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!

Book review: The Knife of Never Letting Go

Another from my Mount TBR challenge! I got The Knife of Never Letting Go in the Kindle sale last Christmas. It’s the first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy. Synopsis:

Todd Hewitt is the only boy in a town of men. Ever since the settlers were infected with the Noise germ, Todd can hear everything the men think, and they hear everything he thinks. Todd is just a month away from becoming a man, but in the midst of the cacophony, he knows that the town is hiding something from him — something so awful Todd is forced to flee with only his dog, whose simple, loyal voice he hears too. With hostile men from the town in pursuit, the two stumble upon a strange and eerily silent creature: a girl. Who is she? Why wasn’t she killed by the germ like all the females on New World? Propelled by Todd’s gritty narration, readers are in for a white-knuckle journey in which a boy on the cusp of manhood must unlearn everything he knows in order to figure out who he truly is.

I really cannot recommend this book highly enough. I’m almost reluctant to write this review as I don’t want to give too much of the plot away: it’s so carefully constructed, with so many shocking moments that you really need to experience as Todd does to feel the full force of it.

Todd is a fantastic character. I really didn’t like him at the start of the book, he comes across as angry and aggressive, but through the course of the book he really develops as a character. It’s one of those wonderful character arcs that feels so natural you don’t really notice it happening – only by stopping and comparing the Todd at the end fo the book with the Todd at the start did it really hit me what a different character he’d become.

I also absolutely loved Todd’s dog, Manchee, despite starting the book rolling my eyes at the thought of a talking dog as one of the main characters! Manchee won me over pretty quickly though, partly because his dialogue is so, well, dog-like. His Noise does sound exactly the way you’d imagine a dog would sound if you could hear their thoughts. His personality was wonderfully apt too: a bit dim, cheerful, easily distracted but loyal and tenacious when needed – that should all sound fairly familiar to any dog owners!

Writing about the talking dog like that might make this sound like a bit of a silly read. It isn’t. It’s dark, and scary in the way that the best YA books can be, and frequently, shockingly violent. It also ends on a proper cliffhanger – I’m determined to complete my Mount TBR challenge before the end of the year, so I can’t read the next two yet, but I certainly will do as soon as my self-imposed book-buying ban is over!

Without saying too much more about the plot, all I can say is: read this. Read it if you want a tightly-plotted, fast-paced thriller (I read it in a day because I couldn’t put it down!) that also has intelligent things to say about conformity and masculinity, loyalty and betrayal.

Book Review: Point Horror – Twins

Twins book coverOh, Point Horror! Oh, the memories! All those teenage years spend reading Point Horrors under the covers, when I was supposed to be sleeping – and telling my mum in the morning that I just couldn’t get to sleep, to explain away my yawns and the dark circles under my eyes. Having to read the first few pages of the next chapter before I dared to turn the light off, just to get past the scary cliffhanger that each chapter ended on and reassure myself that the plucky heroine was still ok. Stubbornly refusing to give up my Point Horrors even after my mum had vainly tried to get me interested in proper, grown-up horror – she’d never have said, as she was never one to discourage any kind of reading, but I knew she disapproved of Point Horror for being trivial and juvenile. Which, of course, made me love them all the more.

When I saw a shelf full of Point Horrors at the book swap at the White Swan on World Book Night, I couldn’t resist. After browsing the shelves for a while, I picked up Twins – one I had particularly strong memories of. I assume this one appealed to me when I was a teenager, enough so that it was the only one on the shelf at the Swan that I could actually remember some of the plot of, because I am a twin myself. Not identical of course – and as far as I know, my twin is not evil – but still, stuff about twins always grabs my attention.

Anyway, on with the book. WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS.

Mary Lee and Madrigal are twins, completely alike in every way – or so Mary Lee believes. When their parents announce that they are separating the twins, and Mary Lee is to be sent off to boarding school while Madrigal stays home, Mary Lee is devastated. Madrigal, however, is not.

Mary Lee goes about her unhappy time at boarding school. When Madrigal comes to visit, Mary Lee is shocked to find that her sister has not been similarly moping and unhappy. Madrigal is the life and soul of the party and all of the girls at boarding school – who have given up on Mary Lee as cold, unfriendly and withdrawn – instantly love her.

Mary Lee is feeling alone and unloved, as her beloved twin ignores her in favour of all of the girls at school, who have almost forgotten she exists. The girls all go out together for a ski trip, and Madrigal, for some inexplicable reason, convinces Mary Lee to switch ski suits with her so they can pretend to be each other. Desperate for a chance to be one of the popular girls, Mary Lee agrees. She sets of for the ski slopes with all of Madrigal’s new friends, watching Madrigal get into a ski lift alone, as no one wants to be seen with poor, unpopular Mary Lee.

Suddenly, disaster strikes! The ski lift Madrigal, disguised as Mary Lee, was sat in breaks, and Madrigal falls to her death. Still believing that she is Madrigal, the girls cart Mary Lee off to the hospital, as she is in shock from witnessing her sister’s death. Mary Lee tries a few times to tell them who she is, but they all assume she’s just asking about her sister. Mary Lee gradually comes to a decision – as she was the unpopular one, the one no one loved and no one will miss, even her parents who shipped her off to boarding school but kept her twin at home, she decides that she will not tell them that the beloved Madrigal was the one who died.

