this! I might have to try a TBR challenge again for 2014, as at the moment my TBR list stands at 116 books, and I’d like to try and make a dent in those before getting more books!

ETA: I just did a quick count of the 116 unread books in my LibraryThing, and the totals from each year are as follows:

  • Added in 2009 – 3 books
  • Added in 2010 – 10 books
  • Added in 2011 – 12 books
  • Added in 2012 – 34 books
  • Added in 2013 – 57 books

So I am slowly working through the older books in my collection! I just need to slow down my rate of acquisition of new books. But new books are so pretty, so tempting… *strokes the books*

2013 Reading Highlights

1. Best Book of 2013: This is always such a hard question to answer – it’s like being asked to choose your favourite child! (Or so I imagine, not actually having any children…) I think it’s a toss-up between The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. On balance, I think I’ll go with A Monster Calls, just because I found it so incredibly moving, painful and life-affirming all at once.

2. Worst Book of 2013: I haven’t read any really awful books this year, I’m happy to say! There’s been nothing this year that I couldn’t finish, and looking at my LibraryThing ratings I haven’t given anything less than two stars. If I had to pick one, I’d say probably Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow. I feel a bit bad naming this here as it really isn’t that bad, just not my cup of tea! I admire Cory Doctorow for his stance on information rights, but his fiction writing just doesn’t grab me.

3. Most Disappointing Book of 2013: Probably The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker. Again, it’s not a bad book, it just didn’t really live up to my expectations – the premise sounded fantastic, but I found the story and characters a little flat.

4. Most Surprising (in a good way) Book of 2013: Where the Bodies are Buried, by Christopher Brookmyre. A few people had said they felt really let down by this book, as it doesn’t have the humour of Brookmyre’s previous books (which I am a huge fan of), but I actually really enjoyed this. It’s a good, solid crime thriller.

5. Book You Recommended the Most to People in 2013: The Hunger Games! I lost count of the number of people I spoke to about the films, and urged to read the books immediately!

6. Favourite New Authors Discovered in 2013: Naomi Klein (can’t believe I’d never read any of her books before!), Alison Bechdel (ditto), Eleanor Catton, John Scalzi, Naomi Alderman

7. Most Hilarious Read of 2013: Definitely How to be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran – had me crying with laughter on the train!

8. Most Thrilling Unputdownable Read of 2013: A Storm of Swords (parts 1 and 2) by George RR Martin. One of those books that makes you resent having to do things like go to work, eat, sleep, etc when you could be reading instead.

9. Favourite Cover of a Book You Read in 2013: More than This, by Patrick Ness. I like the stark graphic, it works well with the book’s subject matter (without wanting to give too much away!)

11. Most Memorable Character of 2013: Don Tilman, from The Rosie Project

12. Most Beautifully Written Book of 2013: Tough choice, but probably The Testament of Mary

13. Book That Had the Greatest Impact on You in 2013: The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein. Made me so incredibly angry when I was reading it. Also made me want to run up to random strangers on the street, thrust the book at them and yell: “Have you read this? Read it immediately! And give it to all of your friends to read too! And then REVOLUTION!” For some reason, I did not actually do this.

14. Book You Can’t Believe You Waited Until 2013 to Read: I’m going to cheat and pick two here: The Shock Doctrine (see above), and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.

2014 Reading Resolutions

I have three reading resolutions for the coming year…

1. Read more books by women

2. Finish 2014 with fewer books on my TBR pile than at the start of the year

3. Write more reviews and blog more book-related stuff – I’ve managed a pitiful 12 blog posts this year! If I commit to two blog posts per month, I can easily double that for 2014.

Anyone else have any reading resolutions for 2014? What were your reading highlights of 2013? If there’s anything I really MUST read in 2014 then leave a comment and let me know below!

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!