February Reads 2015

February is a short month, and I’ve had long stretches of days of not reading, but, somehow, a whole lot of reading happened. Lots of comics, a few novels, poetry and short stories. Not a bad bunch.

the beesThe Bees by Laline Paull (Novel)

I was very underwhelmed by this. I really like bees, they’re weird and fascinating, but I found myself wishing I’d spent the time reading a non-fiction book instead. The story just didn’t work for me, in particular Flora’s ability to have every ‘bee power’ of every type of bee in the hive (regardless of whether something is true in the real world, if it doesn’t feel true to the fictional world of the book, it doesn’t work). I kept getting bored for a while, then getting back into it, then bored again, etc. I wonder if I didn’t get along with it because in many ways it reminded me of historical fiction set in a king’s court, and I don’t read/like a lot of that genre. A disappointing ‘meh’.

the wicked and divineThe Wicked and the Divine Volume 1 by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson (Comics)

I loved this. It’s about how every 90 years, twelve gods become human, are worshiped, glorified and hated, and then die 2 years later. In their current incarnation, they are rock and pop stars – this is a David Bowie-esque one, a Florence & the Machine type, etc. The colouring in particular is great, and the writing is a lot of fun. Definitely check this out. I can’t wait for the next one.

sagaSaga Volumes 1 & 2 by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples (Comics)

I’ve been avoiding Saga because there’s so much hype around about it – which is always the worst time to read something. But, obviously, I caved. I thought it was pretty good – the artwork and colouring are really beautiful in places, I like the characters, but the story didn’t totally grab me. I will carry on reading it because I did enjoy it and the second volume was better than the first, but it didn’t blow me away.

9781844719068frcvr.inddSweet Home by Carys Bray (Short Stories)

I haven’t read a short story collection in ages and this was an excellent one to get myself back into it. All of the stories are strong and most of them broke my heart a little bit (in a good way). Really highly recommend this one. Full review here.

bitch planet 3Bitch Planet #3 by Kelly Sue DeConnick & Robert Wilson IV (Comics)

I continue my love affair with this comic and it’s my favourite thing at the moment. This is the first of the ‘special thirds’ – every third issue has a different artist and is focused on one particular character. This issue gave the backstory of Penny Rolle, and why she came to be sent to Bitch Planet. Penny is such an awesome, kickass character and I love her. The final page ‘reveal’ wasn’t shocking, but it didn’t bother me because of Penny’s expression. I really liked this month’s essay in the back by Megan Carpentier and, as always, the back cover. I want to thrust this comic series into the hands of random passers-by. Can I do that? Maybe I will.

ODY-CODY-C #1 & #2 by Matt Fraction & Christian Ward (Comics)

This is a gender-swapped retelling of The Odyssey set in space. Yep. I haven’t read The Odyssey, so I found these first issues a bit confusing, but it made sense when I took my time with it. The artwork is crazy and so well-coloured. I think I’ll read this in trades rather than continuing in singles because I think I’ll forget who everyone is and what’s going on with a month’s gap each time.

florence and gilesFlorence and Giles by John Harding (Novel)

This is very enjoyable, mainly because of the narrator’s interesting use of language – using nouns as verbs and verbs as nouns. It’s got a good old-school ghost story feel and I just love a book with an unreliable narrator. Full review (along with the sequel) here.

the girl who couldn't readThe Girl Who Couldn’t Read by John Harding (Novel)

This is the sequel to Florence and Giles, but can easily be read as a stand-alone. I think I preferred this to the first one, as it’s a tiny bit less predictable and has far more unreliable, untrustworthy characters. Definitely worth a quick read on a blustery day. Full review (along with F & G) here.

the world's wifeThe World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy (Poetry)

This is a collection of poems from the perspective of the wives/sisters of famous/mythological men in history, like Mrs Darwin or Queen Herod. It’s a tongue-in-cheek, witty, but also thoughtful collection. I did find it a bit varied: some poems I loved, others I wasn’t bothered by. But it is a fun to dip in and out of, and a lot of the poems have an undercurrent of sadness.

sex criminals 2Sex Criminals volume 2 by Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky (Comics)

I really loved the first volume, and, as the second came out on my birthday, I had to pick it up. This volume is a lot slower paced and focuses more on the characters themselves, their relationship after the initial lusty romance is over, and Jon’s mental health issues. It still retains its humour, however, including a porn parody of The Wicked & the Divine! A great series that I’ll definitely continue.

the invisible kingdomThe Invisible Kingdom by Rob Ryan (Graphic novel)

If you’re in any way familiar with Rob Ryan’s work, it will come as no surprise that this is an extremely beautiful-looking book. The illustrations on every page are stunning and fit well with the overall story. It’s a kind of fairy tale, about a prince who doesn’t really want to be one, and is suitable for all ages. It felt a bit short, but that’s probably a sign of how much I enjoyed it – I just wanted more – and it turns out it is part of a trilogy so there is more if you want it. Prefect bedtime story (because grown-ups need bedtime stories too).

