Some Summer Reads So Far

Days, weeks, and months feel like they’re blurring into one right now. I probably (definitely) say that all the time, but it feels especially true at the moment.

Books, too, seem to be blurring into one big mushy whirlpool of letters, pages, and covers. Not that I’ve been reading a superhuman number of them – far from it! – but I have definitely been struggling to capture my thoughts and feelings on most of them.

Book thoughts and feelings can be slippery, slimy, and hard to keep hold of creatures.

C’est la vie.

Although it would kind of be helpful if it wasn’t la vie.

So, over the last few days, I’ve been on the hunt – decked out in full book safari gear – for a few thoughts and feelings creatures.

Luckily, I managed to track a few down.

*

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov: this book, people. This book. *clutches copy to chest* It’s utterly, utterly, utterly incredible. It’s mindbendingly weird and spellbindingly surreal. It’s magnificent and enchanting and effervescent; bitingly funny and shockingly horrific. It’s completely mesmerising.

It is, quite simply, all. the. feels.

All. The. Feels.

And seeing as I’ve run out of interesting adjectives and melodramatic uses for full stops, all I have left to recommend it is the blurb:

‘The devil comes to Moscow wearing a fancy suit. With his disorderly band of accomplices – including a demonic, gun-toting tomcat – he immediately begins to create havoc. Disappearances, destruction and death spread through the city like wildfire and Margarita discovers that her lover has vanished in the chaos. Making a bargain with the devil, she decides to try a little black magic of her own to save the man she loves…’

If you like weird and wild and anarchic, you NEED to read The Master and Margarita.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom: it’s typical, isn’t it? As soon as I write a blog post about being a slow reader, I start and finish a book in a day. I read this on a blazing hot June afternoon*, curled up on a blanket** in the garden, surrounded by buzzing bees and bumbling butterflies. It was a really, really relaxing afternoon, made even better by this endearing book. Originally published in the nineties, it’s a real-life tale following journalist Mitch Albom as he catches up with his old college professor, Morrie Schwartz, who is slowly dying from ALS. The book flows seamlessly; it has a punchy, hook-filled, journalistic style, but somehow pulls it off in a relaxed, easy-going way. And its core message is head-over-heels heartwarming.

*June afternoon is weirdly fun to say. Or is that just me?

**which I had to adjust every fifteen minutes to keep up with the shadows cast by towels drying on the washing line because I was too lazy to go back inside and get some suncream.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: this book left me crying like an absolute baby, and left me crying like an absolute baby” is probably one of the highest forms of recommendation I can give a book. Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon who, in May 2013, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He died in March 2015. He wrote When Breath Becomes Air during the last twenty-two months of his life, as he grappled with the illness and the prospect of his imminent death. The book will break your heart. But it will also put it back together again.

‘What happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy.’ from the book’s epilogue, by Lucy Kalanithi.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Zero Degrees of Empathy by Simon Baron-Cohen: I’m on a quest to learn more about the weird and wonderful world of minds at the moment, and learning a little more about empathy seemed like a good place to start. Zero Degrees of Empathy provides a fascinating and easy to digest insight into the evidence and ideas surrounding empathy; how it works, its origins, its usefulness, and the problems that arise when it malfunctions within individuals and societies. I particularly enjoyed chapter two – learning about psychopaths and narcissists was fun and worrying all at the same time.

Zero Degrees of Empathy by Simon Baron-Cohen

And where better to end a blog post than on the subject of psychopaths and narcissists?

I certainly can’t think of anywhere.

♦ Have you read any of these? ♦ What did you think of them, if you have? ♦ How do you keep track of your book thoughts and feelings? ♦ Are you chaotic like me or organised like a sensible person? ♦

Reads – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

*emerges from reading cave dazed and confused*

It’s been five weeks.

Five whole weeks.

But, yesterday, I finally finished my story turtle quest to read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

It’s been an adventure.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke book review.

I feel like I have a hangover from it.

I’ve been drinking a lot of intoxicating words over the last five weeks.

Book hangovers make processing thoughts and writing reviews tricky. Which, considering this is a book review, is perhaps awkward.

But the black-out blinds are down, there’s a plate full of carbs by my side, plenty of book drugs to numb the pain, and copious cups of tea to keep me going. Plus, I have my trusty old bullet points to fall back on.

I’m definitely going to fall back on them.

There’s no other way with this level of hangover.

