April reads 2016

deathly hallowsHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (novel)

Part of my re-read of the series for the Witch, Please podcast. This is the first time I’ve read the whole series since the first time I read them, and this book remains my favourite, even though it’s the one I have re-visited the most. Random thoughts on this read through – 1. what an absolutely terrible job the films did of adapting this book. I have no idea how the Deathly Hallows films make any sense to people who haven’t read the books.  2. can Lily Potter really be the first person to sacrifice themselves to save a person they love? Really? 3. Hermione needs more credit for everything. Harry pay more attention. Neville needs more credit from everyone in the book. Harry, you’re not the only one that’s been through some shit. 4. I still didn’t read the ‘Dumbledore is gay’ subtext. Please just make your gay representation actual text, authors. If it’s not overt, it doesn’t count as representation. 5. The epilogue remains insanely cheesy, and was obviously written to put a ‘this is really it, I’m not writing any more HP books’ ending on it (though, clearly, JK didn’t manage to stop…). 6. Snape is brave, but that doesn’t change the fact he’s also a douchebag.

the woman who would be kingThe Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney (non-fiction)

April’s pick for the Women’s Lives Book Club. I didn’t really get on with this. Because so little remains of Hatshepsut’s reign, and many aspects of ancient Egyptian life generally, Cooney uses a lot of “maybe this happened, or maybe this, or perhaps nothing”. I can see why she’s done it that way, but the style took me a while to get into. And, once I did, I found the book as a whole quite repetitive. But it was interesting what she saying at the end, that Hatshepsut’s success prevented other women from gaining power at the time, because of the difficulty of integrating a woman into religious and political traditions (*cough*StillAProblemToday*cough*)

the weaver fishThe Weaver Fish by Robert Edeson (novel)

This is a weird book that’s not going to be for everyone; even now I’m not sure if it’s for me. It’s part fictional non-fiction and part crime thriller, and you’ll get the most out of it if you have at least a little scientific literacy. At times the hand of the author was just too visible for me, but I really enjoyed some of the imagery. Full review here.

NimonaNimona by Noelle Stevenson (graphic novel – fiction)

I really liked this, it’s a lot of fun. Nimona, a badass young shapeshifter, joins supervillain Lord Blackheart as his sidekick, to prove that hero Sir Goldenloin is not as great as he seems. But Nimona doesn’t follow the ‘rules’ of combat, and might be more dangerous than she seems. It’s a YA book, and, as with most YA, I found some of the plot/character development thinner than I like. But it’s funny and enjoyable and I definitely recommend giving it a go. (If you want to check it out first, you can actually read the whole thing online for free as it started as a webcomic).

Peter and AlicePeter and Alice by John Logan (play)

Really great fictional account of the real-life meeting between Alice Liddell Hargreaves (the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland) and Peter Llewelyn Davies (the inspiration for Peter Pan). Some of the dialogue is a little clunky, but there are also many moving and powerful scenes which make it well worth your time. It’s short, and easy to read, so an excellent place to start if you’re not used to reading plays. It’ll also break your heart a little. Full review here.

Also on the blog this month:

A post on where I buy my books (online and in person)

A discussion / rant on the snobbery that can sometimes happen in the bookish world towards people who don’t read – on (not) being a reading snob.

Currently reading: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (novel)

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Peter and Alice by John Logan

Peter and AlicePeter and Alice is a one-act play which is a fictional account of the real-life meeting of Alice Liddell Hargreaves (Alice in Wonderland), in her 80s, and Peter Llewelyn Davies (Peter Pan), in his 30s, at the opening of a Lewis Carroll exhibition in 1932.

The play takes place mostly in one room while Alice and Peter wait to open the exhibition, but they are also joined by their fictional Alice and Peter counterparts, as well as the authors. The real Alice and Peter are making sense, with each other, of the strangeness of having these famous fictional selves, what it means to grow up when that part of you can never grow up, and how it has affected their lives. The real and imagined characters interact with each other as part of this making sense, but also in a way which pushes the real Alice and Peter.

As you’ll know if you are aware of the Llewyn Davies family in particular, this isn’t a happy story. Both Alice and Peter struggle with and against their fictional selves, but while Alice is able to accept the Alice of Wonderland, though not altogether happily, it is Peter who can not integrate it with the difficulties of his life. Peter is searching for ‘truth’, and so can not lean into his fictional self in the way Alice can.

