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!

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