Overall, I loved it. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. It’s an extraordinary story and an incredible piece of writing. There were things I really liked about the book and, inevitably, some things that I liked a lot less. These are the things that I can currently remember…

Likes:

  • The footnotes. Each one was a teeny tiny magical story within a humungous magical story, and they were so cleverly done.
  • The fantasticalness. Ugh, man. This book is beyond magical and fantastical and wonderful. It’s everything you could ask for in an alternative-history fantasy book. Everything and more.
  • The writing. It’s whimsical and witty and charming and it just made my reader’s heart all warm and happy. Susanna Clarke has skillz. (That’s the only way I can think to describe it – probably because of my lack of aforementioned* skillz.)
  • The characters. There are pantomime villains; blundering but good hearted heroes; loyal friends; secretive masters; chattering servants; a missing, ancient faerie king; magical vagabonds; plus many, many more besides. They’re all richly drawn and brim with life.
  • Regency. Regency England made magical is as good as it sounds. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to read Pride and Prejudice again without being disppointed there’s no witchcraft going on.

Dislikes:

  • The footnotes. I know, I know. How can I like them and dislike them at the same time? I just can, that’s why. *sticks out tongue* Mostly, they were brilliant. One or two, though, felt overbearing and unnecessary and made me do eye-rolls worthy of a teenager.
  • Mr Norrell. Eeek. I’m certain Susanna Clarke didn’t intend for him to be a likeable character, which is fair enough and normally doesn’t bother me, but my lack-of-like for Mr Norrell stretches to pretty intense levels. He’s proud, arrogant, pernicious, dismissive, selfish, and one of his (many) ill-judged actions – I think bibliophiles everywhere will know which one  – pushed him over into becoming an unforgivable character for me.
  • Move to Italy – the section set in Italy just felt heavy to read. Most of the novel kind of bounces along happily/unhappily from one thing to the next, but this part felt more like it was dragging its feet.
  • Length. Okay, I know. This is totally unfair and completely irrelevant. A story takes as many pages as it takes to tell it. I knoooow. My dislike is just a personal bias against longer books because I’m a slow reader. Aaaand it’s also because I’m pretty sure my wrists have developed arthritis from trying to figure out a comfortable way to hold it.

All those dislikes, though, are more than outweighed by the book’s general brilliance. It’s like a force of nature. You just have to give in to it and let yourself be swept away in all the pages, footnotes, and storylines.

It’s worth it.

Right. I think it’s time for that plate of carbs.

*aforementioned is my new favourite word even though it makes me sound like I’m 100 years old. What can I say?

Break & Mend

The last few weeks have been interesting.

I don’t know how to write about them. My brain and fingertips can’t articulate the horrible weirdness of them. Each time I try, I’m just left with sentences of gobbledygook and paragraphs I can’t find my way back out of.

So…

*takes a deep breath*

… a book.

A book.

Always the answer to any of life’s problems.

I found a copy of The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico in a charity shop on a rainy day last week. I was meant to be out buying lunch, but secondhand retail therapy called to all the corners of my soul and I’m very glad it did, even if my empty stomach was less happy about the distraction.

It’s a beautiful short story. Haunting in a magical, heart-breaky kinda way. Weird, strange, and unusual in the same heart-breaky way.

But as much as it might break your heart a little bit, it will mend it more.

It did mine.

PoppyAndTheSnowGoose
Spot the upside down Poppy…

Reads – The Magic Toyshop

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

I knew this would happen.

Ever since watching a BBC documentary in August last year, ever since reading but not loving Nights at the Circus in September (review here), I’ve known.

I knew, deep down in my bones, that one day I would fall in love with an Angela Carter book.

All I had to do was find the one.

And I found it, second time lucky.

The Magic Toyshop follows the story of fifteen year old Melanie and her younger siblings as they try to come to terms with their new lives under the tyrannical guardianship of their eccentric Uncle Philip. It’s strange and bizarre, eery, grotesque, macabre, and uncanny – but I loved it. Truly, madly, and deeply.

And I can’t even explain why. I get halfway through reasoned, rational arguments for why I think it’s such a good book and then my brain short circuits until the only words left inside it are I JUST LOVED IT WITH MY WHOLE HEART and little puffs of smoke appear out of my ears.

So, I think the only way forward for this 100% biased and love blind review is for me to get out some trusty old bullet points.