Shortly after arriving back home however, Mary Lee makes a shocking discovery. Her twin wasn’t exactly like her at all – she was evil! Not just evil, mind you, but eeeevil! All her schoolmates are initially sympathetic towards her, but Mary Lee quickly realised that it isn’t friendliness, they’re just afraid of Madrigal. Madrigal and her new boyfriend, the mysterious (and eeeevil) Jon Pear (who is always referred to like that – never Jon, always Jon Pear) have been doing something awful to the kids at school. Jon Pear refers to this as “our game”, but Mary Lee is at a loss for what this might mean.

Mary Lee has a few encounters with an old friend Scarlett, and her brother Van – whom Mary Lee always had a crush on, and it turns out secretly loved her too all along! – who now apparently despise her, thinking that she is Madrigal. Jon Pear makes reference to Madrigal’s trip to the boarding school to “off” her twin, and congratulates her on how well it went. Mary Lee starts to have the sneaking suspicion that Madrigal wasn’t quite the sister she thought she was…

Jon Pear asks Mary Lee to pick a target for their next “game”, and she plays along, wanting to see what it is that her sister got mixed up in. Jon Pear picks up a girl from their school, flirts with her and tells her they’re going to a party, then the three of them drive off to The City. Once in The City, Jon Pear stops the car in a dangerous neighbourhood, tells the girl to get out so she can get in the front with them, then locks the doors and leaves the girl panicking on the streets.

What’s that? Doesn’t sound so bad, you say? Oh, I forgot to mention, it’s an eeeevil city, as the text is at pains to point out:

It was a place where garbage was permanent and graffiti was vicious. The homeless died in pain, and the drug dealers prowled like packs of animals looking for victims…Shadows moved of their own accord, and fallen trash crawled with rats.

See? Eeeevil.

Jon Pear explains that he never directly hurts anyone, he never does anything he can be arrested for, he just likes to watch people while bad things happen to them. He reminds her of a time that he and Madrigal watched a man drown, cheerily waving so that he’d know they could have helped him but didn’t. Mary Lee is of course horrified by this, and vows to stop him any way she can.

To cut a long story short: Mary Lee reveals to the people at school who she really is, and stands up to Jon Pear, who threatens to destroy her. She also tells her parents which twin she really is, but it turns out they already knew – they just thought she was pretending to be her twin out of grief, and weren’t sure how to deal with it. They also tell her that yes, Madrigal was eeeevil, and she’d always hated Mary Lee – which was why they’d sent Mary Lee away to keep her safe, and kept Madrigal at home to keep an eye on her. Jon Pear shows up at the town’s winter fair to wreak havoc in some unspecified way, but is attacked by an angry mob who are sick of the way he’s been terrorising the school kids by exposing them to inner-city eeeevil. Mary Lee tries to stop them, but is pushed back. He ends up dead under the ice, but Mary Lee never knows whether the angry mob actually killed him or just allowed him to die – thereby making them OMG JUST THE SAME AS JON PEAR – because she’s busy saving a small child from drowning at the time. She concludes that in the end she defeated Jon Pear, because she was willing to save him, so he didn’t succeed in corrupting her.

*Deep breath* So. Despite the slight moments of snark above, I did genuinely enjoy reading this again. I’d remembered a few bits of it quite clearly, but forgotten most of the overarching story, so it was good to read and rediscover. That said, I have to get this out of the way here: the writing is objectively terrible. Seriously. It is roughly 90% adjectives, and the rest is some of the most over-the-top, melodramatic nonsense I can remember reading. There’s a whole chapter in which Mary Lee is coming to terms with the death of her twin, that I can remember reducing me to floods of tears when I was a teenager – now, I just find it really overblown and tacky.

But really, I wasn’t expecting great writing from this – that’s not what I read these books for back then, so it shouldn’t be something I’m looking for now! What I’m really interested in here is the story – does it stand up to my memories?

Well, yes and no. It’s certainly a page turner – I started reading it last night, and finished it on the train this morning. Although the action is a little slow at times (and in this, I think I remember this book is actually quite different to most of the Point Horrors – they’re generally quite high on action, and low on introspection), there are enough mysteries and questions raised to keep you reading.

My main problem with the book is Mary Lee. I remember feeling very sympathetic towards her when I read this as a teenager, but I don’t remember her being so… drippy. I actually started thinking that it would have been a much more interesting book if it started out exactly the same, but around the time of the ski lift accident it turned out that Mary Lee was the eeeevil one – that she was so jealous of her twin she caused her death, and proceeded to take over her life.

