August reading round-up

Doesn’t summer speed by? Though I’m hoping for a few more weeks of sunshine, and though it’s many many years since I left school, I still tend to think of 31 August as the last day of summer. I will be picking out some autumnal reads for September, whatever the weather. Maybe a murder mystery.

This month I got back on track with short stories, though I didn’t finish all the novels I’d planned to. I saw Margaret Atwood talking about her new book, which was pretty darned great. And Tim and I celebrated 11 years together. A third of our lives. That’s kinda crazy. We were so young back then!

2002 was a long time ago

Books read

White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (review here)

The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene (review here)

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (review here)

All Dogs Are Blue by Rodrigo de Souza Leão (review here)

Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman (review to follow)

Short stories read

“An inch and a half of glory” by Dashiell Hammett (New Yorker, June 10 & 17, 2013)

“From the diaries of pussy-cake” by Gary Shteyngart (New Yorker, June 10 & 17, 2013)

“Twisted” by George Pelecanos (New Yorker, June 10 & 17, 2013)

“Rough deeds” by Annie Proulx (New Yorker, June 10 & 17, 2013)

“Slide to unlock” by Ed Park (New Yorker, June 10 & 17, 2013)

“A & P” by John Updike (New Yorker Fiction Podcast)

“The twain” by Fabian Acker (Popshot Magazine, Issue 9)

“How to be a writer” by Kirsty Logan (Popshot Magazine, Issue 9)

“Together and parting” by Elahzar Rao (Popshot Magazine, Issue 9)

“Spine” by Patrick Griffiths (Popshot Magazine, Issue 9)

“The ingenium” by Kirstie Smith (Popshot Magazine, Issue 9)


So how has your August been? Any plans for September?

Margaret Atwood at Bristol Festival of Ideas

St George’s Hall, Bristol, 28 August

It seems whenever I book tickets for something months in advance, life conspires to try to spoil it for me. Like last night. Once again, Tim wasn’t able to come with me (thankfully some friends from work also had tickets so I wasn’t alone for the journey there at least) and my knee was randomly super painful, particularly on steps. And St George’s Hall has a lot of steps (it is very pretty though). But on the plus side I got to see Margaret Atwood in real life and hear her speak and get her to sign not one but two books for me! So that part was pretty good.

I met Margaret Atwood today

The event was primarily about the Oryx and Crake trilogy, and in particular the third book Maddaddam, which was published in the UK yesterday. So obviously I bought the brand new hardback and got it signed even though I have the other two books in paperback and now they won’t match or even fit on the same shelf. Oops. But it seemed like it would be silly not to, while I was there and she was there. Right?

The interview started with the influences on the trilogy, which is perhaps an easy list to guess for anyone who’s read any of the books, but Atwood embellished with interesting facts and plenty of dry wit. There really are glowing green rabbits (created by splicing jellyfish genes with rabbit), which she says were originally developed for a magician, and spider-goats, developed to create bulletproof silk – “people have opened the genetic toybox and they’re mixing and matching”. When asked if she sees herself as a critic, observer, satirist or optimist of issues such as gene-splicing, Atwood replied that she’s all of those things (which is interesting as I thought the books came down firmly against, but perhaps I misread the tone). She went on to say that people are afraid of what they don’t understand and we’re right to be afraid of our own power but wrong to be scared every time.

Anthropology and psychology seem to be big influences on Atwood (indeed, she subscribes to New Scientist and devours all the popular science, especially biology and epidemiology, she can). When asked about how she was able to describe people living after the, ahem, event of this trilogy, she made the acute observation that basic human traits, “our essential smorgasbord”, have not changed since the days of the caveman – we’re all susceptible to love, rage, jealousy, etc, therefore no changes in technology – or loss thereof – are going to change human emotions.

Talking more generally about storytelling, Atwood said “the reader is the violinist of the text…I’m just the originator”. She also touched on a subject that fascinates me: the link between memory, language, storytelling and religion. Memory evolved to allow us to anticipate the future. And once a language has a past and future tense, we start telling stories, and an important part of that is a theology of where we came from. And that brings us back to Maddaddam, which apparently develops the religion of Crake’s children.