  • The writing – it’s beautiful, lush, and completely hypnotic.
  • The sixties – the story was set in the present day at the time of its publication, so say hello to sixties England. In a way, the story itself is kind of timeless, but subtle details that ground the book in its era – corduroy trousers, p.v.c. jackets, a fleeting Mini – are there if you keep your eyes peeled. Initially, the sixties felt like an unnatural setting for this kind of story, but by the end I wouldn’t have wanted it set in any other decade. It turns out that magical realism and corduroy trousers go surprisingly well together.
  • The world building – although it’s set in sixties London, the toyshop itself feels like a separate universe. It’s creepy and unsettling and you’re never really sure if real-world rules apply.
  • Melanie – she’s not the easiest character to understand and errs on the side of self absorption (is there any other way to err at fifteen?), but you can tell she has a good heart by the way she looks after her siblings and helps her aunt. She goes from riches to orphaned rags and learns to take it in her stride.
  • Finn – again, not the easiest character to understand, but he has an impish spirit and strange fieriness that not even the monstrous Uncle Philip can keep down.
  • The relationships – there’s attraction and intrigue, revulsion and indifference, sweet affection and twisted obsession, hatred, love, and fear. In other words, there are feelings floating about all over the place and it’s hard not to get caught up in Carter’s emotional sorcery, even if it is all a bit (a lot) weird.

I could go on and on, but I think it’s for the best if I stop before the whole short-circuiting-smoke-from-ears thing starts.

Basically, I just loved it with my whole heart.

Reads – Good Omens

GoodOmensBookB&W

Eleven years before the scheduled Armageddon, two world-loving other-worldly creatures – one a demon, the other an angel – accidentally misplace the antichrist with a little help/hindrance from a scatter-brained satanic nun. Chaos ensues – with all the forces of heaven, hell, and a village in Oxfordshire trying to keep up as the appointed dayeth and hour draws near.

*

I love Terry Pratchett books. I love Neil Gaiman books.

So a book written by both of them about the end of the world?

Well, it sounded pretty perfect to me.

Plus, with a TV adaptation of Good Omens set to be released later this month – trailer here – now felt like the ideal time to dip my toe into this epic co-authoring waters.

And it was pretty perfect.

Once I got into its absurdly wonderful flow it was hard not to fall head over heels in love with how ridiculous it all was.

Clearly, Gaiman and Pratchett had a lot of fun writing the book. Ninety-nine percent of the time that translated as fun to read. One percent of the time, though, and I feel like killjoy R.P. Tyler* for saying this, it translated as slightly irritating because the storyline seemed to lose out to a two/three/four paragraphs long (plus a detailed footnote) gag. Hence** the pretty before the perfect.

Good Omens is definitely a Marmite kind of book – you’ll love it or you’ll hate it depending on your sense of humour. It’s very British, very Monty Pythonesque, very weird and wacky, very over the top, and very unapologetic for it.

I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

*my favourite secondary (maybe thirdondary, possibly even fourthondary) character. There are loads of these brilliant minor characters throughout the book.

**yes, I used the word hence. Yes, I am a hundred years old.

And finally, can we all just take a moment to appreciate Poppy, my wonderful photography assistant…

GoodOmens&PoppyBW

PoppyAndGoodOmens

PoppyAndGO

Reads – Room

Picador 40 edition of Room by Emma Donoghue. Room book cover.

I know, I know.

I’m very late to this particular reading party.

I put off reading Room by Emma Donoghue for a long, long time because, in all honesty, I was a scaredy cat. Good review after good review, recommendation after recommendation, newspaper articles, magazine features, literary awards, a film adaptation, more awards, an oscar – and still my brain said no. nope. absolutely not.

One teeny tiny room.

Why escape to confinement when there are whole wide worlds to explore instead?

But eventually I was convinced to give it a go by my friend laurenabbeybooks and I’m so glad she persuaded me (it took a good few months of whispered book chat between questions at the pub quiz). Room isn’t an easy book about a happy subject and it’s certainly claustrophobic at points, but the way you get to watch the world unfold in front of Jack’s unbelieving 5-year-old eyes is pretty special. He’s such an endearing character – infuriating and wonderful all at the same time – you can’t help but root for him and his Ma all the way, right from the bottom of your heart.

‘I see a big stack of suitcases all colours like pink and green and blue, then an escalator. I just step on for a second but I can’t step back up, it zooms me down down down and it’s the coolest thing and scary as well, coolary, that’s a word sandwich, Ma would like it.’

I thought Room would be a confinement. Instead, it made the real world seem even wider, even bigger, and even better. It made it coolary.

And a book that makes the real world feel more coolary is always the best sort of book.

Reads – A Fortune-Teller Told Me

AFortuneTellerToldMecover
A Fortune-Teller Told Me by Tiziano Terzani

Fortune-tellers and travelling. Not much can go wrong with that combination, can it?

