September reads 2015

September was part reading slump, part week of manically reading All The Things. In the rough order I read them:

everything is teethEverything is Teeth by Evie Wyld & Joe Sumner (graphic novel – non-fiction)

Really enjoyable graphic novel that has the shape of a short story, about Evie’s childhood fear and fascination with sharks. The artwork by Joe Sumner goes really well with the story, and I particularly like how the sharks are painted differently from the rest of the panel, as it makes them both more and less real at the same time. Quiet, and worth your time. Full review here.

weWe by Yevgeny Zamyatin (novel – Russian in translation)

Translated by Clarence Brown. This was the inspiration for Orwell’s 1984, one of my favourite books, and you can very clearly see where he got his ideas from. We isn’t, at least initially, as purely dystopian as 1984, and has some of the elements of ‘utopia’ in Brave New World. It’s written in the form of diary entries and is surprisingly readable, as most of my previous encounters with Russian literature have made me expect it to be very dense. It’s definitely worth reading to see where modern dystopian fiction came from, but I still prefer 1984 as it takes the ideas a little further and adds more complexity (even if it’s now apparent it’s much less inventive than I used to think).

bitch planet 5Bitch Planet #5 by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro (comics – fiction)

It feels like we’ve been waiting for this issue forever. It finally arrived! This is the final issue in the arc and, unfortunately, because of the delay it lacked the punch it could have had if the issues had come out on a regular schedule. But, despite that, it’s still my favourite comic and it makes me want to go out and smash the patriarchy so that’s got to be a good thing. The first volume comes out in October. It won’t have the essays that the single issues do, which is a shame because that really elevates the comic to a whole new level for me, but it’s still worth picking up if you want to smash the patriarchy too. Which of course you do.

the book of strange new thingsThe Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber (novel)

Oh. I didn’t love this like I wanted to, especially after hearing so many people rave about it. It’s very readable and I wanted to keep turning the pages, but I just wanted more from it. It didn’t explore the themes in as much depth as I would have liked. And, at the same time, there weren’t many spaces left open for you to explore them yourself, which meant it didn’t leave me thinking about everything that had come up when I finished. For example, when Peter (and we) find out the real, heartbreaking, reason the Oasans were keen to become Christians, Peter is horrified, and then it’s mostly forgotten about as the book moves to concentrate on his relationship with Bea. Additionally, the minor characters felt paper-thin, and, at times, described in a way that was a little racist and stereotypical. I did like the end, though, and how it was ultimately left open. And the book is a good exploration of connection, and disconnection, in relationships. It’s a book I want to keep on my shelf because the cover is so pretty, but I don’t think it’ll stay there for long.

colourless tsukuruColourless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami (novel – Japanese in translation)

Translated by Philip Gabriel. This is one of Murakami’s more ‘normal’ novels, without his usual magical realism weirdness. However, as is typical for him, it centres on a male protagonist who is depressed and trying to find his way in life, particularly with his sort-of girlfriend. I enjoyed it, particularly how it’s mostly about how events when you are young can affect you throughout your life, and how the way you perceive yourself can be different from how others do. It has a couple of big problems (which I won’t go into because spoilers) but was enjoyable to read (and it’s good to listen to Le Mal du Pays at the same time). It wasn’t as good as Norwegian Wood, which explores similar themes, so I’d recommend reading that one first.

Also on the blog in September:

A review of the Northern Ballet’s adaptation of 1984

Plans for October – writer’s of colour month

Currently reading: October is writers of colour month on this blog, and I have an excellent pile of books to read. I will hopefully have at least a couple of guest bloggers, and some recommendation lists. If you are a book blogger/youtuber of colour and would like to guest post about anything literary-related, get in touch! You’d be more than welcome.

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Everything is Teeth by Evie Wyld & Joe Sumner

everything is teethEverything is Teeth is Evie Wyld’s first graphic novel, illustrated by Joe Sumner. I read and loved Wyld’s last novel, All The Birds, Singing, earlier this year.