Currently reading: Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I’m only 50 pages in, so I could be here a while.

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Double review: ‘Florence and Giles’ & ‘The Girl Who Couldn’t Read’ by John Harding

florence and gilesFlorence & Giles is narrated by Florence, a 12-year-old girl in the 1890s living with her younger brother Giles. They are orphans, and under the care of an uncle who lives away and doesn’t believe girls should learn to read, so are looked after by the few staff in the old mansion house. When Giles gets a governess, she is quickly killed in an accident. When a second governess arrives, Florence becomes convinced she must save Giles from her, and that she is not altogether human.

If you’ve read The Turn of the Screw, you’ll quickly find parallels, from the names (Flora & Miles / Florence and Giles, Bly House / Blithe House) to the sense of a slow haunting. But you definitely don’t need to read James to enjoy this.

Florence uses language in a really interesting way. She often uses nouns as verbs and verbs as nouns (saying that Shakespeare often made up his own words for things, so why shouldn’t she?). It makes perfect sense, adds an extra layer of meaning, and leads to really lovely phrases everywhere. My favourite is “I will wasp her picnic”, but even the more every day descriptions are great – “she exasperated a sigh”,”I was too mindfilled to sleep”,
and “Miss Taylor tigered her a smile”. (I do this with ‘pyjama’ all the time, as in ‘I’m not coming out because I’m just going to pyjama all day’).

It’s a book I think would also work well for people who read a lot of YA, as a sort of ‘gateway’ book if you’re looking to get into reading literary fiction as it’s very accessible.

My only problem was actually caused by the cover quotes, namely the ones that said something along the lines of ‘genuinely shocking’. The book is extremely predictable, but had it not been for all the ‘shocking’ reviews I would have thought it was supposed to be – that the creeping feeling comes from knowing what’s coming – and enjoyed it for that fact. Calling it ‘shocking’ made me think I wasn’t supposed to know, and made me expect something different. The ending is not a shock, so ignore the cover quotes and enjoy it for the creeping inevitability instead.

the girl who couldn't readThe Girl Who Couldn’t Read is a kind of follow-up to F & G, but would work well as a stand-alone too. Also set in the 1890s, it is narrated by a young doctor, John Shepherd, going to work at a mental hospital for women on a remote island. As it’s the 1890s, the ‘treatments’ are pretty horrific, and, although he is appalled at the treatment of patients, it quickly becomes clear that perhaps Dr Shepherd isn’t quite what he seems, and neither is anyone else. There’s also a young patient with apparent amnesia who speaks ‘gibberish’ by mixing up her nouns and verbs (!).

This is very different in style to F & G and more plot-driven with some twists and turns, but keeping the feeling that things are not going to end well. I really enjoyed the ending – like F & G, it has an excellent sense of dark inevitability. I missed Florence’s voice and her use of language, as that was partly what I really liked in the first book, but it was interesting seeing her through another character’s eyes.

I bloody love a good unreliable, slightly creepy narrator and both of these books do that well in very distinct voices. I also loved all the literary references throughout, particularly to different Shakespeare plays and Jane Eyre in TGWCR. Both F & G and TGWCR are gothic in style and were excellent to read when the weather was wuthering outside. I recommend both as absorbing reads, and, if you didn’t like F & G because of Florence’s narration, definitely still give TGWCR a go.

I am hoping that there’ll be a third book…

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Sweet Home by Carys Bray

9781844719068frcvr.inddI haven’t read a short story collection in ages and I can’t believe I left this sitting on my shelf for so long. Sweet Home is a collection of stories about childhood, parenthood, and loss. Some have a magical realism / fairytale aspect to them, and others are realism, but all have an element of darkness or sadness. All of the stories are strong, and they manage to both stand on their own and hang together really well. A collection without an odd ‘weak’ story is a rare thing.

Although difficult things happen to the central characters, the incident/event is always just out of frame, as the stories are more about dealing with normal life in the aftermath, or just normal family life in general. The stories that struck me the most were those about the anxieties and losses in parenthood. They feel honest and true and beautiful without sentimentality. So many of the parenthood stories seem to be about an anxiety about doing the ‘right’ thing, and how what they’re doing will be perceived, both by the child in the future (as their own childhoods are remembered) and by others nearby.