I was sold on A Fortune-Teller Told Me in roughly half a second, convinced by the title alone. Sometimes you just know.

It tells the story of Tiziano Terzani – an Italian journalist based in Asia for Der Spiegel throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s – and how he spent 1993 travelling Asia and Europe without stepping foot on a plane, having been warned against air travel in that year by a fortune-teller in Hong Kong sixteen years before.

‘It was an excellent decision, and 1993 turned out to be one of the most extraordinary years I have ever spent: I was marked for death, and instead I was reborn.’

This is such a wonderful and surprising book. Terzani’s understanding of the political (and cultural) histories, systems, and workings of countries in the far east of Asia were unrivalled – and if stories of the political/cultural workings in 1990s Asia don’t sound particularly interesting (it’s what I would have thought, too), then think again. They’re fascinating. The information and technologies he describes might be outdated, but the stories behind them are compelling and important, and they still shape the geo-politics of today.

Terzani himself is a compelling character throughout the book. He had plenty of frank opinions which he wasn’t afraid to share, especially regarding the thoughtless consumption and reckless materialism he saw engulfing every corner of the world. At times, I rolled my eyes; at others, I found myself never wanting to step inside a shop again (which is slightly inconvenient, seeing as I work in one). And his ability to spot and tell a story were incredible – pretty enviable, too. The book comes to life in all the tiny details he could so easily have ignored but didn’t. One of my favourite stories is barely two lines long, from page twenty-seven: ‘…during the war every time the Pathet Lao crossed a river, the last man in the patrol had to turn back and call to a non-existent comrade. The Spirit of the River habitually carries off the last in the line, and in that way the guerillas hoped to deceive it.’ The whole book is teeming with anecdotes like these, and I loved them all. My copy is full of dog-eared pages and pencil scribbles in the margins.

‘Every place is a goldmine. You have only to give yourself time, sit in a teahouse watching passers-by, stand in a corner of the market, go for a haircut. You pick up a thread – a word, a meeting, a friend of a friend of someone you have just met – and soon the most insipid, most insignificant place becomes a mirror of the world, a window on life, a theatre of humanity.’

A Fortune-Teller Told Me is an extraordinary blend of the magical, the momentous, and the mundane. On every page, the world is changing. On every page, the world is weird and wide and wonderful. It might be from 1993, but this is a book that still has a lot in common with the world of today.

And I wonder what Terzani would make of it?

Reads – The Winter of the Witch

Right. I think I can do this.

I can totally do this.

*breaks down*

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The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

Okay, so this is going to be harder to write than I thought when I first started reading the book.

The Winter of the Witch is the final novel in the Winternight trilogy by Katherine Arden. The trilogy follows Vasya as she grows from a headstrong and away-with-the-fairies girl into a powerful young woman. You can read about my love for The Bear and the Nightingale here and my love for The Girl in the Tower here. There’s a lotta lot of love there.

There is slightly – emphasis is really important on the slightly – less love here.

*closes eyes, scrunches up face, and waits for boos and hisses*

Most of my lack of love is for the first half of the book, which I found (and I will go ahead and use this word, because I am apparently a hundred and fifty years old) befuddling. I’m perfectly happy to accept that my beffudlement might be due to a combination of January brain, juggling five books (not a good move), a cold, and my aforementioned a hundred and fifty year oldedness*, but I felt like there was a lotta lot of story stuff going on and it seemed *scrunches up face again* more melodramatic than dramatic to me.

The book came into its own, though, in the second half and things began to make more sense to my old and withered January brain.

Here are just a few of my favourite things:

  • The Bear – is it bad that I was actually a little bit in love with Medved by the end? Well, if it is then all I can do is apologise. Obvsiously, I wasn’t a fan of the whole raising the dead thing (because that’s really not a very nice thing to inflict on the living or the dead) but I was a fan of all the mischief. He was endearing, if twisted. All I’m saying is that I think he would make for interesting company at a dinner party. Don’t judge me.
  • Sasha – he’s a legend and I think we can all agree that this time my love needs no apology.
  • It’s a twin thing – as one half of a set of twins (not sure if that’s the best way to put it, but it’s what I’m going with), my attention is always grabbed by a twin story-line. I love (or am amused by) all the clichés associated with us and I love the almost mystical qualities people who happen to have shared a womb at the same time are sometimes given by people who got a womb all to themselves for nine months. We’re not that interesting, I promise. In this case, though, the mystical qualities were obviously more than fair enough. Yin and yang, good and evil, light and dark, life and death, love and hate, summer and winter. The balancing act was nice to watch unfold.
  • The writing – Katherine Arden’s writing is beautiful. Her descriptions are rich but never heavy handed, and the world she’s made is mesmerising.
  • The ending – it’s bittersweet because the trilogy is over, but it’s also goldilocks-right.
The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden, UK hardback cover. Winternight trilogy, book review.
Poppy thinks you should read this book

The last seventy five or so pages disappeared in a blur and flurry of paper for me. Everything converged into a perfect story-storm, and I was actually left shaking and holding back tears by a certain… goodbye.

