The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman

the country of ice cream starThis is a book that’s very difficult to succinctly summarise, not just because of the length, but also because there are so many plot details. So, I’m not even going to try, except for the first chapter or two: set in the future, a disease called ‘posies’ has wiped out most of civilisation, and the disease that remains takes hold in people’s teens and usually kills them by the time they are 20. This is a world run by teenagers. Ice Cream Star and her older brother Driver live in a tribe of ‘Sengles’ who hunt and forage, are on friendly terms with nearby tribes of religious ‘Christings’ and manufacturing ‘Lowells’, and have an uneasy truce with the ‘Armies’ tribe. When Driver beings to show signs of posies, Ice Cream is determined to find a cure to save him, even if it means taking her Sengles to war.

And that really is just the first couple of chapters, with some key bits left out that I think are better to discover on your own. You are dropped into Ice Cream’s world with little backstory but I promise it makes sense, and completely works.

It’s definitely not a YA book, but there are a number of YA tropes like a post-apocalyptic future, a sort-of love triangle, and a first-person questing narrator. Because of these tropes, the overarching plot feels very familiar, but there’s a richness to this book which more than makes up for it. And there is a level of complexity to the plot – it’s not just one group versus another, or simple individual allegiances. It’s a book about war, violence, politics, religion, race, and language, that deals with these huge themes complexly, but not heavy-handedly, with characters that act like people and develop.

I love the language, and it’s linguistically so interesting. It’s written in a version of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) which is slightly different from current usage as the story is set a number of years in the future. AAVE is totally appropriate for Ice Cream’s world because the vast majority of the characters are black as posies has seemingly killed most white people outright (but their race is not their defining trait and race is a relatively minor theme – they are actual human characters first, whoop!). The dialect is very easy to get into and I think you wouldn’t have any difficulty reading this even if you are unfamiliar with AAVE or struggle with reading dialect. The syntax and vocabulary develop subtly from beginning to end as Ice Cream meets others and learns bits of new languages. Within this there are some beautiful phrases like:

“we slept in one hammock, tangle-fashion, loose as cats”

“then I remember ice cream been a food I never taste. I wonder what my mama dream to name me for this food, as if she name me Something Lost”

“Yo, I feel this been the truth of all our time together. We always been a grief that huddle close against a vicious light.”

It was a little long for me and I think it could have been cut back further in places, but I do tend to prefer shorter books. The ending is left open in a way which suggests there’s a sequel coming, which I will definitely pick up if it’s a little shorter than this one, but probably will even if it’s not because I like this book more and more the longer I let it simmer.

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The Beach Hut by Cassandra Parkin

the beach hutMuch like her previous novel, The Beach Hut is set in the past and the present, in almost alternating chapters. In the present, in a Cornish seaside town, siblings Finn and Ava have built an illegal beach hut to live in temporarily, angering local publican Donald. Donald is mourning the death of his wife, and struggling with his teenage daughter Alicia. Every character has secrets, some darker than others, which are all slowly revealed in the present and the past.

This is a book about the different kinds of relationships between family members, and the stories we tell, or don’t tell. Fairy tales, the dark kind, play a huge part of this. Finn is writing a book of fairy tales and some of his stories appear at the end of some chapters. Fairy tales are used as an indirect way of telling difficult stories or explaining difficult things, just as they always have, and I really enjoyed their inclusion. I also really liked the way the relationship between Ava and Finn was written; you could feel the easy closeness, as well as the parent-child dynamic, between them.

Just as in her first novel, Parkin is really good at creating a sense of place, and using that place to reflect the characters. In this book, the sea is really important, with its hidden dangerous undercurrents while on the surface the tide behaves in predictable ways, just as the main characters hide dark secrets. Interestingly, both Ava and Alicia feel a strong affinity with the sea, and find comfort in it much more so than others. Combined with the fairy tale theme, they feel like mermaids, marooned on land where they don’t belong, and both of them have lost a parent and ended up being taken to live elsewhere when young.

It did bother me that the only black characters in the book (who are only in it fleetingly, the south-west is a very white place), are criminals. They are not the only, or worst, criminals in the story, but I think Parkin was aware of this as she wrote, “They weren’t the only black men on the street, but they were the only ones of whom you’d say, a gang of black youths,suggesting she was trying to point to other, non-criminal, black characters. But I don’t think it’s enough. I guess I’m tired of seeing black characters in books only as criminals, sidekicks, or bystanders while white characters get a full range.

It’s a very readable book about relationships, secrets, and stories, with an undercurrent of darkness and a few twists and turns. A good one for the beach, as long as you keep an eye on the tide coming in…

 I received a free copy from Legend Press in exchange for an honest review.

