bitesized book thoughts

So, the real world is still being weird and scary and stressful. But, have no fear! If you’re looking for some papery, fictional worlds to distract you, I have a couple of books you might want to consider for your reading list (although most of them aren’t set in worlds that are actually any nicer than this one)…

a different drummer by william melvin kelley

a different drummer by William Melvin Kelley. This is a powerful and unique, and utterly unputdownable, book that explores racism in a (fictional) Southern state in 1950s America. In it, we follow a handful of the white townsfolk of Sutton as they grapple with the meaning behind an exodus of all the town’s, and wider state’s, black citizens. It’s inevitably painful and hard to read but it’s also so, so good. The writing is beautiful, the pacing is perfect, and the characters – the good, the bad, the ugly – come alive on the page. I would highly, highly recommend this one for your TBR list! (I first heard about A Different Drummer via Books, Baking & Blogging – Anne’s review is excellent and well worth a read.)

my cousin rachel by Daphne Du Maurier. Oof, I had so many feelings about this one. It’s incredibly tense and unsettling and uncomfortable, it plays so many mind games, it leaves so many questions unanswered, and it throws up so many issues. I found it painfully infuriating and painfully intoxicating all at the same time. Philip Ashley lives a comfortable and sheltered life in Cornwall under the guardianship of his wealthy cousin, Ambrose. When Ambrose leaves for Italy one winter and marries a mysterious woman during his stay, Philip is mortified. Mortification turns to devastation and suspicion when Ambrose dies suddenly after suggesting his new wife, Rachel, is poisoning him. And when Rachel turns up in Cornwall, Philip’s suspicion descends into twisted obsession. Despite loving me a story full of twisted obsession, I was hesitant to start My Cousin Rachel, ummed and ahhed over it for ages, because I was worried it might be a bit dowdy, a bit stale, a bit old fashioned – and although it’s a book that’s certainly of its time (beware some very offensive language), it was anything but stale or dowdy. I could not stop turning the pages. It’s safe to say my first foray into Du Maurier’s gothic world was a success.

my cousin rachel by daphne du maurier

machines like me by Ian McEwan. Ah god, this was a funny one. I liked it… aaand I also hated it a little bit. It follows Charlie, a self-employed financial speculator in an alternate history version of eighties London, as he adapts to life with an AI robot called Adam. The plot itself doesn’t feel very eventful or gripping – the focus of the story stays firmly on the moral can of worms that living with an artificially intelligent, and possibly conscious, machine opens up. It’s peppered with loads of wry humour which I loved, and the questions it raises are undoubtedly interesting, but it just didn’t hit the book spot for me – perhaps ironically, it was full of clever, intriguing brains but lacked a beating heart.

machines like me by ian mcewan

tales from moominvalley by Tove Jansson. *sighs dreamily* This collection of short Moomin stories is just perfect – each one is life-affirming, heart-warming, surreal, thoughtful, and delightful in its own way. Travel with Snufkin, discover a tiny golden dragon, build a fun fair with a Hemulen, overcome worries with an anxious Fillyjonk – explore the weird wonders of Moominland in all their whimsical glory. Moomin books always make the best comfort reading!

• What have you been reading recently? • Have you read any of these? • What are your thoughts on them? •

Right Book, Right Time

Some books* are like roses – they need just the right conditions to grow on you, and you need to catch them at just the right time otherwise you’ll just see a mess of bleak branches and threatening thorns rather than a wonderland of beauty and colour.

*maybe all books are really – but I think this a whole other (and probably very long) blog post.

I recently finished One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, and it felt like a rose-book to me.

OneHundredYearsOfSolitude
one hundred years of solitude

‘… experience had taught her that the history of the family was a machine with unavoidable repetitions, a turning wheel that would have gone on spinning into eternity were it not for the progressive and irremediable wearing of the axle.’

There’s so much I could say about One Hundred Years of Solitude, but not much I can add to the already extensive debate surrounding it. It’s a mindbogglingly successful book that has had a massive cultural impact, that helped to spark the fires of magical realism as a genre, and that has baffled/bewitched millions of readers around the world for over fifty years.

Personally, I ended up loving it – despite a lot of intitial confusion/frustration/bewilderment and thinking that there was no way I would be able to muddle through to the end.

It turns out the conditions and times were right, though, for this rose-book to grow on me.

‘It rained for four years, eleven months, and two days.’

I have a few take aways from it for anyone thinking of giving this epic and surreal family saga a try…

  • it’s a whirlwind. Wars are begun and ended in a single sentence. Characters suddenly ascend to heaven whilst hanging out the laundry. Flowers rain from the sky and have to be shovelled off the streets. The book is a tornado of weird emotions, disturbing relationships, mini dramas, mega dramas, magical happenings, and dizzyingly complicated politics.
  • there are A LOT of characters with the same name. Get used to seeing Aureliano and Arcadio written on the page and good luck trying to distinguish between those characters based on the names alone. I could only differentiate between them by their behaviour and the characters around them, and even then I slipped up.
  • the imagery is insanely good. The book is a kaleidoscope of magic and wonder – I had to keep taking little moments just to absorb all the incredible mind pictures Márquez was painting on the page.
  • reading it feels a lot like fighting your way through a tangle of roots. But – after a while, hopefully, if you still like it and want to stick with it – those roots unfurl into a jungle of lush green leaves and colourful flowers. It’s still chaotic and wild, but it’s an interesting and hypnotic world to be in all the same.
  • it needs devotion. It’s not a book you can dip in and out of – it’s too mad for that.
  • it’s uncomfortable. There are creepy, icky relationships and creepy, outdated attitudes and neither of those things makes for a comfortable reading experience.
  • it will make you appreciate how normal your family is. If you’re beginning to find lockdown family life a bit tedious and samey, just be thankful you’re not in lockdown with the Buenidas.
  • it’s funny. There’s a lot of absurd humour to sink your teeth into.
  • it’s really, really weird. This is just worth reiterating.
  • it’s captivating. Despite everything – and there’s a lot of everything, I know – the story has a gravitational pull that’s hard to resist. It’s wacky and strange and disorientating, but magical in its bizarreness.

‘… both continued living on their own, cleaning their respective rooms while the cobwebs fell like snow on the rose bushes, carpeted the beams, cushioned the walls. It was around that time that Fernanda got the impression that the house was filling up with elves.’

To be honest, I’m really not sure that I would have grown to love One Hundred Years of Solitude if I hadn’t had a couple of days free to lounge around in the sunshine and get completely lost in it. I can easily see how in different circumstances I would have slammed it shut and vowed never to open it again.

A holiday week in lockdown had some unexpected reading benefits, at least.

Right book, right time.

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.