Languages are different for a reason

alif the unseenAlif the Unseen
by G Willow Wilson

I was eager to read more G Willow Wilson after discovering her writing in the Ms Marvel comics. This is a lovely easy read that deals with some pretty deep complex issues but manages to never feel like an “issues” novel. Which is a clever balancing act. It’s probably the fantasy elements that help keep it light and fun. Mostly.

The story follows Alif, a young man in an unnamed Arab Emirate who works as a “grey hat” – a skilled hacker who helps paying customers to remain hidden online. He keeps a vigilant watch for the state’s top internet security expert “the Hand” but is widely acknowledged to be the best and therefore safest from arrest. He is also conducting a secret affair with Intisar – secret because although they are both Muslim, their social classes are very different and neither set of parents would approve. But Alif is a romantic and assumes they will somehow find a way.

When the book opens, Alif (which is his screen name, not his given name) has not heard from Intisar (ditto) for two weeks and is trying not to worry about the possible reasons. Then the Hand manages to break most of the way through his computer’s encryption and he is suddenly at real risk of arrest. Friends help him out but there comes a point when he needs more than friendship – he needs another kind of aid entirely.

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The past was hard, cruel and especially inimical to women

angela carter fairy talesAngela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales

I started reading this book on 31 December and finished it this week. It’s not the smallest book, but 450 pages doesn’t usually take me several months. Especially not when it comes from one of the 20th century’s greatest authors, Angela Carter. So what gives?

Well, two things. One: this is a collection of more than 100 short stories, and I do like to spread out short stories by reading one or two per sitting, even when the shortest are less than a page long. Two: perhaps more pertinently, these stories were collected and curated by Carter, not written or even edited by her. So while they share her taste in the weird and feminist, they do not exhibit her writing skill – more noticeably so in some cases than others.

Carter spent many years collecting these stories for what was originally two separate books published by Virago. She sought translations into English, ideally transcriptions from oral storytellers, from all over the world and the result is truly the most international collection I have ever read. For example, the final chapter’s stories are labelled as: Yiddish; Norwegian; Africa: Bondes; USA; Africa: Hausa; Chinese; Surinamese.

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Cornwall mini-break

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Tim and I are just back from a long weekend in Cornwall. It was warm (if overcast), beautiful as always but most importantly filled with a bunch of our favourite people – a group of friends we go to the same beach with every year. That sounds boring but it is comforting, truly relaxing. I only read one book, but then we did squeeze a lot into four days.

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Recent reads: DNF

As I mentioned in my June monthly round-up, I have abandoned a few recent reads despite getting the best part of halfway through them. I don’t actually think they’re bad books, so I thought it still worth writing a few words about them.

cairoCairo: My City, Our Revolution
by Ahdaf Soueif

I loved Soueif’s first novel The Map of Love and I enjoy her journalism on the Guardian, so I was excited to read this, her account of the Egyptian revolution of 2011. She combines adrenaline-filled, first-hand, written-at-the-time stories of Cairo mid-revolution with calmer, more reflective chapters written eight-plus months later. It’s a passionate, well-written book but I had to put it down because it was making me sad. The enthusiastic excitement of Soueif, her family and friends mid-revolution is suddenly brutally tempered by the reality of months later, where Egypt is in a fragile state still and statistics have been gathered about the number of revolutionaries who died. I will come back to this when I am emotionally ready for it.

Published 2012 by Bloomsbury Publishing.

Source: Christmas present from one of my parents.

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Sunday Salon: Bathroom books

The Sunday SalonWe all have bathroom books, don’t we? I don’t mean books to read in the bath – for me, that’s all books except the three Bs: big, beautiful or borrowed books. No, I mean books for reading on the loo.

Perhaps you have a stack of magazines in the bathroom (we have those too, but they’re all months out of date). Or perhaps you just take your phone or tablet in these days. We have a collection of non-fiction titles ideal for dipping into, but today I spotted that it had been more than a year since their last update, and they were gathering dust, so I did a swap (and wiped off the dust from the outgoing titles).