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April Reads 2015

April was a pretty good reading month overall, with a couple of contenders for my best of 2015 list.

HARRYS LAST STAND-B-HB.inddHarry’s Last Stand by Harry Leslie Smith (non-fiction)

I read this as I was going to hear him speak at my local university, but was unfortunately too ill to go, and I expect he would have been better to hear than to read. He is an engaging writer, but, even though the book was very short, it could have done with more editing down due to some unnecessary repetition and sections that didn’t flow very well.

h is for hawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (non-fiction)

This book is about Macdonald’s grief for her father, taming a hawk (Mabel), nature, and the author T.H. White (who wrote the Sword in the Stone, as well as a book on his own attempt at taming a hawk – The Goshawk). It is incredibly well-written and very visual with beautiful imagery and description. The different parts of the book blend together seamlessly – Macdonald compares her process of taming a hawk with White’s rather inept attempt, but it’s clear throughout that both she and White are working through personal pain and difficulty through falconry, albeit of different kinds. There’s also so much about nature and our relationship to it in the rawest sense, and how grief blurred the lines between the hawk’s taming and her own untaming. Really highly recommended if you like memoir or nature writing.

the art of the imperfectThe Art of the Imperfect by Kate Evans (novel)

It took me a while to get into this, but once I did it was a nice easy-read sort of book. I loved the chapters about Aurora and her post-natal depression as they were very vividly and interestingly written, and I liked Hannah’s interactions with the other students on the psychotherapy course, but the rest was kind of average to me. For a self-published book, the production on this was good quality in that the cover had a nice texture and it didn’t have that difficult-to-read ink/page contrast that other self-published books I’ve read have had (though there were quite a few proofreading errors).

Henrietta lacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (non-fiction)

I really enjoyed this. There’s so much in it – from Henrietta and her family’s life, to medical ethics, race, and scientific advances (and their cost) – and at the same time it’s very readable. Another one that I highly recommend. Full review here.

Bitchplanet_04Bitch Planet #4 by Kelly Sue Deconnick & Valentine de Landro (comics – fiction)

Back to the main story for this issue – things move forward and we also get a lovely misogynistic & patronising explanation of the Megaton from two annoying holograms (in a good way). This issue has been delayed and it was really interesting to read in the back about why. The comic visually plays on exploitation tropes, so when it came to a sex scene in a shower, it apparently took three goes to work out how to deliver a non-male-gaze visual within a male-gaze trope. I think de Landro just about pulled it off. The essay in the back this month is by Mikki Kendall and about how mainstream white feminism needs to do more to be inclusive towards black women and girls, focusing on how black girls face harsher discipline at school and a greater risk of police involvement, even where the offence is exactly the same as white female peers’.

I don’t think I’ve talked about the back page of these issues before, even though they are always awesome. It always has a bunch of really misogynistic fake ads (that are just more overt and direct versions of real ones). This month’s favourite – a vagina douche because “your vagina is disgusting”, “also available in spicy cinnamon taco, for the girl adventurer.” Perfection.

saga vol 3Saga vol 3 by Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples (comics – fiction)

I liked the first volume but I wasn’t sure why Saga is hyped as much as it is, but this volume really delivered. A lot of plot and action happens, but there’s still lots of humour and development of the characters and their relationships. The artwork is gorgeous with great colouring, and I like that there’s the occasional full page panel. Looking forward to the next one.

Currently reading: The Beach Hut by Cassandra Parkin

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta lacksHenrietta Lacks died in 1951, and this is a book about the two strands of her immortal life – her cells and her family. It’s also about medical ethics in research, informed consent, the question of who owns the bits of body that are removed (like cells, tonsils, or blood), and the huge number of scientific discoveries made possible by Henrietta’s cells.

Henrietta was a poor black woman living in rural Baltimore, who developed an aggressive form of cervical cancer and died not long after diagnosis at the age of 31, leaving behind five children and her husband, Day. Her cancer cells were taken (not donated) by a scientist who happened to be working with the hospital. He had been trying to culture ‘immortal cells’ – cells that could survive and reproduce to be used in research. Henrietta’s particular cancer, combined with her HPV, meant her cancer cells were the first to become ‘immortal’. They were given, freely at first, to any scientist wanting to work with them, and their use led to the polio vaccine, cancer treatments, and numerous other technical and medical developments. The cells are still alive today and are in use all over the world. You can buy a tube of Henrietta’s cells (called HeLa) and have it shipped to you within hours.