There were many more highlights that I scribbled down but I’ll finish with the story that Atwood seemed most eager to tell: the cover design. The first cover she was sent was flowers and a bee: totally girly and not at all reflecting the content of the book. Inspired by Maureen Johnson’s excellent Coverflip challenge Atwood asked for something different, something dynamic and maybe even scary. It took a lot of revisions but you have to admit that the new cover may have pink on it but it sure isn’t girly. Freaky, unnerving and intriguing, yes.

This event was part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas.

To gather together human debris

All Dogs Are Blue

All Dogs Are Blue
by Rodrigo de Souza Leão
translated from Portuguese by Zoë Perry and Stefan Tobler

This is a short, sharp shock of a book. It deals with serious, scary stuff but manages to be funny, exciting and superbly readable, as well as powerful and enlightening.

The story is narrated by the inmate of an asylum in Rio de Janeiro, fluidly moving between fact and hallucination, lucidity and paranoia. His imaginary friends are Rimbaud, who he considers reliable, and Baudelaire, who is not. Lots of things seem to happen in the course of 100 or so pages, but it’s not always possible to know what is real and what is imagined.

“I swallowed a chip yesterday…There was an electrode on my forehead. I don’t know if I swallowed the electrode with the chip. The horses were galloping. Except for the seahorse, who was swimming around in the aquarium.”

The narrator switches between his own thoughts and reported speech with no punctuation or other indication, so it can sometimes be confusing who is being referred to. But then very little of this makes absolute sense. It is quite literally the rantings of a mad man. Which can be tough or sad, but can also be beautiful or insightful.

“I had moments of lucidity. They were few, but I had them. Sometimes the drugs they used work. But there are people who don’t get better, even with the medicine. What good is hospitalisation, then? To gather together human debris.”

The blue dog of the title is a toy dog that the narrator remembers from his childhood and misses. In her introduction to this translation, Deborah Levy argues that the blue dog is a version of the black dog of depression, which adds an interesting element to its appearances in the narrator’s memories and rants.

Another element that’s hard to forget when reading this book is that it’s semi-autobiographical. Souza Leão died in 2009 in a psychiatric clinic, after years struggling with mental illness. It really brings home the message that despite the comedy and outright craziness, this is the story of a human being, a man who is intelligent and artistic but who reduces his father to tears and forces his mother to admit she doesn’t want him to come home.

“I had my first attack at 15. At 36 I’ve still got problems. Wonder what the next problem will be? I’m a walking problem. It rains and I cry. I cry and it rains.”

Aside from the occasional morose moment, the tone stays light and witty throughout the darkest and the strangest scenes. And it does get pretty dark and pretty strange.

This was the only fiction of Souza Leão’s published during his lifetime, but I understand that more has been published since and I hope that it all finds translators as good as this.

Todos os cachorros são azuis published 2008.
This translation published 2013 by And Other Stories.

Source: I’m a subscriber to the publisher.

Challenges: This counts toward the 2013 Translation Challenge.

It burned through cities like fire

Year of the Flood

The Year of the Flood
by Margaret Atwood

This is the second book in Atwood’s trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake and will conclude with Maddaddam, out next week. I suspect you don’t need to have read Oryx and Crake to enjoy this book, but that said I did really love spotting all the connections before they became explicit.

The story follows two women who, separately, have lived through the “Waterless Flood”, some form of apocalypse that has left both women struggling to survive and wondering if they are the only human left alive. So far, so much like Oryx and Crake, but unlike that book’s hero, these women are not going mad and their memories are more coherent.

“In the night there are the usual noises: the faraway barking of dogs, the tittering of mice, the water-pipe notes of the crickets, the occasional grumph of a frog. The blood rushing in her ears: katoush, katoush, katoush. A heavy broom sweeping dry leaves.
‘Go to sleep,’ she says out loud. But she never sleeps well, not since she’s been alone.”

Ren is an exotic dancer trapped in the high-end sex club she worked in. Toby has created a rooftop garden on her former workplace, safely away from the prowling animals out to steal her food. Both women used to belong to God’s Gardeners, a group of outsiders who strove to heal the planet through vegetarian self-sufficiency and reuse/recycling. Pretty much hippies, but in the name of religion and at a time when the Earth depicted is far along the road to destruction, the two being linked by the fear of an imminent tipping point when human society will collapse – the Waterless Flood.

