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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Book Review: The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

The Night CircusI picked up The Night Circus with some vouchers I got for my birthday – so technically it was a present, which means that technically, it doesn’t count against my no-more-book-buying-until-you’ve-read-all-your-other-books pledge (which, incidentally, I disregarded many months ago anyway, so I’m not sure why I’m trying to justify it here…). Ahem. Anyway, I picked this up for two reasons. First of all, Erin Morgenstern wrote one of the NaNoWriMo pep talks last year, in which she discussed how the idea for The Night Circus grew out of several NaNoWriMo attempts. I loved the pep talk, and I was fascinated to see what a real, grown-up, published NaNo novel looked like! The second reason was that my twin sister has been raving about this book for months, and she’s very rarely that enthusiastic about books, so I thought I’d better check it out.

From the blurb:

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors…

(Note: That’s the blurb from the author’s website, and I’ve trimmed it a bit, as it gave away a fairly major plot point! Fortunately, the blurb actually on the book doesn’t contain spoilers.)

First and foremost, this book is an absolute delight for the senses. Morgenstern describes everything in exquisite detail: not just the beauty and splendour of the circus, but everything from the streets of 19th century London, the backstage rooms of the theatres in which Celia grows up, the sparse townhouse and flat in which Marco learns his skills, and the fabulous parties thrown by Chandresh Lefevre, circus proprietor. It’s all so vivid and colourful (even the stylishly monochrome circus!) that I felt I could see, smell and taste the circus. It almost started to feel like sensory overload!

The actual plot was a little difficult to get into at first, partly because of the time span of the book. All in all, the events of the story take place over 30 years, and often several years are skipped over in between chapters. That made it feel a little fragmented to me, and as the story is quite slow to actually get going – it’s several chapters, spanning about 13 years, before much really happens as such – it did take me a while to warm to it. Once it got going though, it was incredibly difficult to put down. The central mystery of the book – what exactly is the competition Celia and Marco have been bound into – is masterfully plotted. The love story that develops between them is also incredibly touching. The idea of a love story featuring two protagonists who don’t even properly meet until half way through the book, falling in love with each other through the enchantments they weave, struck me as a very romantic.

I loved the idea of the circus at the centre of everything, with everyone’s fate bound up in it, not just Celia and Marco’s. Some of the most enjoyable parts of the book for me were the sections that followed the other assorted characters bound up with the circus, but unaware at first of Celia and Marco’s competition and the true nature of the circus, as they slowly try to piece together what’s actually going on around them.

The only place this book falls down for me, and this is really a matter of personal preference, is that I never really felt like I knew Marco or Celia. I really like character-driven fiction: I like to get to know the people in the story, and understand why they do what they do. I never really felt that with this book, probably as an effect of the fragmented nature of the story. It felt all along like Celia and Marco were just being driven by events, and I never got a sense of who they really were. Some of the early scenes, with them learning magic as children, were really promising: one in particular sticks in my mind, of Celia as a small child, having her fingers sliced open by her father so she can learn how to heal herself. It was a horrifying, if brief, scene, and I would really have liked to see more exploration of what a childhood like that would actually do to a person. Similarly, the descriptions of Marco’s childhood training, in which he is left to study alone, almost completely without human contact, made me wonder how that child would cope as an adult. Unfortunately, I never really saw anything in the writing that would connect Adult Marco and Celia with Child Marco and Celia. They both seemed strangely well-adjusted; the only lasting effect of their abusive childhoods being magic powers.

That is a small complaint though, in a book I otherwise thoroughly enjoyed. I would certainly recommend this to anyone wanting something whimsical, magical, occasionally heartbreaking and ultimately satisfying to read this summer.

Verdict: 4/5