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!

My Favourite Reads of 2018

Ah, December. We meet again.

I’ve spent most of this month eating dangerous levels of junk food (thank you for the excuse, Christmas), avoiding tinsel like the sparkly plague, and resisting – but only just – sabotaging the sound system at work.

Did you know that you should never do a tango with an eskimo? I didn’t until a few weeks ago.

My brain. It hurts from the music. *cries glitter-tainted tears*

Aaaanyway. When I’ve not been thinking about the weather outside being frightful or how I want a hippotamus for Christmas (I’m not even sorry if that song gets stuck in your head too), I’ve been thinking about some of my favourite books from the last twelve months.

So, in no particular order, these are they.

  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I wasn’t expecting to love it, but I really did. The writing is exquisite, the story is glitzy and sumptuous and fabulous, and it’s beautifully bittersweet.
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – this was another unexpected love. It was so heartwarming and funny, and I got completely lost (the good kind of lost) in Eleanor’s story.
  • The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden – I wrote about it very enthusiastically at the time (here), so I guess it’s really not a surprise that it made the list! I was expecting to love this book, and I wasn’t disappointed. My heart gets all fluttery and woozy knowing the final book is only a few weeks away from publication – I cannot wait to read it.
  • The Invisible Child by Tove Jansson – the Moomins just make me happy, and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt more than anything this year it’s that happiness and fluffiness and goodness are things worth cherishing when you can. I don’t care that the Moomins are technically for children, their stories are perfect for everybody, everyday.
The Invisible Child and The Fir Tree by Tove Jansson, special Oxfam edition. Moomin short stories.
The Invisible Child and The Fir Tree by Tove Jansson.
  • Gross Anatomy by Mara Altman – body image worries are my horrible obssession, and 2018 has seen me really, truly scraping the bottom of that particular barrel. But rock bottom means the only way is up, and although it’s messy and painful I feel less in thrall with the Gollum in my brain everyday. Books like this – toe-curlingly honest, laugh out loud funny, super duper gross – are so important for normalising these strange fleshy things we call home. Really, I needed a book like this ten years ago but c’est la vie. Bodies are 100% weird and 100% wonderful. We should look after them.
Gross Anatomy by Mara Altman.
Gross Anatomy by Mara Altman
  • The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton – I ummed and ahhed about having this one on the list, but it was such a memorable and absorbing read, even if it did wind itself in knots that it couldn’t entirely escape from. It kept me hooked and it still pops into my head every now and again – which is always a sign a story has done its job.
  • Moondust by Andrew Smith – this exploration of the lives of the astronauts behind the moonlandings was fascinating and had me daydreaming about space travel for weeks (though not daydreaming about all the hard work and science and maths behind it).
  • Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge – I can’t really say anything other than I think everyone should read this book. This isn’t a book about guilt, it’s about being aware of the things that have happened – and the things that are still happening – in Britain and not letting these issues get swept under the carpet. There’s still so much work to do.
  • The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang – a short, sad, and sweet story that was weird but wonderful all at the same time.
  • Mort by Terry Pratchett – I don’t remember the last quarter of the book being as good as the first three-quarters, but I do remember laughing a lot a lot a lot.

I could probably go on and on and on, and just end up listing all of the books I’ve read this year, but these particular books just stood out for me – both at the time and after the time.

And you never know… seeing as there’s still a week and a bit left of 2018, there’s still technically time to add to that list (although technical time does seem to be completely different to my actual experience of time).

Happy Christmas and happy reading!

Reads – The Haunted Coast

The Haunted Coast by Michael Wray, published by the Caedman Storytellers.

Ghosts and the sea.

The only four words in the whole wide world that can guarantee I will read a book – no other information needed, no questions asked.

The Haunted Coast by Michael Wray was the perfect November-Sunday read for me, curled up by the woodburner, snuggled inside a big woolly jumper, toasty warm but full of a horrible cold that just won’t go away and leave me alone to breathe like a normal human being. The book was forty-six pages of spooks and Yorkshire legends that whisked me away from my runny nose and aching sinuses into a world of ghosts and ghouls, mermaids and monsters, and a howling, churning, wild North Sea.

The perfect getaway.

Reads – This Is Going To Hurt

Book review of This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay.

I was not expecting to love this book.

I was not expecting it to make me feel angry, and upset, and like I needed to paint a placard and find a protest march.

I was not expecting to laugh and chuckle and wonder at the weirdness of humanity.

But I should have believed the title, because This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay made me feel all of those things.

It’s a brilliant, funny, and poignant insight into his six years as a junior doctor in obstetrics and gynaecology that will make you hurt. It’ll make you hurt with sadness and amusement and fury. And – though maybe this is just because I’m a woman – it’ll make you hurt with horror.

I mean, jeez. Childbirth sounds like an absolute warzone.

All I can really say is: do not read this book if you’re pregnant. Seriously, truly. I genuinely found myself halfway through reading it trying to understand how we’ve survived long enough as a species to invent modern medicine.

If, however, you’re not pregnant, have easy access to placard-making craft materials and a protest march, and want to marvel at the strange ideas people get into their heads (and their… erm, I’m just going to leave that bit blank)?

Well, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

October Scares: Four

Ghost in the Great War, vintage Daily News book from 1927.

I don’t want to alarm anyone, but I just thought you should know that it’s almost – very very nearly, so-close-you-could-touch-it – November.

November.

*flings hands into the air disbelievingly*

I don’t know how it happened either.

On the plus side, almost November equals almost Halloween, which equals time for another spooky read.

I found Ghosts in the Great War at a flea market a few years ago and it was love at first sight of the title. It was published in 1927, and is a collection of stories (or, ahem, “thrilling experiences”) sent in to the Daily News by its readers, detailing strange occurrences during the First World War. I did make the mistake on first reading of a). choosing a dark and stormy night to read it on, and b). being all alone in the house. It spooked me a lot more than it really should have. Rereading it threw the hyperbole and melodrama of some of the tales into much more stark light, although there were certainly a few stories that were quite moving and/or disturbing.

There’s a family woken by the sound of chains hauling across the ceilings and floors of their house on the night the Aboukir sank, taking with it their son-in-law. There’s an injured soldier who follows the vision of his wife to safety. And there are countless “goodbye” visits from the fallen.

It’s not the scariest book in the world, but it’s certainly choc-a-bloc full of ghosts and apparitions and things that go bump in the night.

Perfect for almost-November.

October Scares – Three

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman.

Halloween and Neil Gaiman. They just go.

Like Mc and Donalds. Like the stars and the moon. Like hot chocolate and cream and marshmallows. Like cats and crazy cat ladies. Like thorns and roses. Like Cadbury’s dairy milk and me (though this is a fraught and abusive relationship, so is perhaps not a great example).

Basically, I couldn’t do a series of posts about scary stories for Halloween and not include something by Neil Gaiman. It just wouldn’t be right. Especially as his short story collection Trigger Warning fits the Halloween book bill pretty darn perfectly.

I love all the worlds and characters he creates in these tales. I love the wackiness, the I-wasn’t-expecting-that-iness, the fantasticalness, the humaness and unhumaness.*

My favourites – picking one was too hard – are Click-Clack the Rattlebag and Feminine Endings. They’re super quick to read and just the right level of creepy (though I still wouldn’t risk reading them just before bed), plus Feminine Endings made me realise that my instinct to run and hide when I see human statues is not completely irrational.

Are you reading anything scary/ghostly/magicky in the run up to Halloween? I’d love to know if you are, and recommendations are always welcome!

*sorry for being so recklessness with my ruining of the Englishness languageness.