Recent Reads

It is currently 5am and I am wrapped up in a blanket like some kind of human burrito while I write this. I was a little smug in my last post, what with all the ‘oh, I am so happy and I will blog regularly and things are so good’, so wouldn’t you know that less than a month later I would be in the midst of what I am calling a ‘transitory period of mild-to-moderate mental instability’. So I am struggling but I am coping and, on the plus side, I have been using the time that I usually waste on things like sleeping to read a bunch of really great books. While the world goes up in flames around us, I have fallen in love with Ali Smith and as I panic about my next creative writing assignment, I have been forced to explore some wonderful poetry. I am all for silver linings and escapism these days.


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milk and honey by Rupi Kaur
‘you look at me and cry
everything hurts

I look at you and whisper
but everything can heal’

Split into four sections (The Hurting, The Loving, The Breaking and The Healing), this collection is about abuse, survivorship, healing and love. The poems feel deeply personal; Kaur is angry, she is gentle, loving, proud and dissatisfied. The Hurting, with it’s rawness and the detachment that is particular to survivors, that is necessary to let out what would otherwise would destroy us, and The Healing, with a gentle and righteous reminder of the things that we need to teach ourselves in order to survive, were the sections that I personnally loved the most.

Kaur’s writing is short and concise, thoughts and emotions are spilled onto the page and arranged in easily digestible chunks. It feels like poetry for our times, poetry for those who are used to interacting in 140 characters or less. I always feel uncomfortable, or unqualified, when it comes to discussing how technically ‘good’ a poem is but the truth of these poems is in their emotional impact rather than their form. I would suggest you listen to her performing some of these pieces because she reads with an interesting cadence that will impact how you read her words. While I can see why this might not be a collection for everyone, if you need some gentle validation or honey for the soul you will find it here.


28501505The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg
‘These women must be charged with sorcery, witchcraft, reading and sassiness! Their behaviour is INTOLERABLE!’

I want to say actual things about this beautiful graphic novel but mostly I just feel the urge to buy all of the copies and give them to all of the women that I love (which is how my sister ended up with her copy) because it left me feeling so warm and fuzzy and happy inside.

The One Hundred Nights of Hero is a, sort-of, lesbian retelling of The one Thousand and One Nights. The overarching story concerns Cherry and her lover Hero and their attempts to distract a man whose aim is to ‘seduce’ Cherry for a bet. If he wins, his prize will be both Cherry and her husband’s castle, so each night when he visits, Hero uses her stories, stories inspired by folklore and mythology, to keep him distracted from his intended goal.

Themes of sisterhood and feminine power are at the centre of this lovely book and it extols the virtues of female storytelling as a form of solidarity and protest. Greenberg’s own storytelling is compelling, carefully weaving each tale into the larger narrative and providing a sense of cohesion that can so often be lacking in this form.

The artwork is perfect. There is sadness, there is love, there is laughter. I loved it.


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Where the words end and my body begins by Amber Dawn
in the morning     magnolia buds split
their pink lips      I lick
the same raindrop off the tip
of your nose as I’ve licked
for the last six springs’

I rarely buy books based on their cover but this is a spectacularly beautiful cover, so I couldn’t resist. Thankfully, as it turns out, the contents are just as lovely. A collection of glosa poetry, a form which I was completely unfamiliar with, that dialogues with queer and feminist writers, Where the words end  places queer identity at its centre, while exploring themes of survivorship, mental illness, community and relationships. Her poetry feels refreshing, ranging from the poignant to the humorous and playful. Using sensuous and lush language, Dawn creates a rawness that is incredibly engaging.

As a collection this was easy to love and I will be reading more of Amber Dawn’s work.


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Girl meets boy by Ali Smith
‘I got up to get us a drink of water and as I stood in the kitchen in the early morning light… I wondered if everything I saw, if maybe every landscape we casually glanced at, was the outcome of an ecstasy we didn’t even know was happening, a love-act moving at a speed slow and steady enough for us to be deceived into thinking it was just everyday reality.’

Ali Smith makes magical things happen with her words. I read her short story collection Other Stories and other stories at the end of last year, but Girl meets boy is the first of her longer works that I have picked up and she has managed to utterly seduce me. Once again I am struggling to coherently say why I loved this book because I just want to gush about it and make you read it and tell you that it made me happy cry.

Set in Inverness, Smith reframes the myth of Iphis in a contemporary setting, exploring gender, sexuality and social inequality. It’s a charming story of two sisters, Imogen and Anthea, and Robin, the boyish girl/girlish boy that Anthea falls in love with.