“This was the Waterless Flood the Gardeners had so often warned about. It had all the signs: it travelled through the air as if on wings, it burned through cities like fire, spreading germ-ridden mobs, terror, and butchery…It looked like total breakdown, which was why she’d needed the rifle.”

I wasn’t sure at first where I was in the timeline as compared with Oryx and Crake but it comes together, in fact more so than I had expected. Of course this means many of the issues dealt with are the same or similar, but I felt that The Year of the Flood was far more emotionally engaging. Maybe I connected better with Ren and Toby than I did with Snowman, or maybe the overall storyline cut closer to issues I care about – this book really did put the emphasis on the environmental angle rather than the bioengineering and I know I said in my review of Oryx and Crake that that could get preachy but actually it did the opposite – it made it all more real.

“It’s daybreak. The break of day. Toby turns this word over: break, broke, broken. What breaks in daylight? Is it the night? Is it the sun, cracked in two by the horizon like an egg, spilling out light?”

I think I also liked that most of the characters in this book really cared about things, rather than floating through the world. I know both types of people exist and are equally capable of good or bad but I am a carer, so I guess I empathise better with characters who care. I even forgave them all the God stuff (which was in any case heavily loaded with irony in places) because, after all, facing imminent apocalypse who knows what I’d turn to?

I found this a thrilling, wonderful read and I’m really looking forward to Maddadam and to hearing Atwood talk about all three books in Bristol next week.

Published 2009 by Bloomsbury.

Source: I bought it from Waterstones.

Book spine poetry

I know, I know, book spine poetry was big back in 2011. But I didn’t get round to it back then and I had a sudden urge to have a go, so here are my rudimentary attempts.

Poem one

Boy missing, after dark
A child in the forest
Snow, winter’s bone
Fear and trembling
Don’t look now

Poem two

I, the divine,
The historian, the joke,
The outsider, the liar,
The dispossessed

Poem three

As I lay dying
Kiss kiss
A handful of dust
And now you can go

So have you ever tried creating poetry from book titles? Please do share links to yours or your favourites from other people.

The story of a poor man’s life is written on his body, in a sharp pen

The White Tiger

The White Tiger
by Aravind Adiga

This book looked like a fun read that would be something a bit different, and that’s pretty much exactly what it was. I enjoyed it greatly but in the week since I finished it, it hasn’t really stayed with me.

The style is initially surprising and unusual. The story is written in the form of letters addressed to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao from Balram Halwai, a self-proclaimed entrepreneur from a very poor background. Balram wants to tell his life story, beginning with how he got the nickname White Tiger and up to how he is wanted by the police. Through this device, Adiga exposes the state of India, or his opinion of the state of India, at any rate. And it’s not a particularly favourable opinion.

“It is an ancient and venerated custom of people in my country to start a story by praying to a Higher Power. I guess, Your Excellency, that I too should start off by kissing some god’s arse. Which god’s arse, though? There are so many choices. See, the Muslims have one god. The Christians have three gods. And we Hindus have 36,000,000 gods…Bear with me, Mr Jiabao. This could take a while. How quickly do you think you could kiss 36,000,004 arses?”

This was my pick for book club and from our discussion it looks like I thought there was more to it than the others did. There was a general feeling that the characters were a bit thin, and the overall tale a bit preachy and lacking in shades of grey (though I should note everyone found it funny and enjoyable). I must say I didn’t find it preachy but I’ll allow that it definitely had a message about class and poverty in India. And it’s certainly not subtle either – the humour is savage and the reality that is revealed is shocking.

Balram has a theory that the poor in India are in a chicken coop. Most of them accept this and stay within the bounds of the coop, but those who do try to escape are quickly shoved back in their place. It takes something extraordinary for anyone to escape the coop. He of course is one of the extraordinary (the only escapee we meet in this tale) but he freely accepts that the method he employed to escape is extreme.

“A rich man’s body is like a premium cotton pillow, white and soft and blank. Ours are different. My father’s spine was a knotted rope…cuts and nicks and scars, like little whip marks in his flesh, ran down his chest and waist, reaching down below his hipbones into his buttocks. The story of a poor man’s life is written on his body, in a sharp pen.”

