Books I enjoyed in July and August

I actually got a lot of reading done over July and August – 17 books, according to my LibraryThing (although this included four graphic novels and one novella, so that’s not quite as much as it sounds!). However, not many of them really stood out for me. Not that any of them were particularly bad as such (although I did not enjoy re-reading Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, a book I last read, and hated, when I studied it for my English Lit A level 12 years ago. The intervening years had not improved it!). I just didn’t read a lot that really grabbed me – I think I’ve been doing lots of shallow reading lately. Probably my July and August reading was quantity over quality!

That is, with the exception of the following four books. These were the only really standout books I read over the last couple of months – but they definitely made up for the rest!

Book cover: The Liars' GospelThe Liars’ Gospel, Naomi Alderman

‘He was a traitor, a rabble-leader, a rebel, a liar and a pretender to the throne. We have tried to forget him here.’

Now, a year after Yehoshuah’s death, four people tell their stories. His mother flashes between grief and rage while trouble brews between her village and the occupying soldiers. Iehuda, who was once Yehoshuah’s friend, recalls how he came to lose his faith and find a place among the Romans. Caiaphas, the High Priest at the great Temple in Jerusalem, tries to hold the peace between Rome and Judea. Bar-Avo, a rebel, strives to bring that peace tumbling down.

Viscerally powerful in its depictions of the realities of the period: massacres and riots, animal sacrifice and human betrayal, The Liars’ Gospel finds echoes of the present in the past. It was a time of political power-play and brutal tyranny and occupation. Young men and women took to the streets to protest. Dictators put them down with iron force. Rumours spread from mouth to mouth. Rebels attacked the greatest Empire the world has ever known. The Empire gathered its forces to make those rebels pay.

And in the midst of all of that, one inconsequential preacher died. And either something miraculous happened, or someone lied.

Probably the most gripping book I’ve read this year. The Liars’ Gospel is an historical retelling of (some of) the story of Jesus (or Yehoshuah, as all the characters in the book are given their Hebrew names), after his death, through the eyes of some who were close to him and some who were caught up in the events around him.

What really struck me was that you barely see Yehoshuah himself – most of what you see of him comes in the section narrated by Iehuda (Judas), his once-close follower who betrayed him to the Romans for what he believed were the right reasons. Mostly though, the book is less concerned with the actions of the “one inconsequential” preacher himself, than in the wider historical context of the time.

Alderman really brings the period to life – and explains an awful lot that I had no idea about the period. I am not religious, but I was raised a Christian, went to a Church of England primary school and regularly went to Sunday school as a child, so obviously I’m reasonably familiar with the life of Jesus. However, this book made me realise how little I knew about the time in which he lived. This might seem like a really obvious point to make, and maybe I’m just making myself look a bit of an idiot by writing this, but I’d never considered the context of Jesus as a preacher of the native religion in a country occupied by a conquering foreign force. That is the context Alderman puts his life in with The Liars’ Gospel, and it makes for an incredibly powerful read. The last section does this particularly well, narrated by Bar-Avo (Barrabas), leader of a resistance movement against the Roman occupying forces, freed by Pontius Pilate thanks to the agitation of his friends and followers while Yehoshuah is sentenced to crucifixion. His story continues from this point, and leads into the epilogue describing the eventual fall of Jerusalem.

I have no idea how this book would come across to someone who is a practising Christian – I’d be interested to hear actually. For my part, I found it incredibly gripping, moving and thought-provoking. It’s evident from Alderman’s historical notes and acknowledgements at the end of the book that she put a lot of careful research into writing The Liars’ Gospel, and that really shines through, as does her evident passion for and fascination with this historical period.

Book cover: Long Hidden

Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History

In 1514 Hungary, peasants who rose up against the nobility rise again – from the grave. In 1633 Al-Shouf, a mother keeps demons at bay with the combined power of grief and music. In 1775 Paris, as social tensions come to a boil, a courtesan tries to save the woman she loves. In 1838 Georgia, a pregnant woman’s desperate escape from slavery comes with a terrible price. In 1900 Ilocos Norte, a forest spirit helps a young girl defend her land from American occupiers.
These gripping stories have been passed down through the generations, hidden between the lines of journal entries and love letters. Now 27 of today’s finest authors – including Tananarive Due, Sofia Samatar, Ken Liu, Victor LaValle, Nnedi Okorafor, and Sabrina Vourvoulias – reveal the people whose lives have been pushed to the margins of history.