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June reading round-up

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I have not read many books in the past month. I had a bit of a lupus flare, and then politics sent the world doolally, which between them led me to abandon a couple of reads. I’m currently halfway through three different books and I’m not sure I’ll finish all of them. I am still reading a lot of John Allison webcomics, but mostly I’m obsessively reading news and politics articles in case someone has figured out how to fix this mess.

Right back at the start of the month, I went with a big group of friends to see Buzz Aldrin speak about his new book No Dream is Too High. And last week, Tim and I took my Mum and brother to the theatre in Bath to watch Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, which was a welcome funny distraction as well as, like all Theatre Royal shows, boasting an excellent cast.

I also, possibly overambitiously, joined a new book club at work. It seemed like a nice idea at the time, but the first meeting is next week and I haven’t picked up the book yet. Hmm. Maybe it will be a good idea to just put aside all the false starts and start July with a fresh new read. Maybe.

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Her compressed and coded thoughts exploded between them

in certain circlesIn Certain Circles
by Elizabeth Harrower

I first heard about Elizabeth Harrower in a New Yorker article a couple of years ago that celebrated the republication of the elderly Australian author’s works. It included the intriguing detail that this would be the first opportunity to read her fifth novel, In Certain Circles, because back in 1971 the author decided at the last moment not to proceed with its publication.

There is no obvious clue to what Harrower could have disliked about her work, as this is a tremendously well written novel. Perhaps she didn’t like its negative tone, because this is not an uplifting read. It is deeply sad, but not due to big disastrous events. Its sadness is the type that comes from life’s disappointments, poor decisions that are only revealed to have been wrong several years later.

It doesn’t start out with an especially sad tone. When we meet main character Zoe Howard she is 17, fully aware of her beauty and privilege, living as she does at the opulent end of Sydney Harbour. Her older brother Russell was a POW during the war, forever changing his outlook on the world and the circles he wants to move in. He introduces her to his friends Anna and Stephen Quayle, siblings who were orphaned and left in the hands of a poor abusive uncle. Despite their very different circumstances, the four connect in a way that keeps their lives bound together far beyond Russell and Stephen’s shared university course.

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We are the 48%

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I am heartbroken by the EU referendum result. It is a win for nobody, except perhaps the Daily Mail. I am sad that the Leave campaign’s lies and scapegoating somehow convinced 52% of voters that leaving the EU would fix all this country’s problems.

It will not, which I think is now becoming pretty clear. (Or should I say would not? I am clinging to the hope that the referendum was not legally binding, that a majority of MPs did not want it and supported the Remain campaign. But I fear it not happening is too optimistic.)

The EU is not perfect but it is still a wonder of modern democracy, of peaceful co-operation. A consortium of 28 countries can tackle bigger problems better than any individual nation could. The benefits are so much more than a bald sum of money that no-one can agree on an exact figure for. But it is worth saying that EU immigrants are a net gain to this country.

I love Europe and I am proud to be European. I love living in a country that is diverse and enriched by immigrants from almost every other country on the planet. I want to tell every European living here that they are welcome, they are appreciated, they are needed, and that it will all be okay.

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Sunday Salon: A time to fight, a time to chill

The Sunday SalonConsidering the timing of this post, there are some definite political interpretations of today’s headline, and I am a political person. However, what I want to write about is a more personal health-related meaning of the words “A time to fight, a time to chill”.

Having lupus means it’s extra important for me to stay fit, because the less fit I am, the more often I fall into the fatigue vicious circle (too tired to exercise → less fit, therefore more tired) – and for me, when the fatigue hits, it’s serious business. So early this year I made the decision to really push myself to get fit. I started running at least twice a week, going a little further each week, no matter what the weather, no matter how little I wanted to go out sometimes.

And it was working well. My first run in the first week of February was about 2.5 k in 17 minutes. In mid-April I beat my previous PB of 5 k and started plotted out some 6 and 7 k routes to aim for. I was finding it hard to get past 5.5 k but I was so proud of myself for how far I’d come. I was feeling healthier, happier and had energy.

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