This is a memoir about some of Evie’s childhood spent visiting family in New South Wales. She becomes obsessed with sharks, seeing them stalk her through corn fields, nibbling on her toes dangling off the sofa, and imagining them eating her family that venture into deeper ocean than she would dare.

everything is teeth 3It’s a book about family – the quiet tensions and small moments. Evie’s obsession with sharks becomes a safe place for her brother, and for her to connect with her dad. But it’s also about that anxiety that lies beneath, that follows you everywhere, even if you ‘know’ it’s irrational to be afraid of sharks indoors, in Peckham. It feels very true of childhood anxieties, the big ones, that they are a fascination as well as a fear, and are often a displacement for the big adult fears that you aren’t ready for yet. In this sense it’s a book about growing up, about seeing danger or difficulty and learning how to cope with that when “everything is teeth” (every part of it can hurt you). But it is more complex than that – as Evie does grow up and learns that even though it can hurt you, it doesn’t mean to.

The illustrations are in black and white with a few muted colours except for the sharks following Evie which are more photographic. I really like this combination. It makes the sharks seem both more and less real at the same time. (The end papers are also great: lots of shark jaws.) The final double page spread – a single drawing and a single line – are the perfect example of how the illustration style and Evie’s sparse writing work so well together.

everything is teeth 2It has the feel and shape of a short story, in a good way, with the sparse yet moving writing style I liked so much in All The Birds, Singing. It’s quiet and moves slowly, with much more beneath the surface of the fin you can immediately see. And the end will bite you right in the chest. Funny that.

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October – writers of colour month

In the UK, October is Black History Month (BHM). I’ve been thinking about making it writers of colour (WoC) month here on the blog, but I wanted to get thoughts from all of you.

I have lots of books I’m excited to read by WoC, and, personally, I want to stay away from slave narratives. This seems counter-intuitive for BHM but I keep seeing WoC talk about how they struggle to get published unless they fit with “proper” perceptions of their race or ethnicity. Nikesh Shukla recently set up a tumblr about people’s experiences of ‘diversity’ in publishing (which is well worth a follow because the stories are, quite frankly, shameful and ridiculous), which came about from this article he wrote on his own experiences. One (white) agent told him his characters weren’t ‘authentically Asian enough’, readers wouldn’t be able to identify them as Asian, and the story was too ‘niche’. I mean….wut. In a world where white (usually male) experience is seen as universal, and anything else is ‘niche’, ‘specialist’, and ‘other’, it’s hard to get published unless you write within certain boundaries. Roxane Gay talked about how for black writers that means slave narratives or maybe on micro-aggressions. If you write anything else, you are basically told to get back in your lane.  That’s why I want to make sure I’m reading across genres and not accidentally getting sucked into this bollocks discourse. Because it is utter bollocks.

I am aware that by making it WoC month, I may in effect be doing that thing where an author is their race/ethnicity first, writer second (i.e. ‘black author so-and-so’ or ‘British Asian writer this guy’). I’m hoping that what I’m actually doing is trying highlight some great stuff out there in the context of a systemically biased industry (and I’m aware my own reading has been pretty white recently). But this is definitely something I’d like your thoughts on.

As I am a white person, I think it’s important I don’t talk over or for people of colour so I also want to make sure I have some blog posts on recommendations of great book bloggers and booktubers of colour to read and watch, and some guest posts too. Get in touch with me in the comments or on twitter if you want to post.

What do you think? I need thoughts! I’d love to hear what you think of the idea, and whether it should be black writers month instead of writers of colour month because it is BHM. And if you want to take part too on your own blog or you want to do a guest post. Let’s talk about it in the comments below.

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1984 – The ballet

1984 is one of my favourite books and the Northern Ballet Company are my favourite ballet company (they’re brilliant storytellers), so I was very excited when I saw the two were coming together. However, as 1984 is so language-based, I wasn’t sure how even they were going to adapt this one.

