April reading round-up

(Georg Michael Schneider, 1898)
(Georg Michael Schneider, 1898)

This month I’ve read a lot of books (nine! it’s usually four or five!) and not reviewed many. Is that good or bad? Yay for reading more, I suppose. Then again, a lot of these books were really short, so there’s a chance it adds up to a completely average number of pages read. I can’t decide if I mind that. And I will get to those reviews soon.

Out of interest, I looked at how I’m doing as regards reading widely. There’s a good mix of genres this month – literary fiction, poetry, essays, science fiction and I guess superhero comics are fantasy? There’s a decent range of author nationalities too if you base it on their place of birth – India (actually part of what’s now Bangladesh but when Godden was born it was India), UK, US, Nigeria, Afghanistan – but strictly Godden was British and spent more of her life here. One book is a translation and one is from my Classics Club list, so I’m just about keeping up with my aims there.

My main concern though is that the TBR stands at 146 books. That’s 146 books that I own and have not yet read. The trip to Hay-on-Wye didn’t help, I’ll concede! But I’d really feel happier if that number was under 100, so I think I need to impose a book-buying ban and I need to keep up this reading speed. Less TV, more books; that’s the lesson here. Am I worrying too much? How big is your TBR? Go on, make me feel better/worse and tell me in the comments!

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The superhero 12 miles from Manhattan

ms marvel vol 1Ms Marvel vol 1: No Normal
by G Willow Wilson (writer) and Adrian Alphona (artist)

When Marvel launched a new Ms Marvel series in February 2014, it got a fair bit of press attention for starring their first Muslim superhero. Add to that the fact that the series is edited and written by women, and cue a lot of clamour about how comic books are changing. What interested me more, though, was that it had a teenage female lead, making it effectively a coming of age story, and I’m a sucker for those.

Kamala Khan is 16 and lives in Jersey City in the US with her parents and older brother. She idolises the Avengers and resents the strict rules imposed by her parents and religion, but as rule-breaking goes she keeps it small, because she does want to honour her parents and her god. So it’s a big deal when she sneaks out of the house one night to attend a party. Of course that just has to be the one night that a mysterious green mist descends on Jersey City that does something decidedly weird to her.

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Sunday Salon: Glimpse of summer

The Sunday SalonWe’ve had a really lovely couple of weeks weather-wise and I’ve been trying my best to make the most of it, despite having that pesky work thing to go to. I’ve spent most lunchtimes outdoors and those bits of evening or weekend I’m not outdoors have found me sat near a window enjoying the long light hours.

Last weekend for a friend’s birthday we went to the seaside. We took the train to Weston-super-Mare, which for those who don’t know it is a properly cheesy seaside town. There’s a pier, fair rides, ice-cream stalls, donkey rides and about a zillion people crowded onto the beach. We ate fish and chips, built a sandcastle and admired the rather more impressive works in the annual Sand Sculpture Festival. It was a lot of fun.


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Our ideas of gender have not evolved very much

we should all be feministsWe Should All Be Feminists
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is Adichie’s TEDx speech in book form, so it has a lot in common with the Rowling book I reviewed last week. Again it’s short (about 50 pages) and can easily be read in half an hour. Again, I found my enjoyment of it was helped by trying to read it “aloud in my head” to semi-recreate the original format. And again I thought it an important, moving work but have some minor reservations.

Adichie describes herself as “a Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men And Who Likes To Wear Lip Gloss And High Heels For Herself And Not For Men”, which I think says something about her but a lot more about the resistance she has encountered to the label “feminist”. That resistance will be familiar to a lot of readers. In calm, reasonable and approachable style, she explains that the goal of equality has not yet been achieved, despite widespread claims to the contrary.

“If we do something over and over again, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over again, it becomes normal. If only boys are made class monitor, then at some point we will all think, even if unconsciously, that the class monitor has to be a boy. If we keep seeing only men as heads of corporations, it starts to seem ‘normal’ that only men should be heads of corporations.”

