June reads 2016

I barely read in June. It was one of those months where I just didn’t feel like it, and mostly re-watched Battlestar Galactica. I don’t mind when that happens – sometimes you want to do other things – but happy to be getting back into it again (and enjoying what I’m reading, which wasn’t really the case in June). So, this month – a few comics and one novella:

kitchenKitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (fiction, Japanese in translation)

Translated by Megan Backus. I don’t understand why this is so lauded, at least, I don’t understand why the English-language version is lauded. I don’t read Japanese, but I’m pretty sure this was a terrible translation. It felt like it had been translated directly, word for word, rather than the kind of artful co-creation translating fiction needs. Though there was a small glimmer of the quality of the writing at the beginning of the short story at the end (Moonlight Shadow), it meant the book was clunky and repetitive and didn’t read well at all. And, although I know it was written in the 80s, I wasn’t comfortable with the constant mis-gendering of the trans character, Eriko, like this passage –

“There aren’t many men who will open a car door for a woman. I think it’s really great.”
“Eriko raised me that way,” he said, laughing, “If I didn’t open the door for her, she’d get mad and refuse to get in the car.”
“Even though she was a man!” I said, laughing.
“Right, right, even though she was a man.”

..even though she was a man…*massive eye roll*. If you want to read this, either read it in the original Japanese or find a different translation, and make sure your brain is turned on.

the beautyThe Beauty, volume 1 by Jeremy Haun & Jason A. Hurley (comics – fiction)

I really like the cover art, though the artwork inside is just generic comic book style. And I like the concept – an STD that makes you physically attractive, so people are trying to catch it, which turns out to be a very bad idea. The story, characters, and dialogue can be a bit thin at times, but it’s an enjoyable read and I’ll definitely pick up the next volume.

sex criminals 3Sex Criminals, volume 3 by Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky (comics – fiction)

I’m not sure what I think about this. I enjoyed it, but also feel like it’s lost its way a bit. I like the meta elements of the way Sex Criminals is written, but they were very over-used in this volume. There was also little progression of character or plot, in a way that felt like Fraction/Zdarsky don’t really know where they’re going with it – like they had a fun concept but didn’t think much further than the first volume or two. I will pick up volume four, but if that one feels the same I probably won’t carry on the series.

bitch planet 8Bitch Planet #8 by Kelly Sue DeConnick & Valentine de Landro (comics – fiction)

The only problem with this book is that the delays between issues sometimes lessen the impact. I really liked the subtle way Mr Makoto realised he was being lied to (made better by the note in the back pages about why the particular piece of music was chosen). Also from the essay at the back, DeConnick & de Landro actually spoke to trans women about including trans characters, and then made changes based on their feedback. A too rare thing. The next issue is called ‘All Hell Breaks Loose’. I am definitely here for that.

ex machina 2Ex Machine, volume 2 by Brian K Vaughan & Tony Harris (comics – fiction)

I read this at the beginning of the month and can’t remember anything about it, except that it didn’t blow me away. I want to love this, and like a lot of the ideas, but it feels a little formulaic somehow. I have the third volume on my TBR shelf, which I will get to, but after that? Who knows.

Currently reading: The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukkerjee (non-fiction) – this is really excellent so far.

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May reads 2016

It’s already June! I didn’t do a lot of reading in May, and it was a bit of a mixed bag enjoyment-wise. In the order I read them:

a brief history of seven killingsA Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (novel)

This is one of those rare longer books that I don’t think could be any shorter. It’s not an easy read, but it’s worth your time. Brutal and violent and messy and genius. Full review here (though the competition has now closed).

Einstein's dreamsEinstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman (short stories)

This is an inter-linked short story collection that reminded me a bit of Sum by David Eagleman. I didn’t like Sum. Though I thought this was better written and more interesting, it hasn’t really stuck with me a few weeks later. If you liked Sum, check this out, but if you didn’t, give it a miss.