Balram is a genuinely funny narrator. Since being told that he is as rare as a white tiger when he was the smartest kid in school, he has had ideas above his station. He’s also selfish, objecting to his grandmother’s repeated requests that he share his earnings with his family. He talks through his life, from working in a tea shop in a small village, to being a rich man’s driver in Delhi, to being a businessman in Bangalore. He reveals early on that he has done something shocking, so that most of the book is the answer to the question why and how.

“In the belief that the future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man now that our erstwhile master, the white-skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery, mobile phone usage and drug abuse, I offer to tell you, free of charge, the truth about Bangalore.”

This is not a book for those who want a subtle exploration of how modern India operates, or if you want a wide-reaching study of Indian society. It is a funny, easy-to-read, fast-paced window opened just a crack onto a version of reality. I genuinely enjoyed it and even learned a few things but I can’t say that it changed my view of the world or stunned me with its language. Not every book can do that.

Published 2008 by Atlantic Books.
Winner of the 2008 Booker Prize.

Source: A book swap.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge

It wasn’t courage that freed him from fear so much as loneliness

The Ministry of Fear

The Ministry of Fear
by Graham Greene

Once upon a time I read a couple of Graham Greene books and really enjoyed them, then I promptly forgot about him as an author. Fast-forward several years and I have finally come back to him thanks to Simon of Savidge Reads, who is running a challenge called Greene for Gran,in honour of his recently departed grandmother, as Greene was her favourite author. It’s such a nice way to pay respect to someone for whom books were important.

This book has one of the greatest opening chapters I have read in a long time. Arthur Rowe goes to a vicarage fête, which sounds like a pretty dull unpromising beginning, but not so. For starters it’s in London during the Blitz, so there’s immediately a surreal atmosphere surrounding the attempt at normality, with some dark humour about the limited prizes on offer. But even beyond this, there are sinister undertones, foreshadowing the shadowy spy novel that this is going to turn into.

“There was something about a fête which drew Arthur Rowe irresistibly, bound him a helpless victim to the distant blare of the band and the knock-knock of wooden balls against coconuts. Of course this year there were no coconuts because there was a war on; you could tell that too from the untidy gaps between the Bloomsbury houses.”

Arthur wins a cake, but there appears to have been some mistake, and first a series of people try to get the cake off him, then mysterious forces appear to be coming after him. It all seems a bit farcical at first, but never annoyingly so. The humour always has a dark undertone. The depiction of the Blitz is scarily believable (which makes sense for a book published in 1943) and the thriller elements genuinely had me on edge, but the book never gets too dark.

“‘Have another piece of cake?’ Rowe asked. He couldn’t help feeling sorry for the man: it wasn’t courage that freed him from fear so much as loneliness. ‘It may not be…’ he waited till the scream stopped and the bomb exploded – very near this time – ‘…much.’ They waited for a stick to drop, pounding a path towards them, but there were no more.”

Arthur is a great character. There is something bad in his past, which both explains why he is not fighting in the war and why he is how he is – saddened and distanced. I love that the back story is given in pieces, so for a long time we are left to wonder whether the bad thing in Arthur’s past was justified or not. (Incidentally, this part is completely given away in the blurb on the back of my copy, which thankfully I didn’t read before starting the book. Also, I’ve realised that my favourite passages, highlighted while I was reading, relate to this reveal, so I won’t quote them here.)

“Blast is an odd thing; it is just as likely to have the air of an embarrassing dream as of man’s serious vengeance on man, landing you naked in the street or exposing you in your bed or on your lavatory seat to your neighbour’s gaze.”

There is a big switch in pace halfway through the book and it shows how good a writer Greene was that he gets away with this. The one thing that doesn’t change, but just keeps building up throughout the book, is the fear. It’s so cleverly done, beginning with little more than a spine tingle of a warning at the vicarage fête.

I greatly enjoyed this book and am now eager to read the other Greene I had left sat on the TBR for too long – The Heart of the Matter.

Published 1943 by William Heinemann.

Source: I really don’t remember. I have a 1972 Penguin edition so it was clearly secondhand but there’s no pencil-written price or stickers anywhere that I can find. Charity shop?

See also: Simon’s review over at Savidge Reads.

