Books I enjoyed in May and June

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

The Crane Wife book coverThe Crane Wife, by Patrick Ness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sworn Virgin cover

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

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

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

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

Women Destroy Science Fiction! Lightspeed Magazine special issue

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

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

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

Shut up and take my money!

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

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

The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith

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

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

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

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

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

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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!