But no – what we get is dull little Mary Lee, and her unbelievable lack of awareness about the sister who’s apparently loathed her since they were toddlers. This being a teen book, it has a Message: be your own person rather than following in someone else’s shadow, and allowing people to get hurt is just as evil as hurting them yourself. Not a bad Message, as they go, but would have been a bit more palatable if it didn’t come from sanctimonious Mary Lee, who we never see in any danger of actually becoming eeeevil herself.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this re-read. On the one hand, it was an incredible exercise in nostalgia. Although I’d forgotten most of the plot, I was surprised to see how much of it I did remember – mostly odd isolated moments, like when Mary Lee first meets Jon Pear, and he takes a tear from her eye and puts it in a vial around his neck. Probably doesn’t sound like much, but it’s an incredibly creepy moment. Reading this book, and trying to do so through the eyes of my 13-year-old self, I can see why it appealed to me then.

On the other hand, I just can’t read books like this now without my critical hat on. I’m trying to just enjoy the nostalgia-fest, but all the while my inner critic is screaming at me that the writing is clumsy, the characters are thin and the plot is contrived. I’m not sure I’ll re-read any more Point Horrors. It was a nice little trip down memory lane, but I think I’d prefer to leave these books, half-remembered but loved, in my memory where they belong.

When you’re smiling…

Are you Happy?Time for another “reasons to be happy” post! Here’s some things that have made me smile this week:

1. Fish babies!

One of the fish in our tank has had babies! There are now lots of tiny fish babies swimming about – hard to count as they’re tiny and fast, but we think there’s at least 9 of them. We were a bit worried they’d all get eaten – most of the other fish in the tank will eat fry, including the mother (a platy) – but so far we’ve not noticed a drop in numbers. We’ve got lots of plants in the tank, and they seem mostly to be hiding among the leaves, presumably to avoid being eaten. I guess that’s what they’d do in the wild. Not sure what we’re going to do when they get bigger, as there’s not really enough room in the tank for 9 extra platies – I guess we’ll probably need to take them back to the pet shop. But for now – teeny tiny surprisingly cute fish babies!

2. Snow!

Freak snowstorm on Monday night meant that we woke up to about 1-2 inches of snow, making everything white and pretty and magical. (Then I had to get up and go to work, and it was cold and wet and the wind was blowing the snow horizontally – but we’re focusing on the positive here. Snow=pretty!)

Also, I completely love that less than a week after writing that the warm, practically summer weather was making me happy, I’ve listed snow as a happiness-maker. Ah, British springtime. Never change!

3. Books!

I found out yesterday that one of my favourite books of all time, A Wrinkle in Time, had not one not two not three but FOUR sequels!! How this fact escaped my attention for so long, I have no idea. I must have read that book dozens of times as a child – I could practically recite it by heart. I re-read it last year and it’s lost none of its charm. I can’t really justify buying the extra four books just now, but I’ve added them to my wishlist and will be keeping an eagle eye out for cheap/second-hand copies.

Been a pretty good week really, all in all! Plus, I now have the long weekend to look forward to – and I will be spending it with my family, on a canal boat in Wiltshire. Bliss!

The particular sadness of YA fiction

This Christmas has been a difficult one. My mum passed away in April this year, so this has been our first christmas without her. It was simultaneously better and worse than I was expecting. It was good to be at home with my Dad, siblings and nephews – the family dynamic has completely changed without Mum there, but I guess this is just the new reality that we all have to adjust to.

Mum has been on my mind an awful lot in the run up to christmas, unsurprisingly really. As time has moved on and the loss starts to feel, if not less painful, than at least a bit less raw, I’ve started to notice some of the things that bring her to mind more often. One of those things, for me, is not being able to talk to her about books we’re both reading. It hits me with every book I pick up, but more so with Young Adult (YA) titles.

For 30+ years, Mum taught English at secondary school. She had a real passion for literature, and for reading, that she passed on to all of her daughters. Working with 11-16 year old kids, she always had an eye out for good books aimed at this age range. When we were teenagers, recommendations for books got passed back and forth between me and my sisters, and the kids at Mum’s school, via my Mum. When I was about 14, I remember her coming home with two books for us that all her kids had been raving about: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I believe that series went on to do quite well…

Through Mum, I learned that some of the best, most creative and most gripping fiction is written for teenagers; and that there is no upper age limit on these books. Every time I read a good book, I want to pick up the phone and talk to Mum about it: to find out if she shared my opinion, or to pass on the recommendation. It hurts every time.  For YA fiction, it’s even harder, because I know how excited she got about discovering new books, new authors that she could use to get the kids she taught excited about reading. Just before christmas, I read the Hunger Games trilogy. They were fantastic, and I’d planned to write a review post about them, but when I came to try I couldn’t get any words down. Reading these books was bittersweet for me because I knew, as soon as I started reading them, just how much Mum would have loved them. I couldn’t find the words to write a review because I hadn’t been able to talk to her about them, to get her opinion and hear her articulate, in her own inimitable way, just what made them such good books.

Not sure where I’m going with this post really. It’s just been on my mind, and it seems to help to put it down in words. I don’t intend to stop reading things that will remind me of Mum: as much as it hurts, it does make me feel closer to her. My love of reading is a gift that Mum passed on to me, and it seems a fitting way to honour her memory.

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