Henrietta Lacks1But Henrietta’s family had no idea her cells were even taken. The Lacks family were poor, not well educated, and suspicious of the intentions of white doctors because of rumours that black people were kidnapped for use in medical experiments. (These rumours were not without foundation – on the very same campus, and at the very same time, that HeLa cells were first produced in large volumes, the Tuskagee syphilis study was being conducted, which involved injecting black men with syphilis and withholding treatment, without consent, and allowing them to die to watch the progression of the disease). This lack of informed consent had consequences. When scientists needed genetic markers for HeLa cells, they took blood from the Lacks family without being clear that’s what they were doing. The family thought they were being tested to ensure they didn’t have the same cancer as Henrietta. Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, already suffered from anxiety, and suffered a great deal of stress waiting for ‘test results’ that were never going to come.

The book is written in a journalistic style, which I really liked as it’s never dry and very easy to read. Skloot inserting herself and her process of learning about Henrietta and the Lacks family was used well to demonstrate just how little trust the family had in others asking questions, and how much Henrietta’s death and her cells being taken had affected them. However, at other times there was too much of Skloot, and she needed to take a step back and let Henrietta and her family have more of the focus.

The issue of race, medical/research ethics, and how the two can become tangled is sometimes missing from medical history books (and all history books). In that respect, this is an important book, as well as a fascinating and very readable one. Henrietta’s enormous contribution to science should be known.

I was lucky enough to win a copy from Kate Gardner’s blog, which you can check out here.

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March Reads 2015

April already? Blimey this year’s going fast; I must be old (I know this because I was in a Boots yesterday and my first thought when I saw the pharmacist was that they looked like a sixth former). Anyway…

moby dickMoby Dick by Herman Melville (novel)

I spent most of March reading this and I’m so glad I did. The bulk of the novel is series of ‘diversions’ and very little plot, but that’s where the good stuff is – all the grand themes about what the knowable-unknowable white whale means to you, the environment, self-destruction, obsession, racism, and just about everything else is in the irrelevance. It’s surprisingly readable and has very short chapters, so well worth a go. Full review here.

black countryBlack Country by Liz Berry (poetry)

I absolutely loved this poetry collection. Berry is from the Black Country, and the collection is centred around that area and its dialect, but it is also more broadly about what home is, about leaving the place you grew up and going back to it, and growing up generally. I love the way she uses imagery like

For years you kept your accent
in a box beneath the bed,
the lock rusted shut by hours of elocution

I sometimes struggle with dialect but it works really well in this collection, tying the poems to a place in a way that enhances the themes and narrators. If you struggle, read it out loud and it makes perfect sense (even if you can’t quite articulate that sense).

I was lucky enough to go and see Liz Berry read while I was in the middle of reading this and I highly recommend it if you have the chance. She’s a really great performer of her poetry, and talked about the inspiration behind some of the poems she read and what the Black Country and its dialect means to her. (You can check out a video of her reading poems from this collection here).

station elevenStation Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (novel)

I was expecting this to be an easy, but kind of throwaway, read, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. All of the main characters are connected to actor Arthur Leander, who dies playing King Lear at the very beginning, and the novel has a kind of butterfly effect of his influence even after his death, even after the apocalypse, though the book isn’t really about him and I wouldn’t call him the main character. Because of this, there were a few coincidences which in other books would annoy me, but the connections in Station Eleven are slowly revealed throughout which I much prefer (often, in other books, this is done is a ‘ta da!’ way which is irritating – there are no annoying shocking/contrived reveals at the end of this. Although saying that, I wasn’t completely convinced by the prophet’s storyline).

I liked her writing style generally, with some really beautiful imagery that parallels, like fake snow falling in the theatre around the death and the description of a snowglobe, and a paperweight with ‘storm clouds in it’. Most apocalyptic / dystopian fiction is centred around world-building, but in this the focus was more on characters and their relationships with just sparse detail about the world. Sparse in a good way. There’s also a lot of inter-textuality going on in Station Eleven, which I always love, and I’m sure that I missed quite a few references as I’m not very familiar with King Lear.

If you’re looking for an easy, quick read that’s also good, check Station Eleven out.

harry potter 1Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (novels)

It’s been about 9 years since I read the Harry Potter series as a whole (I reread Deathly Hallows about 5 years ago), and I’ve decided now’s the time to reread it, mainly to keep up with the Witch Please podcast which is well worth a listen – intelligent, funny, sassy, literary criticism & love of the HP series, one book or one film at a time. When I listened to the first couple of episodes I realised most of my memory of the books has been replaced by the films, so there were loads of little (and large) details I’d forgotten. The first book was much better than I remembered, and I’m looking forward to slowly re-reading over the next few months. (Witch Please has only covered books one & two and film one, so you’ve got plenty of time to catch up!).

