Monstress vol. 1 by Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda

monstress-5Maika is an Arcanic (half-human, half-Ancient) survivor of a terrible human-Arcanic war, and she’s trying to find out who killed her mother, what exactly happened at Constantine (the atrocity that ended the war), and whether, somehow, she had any part in it as a child. Maika has something dark within her, something she doesn’t understand and doesn’t know how to control. All she knows is that sometimes she hungers.

As well as humans and arcanics, there are also immortal ancients (who look like ancient Egyptian gods), dead old gods, and sentient cats who work as spies and poets. Within humans, there is a separate faction called Cumea, who are basically (so far) witch-like women with some powers and a penchant for torture. Though beginning on her own, Maika soon travels with a young fox-like arcanic and a sass-mouth sentient cat.

This is a dark, violent, and confusing comic.

The artwork by Takeda is absolutely stunning. She uses a muted colour pattern throughout, with intricate detail in both panels and full page spreads. Just look at the god damn beautiful stuff:

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Liu’s writing, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to the artwork. Like a lot of fantasy, there is loads of information about the world and the different peoples to get across in a short space of time. Liu doesn’t quite pull it off. The exposition in dialogue is both too much and not always clear enough, the pacing is a bit off, and it’s very confusing in places where it’s not clear a flashback has ended and the normal timeline is back. All of this also leaves little room for character development, which will hopefully come through more in future issues/volumes now the initial set-up is mostly done. But, saying all that, it does make more sense as you go on if you just go with it, and read it in one, or very few, sittings. The story feels familiar, like it’s been told before but better elsewhere.

monstressDespite that, there is a lot of good in the writing / storytelling as well. I love the idea of the dead old gods wandering as giant ethereal ghosts across the landscape. And there’s good stuff about the aftermath of war, and how post-war ‘peace’ doesn’t mean stable or peaceful if none of the underlying problems have been solved.

This is a comic which I liked rather than loved, but I will absolutely pick up the second volume. The artwork is stunning, and I think the story could have potential once it’s out of the set-up phase, so I want to give it a chance.

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Undying by Michel Faber

undyingThis is a beautiful and moving collection of poetry Michel Faber wrote in reaction to losing his wife, Eva, to cancer. The first half is about the final months of her illness and her death, and the second about the aftermath. The poems range from grim to bitter to angry to tender to dark humour, and are full of emotion.

I don’t think Faber is the best poet I’ve ever read (whatever that means), and I didn’t connect to some of the poems at all though I could see the emotion behind them. But even those that I didn’t click with still added to the overall feel of the collection – the small moments that mean something to only Michel and Eva speak to everyone’s small moments, because that’s where life is.

In many ways these poems aren’t completely for the reader. The collection is about telling the world Eva existed, that she was loved and that he loved her. These poems are for Eva. These poems are to show you Eva.

All I can do, in what remains of my brief time,
is mention, to whoever cares to listen,
that a woman once existed, who was kind
and beautiful and brave, and I will not forget
how the world was altered, beyond recognition,
when we met.

I think the best way to experience a poetry collection is to hear it. Check out the two short videos below to hear Michel Faber read two of my favourites (I particularly like Don’t Hesitate To Ask, though the video leaves out the final stanza).

Don’t Hesitate to Ask

The Time You Chose

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August reads 2016

I had a great reading month in August, even though I couldn’t read much during the final week because of flu. I read so much because I left my DS & dvds to get dusty, so I suspect I’ll read less in September while I sort out whatever mess the kingdom of Hyrule has gotten into in my absence. August was also Women in Translation month, and I’m pretty pleased I read 5 WITMonth books, though I didn’t manage to review them all. I think having a ‘project’ helps me to read more as a kind of motivation, so I might try more themed reading months. Anyway, in the order I read them:

the vegetarianThe Vegetarian by Han Kang (novel – Korean in translation)

Translated by Deborah Smith. This was my favourite read of the month. It’s a book broadly about trying to understand a seemingly incomprehensible other person from your own perspective, about the relationship between humans and nature, about misogyny, about violence, about mental health, and about wanting a different kind of life. It’s weird and beautifully written. Full review here.

The WallThe Wall by Marlen Haushofen (novel – German in translation)

Translated by Shaun Whiteside. This was a bit hit and miss for me. I enjoyed the second half but found the first half a struggle to get through. I think it’s a book you’ll either connect with profoundly or find a bit ‘meh’, and unfortunately I leaned closer to ‘meh’. Full review here.

bret easton ellis and other dogsBret Easton Ellis and Other Dogs by Lina Wolff (novel – Swedish in translation)

Translated by Frank Perry. Though it’s a novel by a Swedish author, originally written in Swedish, it is set in Spain and does feel very Spanish. Though I liked the writing style and enjoyed reading it, it was let down by the less interesting final third so I didn’t love it. A good, enjoyable read that almost-but-not-quite brings it all together. Full review here.

PantyPanty by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay (novel – Bengali in translation)

Translated by Aruna Sinha. This is a fragmented novel about a woman’s identity and sexuality. It’s disjointed and moves between realism and a kind of lucid dreaming. I just didn’t get it. I’m sure there’s lots in here to discover but I didn’t connect with it enough to want to try.