In the original performance, Judi Dench played Alice and Ben Whishaw played Peter. Whilst I don’t normally like book covers with photography, particularly of actors, I’m really glad my edition has their faces on the front because it meant I heard Judi Dench’s voice for all of her parts. I would have loved to have seen her perform it as she, and Maggie Smith, has the perfect hard-edged-with-vulnerability-underneath voice for the role.

Some of the dialogue feels a little over-done and clunky, the kind that takes a Judi Dench to make it sound like speech rather than Writing. But there were also some scenes that were incredibly well-written and powerful, particularly the fictional Alice and Peter shouting the real Alice and Peter’s weaknesses/shortcomings at them, Peter’s father giving custody to Barrie, and, most heartbreakingly, finding out what happened to Peter’s brother Micheal. The scene with Micheal is especially good at weaving together the different characters, their own dialogue, and text from the original Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.

This is the kind of play that is easy to read and imagine even if you haven’t seen it performed, so it’s also a good place to start if you’re not used to reading plays. It will pack the most punch if you don’t know much about the real Peter and the real Alice, but it still hurts when you know what’s coming.

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On (not) being a reading snob

It’s okay not to read books. It’s okay not to identify as a ‘reader’. This might seem like an incongruous thing to be talking about on World Book Night – the day when people give out books to people who don’t usually read – but perhaps that makes it the best day to be thinking about it.

In the bookish and reading world, there is a lot of discussion about genre snobbery – that literary fiction is often seen as ‘greater’ or more worthy than sci-fi, fantasy, or romance, even though it’s actually not (but that’s a topic for another time). What’s talked about less is the snobbery of reading itself. A couple of authors I’ve (un)followed on twitter continually lament people’s lack of reading in comparison to their other hobbies like watching films or gaming. For them, for many, reading is the ultimate art. And there have been studies which show that reading can increase empathy, slow age-related memory decline, and decrease stress.

But for some people (including me at times) reading is physically difficult due to health problems or learning difficulties, and not at all enjoyable as a consequence. And whilst I do believe that there really is a book out there for everyone, reading just isn’t everybody’s jam. They get their stories through films or games or artwork or tv series. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s also nothing wrong with not consuming anything you might consider ‘the arts’ either. It doesn’t mean a person lacks creativity – in order to solve some of the hardest mathematical problems you require an incredible amount of creativity and ingenuity.

The passage below by Andrew Brighton is in response to a comment by Tessa Jowell that without art people do not reach their potential, “with a consequent loss of human realisation”. And that art is at the heart of being a “fully developed human being”, which, as Brighton suggests, implies that those without art are less than fully human.

Andrew Brighton

From “Consumed by the Political: The Ruination of the Arts Council” by Andrew Brighton.

Of course people want to share and involve others in what they love, but some of the chat around books can sometimes veer uncomfortably close to this territory – that if you don’t read, or even if you do read but not very regularly, you are missing out on something fundamental to making you ‘whole’.

I think books and reading offer something special; it’s not a passive medium as the act of reading requires actively engaging with a text. I love reading and I love books, particularly as they have given me both something to enjoy and a way of connecting with others during a long period of ill-health that can be literally isolating at times. It’s okay to believe reading is the most glorious, the most life-enhancing hobby to spend your time on. It’s okay to disagree completely. It’s okay to be somewhere in between. You are still fully human.

 

[Edit: I don’t mean to say that WBN is about this kind of ‘reading above all else’ snobbery; it’s a great way of introducing people to books they might enjoy. I’ve just used WBN as a starting point for discussion.]

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Where I buy books

Brick & Mortar

I don’t have a local indie bookshop, otherwise I’d probably shop there. We do have two Waterstones, one of which is at the university where I used to work. It’s small, and a lot of space is understandably taken up with textbooks, but I really liked popping in there. What makes a physical bookshop different from an online one is the personal touch – recommendations, curation of books, and discovery (it’s much harder to aimlessly browse online than in person). As a chain, a Waterstones can’t do the curation thing in the same way as an indie, but what I really liked about the one at the university was the enthusiasm and recommendations of one of the guys that worked there. Exactly what you want from a bookshop. (Also, in case you didn’t know, you can click and collect from Waterstones’ website and get the online price even if it’s more expensive in the store you’re picking up from. Bargain.)

amazing fantasy hullI buy my comics from Amazing Fantasy. It’s a small shop, so there are comics towering everywhere, but it’s friendly, has a good selection, and the guy who owns it is often listening to an interesting podcast while he works. Unlike a lot of comics shops you can set up a pull list (where the single issues of a comic are always ordered and put back for you) with no minimum number of comics, which is great if you’re a newbie comics reader or don’t read a lot in single issues.