I’m finding it hard to pick out a stand-out favourite story, as they’re all so strong, but to give you an idea of the kind of stories in the collection, I liked ‘The Rescue’ about a father watching the Chilean miners be rescued and hoping he can still rescue his drug addict son; ‘Sweet Home’ is a modern retelling of Hansel and Gretel which recasts the witch in a different light; ‘Just in Case’ about a grieving mother trying to borrow babies from her friends and neighbours; and ‘Everything a Parent needs to Know’ about a mother trying to do the best for her daughter through parenting books, but resigning herself to her daughter collecting and hoarding disappointing memories.

I could list them all, basically. But the important thing is that, despite the fact you might get your heart a little bit broken, it’s also just enjoyable to read.

I highly recommend this collection. I even said ‘wow’ out loud when I was reading it which never happens. Don’t let it linger on your shelf like I did.

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Who I’m watching: Booktube recommendations

I wrote a post a little while ago talking about how I’ve gotten more into watching booktube (people on youtube who talk about books), so I thought I’d give you some more recommendations, particularly as I often see people say they can’t find booktubers who predominantly talk about genres other than YA.

This list is who I’m watching the most at the moment. A couple of these were on my previous list, but there are plenty of new ones for you to get stuck into. I’ve added each person’s latest video, to give you an idea of their style.

Climb The Stacks

Ashley is my favourite booktuber. She reads mainly literary fiction and reviews everything she reads. She really thinks about what she’s has taken from the book, and as a result her reviews are always insightful and thoughtful. Towards the end of last year she also started doing some really good general discussion videos about things like critically engaging with literature, whether good characters need to be ‘relatable’, and where to start with specific authors.

Rincey Reads

Rincey reads a range of books from middle-grade fiction to contemporary literary fiction and comics. She posts reviews and great book-related discussion videos on topics like what it means to be well read and reading diversely. She always has something interesting to say and I always end up adding at least one book/comic to my tbr.

Ron Lit

Ron Lit is really funny and smart and full of sass. She loves Jane Austen, and reads a lot of classics and criticism. Even if I’m not into the book she’s talking about I always enjoy the video and learn something – infotainment!

Frenchiedee

FrenchieDee is currently leading the way for black history month on booktube (with the hashtag #ReadSoulLit). If you’re looking to diversify your reading, FrenchieDee is the one to watch.

MercysBookishMusings

Mercy reads a range of books from middle-grade to literary fiction, short stories & comics. She’s also a big fan of fairy tales and all things Japanese. She reads a helluva lot in a month, so there’ll definitely be something on her channel you’ll like.

Jen Campbell

Jen is still pretty new to making videos, but it doesn’t show. She’s the author of The Bookshop Book, Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops, and The Hungry Ghost Festival, and a bookseller. She is another fairy tale fan, and, as a bookseller, knows a lot of great books. She also talks about poetry, which doesn’t come up very often on booktube.

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January Reads 2015

I read a weird mix of books in January – jumping around genres. I also didn’t read at all for a couple of weeks in the middle because of moving / health shenanigans, so I’m surprised by the amount I did get in.

Through the WoodsThrough The Woods by Emily Carroll (Graphic novel – fiction)

This is an excellent wintery read with really beautiful and colourful artwork. It has five short spooky tales based roughly around the woods that are fairy-tale like, but more Brothers Grimm and Edward Gorey than Hans Christian Anderson. I think my favourite was actually the short epilogue, mainly because what the wolf says at the end is truly terrifying. Recommended if you like gothic fiction; a book so visually beautiful it’s definitely one to own.

All the birds, singingAll The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld (Novel)

Another wintery read, but for very different reasons. A quiet book with plenty of slow tension and a really interesting narrative structure which gradually brings the past and the future together. Highly recommend. Full review here.

grasshopper jungleGrasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith (Novel)

As the book went on I enjoyed this less and less – it’s a coming-of-age story in which the main character doesn’t actually change in any way, and none of the female characters are real people with personalities. Saying that though, I think a lot of people will enjoy it for it’s sheer weirdness and rudeness, and I’m glad there’s a teenage book that very frankly includes male teen bisexuality. Full review here.

StiffStiff by Mary Roach (Non-fiction)

I loved this book about all the different things that can happen, and has happened, to bodies after death. It’s a book with lots of interesting stuff in it, from body snatchers to the process of a ecological decomposition, and makes you think about what you might want after death. Full review here.

bitch planet 2Bitch Planet #2 by Kelly Sue DeConnick & Valentine De Landro (Comics – fiction)

Even though I find single issues don’t quite have enough for me, I’ve decided this is going to be the first comic I read in singles. Partly because I’m feeling impatient for the next installment, but mainly because each issue comes with an essay in the back by an amazing writer about something to do with feminism. The trades won’t have those, and in both the issues I’ve read so far they’ve been the best thing – shaping what I’ve just read and making me think wider about some of the issues. As it’s only on issue 2, you have plenty of time to catch up! (Check out my review of issue 1 here.)