All SoulsAll Souls by Javier Marias (novel, Spanish in translation)

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. I’m a sucker for a campus novel, particularly those from the perspective of slightly disgruntled professors. There’s not a lot of plot to All Souls, but I really enjoyed much of the writing in this. It’s often very controlled and Marias has an excellent way of writing small set-pieces centred around minor characters. I particularly liked the section on the ageing porter who places himself in a different year/decade every morning. But despite this, I often also felt unsatisfied. I’m not sure whether it’s Marias’ style or Costa’s translation, but sometimes the writing would lose its control and a paragraph would go on a couple of sentences too long and labour the point/observation for no apparent reason.

a long way to a small angry planetThe Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (novel)

This isn’t as good as all the hype would suggest, and the writing style was too exposition-y and the pacing was a bit off. But, I really enjoyed it. It was absolutely what I needed when I was feeling under the weather and I’m definitely going to pick up the sequel. Full review here.

Currently reading: Ex-Machina by Brian K Vaughan & Tony Harris (comic – fiction)

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The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

a long way to a small angry planetRosemary, trying to escape her past, joins the mixed-species crew of the Wayfarer, just as they take on a lucrative, but dangerous, job building a new hyperspace tunnel near a distant, violent planet. She’s hiding a secret, but so is nearly everyone else.

This, and the blurb on the back of the book, makes it sound like an action-packed sci-fi adventure, but it’s much more of a slow examination of how different kinds of people and races find their way together, with bits of action now and then which provide a framework. The book explores how people from vastly different cultures and races find ways to interact and work together, as well as issues around gender and sexuality. A Long Way is very optimistic, especially for sci-fi, as to what the future of human race will look like and how well different species/races accommodate each other. It sounds patronising, and I don’t mean it in a bad way, but I’d call this ‘cosy sci-fi’, in that, although some bad things happen, generally everyone is trying to do their best and get along with everyone else.

I wasn’t a fan of the writing style as it’s very exposition-y and everything is explicit. Chambers definitely tells more than she shows, and often does huge paragraphs of info-dumps. I think it would have been a better book with more editing and tightening up, and more trust that the reader can infer some of what she was trying to say. The pace also didn’t quite work. Whenever there was any tension or any problems, it would all get wrapped up very quickly and then largely forgotten about. It felt more like a television series – short episodes with a vague overarching plot.

A Long Way isn’t as good as the amount of hype around it, but it was exactly what I needed when I was feeling under the weather and, even though I didn’t like the pacing or the writing style, I’ll likely still read the sequel when it’s out later this year. Even if you don’t like sci-fi, pick this up if you’re looking for an easy, enjoyable optimistic read in which the characters make an effort, and show you how, to think and be with all kinds of people.

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A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James – review & win a copy

a brief history of seven killingsA Brief History of Seven Killings is centred around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Jamaica in 1976. It’s told from the perspectives of different gang members and dons, politicians, CIA operatives, a journalist, and a woman trying to find her escape, across three decades and two countries. It’s brutal and violent and messy and genius.

This is a book that takes a few chapters to get into – James drops you into the story and the many characters and doesn’t do it gently (there is a character list at the beginning which is really helpful to flip back to when you can’t remember which gang member belongs where). But, gradually, the various plot threads and characters come together and seemingly unimportant side-notes make sense.

The brilliance of James’ writing is not just in his way of weaving this complicated story; he also has an incredibly controlled quality, even where the narration is messy and broad. Every character has a distinct voice (often missing in books with this many perspectives), but a character’s dialect also shifts, often subtly, depending on their mood, situation, or who they are trying to portray themselves as when talking to particular people. Some of the chapters are more like a stream of consciousness, no punctuation, and add a pace and realism to a narrator’s thought process when being buried alive or high on too much coke.

I nearly always think books of 700-ish pages could be shorter, and I prefer shorter books, but A Brief History is one of those rare longer books that I don’t think wastes a page. The story needs this space to show why and how every character is in the actual or mental place they find themselves in. As Alex, the journalist in the book says:

Well, at some point you gotta expand on a story. You can’t just give it focus, you gotta give it scope. Shit doesn’t just happen in a void, there’re ripples and consequences and even with all that there’s still a whole fucking world going on, whether you’re doing something or not. Or else it’s just a report of some shit that happened somewhere and you can get that from the nightly news.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a book for everyone, but I urge you to give it a try (I’ve heard the audiobook is good, so if reading narration in dialect puts you off, listening to it instead might help). It won’t make sense at first, and it is always brutal, but it will come together, and you will be in awe of it.