1984 balletThe production and staging was simple and very effective. There’s a larger screen with Big Brother’s eyes (which occasionally blink) or Goldstein’s face, depending if it’s the two minute hate, and smaller screens to show they are being watched. At the end I loved how they used the screen to indicate what happens to Winston. The choreography used a triangle gesture to indicate Big Brother and the party, and this triangle was also shown in the floor and the angular walls which were moved around to create different scenes.

I particularly loved the way they did the two minutes hate. The uniform movements of the corps descend into punching and yelling at the screen showing Goldstein’s face. But when Winston first sees Julia, the corps become slow-motion as Julia moves on her own, in her way, and Winston can’t do anything but stand and stare. I also loved the passionate pas de deux between Winston and Julia when they meet for the first time in the field. So damn hot.

1984What’s also excellent about the choreography is how it’s not all about these grand mass movements; it’s also about using small gestures and posture, especially during a scene at lunch when Winston is trying to figure Julia out, and when he meets with Julia or O’Brien with the two minutes hate as a cover.

The score fit really well the story, and it used lots of creepy-screechy strings (can you tell I have no musical training?) at perfect moments.

The only part that jarred is that I wasn’t quite sure about the proles. I liked the way their movement was much more free than anyone in the party, but they didn’t quite fit into the story being told. They were only small part in the ballet though, so it wasn’t distracting.

1984 is on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse for a few more days, and then tours for a couple of weeks and early next year (find out where here). Well worth going to watch, it’s doubleplus good.

(In the performance I saw, Isaac Lee-Baker played Winston, and Dreda Blow played Julia. Lee-Baker really blew me away, and apparently he’s only a junior soloist)

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August reads 2015

Lots of comics, a couple of novels, and a bit of non-fiction. Not the best reading month in terms of liking everything I read, but more than made up for by the books I did like.

sapiensSapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (non-fiction)

This is one of my favourite reads of the year so far. It’s fascinating, challenging, and very readable. There’s something in this book for everyone. Go and read it now! Full review here.

bad likenessBad Likeness by Stephen Collins (comics – fiction)

This is a sneak peek at Collins’ next graphic novel in progress (he wrote The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil), so is a limited print run (which I think has sold out from his shop, but Gosh Comics might have a few left). As with The Gigantic Beard, I really like the way Collins uses panels and the muted colour palette. I wasn’t sold on the story of a nerdy misfit teenage white boy at first (it’s definitely not new), but I loved it when it got to the so-terrible-it’s-awesome waxwork museum. The girl’s reaction to it is exactly what mine would be. I’m be interested to see how the finished novel turns out when it’s released in 2017.

i feel sickI Feel Sick #1 & #2 by Johnen Vasquez (comics – fiction)

I picked up this double-shot comic without knowing anything about it. I was disappointed the art and colour work on the inside was totally different to the cover, which is what attracted me to it, and the contrast of the text and background colour in the intro to #1 made it difficult to read. But, I did enjoy the story. Some of humour didn’t quite work for me, and felt like it was trying a bit hard to be kooky, but it’s not bad overall. Not sure if I’d recommend it or not.

ms marvelMs Marvel vol 1 by G Willow Wilson & Adrian Alphona (comics – fiction)

I’m not normally a fan of superhero stuff, particularly the origin story part, but I’ve heard so much good stuff about this I had to pick it up. It’s definitely more YA than most other comics I read, but it was a lot of fun and has a lot of really good and important stuff about culture and what it’s like to be a young Muslim girl in America. A bit short, but enjoyable.

wonderWonder by R.J. Palacio (novel)

I liked the way this used different characters’ perspectives, particularly the sister, though I would have liked one from the bully as he was a little one-dimensional. But I really hated the ending. It was extremely patronising towards August (the central character) and way too saccharine. It ends at their graduation from the first year of middle school, and I spent the whole time going “don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t…oh…you did it.” An interesting YA novel that messes up everything about the end.

heroic measuresHeroic Measures by Jill Ciment (novel)

A quiet, light novel, with little plot, but in a way that feels real and intimate. It manages to keep that feeling of ‘real’ and not feel gimmicky despite the fact it’s narrated in part by a dog.  Full review here.

the wicked and the divineThe Wicked and the Divine vol 2 by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie (comics – fiction)

The art and colour work is still damn hot and what makes this comic. I miss Luci, and the pacing of the arc seems to miss her too, as it felt a bit thin, but redeemed itself with an ending that came out of nowhere. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first volume, but I’m intrigued where it’s going to go next.