Sunday Salon: Mooching

The Sunday Salon

I don’t know about you, but some weekends I just need to switch off and relax. But how I relax might mean different things at different times. For instance, I had planned to spend this weekend reading solidly, maybe even treat it like a read-a-thon with goals and a little stack of pre-selected books. But when the weekend rolled around I found that I needed something else. So I have read for maybe an hour or two total, but I have slept a lot, eaten good food, watched TV and films, listened to music, sat outside in the sunshine, laughed with friends and with Tim. And now I feel rejuvenated.

How do you relax? Do you need different types of down time?

Incidentally, this week is Bristol International Balloon Fiesta, so there’s been a lot of this:


Plus the roar of various stunt planes overhead, the pounding bass of the music every evening, fireworks that we can just about see over the rooftops. It’s one of the things I love about this city.

And now that my brain is back online, I have a backlog of reviews to write, not to mention another Graham Greene book to read for Simon of Savidge Reads’ wonderful challenge Greene for Gran, in which he encouraged us all to read some Graham Greene in honour of his recently departed grandmother, as Greene was her favourite author. It’s such a lovely idea and great to be reminded how brilliant Greene was.

What are you up to this weekend? Have you rediscovered any authors lately?

The mystery that shape-shifted at the edge of her senses

The Snow Child

The Snow Child
by Eowyn Ivey

This book was almost ruined for me by Book at Bedtime. The thing is, I love that Book at Bedtime exists, I do, but when a full-length novel is compressed into 10 15-minute segments, then necessarily a lot is cut out. A lot. (For comparison, the unabridged audio book of this is almost 11 hours.) I listened to The Snow Child on Book at Bedtime and thought ‘Huh. I don’t get the hype at all.’ And that was very nearly that.

I had read so many glowing reviews by fellow bloggers I usually share a taste in books with that I kept thinking that maybe I would give it another chance. Maybe. But I didn’t add it to my wishlist. So thank goodness I spotted it in a bookswap and decided to pick it up. From page one I was captivated.

“All her life she had believed in something more, in the mystery that shape-shifted at the edge of her senses. It was the flutter of moth wings on glass and the promise of river nymphs in the dappled creek beds. It was the smell of oak trees on the summer evening she fell in love, and the way dawn threw itself across a cow pond and turned the water to light.”

The story is adapted from the old Russian fairy tale “Snegurochka” and cleverly acknowledges this. Jack and Mabel are in their older middle age when they move to Alaska in the 1920s, looking for a fresh start. They cannot forget the sadness caused by their inability to have children and their marriage is fragile. Will the harshness of farming in Alaska heal them or break them?

“Words lay like granite boulders in her lap and when at last she spoke, each one was heavy and burdensome and all she could manage.”

The book opens at the start of their second Alaskan winter. Mabel is about ready to give up, Jack is seriously considering taking a very dangerous mining job that would take him away for most of the winter. Then the first snow falls and in a bittersweet scene of childlike play, the couple build a snowgirl. In the morning their snowgirl is gone and child-sized footsteps lead away from it. Are they just misreading the tracks in the snow? Did their snowgirl just get knocked down by a fox or other wild creature?

Perhaps, but at about that time they start seeing a small girl near their home, usually accompanied by a red fox, just like in the storybook Mabel remembers loving as a child, and she becomes convinced that they brought the girl to life with their desperate longing. The girl, Faina, slowly becomes a part of their lives. But is she real? Or is she, as Jack and Mabel’s (distant) neighbours George and Esther believe, a figment of their imaginations, a coping mechanism through the long lonely winter?

I like that the book provides realistic as well as magical explanations for everything that happens and never makes one more likely than the other. There is a definite fairytale feeling to the writing and yet it doesn’t shy away from the harshness of the Alaskan environment. Without ever getting repetitive or depressing, Ivey makes the cold and darkness of winter ever-present. But she also displays great love and respect for Alaska that I found enticing.

“A red fox darted among the fallen trees. It disappeared for a minute but popped up again, closer to the forest, running with its fluffy tail held low to the ground. It stopped and turned its head. For a moment its eyes locked with Jack’s, and there, in its narrowing golden irises, he saw the savagery of the place. Like he was staring wilderness itself straight in the eye.”