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Sunday Salon: Current technology in novels

The Sunday SalonA recent episode of the Books on the Nightstand podcast raised the subject of technology in novels, and whether authors deliberately set their novels before 1990 so that they don’t have to take technologies such as mobile phones and the Internet into account. It’s certainly true that a lot of classic stories would make no sense if all the characters had smartphones and GPS. (The podcast gave the example of Romeo and Juliet, where Romeo wouldn’t have sent a letter that got delayed, but instead an SMS. Then again, texts get delayed all the time, so Juliet might still not have got the message in time. Yes, I have thought about this a lot!)

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Poverty is romanticised only by fools

very good livesVery Good Lives
by J K Rowling

I was commissioned to write some short comments about this book for For Books’ Sake, but I found that I had more to say than I could squeeze into 150 words, so here is my longer review.

This is Rowling’s 2008 Harvard commencement speech, published for the first time in book form. Taking as her subjects “the fringe benefits of failure” and “the importance of imagination”, Rowling shares the wisdom of her own experience with the new graduates. Some of her comments and advice are profound, some less so. Some of it is old and familiar, some new and original.

As you might expect of a speech that took maybe 20 minutes to give, this isn’t a big book, even though to bulk it out the publisher has added illustrations to every page by Joel Holland, in bold black and red. His style is so-so but the overall effect still makes the book feel special and beautiful.

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Defeated by its own decay, it was dying

lady-and-the-unicornThe Lady and the Unicorn
by Rumer Godden

I had never heard of Rumer Godden until I flicked through the Virago Modern Classics catalogue and saw that they are reissuing her books, but she was apparently hugely successful in her lifetime. Between the 1930s and 1990s she wrote an astonishing 70 books, including most famously Black Narcissus, which was made into that wonderful film with Deborah Kerr that I have always loved but never knew was based on a novel.

Godden had an interesting life. Born to an English family in India, she moved back and forth between India and the UK throughout her life, and her first-hand knowledge of both countries is clear in The Lady and the Unicorn.

The story centres around a crumbling, decaying mansion in Calcutta, split into apartments occupied by several Eurasian families. Belonging to neither the British colonial society nor the native Indian society, they cling to pride in their “Europeanness”, but it’s a lonely position to be in.

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Under the Dark Moon

The Invisible Circus
Bristol Old Vic, 10 April 2015

Photo by Joe Clarke
Photo by Joe Clarke.

From the opening shadow theatre sequence, Under the Dark Moon‘s atmosphere of macabre beauty combined with the blackest humour is clear. The silhouettes of elegant dancers are chased across the stage by giants. A child won’t stop eating, becoming grotesque.

When “Old Victor”, the ringleader/storyteller (see what they did there?), introduces his troupe, he invites us – even implores us – to delight in their misfortune, to laugh at their pain and sorrow. They have suffered for their art, and he positively encourages that. One by one he tells their stories, and while there is plenty of clowning fun, they don’t shy away from plumbing the depths of human despair.

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Literary day out: Hay-on-Wye

Addyman Books

When I was a teenager, I forget which year, for my birthday I asked for money and a trip to Hay-on-Wye. For those unfamiliar with it, Hay-on-Wye is a small town in Wales that’s very pretty, surrounded by lovely walking country, but most importantly it’s full of bookshops – about two dozen of them in fact. It’s pretty awesome and that was my favourite birthday treat ever. So this year when a friend invited me to spend Easter weekend in the Brecon Beacons, including Sunday in Hay-on-Wye, I obviously said yes.

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Shiny New Books is one year old!

A very quick post to congratulate the team behind Shiny New Books who have just published their fifth edition of book reviews, author interviews and essays, marking one year since the website launched. If you haven’t yet checked them out, I do recommend taking a look and subscribing to their excellent newsletter, which has the admirable aim of bringing great new books to people who don’t know what to read next.

I should add that I have contributed to the latest edition, by writing a review of White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen. If you’re interested in what I thought of this Finnish novella about a harsh winter in the 19th century, do check out my review. And while you’re there take a look at the rest of the content in the Spring 2015 edition.