I capture the castleI Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (novel)

I read this for a book club and was my only non-WITMonth read. Lots of people have told me this is their favourite book from child/teen-hood, so although I was looking forward to reading it, my expectations weren’t high. Usually, reading a book like this for the first time as an adult means it doesn’t quite have the same magic. However, this was incredible. It’s a very comforting, cosy kind of a read that’s also beautifully written. Although I don’t re-read books as much as I intend, this is definitely going to be one of those I reach for to curl up in when I’m under the weather.

house of the spiritsThe House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (novel – Spanish in translation)

Translated by Magda Bogin. I don’t often like long, multi-generational novels, but I loved this. It’s by no means a perfect novel – some of the characters are a bit thin, most don’t really develop, and Allende definitely over-uses foreshadowing, but I don’t care. Though the country is never named, it is very clearly set in Chile, spanning the time from just after world war one to Pinochet’s rule (though he is not named). Like most multi-generational novels, it’s filled with family, romance, violence, and politics, but it’s also a novel about Chile, and it’s well worth your time.

Currently reading: Undying by Michel Faber (poetry)

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Bret Easton Ellis and The Other Dogs by Lina Wolff

bret easton ellis and other dogsTranslated from the Swedish by Frank Perry.

This is a book set in Spain told (mostly) by teenager Araceli about (mostly) the life of Alba Cambó, a fictional short story writer and Araceli’s downstairs neighbour. It’s definitely not about Bret Easton Ellis. (The blurb on the back is somewhat misleading – the part with the dogs happens at the end and isn’t a main part of the book in any way).

It feels more like a collection of inter-linked stories with Alba Cambó as the thread, rather than a novel. Information is very gradually revealed, often in other characters’ stories about themselves, and as the reader you piece together Cambó’s life, particularly her impact on others and what they think about her, although she’s still mostly elusive by the end. Although there are male characters, and male narrators, this is very much a book centred on the women and women’s stories.

I really liked the writing style and I found it an enjoyable read, so I’m not sure why I didn’t love it. It may be because I’m not into reading short stories at the moment, and this had a short story feel to it, but also because I wasn’t particularly interested in the character’s perspective in the final, largest, section. It’s the one part of the book which centres the kind of male character the rest of the book purposefully de-centres. I think Wolff does this at the end in order to further centre the women and solidify her themes, but I don’t think she pulls it off. Ending with a chunk of something I didn’t care about left me without any strong feelings about the book either way, and I had to think back to remember how much I’d enjoyed earlier sections and characters.

An enjoyable, well-written book, that almost-but-not-quite brings it all together.

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The Wall by Marlen Haushofen

The WallTranslated from the German by Shaun Whiteside

An unnamed women goes to visit friends in their remote cabin. She decides to stay behind when they go to the local village for the evening, and when she wakes the next morning finds they never returned. Outside, she is surrounded by an invisible, impenetrable wall, with no sign of life on the other side.

This is one of those books in which nothing really happens (except the last page or so), but, at the same time, in that nothing everything happens: the monotonous, hard work of mental and physical survival. Though she occasionally reflects on her isolation and the nature of humanity and its relationship with the world, the narrator is mostly just getting on with the physical labour of feeding herself and her animals. It’s also the kind of book you could have a lot of fun pulling apart and analysing to figure out what the wall is a metaphor for. It could be the lonely distance between people, the distance between modern human lifestyles and nature, or simply between humans and animals/the environment.

The Wall is written in the form of a diary the narrator is writing at the end of the book, looking back on her first few years of survival. The voices of the narrator in the past and the narrator in the future are both written in present tense, within the same paragraph, which does get confusing at times, particularly in the first half. I found the first half a bit of a struggle to get through, and I wonder if this may in part be due to the translation. It often felt like it needed editing, particularly where identical bland phrases or descriptions were used within a few sentences of each other but not in a ‘literary device’ way. I didn’t notice this much in the second half, which makes me think something Haushofer was doing in the first half just didn’t come through in Whiteside’s translation.

There are no chapters and no breaks indicated anywhere. This works well in terms of creating a feeling of days flowing into each other endlessly and removing the normal ways we mark time. I always prefer books with chapters, preferably short chapters, because I sometimes struggle to read without them. However there were paragraphs which felt like beginning a new ‘section’, which absolutely helped, but you just don’t know until you get there.

I’m in two minds about The Wall. I enjoyed the second half, and liked how the book as a whole focused more on the struggle of survival rather than seeking explanations for the wall itself. But the first half was not as well-written as the second, and a bit of a struggle to get through. It came highly recommended, so I suspect this may be one to read in the original German, if you can. I think it’s a book that you will either connect with profoundly or find a bit ‘meh’, depending on what you’re looking for. Though there was something in it that I loved, The Wall didn’t quite reach the profound level for me.

