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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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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