2016 Year in Review

In terms of global and national politics, of all the dead famous people, of the fact that chrome stopped letting me use the backspace as a ‘back’ button, and of books, this year kind of sucked. Nevertheless, while world was busy falling apart, my own little life has been slowly knitting itself back together in a way that is scary and new and wonderful and very different than I expected; I have been busy finishing my first full year of studying in a long time, (sort-of) going back to work, and turning 30. For the first time in my adult life, I managed a full year where mental illness didn’t completely knock me off my feet, even if  it did come close a few times. Basically life happened and reading took a back seat, along with this blog. I am not sure if any of you are still hanging around, although I hope you are, but I am planning on being more active in the coming year and hopefully you’ll be around for that, too.

This wasn’t wasn’t the worst year that I have ever had with regards to reading (I’m looking at you 2012) but it wasn’t particularly good, either. I managed to read relatively few books, twenty-two in the end, most of which were for university or picked for my book clubs, and nothing made much of a lasting impact. As a result, I don’t have much to talk about. You can see my rather unimpressive 2016 reading list here but I’ll just stick to the best and the worst here in order to avoid simply listing the things that I don’t really want to talk much about.

ceciliaFirst, I need to give an honourable mention to Cecilia by Fanny Burney because it was the most enjoyable experience that I had with a book all year.

Burney has managed to pack a little bit of everything into this one thousand paged, eighteenth century novel. There is romance, drama, tragedy and intrigue, there are hipsters and gossips, ridiculous parties where people literally swing from the ceiling, duels and dramatic breakdowns. Basically, Cecilia is bananas and if you can imagine it then you will probably find it within these pages. However, underlying all of the crazy is a harsh critique of patriarchal hierarchies and Burney exposes the limited control that women in the eighteenth century had over their own lives and destinies.

I read Cecilia as part of the #summerofcecilia read-along, hosted by Laura at Reading in Bed, which definitely made this a much more enjoyable experience, and if you decide to read a gargantuan eighteenth century novel next year, then I recommend that you start with Cecilia and that you take part in one of these read-alongs next year.

 

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The only book upon which I bestowed The 5-star Goodreads Rating on this year was The Secret History by Donna Tartt. The story of Richard Papen, a college student newly arrived at a private university in New England, who is thrust into a world of intellectual debate and murder after befriending a tight-knit group of classics majors, this is a beautifully written and atmospheric book. Tartt has that particular talent which allows the construction of exceptionally despicable characters, including a wonderfully unreliable narrator, while still making the reader care enough to continue with the narrative.

The Secret History is a story about friendship and obsession, with a dark and Gothic tone that has stayed with me since February; it is likely that this disquieting atmosphere will continue to haunt and envelope every single grey and rainy day in late Winter.

 

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I don’t particularly enjoy writing about books that I dislike but it was a slow reading year and there wasn’t much that I loved to talk about, so why not?

The low point of the year was, without a doubt, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. This was a book club read and although I was a little turned off by the rumours surrounding the publication I went in with an open mind. I still disliked it.

Personally, I didn’t find it very well written  (the narrative point of view would frequently jump between characters in a confusing manner), it was horrifically racist, and I had to rely on my memory of To Kill a Mockingbird (which I did enjoy, in case you are wondering, but it has been over a decade since I read it) in order to supplement the lack of characterisation, particularly in relation to Atticus. On the flip side, it did make me think a lot and it felt unfortunately relevant to a lot of conversations that are happening today, so it wasn’t that I didn’t get anything out of it but it certainly doesn’t have enough merit for me to recommend it.

In terms of 2017 and reading I don’t have many goals. I am going to set my goodreads challenge to twelve again because I like feeling like an overachiever and setting the bar low is a good way to do that (I hit 183% of my goal this year). I also want to tackle Tolstoy’s War and Peace as my Dad bought me the world’s heaviest copy and I am looking forward to reading that, probably in the late autumn or winter time.

I hope that 2016 has treated most of you well, at least on a personal level, and that 2017 will be better on all fronts.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara“Life is so sad, he would think in those moments.  It’s so sad, and yet we all do it.  We all cling to it; we all search for something to give us solace.”


I have literally just set this book down and my heart feels sore.  A Little Life is, without a doubt, the best book that I have read this year, one of the best pieces of contemporary fiction that I have ever read, and I was saddened, and a little relieved I must admit, to have finished it.