It’s hard not to write about it, but I won’t.

*breaks down again*

I really do wish I’d loved the first half of the book more.

But I loved The Winter of the Witch by the end and that’s more than good enough for me.

*note to self – must stop ruining the English language.

Reads – The Revenant

*sighs a long sigh and looks to the sky for help from the universe*

I’m really not sure where to start with The Revenant by Michael Punke.

For anyone who doesn’t know *scans the horizon with binoculars, waves at the stragglers in the distance*, The Revenant tells the story of Hugh Glass, an American frontiersman, and his quest for revenge on the men who robbed and abandoned him after he was attacked by a big, angry, and extremely bitey bear.

Sounds fabulous, doesn’t it?

Famously, it was adapted – adapted being the very, very key word – into a film, with Leonardo DiCaprio starring as Hugh Glass and a big, angry, extremely bitey CGI bear starring as the actual-bitey bear. (I watched it for the first time a few days ago on BBC iPlayer – the book is better, although it tragically lacks Leonardo DiCaprio.)

I’ll admit, I knew before I started reading that The Revenant wasn’t going to be a favourite – I just wanted to try it.

It was certainly an experience. At times, an ordeal. It took me over a month to finish it.

But there were positives.

  • The writing – it was excellent and evocative, even if it strayed into survival manual territory on occasion.
  • The characterisation (well, the characterisation of the men in the book) – I had no trouble picturing, liking, admiring, or loathing any of the main characters. They were a rich tapestry of lives-lived-so-far, motives, and emotions. But I wanted to throw the book out of the nearest window anytime a woman happened to appear in the story. Hysteric who has nothing to do with the plot? Check. Prostitute who has nothing to do with the plot? Check. OId, haggard lady who has nothing to do with the plot? Check. Wife who has nothing to do with the plot? Check. Dreamy, lovely, pure fiancé who’s been dead for years and has nothing to do with the plot? Check. I get that The Revenant is a raw egg drinkin’, 72oz steak eatin’, manly man adventure book, but c’mon. (Side note – if you find yourself getting annoyed and angry at the stereotypes in the last sentence, then please, please, please imagine how annoying a whole books worth of them would be.)
  • The things I learned – I genuinely think I could trap a rabbit after reading this book. I mean, I wouldn’t because I’m a vegetarian and think they’re adorable, but it’s nice to know I could if I needed to.

So, as you might have guessed, I’m not a super-fan. I do have a weird, grudging respect for it, but I’m looking forward to reading something a bit less rugged and grim.

I think I’m in need of some January book-sunshine.

therevenant
The Revenant by Michael Punke

Reads – Fevre Dream

FevreDreamCover

Christmas time is a time for traditions – conventional plus the weird, wacky, and wonderful.

My weird Christmas tradition (that is a grand total of, ahem, four years old) is to read about vampires. Nothing says twinkly, tinselly, merry Christmas like a big ol’ vampire novel.

This year I chose Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin because George R. R. Martin plus vampires sounded like too good a combination to resist.

The story follows Abner Marsh – a struggling, no nonsense, honest through-and-through steamboat businessman who receives an offer he can’t refuse from the mysterious, nocturnal Joshua York – and charts his adventures along the vampire-flooded banks of the Mississippi.

The first half of the story had me firmly under its toothy spell. I loved to love/hate all of the characters in their own special way and the Victorian South bled straight from the page into my brain. But somewhere in the middle of the book the story fell flat for me. Not completely flat, not flat-as-a-pancake flat, but flat like a cake that doesn’t rise as much as you were expecting. I can’t really explain why or how – helpful, I know – all I can say is it left me feeling like a passenger pacing the deck, waiting impatiently for my stop so I could get off. Which was a surprise.

At least I got my Christmas vampire fix.

I hope you’ve had a good Christmas, however you’ve celebrated it. Do you have any weird and wonderful Christmas reading habits? I’d love to know I’m not the only one if you do!