The Rialto 81The Rialto issue 81 (Poetry)

I tried, and largely failed, to read more poetry last year, and I realised it’s because I know nothing about it so just sort of flailed around a bit. To help me figure out what I like, I decided to subscribe to The Rialto, which is one of the best poetry journals in the UK and publishes a range of styles and poets. I read issue 81 this month, and, while I still can’t quite articulate why I liked a particular poem and not the one next to it, I definitely think I’m getting a feel for things. I’m really looking forward to the next issue and I’ve already started to read more poetry outside of The Rialto, so I think I’m onto a winner.

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Stiff by Mary Roach

StiffThis is a book about all the different things that can happen, and have happened, to bodies after death. It’s about organ donation, medical research, not-so-medical research, body snatching, and new ways to decompose. And it’s absolutely fascinating.

Mary Roach has an easy, almost conversational, way of writing that takes a sometimes difficult and disgusting subject and makes it very readable. Roach adds herself in, and talks about what it’s like to witness various procedures and to talk to people who basically cut off heads for a living. She’s a journalist, not a scientist, but has done enough research to know what she’s talking about. Sometimes her humour is a little forced, particularly when she adds in a random comment, but when she just tells the story she can be funny while at the same time being totally respectful of the situation.

This isn’t the sort of book you’re likely to pick up if you’re squeamish about blood, bodies, or the details of surgery, but I think you should. Aside from the fact it’s just really interesting, it also makes you consider what you want, and the ethics of that, particularly when it comes to organ donation or donation to science.

I have strong feelings about what I want to happen to my body after death, and I had them even before reading this. Interestingly, Roach talks about this towards the end of the book and wonders if feeling strongly about it or having elaborate plans is a sign of a refusal to accept death, of a time where you have no control. She talks about how the people who survive you have to be able to live with what you ask them to do, and that whatever happens is more about those people than you, because you are dead. I do agree with her about not trying to force those around you to do things they’re not comfortable with, and that you’ll be dead, so you won’t know anyway. But, for me, it’s not about a non-acceptance of death, but of a lack of belief in an afterlife, and having no religion (so no beliefs about burial, etc in that sense), so not wanting to waste my body in death. I have a hope that whoever I leave behind will be comfortable with my choices, but, if not, I’ll be dead, so I won’t know. (My order of preference goes: organ/everything donation, medical research, medical training, ecological decomposition (human compost!). No traditional in-a-coffin burial.)

A non-morbid, morbid book which is interesting and funny and moving.

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Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

grasshopper jungle15 year-old Austin spends most of his time hanging out with his best friend Robby and girlfriend Shann, trying to find something to do in the run-down, small town of Ealing, Iowa. Nothing really happens in Ealing. Except this one time. This one time when Austin and Robby accidentally unleash an unstoppable army of horny, hungry, six-foot-tall praying mantises that only want to do two things.

I picked this up because I was looking for something easy-read and weird, and the premise of Grasshopper Jungle sounded exactly the kind of ridiculous I needed. And while it did live up to being easy-read, weird, and ridiculous, I was pleasantly surprised by how much more the book was about. One of the main themes is sexuality, as Austin spends most, if not all, of the book confused by his feelings for both Shann and Robby (and thinking about his penis, balls, and having sex), Robby is bullied for being gay, and local closeted gay men sneak secretively to a gay bar. It’s also about the connections between everything, particularly through generations of the same family, how a town can slowly be destroyed (by economics, as well as giant unstoppable praying mantises), and what history is.

Unfortunately, as the book went on I found I cared less and less. If I’d lost the book when I was near the beginning, I probably would have picked up another copy, but not if I’d lost it in the second half.

I wasn’t a big fan of the writing style. There was a lot of repetition, which fit with the theme of repeating patterns, but at times grated instead of adding something. The pace also really slowed about half-way through which just didn’t work within the overall book.

None of the female characters were rounded human beings at all. I don’t think this is due to it being from the perspective of a teenage boy, as Austin was supposed to love Shann and Robby pretty equally, but Shann wasn’t fleshed out at all. Or rather, she was mostly just flesh, and very little else: while Robby was a tangible character, I couldn’t tell you much about Shann as a person. I can see that Austin was talking a lot about events in the male part of his lineage leading up to his own, so male characters would naturally get a bit more time and thought, but even the minor male characters in the town had personalities, where the female ones didn’t.

I think this is a novel that would work well as a weird, exaggerated b-movie, but as a book ultimately fails to live up to its early potential.

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