Online

I’m not a fan of Amazon’s ethics as a company so I try to avoid it if I can (though no judgement if that’s where you choose to shop). It’s also just too easy to buy books without feeling like you’re spending money because you don’t have to put any payment details in after the first purchase. I only tend to use it for books I can’t get anywhere else (usually books not published in the UK). The thing with Amazon is, though, it’s cheap, so it sometimes feels like the only option if you want to buy rather than borrow. However…

hive booksHive is a great alternative to Amazon. The prices are usually the same, and you get free postage (or free pick-up), but it’s not as evil. With each purchase you can also choose an independent bookshop to receive a small percentage of what you’ve spent. (Though Hive market themselves as an alternative to Amazon that helps indies, I suspect the amount the bookshops get is *very* small, so if supporting your local is the most important thing to you, always buy directly from them.)

For secondhand books and out of print books, Abe Books is excellent. You can also find rare books, signed books, and academic textbooks – if you can’t find it anywhere else, you will find it on Abe. It’s basically a marketplace for independent bookshops and sellers. You just have to look carefully to check the language of the edition you’re buying and what country it’s being shipped from (a friend accidentally bought a french edition shipped from the US, so waited a while for a book she then couldn’t read. Oops.).

big green bookshopI’ve also bought a few books from Big Green Bookshop through their (slightly dangerous) twitter service. You just have to tweet them with what you want and they’ll get back to you with when they’ll be able to send it (depending on if they have to order it in) and how much it’ll be. You pay via paypal and it’s easy peasy. Obviously, it’s an indie bookshop so you pay full price, but I like their bookshop and want to support them, and they can give you really great recommendations, which is what you want from a bookshop really.

If you’re buying a book published by a small press, I’d also recommend having a look at their website. Places like Canongate sometimes have frankly ludicrously good sales restricted to their own website (I got a signed Philip Pullman 50% off once), and others do deals when you buy more than one book.

So where do you buy your books? Any favourite places?

 

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The Weaver Fish by Robert Edeson

the weaver fishThe Weaver Fish is one of those books that’s difficult to put into a neat box. It’s fictional non-fiction, which reads like non-fiction for the first third (including footnotes), and a crime thriller for the final two thirds which weaves in things you’ve learnt from earlier in the book.

It took me a while to get into this, partly because I’d been reading a lot of non-fiction and wanted a break and the first section of this has a very non-fiction style. But mainly I think this is just a book that takes a while to go into. The first third seems like a series of inter-related, though sometimes seemingly not at all related, short (fictional) non-fiction stories. And then, out of nowhere, the final two-thirds are a more straightforward crime thriller, but with more academic, mostly fictional, footnotes about linguistics, ecology, and maths.

I am certain I have a missed a lot in this book. Some of the in-jokes are obvious, like the main character who, as one strand of his academic work, has created a new theory of dreams, and is called Edvard ‘Tossentern’. But I suspect that if I was more familiar with, and paid a bit more attention to, some of the mathematical theory I’d find another layer. If I had the be-botheredness to spend time on it, I have no doubt that there’s something hidden in the fictional index and acknowledgements.

I love the imagery and concept of the weaver fish and the condors (which I won’t describe so I don’t give them away). I also really liked how it dealt with Edvard coming back after being presumed dead, and how he struggled to reintegrate into his old life –

Yes, he was back, but not to reinhabit that imperfect silhouette in a seamless return to his past. He was back, and he was a newcomer.

At times, the book felt like it was trying a bit hard, and, often, the hand of the author was clearly visible in a bad way. The thriller part of the book feels like it relies heavily on coincidence, even though it doesn’t any more than many other crime thrillers, just because of the links with everything you learn in the first part.

It’s not a book that’s for everyone, and I think you’ll get the most out of it if you have at least a little scientific literacy. But, at the same time, it’s so unlike anything else I’ve read that I think it’s worth having a go even if you don’t feel science is for you. It won’t make sense in the first few chapters, but persevere, the weaver fish and the giant condor will show themselves to you in time.

I received a free copy of The Weaver Fish from Aardvark Bureau in exchange for an honest review.

