June Reads 2015

A mixed bunch for June; a couple I loved, a couple I wasn’t fussed by, and a couple of good comics.

fanFan by Danny Rhodes (novel)

I really enjoyed this. It’s a grim and raw book, with so much unhappiness, and one in which you are not always going to like the central character. But it’s also gripping, beautifully written, and feels emotionally true (the author was also a Forest fan at Hillsborough that day). Highly recommended. Full review here.

the miniaturistThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (novel)

A good debut but I didn’t love it. I found the first half better than the second, which is perhaps because the first half was more about character development and the second more about lots of predictable plot twists and I’m more interested in the character stuff, though I also thought the writing was better in the first half. Even though this wasn’t for me, I do think Burton is an interesting writer, so if the premise of her next appealed I would definitely pick it up.

n.p.N.P. by Banana Yoshimoto translated from Japanese by Ann Sherif (novel)

This was completely different from what I was expecting from the synopsis. It’s an odd book and I’m not sure what I think about it. It took me a while to get into because it’s mostly written in short sentences which felt a bit staccato (I’m not sure if this is Yoshimoto’s style or the translation), and it felt a bit disjointed at times. I have another of hers (Kitchen) on my shelf to read which I’m told is a lot better so I’m looking forward to giving it a go.

no more worlds to conquerNo More Worlds to Conquer by Chris Wright (non-fiction)

I really enjoyed this book about what people did after their life-defining achievement/event – the ‘what next’ after the ‘happily ever after’. I wanted a bit more diversity from it, and I’m really hoping there’ll be a second volume. Full review here.

alex and adaAlex and Ada vol. 1 by Jonathan Luna & Sarah Vaughn (comics – fiction)

I shouldn’t have enjoyed this, but I did. It’s a human / A.I. story that doesn’t do anything particularly new or different, and I didn’t like the art style, but I just really enjoyed reading it. They’ve just published the final issue, so there will be three volumes in total, which I will probably pick up with a confused look on my face.

wytchesWytches vol. 1 by Scott Snyder & Jock (comics – fiction)

Though it can make the pages a bit too dark at times, Matt Hollingsworth’s colour work really makes this comic for me. He splatters watercolour over the top of the paints which gives the panels an obscured and other-worldly look. Interestingly, as the wytches enter the family’s lives more, the family’s panels, which start with more traditional colouring, gradually become more splattered. I like their concept of wytches as actual horrible things in the forest, but the story itself is a little predictable and not as properly scary as the quotes on the back will have you believe. I did enjoy Snyder’s letters in the back matter, about how Wytches relates to anxiety and parenting and fear. I will definitely pick up volume 2.

Currently reading: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Also on the blog in June:

My literary tattoos

How to read with a chronic illness

Posted in Graphic novels / comics, In translation, Non-fiction, Novels, Wrap-ups | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

No More Worlds to Conquer by Chris Wright

no more worlds to conquerThis book is about sixteen people who had huge, life-defining achievements / events relatively early in their lives, and what they did next. It includes astronauts, adventurers, a pilot, a singer, a gymnast, and survivors. When the first line of your obituary is already written, how do you move on from that? And how do you deal with it when you go on to achieve many other things, but all anyone cares about is that one event?

I was really excited to get my hands on this. The ‘what next’ is always more interesting to me than the ‘happily ever after’, but those stories are rarely told. One of the chapters that has stuck with me the most is the chapter on Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian gymnast who was the first to achieve a perfect 10 in the Olympics (and eventually scored seven 10s in the competition) at the age of just 14.  The ‘what next’ of female gymnasts has always fascinated me – they can have a whole career and it be over before commentators have stopped saying ‘they just need to mature’ about athletes of the same age in other sports. The thing with Nadia is, she didn’t go back home to sponsorships and financial security, she did gymnasts for a little longer and then had to deal with the increasingly brutal regime of Ceausescu and poverty. As Wright says “Learning about this period in her life, I realise how frivolous the central conceit of my book and this interview – deciding what to do with the rest of one’s life after an immense and defining achievement – must seem. Because in her case, what came next was a bitter, constant, day-by-day battle to stay afloat”. Eventually she defected and ended up in America, which wasn’t just walking into an embassy, it was wading through icy lakes, climbing over barb wire fences, and walking for hours. And then came adjusting to life to in the States….

The stories and people in this book aren’t just about achievements; there are also a few people who have had life-defining things happen to them. Like Russ Ewin, who was one of only a handful of survivors of the Sandakan prison-of-war camp, and how he lived a full life afterwards, but that by being one of so very few to survive we put a kind of burden on him to often re-tell, re-live, and represent the story of what happened. And the crew of United 232, who handled an apparently unsurvivable plane malfunction, and how they dealt with the trauma, grief and feeling of responsibility for those who did not survive.