Photo 15-05-2016, 13 08 16Want to win A Brief History of Seven Killings? I got two copies for Christmas so I have this shiny unread copy to give away. Just a leave a comment below by 25th May and I’ll draw a name out of a hat. Open worldwide.

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April reads 2016

deathly hallowsHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (novel)

Part of my re-read of the series for the Witch, Please podcast. This is the first time I’ve read the whole series since the first time I read them, and this book remains my favourite, even though it’s the one I have re-visited the most. Random thoughts on this read through – 1. what an absolutely terrible job the films did of adapting this book. I have no idea how the Deathly Hallows films make any sense to people who haven’t read the books.  2. can Lily Potter really be the first person to sacrifice themselves to save a person they love? Really? 3. Hermione needs more credit for everything. Harry pay more attention. Neville needs more credit from everyone in the book. Harry, you’re not the only one that’s been through some shit. 4. I still didn’t read the ‘Dumbledore is gay’ subtext. Please just make your gay representation actual text, authors. If it’s not overt, it doesn’t count as representation. 5. The epilogue remains insanely cheesy, and was obviously written to put a ‘this is really it, I’m not writing any more HP books’ ending on it (though, clearly, JK didn’t manage to stop…). 6. Snape is brave, but that doesn’t change the fact he’s also a douchebag.

the woman who would be kingThe Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney (non-fiction)

April’s pick for the Women’s Lives Book Club. I didn’t really get on with this. Because so little remains of Hatshepsut’s reign, and many aspects of ancient Egyptian life generally, Cooney uses a lot of “maybe this happened, or maybe this, or perhaps nothing”. I can see why she’s done it that way, but the style took me a while to get into. And, once I did, I found the book as a whole quite repetitive. But it was interesting what she saying at the end, that Hatshepsut’s success prevented other women from gaining power at the time, because of the difficulty of integrating a woman into religious and political traditions (*cough*StillAProblemToday*cough*)

the weaver fishThe Weaver Fish by Robert Edeson (novel)

This is a weird book that’s not going to be for everyone; even now I’m not sure if it’s for me. It’s part fictional non-fiction and part crime thriller, and you’ll get the most out of it if you have at least a little scientific literacy. At times the hand of the author was just too visible for me, but I really enjoyed some of the imagery. Full review here.

NimonaNimona by Noelle Stevenson (graphic novel – fiction)

I really liked this, it’s a lot of fun. Nimona, a badass young shapeshifter, joins supervillain Lord Blackheart as his sidekick, to prove that hero Sir Goldenloin is not as great as he seems. But Nimona doesn’t follow the ‘rules’ of combat, and might be more dangerous than she seems. It’s a YA book, and, as with most YA, I found some of the plot/character development thinner than I like. But it’s funny and enjoyable and I definitely recommend giving it a go. (If you want to check it out first, you can actually read the whole thing online for free as it started as a webcomic).

Peter and AlicePeter and Alice by John Logan (play)

Really great fictional account of the real-life meeting between Alice Liddell Hargreaves (the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland) and Peter Llewelyn Davies (the inspiration for Peter Pan). Some of the dialogue is a little clunky, but there are also many moving and powerful scenes which make it well worth your time. It’s short, and easy to read, so an excellent place to start if you’re not used to reading plays. It’ll also break your heart a little. Full review here.

Also on the blog this month:

A post on where I buy my books (online and in person)

A discussion / rant on the snobbery that can sometimes happen in the bookish world towards people who don’t read – on (not) being a reading snob.

Currently reading: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (novel)

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Peter and Alice by John Logan

Peter and AlicePeter and Alice is a one-act play which is a fictional account of the real-life meeting of Alice Liddell Hargreaves (Alice in Wonderland), in her 80s, and Peter Llewelyn Davies (Peter Pan), in his 30s, at the opening of a Lewis Carroll exhibition in 1932.