Just as I already knew the storyline before reading the book (which didn’t spoil it at all for me, though I’m still going to hold back from revealing any more of the story in this review) I also already knew, thanks to various reviews I’d read and an interview with Eowyn Ivey on The Readers, that whenever Faina speaks there are no speechmarks, for her or for the person speaking directly to her. But there are speechmarks everywhere else. This is a really clever way of maintaining the mystery, especially in the brief sections where it seems like maybe everything has been neatly explained.

Really, it’s a very simple story. And anyone who has read any of the versions of the old fairy tale (the Arthur Ransome version is included in my copy of the book, which I thought a nice touch) could have a fair stab at how it will turn out. But, for me at least, this book was about the language. Despite being hooked I read it quite slowly because it was the kind of language that slows you down, makes you want to take in each sentence. Exquisite.

Published 2012 by Headline.

Source: A book swap.

See also: reviews by Simon of Savidge Reads and Ellie of Curiosity Killed the Bookworm.

The sky was the colour of a day-old bruise

Between Two Thorns

Between Two Thorns
Book 1 of the Split Worlds
by Emma Newman

I went to the launch of this book a few months back (which for some reason I blogged about beforehand but not afterward – very strange) and the only reason I have taken so long to get round to reading it is that it is linked to a series of online short stories that I wanted to finish reading before I started this novel. Then I got impatient with myself and just read this anyway! I will go back to those short stories now.

Disclaimer: Emma Newman is a local author to me and we have met a couple of times, as well as having a few conversations over the internet. I think she is very lovely and this may or may not have coloured my opinion of her book. Which I really liked. I think it’s probably very good whether or not you ever so slightly know the author.

Newman has come up with something special in the Split Worlds. She has created a fantasy world with a multitude of characters and things going on that feed into not only 50+ short stories and three novels (at least??) but also interactive games. But you could absolutely read this novel on its own, or any one of the short stories on their own, and enjoy it for itself, without the extra knowledge of all the other stuff.

What’s great is that although Newman has clearly put a lot of thought into world-building, there’s no noticeable chunks of exposition in this novel. You get dropped straight into a funny but sinister incident involving a drunk man desperate for a wee on his way home from the pub and all the details you need to understand what is going on and how that links to the other characters are added gradually and skilfully.

“‘Tea, sir?’ Axon picked up the teapot. Ekstrand peered at it suspiciously.
‘It is Assam, isn’t it, Axon?’
‘Indeed, sir.’
‘All right,’ he muttered and started to pace. ‘It’s all happening at the same time. I never did trust Sundays and this only adds weight to my theory.'”

There are quite a few characters but arguably the main one is Cathy, one of the “fae-touched” who is trying to break free from her family and live in the normal world known as Mundanus by – shock, horror – going to university. However, those who inhabit the magical mirror world she is hiding from, the Nether, will not leave her in peace. In the meantime, Max, a sort of policeman of the Split Worlds who is separated from his own soul, has stumbled on a breach of the Split Worlds Treaty so huge that there’s no knowing how high up in society the trouble goes or who he can trust.

I like the idea of the magical world and the normal world co-existing, and Newman paints both equally well. Characters in both worlds drink a lot of tea. But the worlds themselves are very different, or at least their people and societies are. The Nether seems to be stuck in a facsimile of 18th-century Britain, all very patriarchal and anti-technology and formal, with rigid rules governing everything and everyone, especially women. Mundanus is the world as it is now, in the 21st century, which makes for a huge contrast in some ways. Really, it’s a wonder Cathy is the only one looking to escape the Nether! But the Nether also sounds quite wonderful, with its silver sky and all the possibility of magic.

“‘Bloody weather,’ she muttered and then silently took it back. The sky was the colour of a day-old bruise and the wind was bitter but she still loved it just for being there. She never wanted to see a silver sky again.”

While you could read this as a standalone book, I was left wanting more, eager to buy part two and read it soon despite my enormous TBR. Thankfully my procrastination on getting round to reading this one means that book two, Any Other Name, has already been published (and indeed I bought it last weekend) and book three, All is Fair is coming soon, in October.

Published 2013 by Angry Robot.

Source: I bought this at the book’s launch at Forbidden Planet in Bristol.