Spanning over three decades (and 700 pages)  A Little Life follows four friends, former college roommates, as they move through their lives in New York City, attempting to navigate their relationships, careers and the trials and tribulations of human existence. There is a particular focus on Jude St Francis, the youngest and most impenetrable of the group, who refuses to discuss his childhood or how he managed to sustain an injury that frequently causes him pain and discomfort.  This is a book about love, about friendship and about the absolute necessity of both.

This is a beautifully written piece of fiction.  It is raw, painful and so very, very sad.  I spent almost a month with this book because there were moments when it felt too difficult to continue, moments when I could no longer see the words through my own tears and, mostly, because I did not want it to be over.    It felt like I was witnessing the most unbearably intimate moments in the lives of these four men and I found myself falling in love with each of them for very different reasons.

It is a testament to Yanagihara’s skill as an author that she has managed to craft, out of nothing more than words, four very real and very complex people, because this is what they feel like.  I find it difficult to imagine that there isn’t a New York City out there that hasn’t really been their home, that hasn’t witnessed their lives unfolding like I have and even when I wasn’t reading about these characters, about JB, Jude, Malcolm and Willem,  I would find myself thinking about them and worrying about them.  I am sad that I now have to leave them behind.  They are all complex, they are all flawed and it is difficult not to find yourself forming connections with them, even when their actions are less than admirable you will always be able to understand them.  Jude in particular has wormed his way into my heart and I found myself frequently returning to his story with sadness, unable to shake my own desire to help him in some way.  Reading his story, particularly his own thoughts about himself, is not easy going and I  felt like the fifth member of the group, watching Jude, knowing more than they ever could, and yet, like them, completely unable to do anything to help him.

Yet, despite my love for this book and these characters, it would be a lie to say that I enjoyed the reading experience.  It was emotionally taxing and difficult to get through at times, it was tiring and draining, and it is not a book that I would recommend to everyone.   While I don’t normally feel the need to put in warnings or disclaimers, I would feel remiss if I didn’t mention that this books does deal with  abuse (sexual, physical, mental, drug and self-inflicted) in a very raw and very graphic manner.  After the reviews I had had read of A Little Life I was expecting these issues to be dealt with almost gratuitously but I found that Yanagihara dealt with the topics sensitively and with respect, but there was no holding back and, despite not usually being affected by these topics in books, I did find the descriptions of self harm very triggering and difficult to read.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

“I am Dracula by Bram StokerDracula.  And I bid you welcome, Mr Harker, to my house.”


Dracula, both the character and the story, has been absorbed into our culture in such a way that, without ever even having picked up the book, I know this story like the back of my hand.  I have seen countless adaptations, some wonderful, some awful and some so awful that they were wonderful, and the vampire myth has been diluted to such an extent that they have most recently been portrayed as sparkly pseudo-teenagers who love school (and under-age girls) a whole bunch and I just struggle to find that frightening.  I wish that I could go back to 1897 and read Dracula as someone who hasn’t known that name forever but, unfortunately, I can only read it as someone living in the twenty-first century and that has definitely affected how much I could enjoy the story.

I don’t want to say that I didn’t like it, but I really didn’t.  I can appreciate how novel it was, and it is a great and campy horror story, but Dracula and I just did not click.  It took me two months, two torturous months, to read all 449 pages and by the end I was scheduling 50 pages into my day just to get it done.  I think the format may have been one of the main reasons that I just couldn’t sink my teeth into Dracula, as the story unfolds through a series of diary entries, letters, telegrams and newspaper clippings, and I found that it made for a very dry read which lacked any sense of urgency.  In fact this is the fourth time I have tried to read Dracula and each time I would find myself putting it down and lacking any desire to pick it up again.  Van Helsing didn’t help matters either because that man can talk and good god is he dull; at one point my mind was drawing parallels between his lectures and that tortuous speech made by John Galt in Atlas Shrugged. 

What I did enjoy was the unexpected reversal of traditional gender roles.  While Mina, and to a lesser extent Lucy, have the strength of character to hold themselves and everyone else together rather stoically, the men are huddling together fretting, crying and fainting.  At one point Mina literally holds Johnathan up and while she is keeping her shit together for the sake of the menfolk, Harker’s hair is turning white and Quincey is busy shooting in windows (where his friends are sitting) because he is now afraid of bats.

As for Dracula? Well, he is barely in the book and described as having a “child-brain” instead of a “man-brain”, so I found it difficult to be too afraid of him.  Also he is not the sexy vampire that modern audiences have come to expect; I wanted Gary Oldman’s young Dracula but instead I got a hairy palmed old man with pointed ears and rank breath.

