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 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.

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!

Independent bookshops in Leeds

Bookshop by A30_Tsitika, on FlickrI’ve been thinking a lot lately about where I buy my books. Although I don’t very often buy new, full-price books (charity shops, market used-book stalls and readitswapit.com are my friends, and obviously any books I don’t want to own and keep come from the library), when I do buy books they tend to come from one of two places: Amazon, for the cheapness and convenience; or Waterstones, for the simple reason that they’re often the only physical bookshop on the high street.

I’ve never really given it that much thought before – those are just the easiest places for me to buy books from – but I’m starting to feel a bit guilty about spending my money with large, anonymous corporations (one of which is a shameful tax dodger), rather than supporting local independents. My excuse, such as it is, is that I’ve not lived in the area for that long (ok, 14 months… long enough really) so I didn’t know where any good local bookshops were.

Well, this week I decided: no more excuses! Knowing that there are some lovely Leeds-based people on Twitter, I asked the question of my network: are there any independent bookshops in Leeds?

Sadly, the short answer seemed to be no! I did get a few replies pointing out a few nice places around Leeds, but unfortunately none in the city. Here are the places that were recommended:

Radish, Chapel Allerton – “an indie green/radical bookshop and fair trading post”. This place sounds AWESOME. Chapel Allerton is MILES out of my way, but I am totally willing to treck out there just to visit Radish.

The Idle Hour, Horsforth – although the person who mentioned this wasn’t sure if they were still in existence or not, and as their website hasn’t been updated since 2007 this one might have gone. Anyone in Horsforth know if this still exists?

Garforth bookshop – Probably won’t find myself in Garforth any time soon (until this bookshop was recommended, I’d never heard of the place) but if I do, I shall stick my head in and check this place out.

The Bookshop Kirkstall – A second-hand and antiquarian bookshop. Again, quite far out of my way, and they keep short opening hours, but they do also sell online through AbeBooks.

Philip Howard books – Also not somewhere I’d ever be passing through, but sounds nice.

Village Bookstore – This one’s not open yet, but it promises to be an “independent art book and zine store”. Sounds fabulous!

Grove Bookshop, Ilkley – Even further out of my way, but looks just lovely. Plus, Ilkley is pretty, and as the person who recommended it to me on Twitter pointed out, I could pop to Betty’s for a brew afterwards!

Also worth a mention here is OK Comics, Leeds’ independent comic book shop. Although I don’t read that many comics/graphic novels (pictured below is my entire graphic novel collection), I have been getting more into them in recent years, and I would like to discover new series/artists to explore. And OK Comics looks great – they have a friendly Twitter account, seem very good on customer service, and offer a free graphic novel lending library.

My graphic novel collection. Screengrab from LibraryThing

All of my graphic novels - mostly Buffy and Sandman!

However, shameful though it may be to admit, I’ve not quite dared to actually go in there yet. This is not their fault, it’s mine: comic book shops scare me. I’m still scarred from venturing into Forbidden Planet in London a few years ago to buy a copy of the first issue of the Buffy comic series. It was the first comic I’d bought, and the first and last time I went into a comic book shop. Everyone there, staff included, stared at me with great big “YOU DON’T BELONG HERE” looks on their faces. The sales assistant visibly sneered when he saw what I was buying. It was horrible: I hadn’t felt so unwelcome, so completely and obviously out of place, since I was a teenager. Since then, I’ve bought all of my graphic novels online (mostly, sorry to say, from Amazon), where no one can judge me.

Now, I’m not saying I expect OK Comics to be the same. They could be really nice people who make an effort not to make anyone feel excluded. And maybe some day, I will actually pluck up the courage to go in there and find out. Not just yet, though.

Anyway, slight digression on my fear of comic book shops aside, that was the results of my investigation into Leeds-based independent bookshops. Any I’ve missed? Any more recommendations would be very gratefully received!

Many thanks to the following Twitter users who replied to or retweeted my original question: @PeopleofLeeds (under the control, at the time, of @LianneMarieB), @ladylugosi, @LuraTea, @Destructodd, @Prossian, @CultureLEEDS, @MildlyConfused, @Lindsay22w, @KarolineK, @BeeCleaver, and @KatieScarlett14.

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