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The Vegetarian by Han Kang

the vegetarianTranslated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

Yeong-hye is an unremarkable and mostly passive woman, living an unremarkable and passive life with her husband. Until she has a bloody and frightening dream. She becomes vegetarian (really vegan), in a culture where vegetarianism is rare, trying to find a way to atone for and live without the violence in the dream. Her family react negatively, aggressively, as Yeong-hye finds giving up meat isn’t enough for her, and goes further.

The story is told in three parts: from the perspective of her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. The reader only gets a glimpse of Yeong-hye’s own voice in the brief re-telling of her dreams in part one. Sometimes when authors do this it makes the central character one-dimensional or caricatured, but it works really well in The Vegetarian. All of the people around Yeong-hye think they know and understand her, but they’re either unwilling or unable to actually hear her, and as a result project their own expectations and desires onto her, pushing her further away. As the reader, we feel like we know better than these narrators, but we don’t, not really, because we are unable to hear her either. Despite never getting a true understanding of Yeong-hye and her reasons for her behaviour, she still feels like a whole, real character.

The women in this novel are often oppressed by the expectations and/or violence of the men in the novel. In-hye, Yeong-hye’s sister, is successful and works incredibly hard, but also realises that her whole life has been working around, and occasionally placating the violence of, her husband and her father, and that perhaps this isn’t the life she wanted. Yeong-hye is beaten by her father as a child, raped by her husband when she is no longer ‘dutiful’, and sexually fetishised by her brother-in-law. It’s clear that the world of the book is patriarchal and misogynistic, but it’s not clear what Yeong-hye’s actions mean. Is it about taking control of her body for herself, regardless of what they may mean for her life? Or is it more about a kind of self-destruction in reaction to the world in which she lives? Perhaps it’s a little of both.

I loved the writing style. It has the kind of brevity and space to breathe that I like, but also some truly beautiful sentences. Each section, though each is told as a continuation of the story from the last, is written in a slightly different tense. Though this can be a little jarring at first as you orientate yourself, it helps you to adjust to a different perspective.

I don’t know anything about South Korean culture, so I have no idea if The Vegetarian is a comment on society there. But I actually don’t think that matters. It’s a book broadly about trying to understand a seemingly incomprehensible other person from your own perspective, about the relationship between humans and nature, about misogyny, about violence, about mental health, and about wanting a different kind of life.

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July reads 2016

What I read in July:

the lie treeThe Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge (novel)

I have no idea why this won the Costa overall book of the year in 2015 (a rare thing for a children’s book). The first half of the book is surprisingly slow-paced, and what’s described in the blurb on the back doesn’t happen until half-way through, when things actually get going and become a bit faster-paced and engaging. Whilst the idea of the lie tree itself is interesting, the main themes and images in the book are laboured and repetitive. This leaves no space in the text for you to think and consider ideas so it all just washes past you. I read this for a book club, and someone there said that the book would be better written in the first person (from Faith’s perspective) and if it had started half-way through. Completely agree.

the emperor of all maladiesThe Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee (non-fiction)

I spent most of my month reading this and I’m really glad I did. It’s a history of cancer and cancer treatment, from the first known recorded instances of what we now call cancer, through to modern developments in individualised targeted gene therapy, and includes some of Mukherjee’s experiences with his own patients. It’s written for a non-medic to understand, but never talks down or ignores complex scientific ideas. In this way it’s a book that basically answers the question ‘what is cancer?’ with ‘it’s complicated’, but as thoroughly as possible (it’s a long book with tiny print, but there’s still a lot he had to leave out. He talks a bit about some of the missing topics in an interview in the back of my edition). It’s the kind of book you describe as ‘ambitious’ and reminded me a bit of Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari in its attempt at scope. I did find it a little too dense at times, and some parts could have been edited down without losing what it was trying to convey. As it’s quite dense, I’d recommend reading it alongside other books but it’s definitely worth your time if you have even a passing interesting in how medicine progresses (occasionally haphazardly) or in cancer and cancer treatment.

I'll sell you a dogI’ll Sell You a Dog by Juan Pablo Villalobos translated by Rosalind Harvey (novel – Spanish in translation)

I really like Villalobos’ writing style – deceptively simple that can be read purely at surface level as an engaging story but with a layer of social and political satire hidden underneath. It’s effortless. I’m not that familiar with Mexican history, so I’m certain I missed some things, but even so I got a lot from it. It’s funny and smart and deals with class, artistic snobbery, older age, and revolution. Down the Rabbit Hole is still my favourite of Villalobos’ novels, but this one is still worth your time.

Currently reading: August is Women in Translation month (you can follow the hashtag #WITMonth on twitter) so I’m going to mostly read books in translation by women next month. Female authors are translated far less than male authors (seriously, the percentage is about 30% female to 70% male), so the idea is to increase awareness of female authors in translation, find some new books to love, and share them so other people can find them too. Below is my rough TBR for the month (plus a couple of non-WITMonth reads for books clubs) which I’m very excited to get stuck into. I haven’t been reviewing on here lately, but I’m going to try and review most/all of them in full, so watch this space!

Photo 29-07-2016, 14 14 54

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