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March reads 2016

Another month of excellent books – I’d recommend every one of these:

strong female protagonistStrong Female Protagonist: Book One by Brennan Lee Mulligan & Molly Ostertag (graphic novel – fiction)

Really enjoyable comic about a superhero trying to work out what really is the best way to save the world. She hangs up her cape to go to college but she can’t untangle herself from her previous life, or her fame/notoriety. It covers many of the same themes as Watchmen by Alan Moore, but in a slightly lighter way. I also particularly liked Feral’s arc, another superhero who can regenerate, who decides to remain in a constant state of surgery to donate organs, despite the fact she can have no anaesthesia.

lolitaLolita by Vladimir Nabokov (novel)

Unsurprisingly, this was incredible. Disturbing, yes, but incredible. The language is lyrical and beautiful, and Nabokov is able to present this beautiful language coming from a narrator trying his best to justify himself, to make you see his side, but without making him any less repulsive. Monstrous and genius.

Wrapped in RainbowsWrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd (non-fiction)

I read this for the Women’s Lives Book Club. I’d never read any Hurston, and didn’t know anything about her, before reading this and it was absolutely fascinating. Hurston lived a very full and varied life, and was in many ways quite a ‘modern’ woman. Boyd also writes beautifully and comprehensively, and I’d recommend this even if, like me, you haven’t read any Hurston before, as an interesting story about an incredible woman and life in the US in the early 1900s as a black female writer.

gratitude oliver sacksGratitude by Oliver Sacks (non-fiction)

This is a tiny book containing the final four essays Oliver Sacks wrote in the lead-up to his death (you can also read them for free on the New York Times website). A couple of the essays feel a little short, but I love the way Oliver Sacks writes, and this mini-collection is no less beautifully written than his full-length work. I bought this at the same time as Blackstar by David Bowie – both similar but very different ways of creatively dealing with knowing you will die soon.

Notes from no man's landNotes From No Man’s Land: American Essays by Eula Biss (non-fiction)

I loved this essay collection about race and identity. Biss has a really engaging writing style, and she’s incredibly smart.The essays often move between points in time, focus, or subject, but in a way that’s never jarring and always comes together.The first essay (which begins as a discussion of the invention of the telephone and the fight to get telephone poles accepted by residents and turns into a discussion of the lynching of black people using telephone poles) really sets the tone and style and I loved it. You don’t have to agree with everything she says, and I don’t think that’s her intention, but every essay will make you think. I also really liked that there were notes at the end describing her process for each essay, and I will definitely return to this collection and read each essay together with its note.

Also on the blog this month:

A review of Shaun Tan’s stunning The Red Tree

A review of the Alice in Wonderland exhibit at the British Library

Currently reading: The Weaver Fish by Robert Edeson (novel)

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Alice in Wonderland at The British Library

I was expecting a little more about how the story was created and all that weirdness around Lewis Carroll and his Alice. But, as it’s a library, I should have expected it to be more about the physical books themselves.

alice in wonderland manuscript

Lewis Carroll’s original manuscript & illustrations

If you follow the exhibition in order, you begin with Lewis Carroll’s original manuscript, which he illustrated himself. There’s always something about seeing a writer’s own hand that I love. It always feels more personal, more tangible. (As an aside, if you’re ever near the British Library, pop in to check out their ‘Treasures’ collection to see a massive range of manuscripts. There was something so poignant about seeing Captain Scott’s diary, open to the final entry, which is affecting in a much deeper way in his own handwriting).

alice in wonderland dali

Salvador Dali’s ‘Advice from a Caterpillar’

The exhibition then moves through different ways illustrators have interpreted the book, from the originals by John Tenniel, to Dali, to Yayoi Kusama. It was really interesting how so many beautiful illustrations were rejected by the general public because they strayed ‘too far’ from Tenniel’s originals. But I loved those rejected ones, particularly a watercolour-style illustration (I’ve forgotten the artist’s name, alas) and Dali’s, precisely because they were different but in a wonderfully weird way that captured the essence of the book.

If it’s not too busy, you can also watch Jan Svankmajer’s brilliantly weird stop-motion Alice in Wonderland film (if you’re ready to level-up in weird, check out his stop-motion Jabberwocky here).

The library also has a beautifully designed pop-up shop, in addition to its usual shop, full of Alice in Wonderland goodies. Whilst it has some really nice stuff, I was a bit disappointed it didn’t have any prints of the illustrations, especially given they made up the majority of the exhibition. I would have loved to have taken home a print of my favourite watercolour illustration.

alice in wonderland shopThe exhibition as a whole isn’t as expansive as I was expecting, and as it’s a small space it can feel hot and crowded quite quickly. But it’s worth seeing for the range of illustrations and interpretations over time – how such a diverse group of illustrators are linked through this one book and how their interpretations are sometimes linked to the political situation of their day.

The exhibition runs until 17th April, so check it out (for free!) while you still can.

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