As Wright talks a little about in the introduction and epilogue, the people in this book are almost all men, almost all white. I understand what he said about why – he started from an interest in American adventurers, particularly astronauts, and they tended to come out of the post-war military, which was very white and male. But I found the lack of diversity noticeable as I was reading, and I wonder if Wright could have found a way to be a bit more inclusive. I definitely would have preferred a longer book with a greater variety of stories, not just in terms of race and gender, but also in the kind of achievement/event. (Incidentally, an interview with Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister of Malaysia, which didn’t make it into the book, can be found here).

However, as it is something he is aware of himself, and seems keen for more, I’m really hoping there will be a second volume with a little more balance – I would pick it up in a heartbeat. Fascinating and extremely readable.

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How to read with a chronic illness

I read a lot. I also have a chronic illness which sometimes makes it difficult for me to read at all (extreme fatigue, migraines, pain which makes holding up a book difficult, etc). It’s different from the kind of sleepy reading you do when you have a cold or flu, because there’s no recharge – resting doesn’t make the exhaustion go away and overdoing it can lead to days of payback. (If you haven’t heard of it before, check out the Spoon Theory – it’s a really good explanation of what living with chronic illness is like, and why people call themselves spoonies!).

Every person and the way their condition affects them is different, but these are some of my tips for reading with chronic illness:

spoonBe honest with yourself about your limits, and what your warning signs are that you need to stop. This is one of those ‘do as I say, not as I do’ things – when holding the book open is tiring or I’m forgetting the beginning of the sentence at end of it, it’s probably time to stop. When my face is a bit numb I probably shouldn’t start reading. When my eyesight gets ‘swirly’ I should definitely stop so I’m not more ill the next day. Should. Should…

I usually read in small chunks, and stop before I really have to. Though this can be damn frustrating when it means stopping before I want to, I know I get more done overall if I don’t wear myself out in one binge. I could kiss books with short chapters for this reason, I really could.

Think about the typeface in the edition you choose. Anything you have to concentrate on more will be more tiring (for me that means small text and/or a weird contrast between the text and the page). If you have an e-reader you can change the size of the text (though keep in mind you might find the screen tiring), but if you’re reading a physical book either have a flick through in the bookshop to choose a better print edition for you, or read less to take the extra concentration into account.

Sentence length and complexity of language can also make a difference – when you’re tired, go for something with shorter sentences and more simple language. If you just really fancy a more difficult book, read it slowly and in even smaller chunks.

Comics and graphic novels are an absolute saviour when you want to read but are too tired for too much actual reading, as there’s artwork to break it up and less text. There’s a real range of genres and styles, it’s not all DC/Marvel superheroes, so no matter what your usual book tastes I guarantee there will be a comic for you. (I did a post on where to start if you’re new to graphic novels over here). Not all are comics are ‘easy-read’, so you might need to take the concentration factor into account with more difficult ones (I’m looking at you Are You My Mother).

If you have any other tips, leave them in the comments below. Take care of yourselves my fellow spoonies, and happy reading.

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Fan by Danny Rhodes

fanWhen I was little, and lived in Devon, Chelsea came down to play a local team. Big teams never came round our way, so my dad and his mate took me and my younger brother to watch. It would have been around ’91/’92, and I would have been 7-ish years old. At the time, I had no idea why my mum was so anxious about letting us go. I had never heard of Hillsborough.

Fan has the 1989 Hillsborough disaster at its centre, as it follows avid teenage Forest fan John Finch (Finchy) going to matches, and the match, in 1989, and his adult life down south in 2004, which is not going well. The book moves seamlessly between the two time periods of Finchy’s life, something that’s rarely done really well. This is a grim and raw book, with so much unhappiness, and one in which you are not always going to like the central character. But it’s also gripping, beautifully written, and feels emotionally true (the author was also a Forest fan at Hillsborough that day). That truth is not just about the disaster, but also in Finchy’s development as a character – there are no great leaps for the sake of a story, but something slower and unfinished that feels more true to real people.

Photo 14-06-2015 15 58 44Although the term ‘PTSD’ is never used, you can clearly see how the the trauma of witnessing the disaster has had huge effects on Finchy and his old friends. Related to this, the book also deals with masculinity and coping, and the impact the stereotypical ‘men don’t share their emotions’ can have, as well as the different ways people cope with trauma. It’s also about communities – small towns, at work, as fans – and what happens when you leave them, and when you go back.