I do still think Dracula is worth reading, even if I feel that the story has been unfortunately overshadowed but it’s own adaptations, and I am glad that I have finally conquered it after having it sitting on my bookshelves for over a decade, but this is one of the very few occasions where I have enjoyed the film(s) much more than the original text.

Instrumental by James Rhodes

Instrumental by James Rhodes“So I looked for distractions.  I looked for a way out that didn’t involve homicide or suicide.  And all roads led to music.  They always do.”


Two years ago, just a couple of months after being discharged from a mental health unit, I sat in front of the TV and watched a man take a Steinway into a psychiatric hospital.  I listened as he talked about his own experiences of mental illness, about how classical music saved his life and then he played a piece by Rachmaninov (his Prelude in c sharp minor, if you are interested) and my brain stopped for the first time  in months.  I had been unable to read a book or follow a TV show, I couldn’t breathe without an overwhelming sense of anxiety and then suddenly I experienced this moment of peace and that’s when I fell into the world of classical music.

Here’s the thing about classical music though, it can feel complicated and, at the beginning, difficult to relate to and the thing that I found so wonderful about James Rhodes is that he can take a huge piece of music, something complex and filled with emotion and history, and take it apart from the inside and, using his own experiences, explain it in such a way that the pieces all fall back into place and suddenly you get it.  When I was reading Instrumental this is how I felt again; he took his own life, some experiences that I could relate to and some that I would never have been able to comprehend before, and lay it all out, only this time he uses Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and their works to help us understand him instead of the other way around.

This book fell through my letterbox on Saturday afternoon and I had finished it that evening but it was not easy going, it is the story of child rape, drug addiction and mental illness, and it can be brutal and heart breaking at times.  Rhodes is unflinchingly honest and this is powerful reading.  When child abuse is discussed these days it tends to be about the act itself, there seems to be mass outrage at the perpetrator and then the story is soon forgotten, which is why I think that this book is so important.  People don’t discuss the effects that these things will have on someone, not only throughout their childhood but for the rest of their lives, physically, mentally and socially, and nobody wants to talk about that because we live in world that likes happy endings and that doesn’t want to deal with anything that might make us feel uncomfortable.  That this book was almost banned makes it even more important, it is essential that these stories get told, that people can know that they are not alone and that they can speak out.

Despite the subject matter, despite the loss of innocence and childhood and peace of mind, this story is ultimately one of hope.  It is about second chances and how, even if the future looks uncertain and even if we will never truly be OK, there is still beauty and love and music, and that is why it feels like more than a memoir; it is a love letter to classical music, it is a testament to the tenacity of the human spirit, it will make you laugh, it will make you cry and it will also make it very hard for you not to fall a little bit in love with James Rhodes, who comes across as vulnerable, potty-mouthed, mischievous and utterly likeable.

If you do read this (and I really hope that you do) I definitely recommend that you listen to the soundtrack as you read, each piece was obviously chosen with great care and it definitely made the experience.

Sex Criminals Vol. 1 & 2 by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

Sex Criminals Vol. 1 by Matt Fraction & Chip ZdarskyVolume 1: One Weird Trick
“Jon … is your dick glowing”

This was such a weird and wonderful graphic novel (and it really is a graphic novel) about two people, Suzie and Jon, who find that time stops when they orgasm.  Literally.  After a lifetime of believing they were alone with their gift, discovering that they could exist in this place-without-time together, Suzie and Jon do what any sane person would – they decide to rob a bank.

The story jumps back and forth in time meaning that we get to watch their relationship develop while simultaneously finding out what is happening in the near future.  The relationship between the Suzie and Jon was what I really loved about this novel and it did such an excellent job of capturing that intoxicating feeling so unique to new love.  These two get completely wrapped up in each other and find themselves caught up in their own little world, which I imagine we can all relate to (except maybe not so literally).  I really liked these characters and I kind of fell a little in love with Jon when he first meets Suzie and quotes the opening passage (yeah, I laughed at myself for using this phrase in a review of a book called Sex Criminals) of Lolita, which I personally think is one of the most beautiful things ever written in the English language.

I was surprised by the fact that this book wasn’t really about sex, I mean it was, but it was also about two people who are looking for more than sex, who are searching for intimacy and a connection with something outside of themselves.  Of course it is bawdy, it is called Sex Criminals and there is a glowing penis, but it is done in such a fun, positive way and it manages to do so without containing any of the usual hang-ups.

As for the art, it is absolutely beautiful, the colours are vibrant and when they are in The Quiet (or Cumworld …) everthing is hazy and just … beautiful.  Each panel is chock full of detail and when Suzie and Jon visit Cumworld (the sex shop) there are so many things going on in the background that could you spend a lot of time just on each panel.

