Rainy weekend reads in brief

Last weekend we had lots of fun plans but we were feeling a little under the weather, so when it pretty much rained non-stop we took advantage and just stayed at home. For Tim that meant playing computer games (mostly Elite: Dangerous). For me it meant reading. I got through four and a half books. Which sounds like a lot for two days, but it includes two graphic novels and a very slim collection of short stories, so I think that reveals how much time we actually spent watching TV (mostly Legion, which is nightmarish but also excellent, and confusing). As reading lots in quick succession makes it harder to write in-depth reviews, I’ll do brief ones instead.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

This is the third of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which began with My Brilliant Friend, and that means I now only have one instalment left to read in the saga of Elena and Lila. With recent(ish) revelations about the true identity of Ferrante (a nom de plume) it’s more tempting than ever to confuse her with narrator Elena, who begins this book as a successful author about to get married. Her childhood best friend Lila, meanwhile, is at a very low ebb, working her hands to shreds in a sausage factory owned by a rich friend of the Solara brothers, who have terrorised the neighbourhood since they were boys. As with every part of their story, Elena and Lila switch fortunes and switch from close, regular contact to spending long months apart.

The writing is, as ever, beautiful. I marked so many great quotes as I read. This book explores marriage, motherhood, family and whether or not anyone can, or should, escape their roots. Elena is torn between the cultured elegance of her new in-laws and the promise of a life far from Naples, and the importance of telling the truth and siding politically with the family and friends of her childhood. Lila is, as ever, fierce and demanding, making life decisions that Elena sometimes struggles to understand. I am looking forward to, and also sad already about, reading the final book in the series.

“How many who had been girls with us were no longer alive, had disappeared from the face of the earth because of illness, because their nervous systems had been unable to endure the sandpaper of torments, because their blood had been spilled…The old neighbourhood, unlike us, had remained the same. The low grey houses endured, the courtyard of our games, the dark mouths of the tunnel, and the violence. But the landscape around it had changed. The greenish stretch of the ponds was no longer there, the old canning factory had vanished. In their place was the gleam of glass skyscrapers, once signs of a radiant future that no-one had ever believed in.”

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Gedanken fictions

Just a quick post to say that my review of Thought X: Fictions and Hypotheticals, edited by Rob Appleby and Ra Page, has been published over on the Physics World website. It’s a collection of short stories and essays about thought experiments in physics and philosophy, and I found it fascinating. The fiction authors include Zoe Gilbert and Robin Ince, while the accompanying essays are by scientists including Seth Bullock and Tara Shears.

To see what else I thought, hop on over to Physics World.

Recent reads round-up

I read a few good books in a row and then went on holiday before writing reviews or even notes on them and now it’s two weeks since I finished the last of them. Oops. So here is my attempt to remember what I enjoyed about them. They’re all great!

her_fathers_daughterHer Father’s Daughter
by Marie Sizun
translated from French by Adriana Hunter

I loved this book. It is simple and sparse and yet utterly moving. This seems to be a pattern with Peirene books, one that I approve of. The story is told from the perspective of “the child” (she does have a name but it’s rarely used) – a young girl living in Paris during the Second World War. She is the apple of her mother’s eye and despite the Nazi occupation is utterly happy in her little world. Then the father she has never met comes home from the POW camp and the fight for affection begins.

Sizun brilliantly depicts the changing relationships – between mother and child; between father and child; between mother and father; between grandmother and child – against a backdrop of the occupation of Paris ending, and then the war itself ending. Though the child is not the narrator, her perspective filters the story to its essential parts. This at times almost reads like poetry, it’s so distilled. But it isn’t at all abstract in the way that poetry can be. A beautiful, quick read.

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Even the moonlight could not give it beauty

the-birds-and-other-storiesThe Birds and other stories
by Daphne du Maurier

This is an excellent collection of short stories. The tales are all weird, spooky, dark with flashes of humour.

The title story is the one that Hitchcock adapted into the film of the same name, but there is little resemblance between book and film. Both are excellent but I was surprised by quite how different they are. Du Maurier’s story centres on farm labourer Nat who lives on the Cornwall coast with his wife and two children. There’s no glamorous California or pet shop but there is the added peril of children being in danger. The birds on the attack are truly terrifying.

However, my favourite story was “The apple tree”, in which a widow becomes convinced that a sick old tree is taunting him with the spirit of his dead wife. It sounds ridiculous but is in fact a brilliant story that includes many of the same themes as Rebecca.