I backed this anthology on Kickstarter. It’s a collection of short stories, submitted with the following criteria: “stories from the margins of speculative history, each taking place between 1400 and the early 1900s and putting a speculative twist—an element of science fiction, fantasy, horror, or the unclassifiably strange—on real past events.”

The result was a fascinating collection of stories, featuring the kinds of events and protagonists that aren’t generally standard fare in mainstream speculative fiction. Particular standouts for me were “Ffydd (Faith)”, by S. Lynn, about a group of Welsh pacifists and conscientious objectors in 1919, “Collected Likenesses”, by Jamey Hatley, about the legacy of slavery in 1913 New Orleans, and “The Colts”, by Benjamin Parzybok, about an almost-successful peasant revolt at the end of the Crusades, in Hungary, 1514.

This is an outstanding collection – I was very impressed with the consistently high quality of the writing (I’ve backed anthologies and collections on Kickstarter before and the results aren’t always this impressive!). It’s a pretty substantial collection too – 27 stories, weighing in at 370 pages in the paperback edition (I had it as an ebook). There’s several writers from the anthology that I will be seeking out further work by – one of the things I love about short story anthologies is that they’re a great way to discover new writers!

Book cover: Gentlemen & PlayersGentlemen & Players, Joanne Harris

At St Oswald’s, a long-established boys’ grammar school in the north of England, a new year has just begun. For the staff and boys of the school, a wind of unwelcome change is blowing. Suits, paperwork and Information Technology rule the world; and Roy Straitley, the eccentric veteran Latin master, is finally – reluctantly – contemplating retirement.

But beneath the little rivalries, petty disputes and everyday crises of the school, a darker undercurrent stirs. And a bitter grudge, hidden and carefully nurtured for thirteen years, is about to erupt.

I got this at a book swap on World Book Night a few months back. I hadn’t read any Joanne Harris in some time – I had a few of her earlier books and loved them, but at some point I stopped picking up her new books. I’m not really sure why, as I do really like her as a writer!

I was glad to have picked this one up. It’s marvellously atmospheric and suspenseful, with a twist near the end that I genuinely didn’t see coming. The characters are all brilliantly drawn – I got very fond of Straitley, and enjoyed the insights into the mind of the probably sociopathic protagonist. I will have to look out more of Joanne Harris’ books that I’ve missed in the intervening years since I inexplicably stopped reading her!

Book cover: The Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling

When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock.

Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war.

Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils… Pagford is not what it first seems.

And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?

I put off reading this for a long time. There was so much hype around it when it came out, with everyone wanting to see if Rowling could write a book for adults as well as she could write for younger readers. I felt at the time that this was an impossible weight of expectation – I thought it would be incredibly difficult to judge how successful the book was with Rowling’s name and reputation attached. So I wanted to give it some time for the initial hype to fade before eventually picking it up myself.

I was prompted to read it after reading The Cuckoo’s Calling, Rowling’s crime novel published under a pseudonym. I was hugely impressed by The Cuckoo’s Calling, and it made me want to read more of her adult work.

I was equally impressed by The Casual Vacancy. Rowling does a sterling job of making a small story about a small town into a very big story about English life and attitudes. It’s a great slice-of-life novel. She draws together an impressive range of characters and brings them all to life – although not all likeable (some of them are pretty despicable in fact), they are all realistic and sympathetic. You don’t like them all, but you do understand them and care what happens to them – something not all novelists (*cough* Ian McEwan *cough*) manage!

I deliberately didn’t read any reviews of this when it came out, as I didn’t think I’d trust either glowing reviews or negative ones! I don’t think this was ever going to be judged on its own merits, with such a big-name author known for such a distinct genre and writing style. I don’t blame Rowling for attempting to get round this by publishing her next books under a pseudonym, even though it was always going to come out that she’d written them. I’m glad I’ve finally got round to reading this and making up my own mind, and I’m looking forward to reading more of her books in future, whatever she decides to write next.

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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.