Also on the blog in August:

Times and Places – my literary landmarks that remind me of a certain time, person, or place

Currently reading: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (novel, Russian in translation)

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Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

sapiensThere is so much in this book. It’s about history, science, the environment, religion, politics, philosophy, economics, and what the future might look like. No matter what your interests, there will be something in Sapiens for you.

I kind of want to subtitle Sapiens “humans are the worst,” because damn we’re terrible. Every time we moved to new land mass extinctions took place, and random chance has caused one set of people to dominate another yet we ascribe it to some kind of divine right. But the book isn’t all negative, and explains, from our early origins, why we act the way we do. And it’s absolutely fascinating.

Even though he never uses the first person, you can infer some of Harari’s personal opinions. I liked that there were moments when they grated, because it made me examine why I believe something, and if that belief holds up. Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t. And that’s partly what’s so great about Sapiens – it’s not just interesting from an educational standpoint, but also so full of passion and philosophy that it’s also challenging.

I didn’t read it all in one go, and picked up other books and comics in between, as there is a shift in the type of content from the early history to more modern history. Just by the fact I knew less about early history that section was more interesting, but I liked how aspects of modernity completely alien to early sapiens were clearly linked to them, for example in the way we tell fictions to create society.

In the back of my edition there’s a Q & A with Harari, in which he’s asked if living in Israel influences the way he tells history. He said:

I suppose so. The world looks different from Jerusalem than from London or Beijing, and if I lived in London or Beijing I would probably have written a different book.

He goes on to talk a little about what living in the Middle East makes him more aware of, but I think just this quote is so important. A lot of the resistance to consciously diversifying the available literature says it’s ‘diversity for diversity’s sake’ and ‘I just read what’s good without paying attention to the author’. But it’s neither of those things. The world looks different from different bodies and different places, so if you don’t read diversely, you mistake homogeneity for realism, and miss out on so much.

Very easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. Highly readable, interesting, and challenging. Can’t recommend it enough.

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Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment

heroic measuresHeroic Measures centres around Ruth and Alex, who need to leave their apartment because they can no longer manage the stairs, their sick Dachshund Dorothy, and a suspected terrorist plot to blow up a nearby tunnel. The narration seamlessly switches between Ruth, Alex, and Dorothy. Yes, Dorothy the dog. It sounds gimmicky but, somehow, it works.

It’s a book about how life goes on, even in the face of personal crises (like a sick beloved pet) or wider crises (like a possible terrorist on the loose in the local neighbourhood). The morning of peak crisis for Ruth and Alex they still have to go ahead with their open house to sell the flat, because their lives must still move regardless. As must the lives of those wanting to move in (or just inappropriately lie on their bed for 1o minutes).

Linked to this, it’s also a book about growing older. We get some glimpses of Ruth and Alex’s lives when they were younger, but only in the context of Alex creating art from their (literal) records. The focus is on who they are now, and the small gestures and familiarity that comes with a decades-long relationship, though not without times the other person or themselves surprises or changes. It’s clear throughout that Ruth and Alex are coming to the end of long lives, but this does not mean they are standing still.

The book is also filled with immigration, New York, the media, and real estate.

There were moments it felt a little over-written, as a novel like this needs incredibly tight prose to work. But, most of the time, the details Ciment picks out are just right.

A quiet, light novel, with little plot, but in a way that feels real and intimate. It’s that feeling of ‘real’ that makes it. I like it.

Heroic Measures is released in the UK on 10th September 2015.

I received a free copy of Heroic Measures from Pushkin Press in exchange for an honest review.

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