Currently reading: Harry’s Last Stand by Harry Leslie Smith (non-fiction) and A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel (short stories)

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Keeping track of reading

I usually read quite a bit in a year, and was finding I was forgetting what I’d read some of the time (I have a terrible memory that does not adhere to traditional space-time). Last year, I joined Goodreads to track what I was reading. Beforehand, I’d had my own nerd spreadsheet but it turns out I’m really lazy at filling it in because I mainly use my phone now instead of the laptop. Using the Goodreads app on my phone meant I was much better at keeping it up.

Photo 24-03-2015 16 03 26But, recently (mainly Moby Dick‘s fault), I realised just having a list of what I’d read wasn’t enough. I wanted to capture something of the book outside of lists and reviews, and keep those little snippets of language that make me punch-in-the-air-yes. I know you can make comments / save quotes on Goodreads, but I wanted a little space to let them breathe. So, I’ve started a tumblr blog just for little quotes from what I’m currently reading over here.

For me, it’ll be interesting to look back on, but also to see what comes out. I suspect there are some books that I enjoy reading but aren’t memorable in terms of language, and others that have some brilliant flashes but don’t do it for me overall.

I’d be really interested to hear if any of you track your reading, and whether you have ways of doing it that are more than just lists of what and who. Let me know in the comments below. (Also, I’m new to Tumblr so come and say hello! I’m on the look-out for interesting bookish tumblrs to follow).

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Moby Dick by Herman Melville

moby dickMoby Dick is one of the most famous novels in the English language, and I think most people know the basic story – a gigantic white whale, a crazed Captain Ahab pursuing it, and ‘Call me Ishmael’. But it was still a different book than I was expecting. In a good way.

To be honest, I was expecting it to be boring, particularly as I’d been warned that most of the book is a series of digressions about whales and whaling practices. But, for the most part, I loved all the ‘digressions’. All the chapters about whale anatomy seem to be about trying to make whales knowable, tangible things. But it’s also constantly repeated that you can never see or understand a whale from its individual parts alone (such as the body of a whale being different from its skeleton), and at the same time you can’t understand a whale from its whole self – you can’t even draw it properly even if you’ve seen a live one at sea.

This knowable-unknowable contrast is partly about Ishmael trying to make sense of what happened – despite all this knowledge of whales and whaling, and all the strength and experience of those on board the Pequod, it made no difference in the end. But it’s also about Metaphor (I’m capitalising because everything in this damn book isn’t even trying to pretend not to be about something else). Whatever the White Whale represents to you as you read it, it is always both a knowable and unknowable thing.

I did begin to tire about 400ish pages in (I prefer shorter books), but a ‘digression’ would always come that pulled me back in. For example, chapter 89, “Fast Fish and Loose fish” describes a maritime law concerning which ship a whale belongs to, but then the final couple of paragraphs turns into a comment on countries, people and society as ‘fast-fish’ and ‘loose-fish’ in a “holy crap Melville, I thought I was bored but it turns out I was doing some deep thinking” sort of way.

I was also expecting it to be a Dead White Guy book – the kind that’s overtly racist and misogynistic but is excused because it’s ‘of its time’. There is discussion of race in Moby Dick, but it’s actually fairly forward-thinking for the late 1800s. It’s by no means perfect, with people referred to as ‘savages’ or by their race alone, but, generally, Moby Dick is about how the racism of white men, and colonialism/slavery, is a Bad Thing. When Ishmael first meets Queequeg, he’s afraid of him and his difference. But he quickly comes to see him as just a human person, and that Queequeg’s ‘odd’ religious beliefs are really no different than his own Christian beliefs. (I wished there was more of Ishmael and Queequeg’s relationship after the Pequod set sail. The beginning section between them was so good, but it seemed to be forgotten later on). The non-white characters have some of the most important jobs on the ship, and the white characters rely on them totally, but at the same time the non-white characters have to do the most dangerous jobs or are even literally walked over by the white characters (*metaphor alert*). The ship itself, the Pequod, is destroyed by the white whale, and is named after an American tribe that was killed off by the arrival of white men. (As I said earlier, everything in Moby Dick is a metaphor, often for three things at once).

Self-destruction is everywhere, often in really beautiful imagery, like Stubb eating a whale “by its own light” (a candle made of whale), and later the whale providing its own fuel to burn itself. And, obviously, everything about Ahab. It’s also full of revenge, religion, superstition, obsession, dictatorship, the environment, and the nature of humanity and the world we still live in. All the stuff, mostly in a series of seemingly irrelevant chapters.

In chapter 104, Ishmael (thinly disguised Melville), says “to produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea”. I would disagree with Melville about that, but how he’s used a mighty whale to carry mighty themes is a book worth reading. It’s surprisingly readable, in part because of the very short chapters (usually only a couple of pages). But be warned – not long into reading this I started seeing whales and Moby Dick references everywhere. I have invoked a 70’s horror movie curse – “now the white whale is after YOU”. I think this is a good thing.

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