Highly recommended.


Sex Criminals Vol. 2 by Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky

Volume 2: Two Worlds, One Cop

“Around this giant ball of fire this rock we stand on spins, and while we are here we will like and love one another with vim and vigour.  Through cruelty, violence, neglect or sheer fucking chance.  Life is awful.  The first time you feel real pain it hurts more than anything you’ll ever feel again.  Understand that as an entitled boomer narcissist what I’m about to tell you is heresy, but one day we all die.  What the fuck kind of deal is that?”

Firstly, that title.  Two Worlds, One Cop.  Brilliant.

Secondly, I actually thought this was much better than the first volume and I swear it’s just a coincidence that every 5* book that I have read this year has had a blue cover.

So the shine has worn off of their new relationship, the Sex Police are on their trail and real life has started to catch up with Suzie and Jon.

The tone of this volume is much more sombre than the first and it deals with some heavier topics such as mental illness, which is something that I am always more sensitive to because I struggle with it personally, and I honestly thought that the authors did such a great job here.  Jon has stopped taking his medication and as a result has fallen into depression.  The way that the authors deal with medication and the horrible side effects of taking it, but also the ramifications of not taking it, was done really well and with great care.  We also see the potential pitfalls of bad therapy and what a great therapist looks like, and there is some great advice like get some exercise and maybe hang out with some people.  Jon’s therapist is a great addition and I’ve been lucky to meet someone very similar in my own life.

Speaking of advice, the section about birth control was wonderful, important and well done.  The first volume talks about the sex education, or more accurately the complete lack of sex-education, that kids get from their school and parents, and in volume two they give a run-down of the different types of contraception available.  This information is delivered by a gynaecologist doing a strip-tease, so it’s funny and educational, and it makes me hope that a lot of teenagers are reading this book (which I am sure that they are).

There are also a few new characters, the authors talk about the sex industry a little and despite the plot moving forward at a much slower pace this was such a worthwhile read.  While the themes are much heavier and this volumes wasn’t as laugh-out-loud funny as the first, there were still plenty of funny moments (keep an eye out for the dildo throne).  My only complaint is that I am going to have to wait until volume three is released in order to find out how the story continues.

Legion and The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson

Legion and The Emperor's Soul by Brandon Sanderson

“There is rarely an obvious branching point in a person’s life.  People changed slowly, over time.  You didn’t take one step, then find yourself in a completely new location.  You first took a little step off a path to avoid some rocks.  For a while, you walked alongside the path, but then you wandered out a little way to step on softer soil.  Then you stopped paying attention as you drifted farther and farther away.  Finally, you found yourself in the wrong city, wondering why the signs on the roadway hadn’t led you better.”

 – The Emperor’s Soul


The Emperor’s Soul, a novella set in the same world as Elantris, is the second book scheduled for this month’s #yearofcosmere readalong.  I bought the edition that also contained the short story Legion and, in all honesty, I wasn’t expecting too much after my disappointing experience with Elantris.

Legion is the first Sanderson story that I have read which takes place outside of the Cosmere.  Set on Earth it is the tale of Stephen Leeds, aka Legion, who lives his life surrounded by hallucinations, or aspects, each skilled or knowledgeable in their own particular area and who tend to come in very handy when solving cases.  I won’t go into any plot details because this is a very short little story but there is an abundance of interesting themes such as science versus religion, the relationship between religion and politics, the potential ramifications of technological advances, and truth versus faith.  I actually really enjoyed this, admittedly the characters and ideas more than the story or writing, but I would love to see Sanderson expand on this in the future.

The Emperor’s Soul was such a beautiful story and, despite my expectations being so low, it absolutely blew me away.  The story follows Shai, a forger caught trying to steal the Moon Sceptre, who has only two options: face execution or undertake the impossible task of forging a new soul for the Emperor Ashraven, who has been left without conciousness after the assassination attempt which took his wife, in only 100 days.  There is a very small cast of characters and very little action, instead Sanderson focusses on Shai’s attempt to understand what made Ashraven who he was in order to rebuild him, and on the growing and shifting intimacy which develops between her and a man named Gaotona.  I read this as an homage to the complexities of the human spirit and how we are built upon each small detail of our history, Ashraven’s salvation and his destiny both lie in the study of his past, but that we are also what we perceive ourselves to be.  There is a lovely moment when Shai is able to turn a plain and cracked window into a beautiful stained glass piece only because it remembered itself as something beautiful.  I can’t recommend this novella enough.