I’ve fallen seriously out of love with football as I’ve gotten older, but Fan is not ‘just a football book’, and even if you, too, don’t like football, I’d still urge you to pick this up. One of my favourites of the year so far.

I received a free copy of the new B format of Fan in exchange for an honest review.

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My literary tattoos

I know they’re not for everyone, but I love tattoos. As an indecisive person who can easily spend 10 minutes dithering over what toothpaste to buy, I weirdly love the permanency of them. And, obviously, I like the way they look. I have five tattoos in total, three of which are literary references. The two that aren’t are a lame rose I got when I was 18 (though I would never get rid of it or cover it up because I don’t want to erase that 18 year-old girl), and ‘impermanence’ in Tibetan on my spine (mostly for the Buddhist concept of impermanence, but also because it’s fun to have a ‘permanent’ tattoo which means impermanent). As for my literary ones, in the order that I got them (clicking on the pictures should make them bigger so you can see more detail):

DH Lawrence tattoo

By Andy Walker at Creative Vandals, Hull

From D.H Lawrence’s poem Self Pity:

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

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Alice in Wonderland tattoo

By Holly Dosdale at Namaste Tattoo, Hull

Alice doing science (with chemistry bottles instead of potions). I think the idea that science and arts/literature are mutually exclusive is complete crap. I want, and need, both.

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Literary tattoo sleeve

By Bonita Caruana, Hull (This picture was taken just after it was finished, so it’s looking a little red!)

This sleeve is made of my favourites, mostly the ones that have been with me a long time, and references 6 books. The design started with the Vintage cover of the Handmaid’s Tale (the pears at the top and the handmaid at the bottom), and grew to include Hamlet, 1984, Jane Eyre, Harry Potter, and Moby Dick.

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Handmaid's tale tattoo1984 tattoo.

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Photo 16-05-2015 18 07 25Photo 16-05-2015 18 09 17.

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I did want to include the non-compliant symbol from Bitch Planet, but it didn’t quite fit into the design, so I will probably squeeze that in somewhere soonish, and then, who knows! I’d love to know if any of you have any literary ink, or if you have a particular favourite you’ve seen on someone else.

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May Reads 2015

Apart from a couple of comics, May has had an accidental theme of ‘teenagers’. No idea why.

the beach hutThe Beach Hut by Cassandra Parkin (novel)

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. A good one to take the beach. Full review here.

the country of ice cream starThe Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman (novel)

I really enjoyed this, particularly the language (it’s written in a futuristic version of AAVE). Although it has a number of YA tropes it’s definitely not a YA book, and deals with a number of interwoven themes complexly. I’d recommend it for the language alone. Full review here.

we were liarsWe Were Liars by E. Lockhart (novel)

I didn’t love or hate this: it was ok. I’m not much of a YA fan, and I think that was my problem with the book. Some interesting themes were touched upon, like class, race, and family, but there wasn’t enough depth for me. The other three ‘liars’ were also surprisingly thin characters, though some of the other family members felt more fleshed out. And as the book was marketed as having a ‘big shocking twist’, you inevitably guess it early which you may not have done had you not been told that. But if you’re looking for a quick and easy summer read, this would probably be a good bet as at has a hazy summer quality.

goblet of fireHarry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling (novel)

I’m enjoying my slow re-read of the series, and I’m glad I left it long enough to have forgotten lots of the details. Interestingly I find myself much more annoyed at Dumbledore’s vagueness this time around (which will probably be more apparent when I get to the last book). And, even though I know there’s no way a film can fit everything in, I’m annoyed on Hermione’s behalf that they left out S.P.E.W. – as this is the book where the darkness really begins, I think it’s an important element which introduces the idea of racial prejudice and privilege (how easy it is not to notice if you are part of the dominating group).

saga vol 4Saga vol. 4 by Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples (comics – fiction)

This was good, but I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as volume 3. This felt more like a bridging volume – tying up some of the threads from 3 and setting up the next. I still enjoyed it though, and I like that the characters are constantly developing in reaction to everything that’s going on.

lazarusLazarus vol. 1 by Greg Rucka & Michael Lark (comics – fiction)

I’m not sure what I thought about this. I wasn’t a big fan of the art style but I liked the premise – a dystopian future in which the world is run by a handful of wealthy families, who each have one technologically advanced person, a Lazarus, to protect them and lead their respective armies, while the majority of the world are impoverished people called ‘waste’. It’s a very short volume and there isn’t quite enough in it to hook me in, or maybe the premise just wasn’t different enough. I don’t feel in any particular rush to pick up the next, but may do at some point to give it more of a chance because it came highly recommended as a series.

Currently reading: Fan by Danny Rhodes

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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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