The play takes place mostly in one room while Alice and Peter wait to open the exhibition, but they are also joined by their fictional Alice and Peter counterparts, as well as the authors. The real Alice and Peter are making sense, with each other, of the strangeness of having these famous fictional selves, what it means to grow up when that part of you can never grow up, and how it has affected their lives. The real and imagined characters interact with each other as part of this making sense, but also in a way which pushes the real Alice and Peter.

As you’ll know if you are aware of the Llewyn Davies family in particular, this isn’t a happy story. Both Alice and Peter struggle with and against their fictional selves, but while Alice is able to accept the Alice of Wonderland, though not altogether happily, it is Peter who can not integrate it with the difficulties of his life. Peter is searching for ‘truth’, and so can not lean into his fictional self in the way Alice can.

In the original performance, Judi Dench played Alice and Ben Whishaw played Peter. Whilst I don’t normally like book covers with photography, particularly of actors, I’m really glad my edition has their faces on the front because it meant I heard Judi Dench’s voice for all of her parts. I would have loved to have seen her perform it as she, and Maggie Smith, has the perfect hard-edged-with-vulnerability-underneath voice for the role.

Some of the dialogue feels a little over-done and clunky, the kind that takes a Judi Dench to make it sound like speech rather than Writing. But there were also some scenes that were incredibly well-written and powerful, particularly the fictional Alice and Peter shouting the real Alice and Peter’s weaknesses/shortcomings at them, Peter’s father giving custody to Barrie, and, most heartbreakingly, finding out what happened to Peter’s brother Micheal. The scene with Micheal is especially good at weaving together the different characters, their own dialogue, and text from the original Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.

This is the kind of play that is easy to read and imagine even if you haven’t seen it performed, so it’s also a good place to start if you’re not used to reading plays. It will pack the most punch if you don’t know much about the real Peter and the real Alice, but it still hurts when you know what’s coming.

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On (not) being a reading snob

It’s okay not to read books. It’s okay not to identify as a ‘reader’. This might seem like an incongruous thing to be talking about on World Book Night – the day when people give out books to people who don’t usually read – but perhaps that makes it the best day to be thinking about it.

In the bookish and reading world, there is a lot of discussion about genre snobbery – that literary fiction is often seen as ‘greater’ or more worthy than sci-fi, fantasy, or romance, even though it’s actually not (but that’s a topic for another time). What’s talked about less is the snobbery of reading itself. A couple of authors I’ve (un)followed on twitter continually lament people’s lack of reading in comparison to their other hobbies like watching films or gaming. For them, for many, reading is the ultimate art. And there have been studies which show that reading can increase empathy, slow age-related memory decline, and decrease stress.

But for some people (including me at times) reading is physically difficult due to health problems or learning difficulties, and not at all enjoyable as a consequence. And whilst I do believe that there really is a book out there for everyone, reading just isn’t everybody’s jam. They get their stories through films or games or artwork or tv series. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s also nothing wrong with not consuming anything you might consider ‘the arts’ either. It doesn’t mean a person lacks creativity – in order to solve some of the hardest mathematical problems you require an incredible amount of creativity and ingenuity.

The passage below by Andrew Brighton is in response to a comment by Tessa Jowell that without art people do not reach their potential, “with a consequent loss of human realisation”. And that art is at the heart of being a “fully developed human being”, which, as Brighton suggests, implies that those without art are less than fully human.

Andrew Brighton

From “Consumed by the Political: The Ruination of the Arts Council” by Andrew Brighton.

Of course people want to share and involve others in what they love, but some of the chat around books can sometimes veer uncomfortably close to this territory – that if you don’t read, or even if you do read but not very regularly, you are missing out on something fundamental to making you ‘whole’.

I think books and reading offer something special; it’s not a passive medium as the act of reading requires actively engaging with a text. I love reading and I love books, particularly as they have given me both something to enjoy and a way of connecting with others during a long period of ill-health that can be literally isolating at times. It’s okay to believe reading is the most glorious, the most life-enhancing hobby to spend your time on. It’s okay to disagree completely. It’s okay to be somewhere in between. You are still fully human.


[Edit: I don’t mean to say that WBN is about this kind of ‘reading above all else’ snobbery; it’s a great way of introducing people to books they might enjoy. I’ve just used WBN as a starting point for discussion.]

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