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One of them would die first

birthday-storiesBirthday Stories
selected by Haruki Murakami
Japanese text translated by Jay Rubin

When rearranging my TBR on my new shelves just before my birthday, I spotted this title that seemed like it would be pretty appropriate birthday reading. Even more appropriately, today is the birthday of the book’s editor, Haruki Murakami (happy 67th birthday Haruki!). This slim collection of 13 short stories is not the most cheerful but it provides a good introduction to a variety of authors.

The book started life as a collection of works in English translated into Japanese by Murakami, with an added short story of his own that he wrote specially. For this English edition he has written an introduction about the curation process and perhaps reading this first gave me a slightly negative start. First, Murakami freely admits that he is not a big birthday person himself and that the stories he found tend to be dark and unhappy. Second, he struggled to find enough stories and ended up asking friends, editors and agents for ideas, which does not suggest a rich treasure trove from which to curate a “best of”. But it’s a nice idea and there were a couple of authors here – David Foster Wallace and Claire Keegan – who I’d been meaning to give a try, so this seemed like a good route.

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Visitors would wade through steaming pools of human blood

holidays on iceHolidays on Ice
by David Sedaris

I thought I would get in the holiday spirit by reading this small volume of essays and short stories about Christmas. I’ve really enjoyed Sedaris in the past and I love Christmas, so I didn’t see how this could go wrong.

Well…I wouldn’t say I disliked it, but I was a little disappointed. I actually really liked the two essays about Sedaris’s own life, which were funny and insightful in just the way I had come to expect.

“SantaLand diaries” describes his time working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s department store in New York. It gives him a perfect opportunity to bring a critical eye to the various people who work as santas or elves, and the people who pay to visit them. Sedaris can be a little cruel in his observations, but he is so honest about his own failings that it all evens out.

“I spent a few hours in the maze with Puff, a young elf from Brooklyn. We were standing near the lollipop forest when we realized that Santa is an anagram of Satan…We imagined a SatanLand where visitors would wade through steaming pools of human blood and faeces before arriving at the Gates of Hell, where a hideous imp in a singed velvet costume would take them by the hand and lead them toward Satan. Once we thought of it we couldn’t get it out of our minds.”

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Early summer reads: short reviews

I shouldn’t complain that life has been full of holidays and social events and lovely weather to be enjoyed (and work), and to be honest it hasn’t slowed down my reading particularly. But it does mean I am woefully behind on reviews, so here are some brief thoughts on recent reads.

the sandman vol 2The Sandman Vol. 2 The Doll’s House
by Neil Gaiman, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III

How to explain The Sandman? It’s a whole mythology where Death and Dream and Desire and several others are immortal non-human siblings, sharing or sometimes squabbling over their power/responsibility. This review contains some minor spoilers of the first volume.

Dream, or Morpheus, has recently awoken from his entrapment by a magicians’ circle to find the Dreaming in chaos. While setting it all to rights, he senses that there is a Dream Vortex in the shape of a young woman, Rose Walker. She is trying to put her family back together, unaware of the danger that surrounds her or of Dream trailing her closely. Rose is a fantastic character and there are some wonderful comic touches here, such as the serial killers’ convention. But really it’s the combination of gorgeous art (with wonderful covers by long-time Gaiman collaborator Dave McKean) and writing that make this a great book.

“It seemed like the late autumn wind blew them in that night, spinning and dizzying from the four corners of the world. It was a bitch wind, knife-sharp and cutting, and it blew bad and cold. And they came with it, scurrying and skittering, like yellow leaves and old newspapers, from a thousand places and from nowhere at all. They came in their suits and their tee shirts, carrying rucksacks and suitcases and plastic bags, muttering and humming and silent as the night.”

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Mid-winter reading round-up

Hands up: I finished reading two of these books weeks ago and have therefore forgotten almost everything about them. They all deserve full reviews but I’d have to reread the books for that to happen and, let’s face it, that’s not happening. So here are some woefully brief thoughts on the last few books that I’ve read. (Incidentally, my 2015 reading has started slowly. Goodreads tells me I am already behind. Stupid reading challenges.)

Dear LifeDear Life
by Alice Munro

Munro writes beautiful short stories about everyday life in Canada, often set in or starting from the mid-20th century, and even the more modern settings have a timeless quality to them. There was a bit of a theme of passing through, of the people who are important to you for a while and then move on, which is not an easy theme to create satisfying endings from, but this never bothered me. I really liked the story “Amundsen”, about a woman who goes to a remote village to teach at a school that’s part of a tuberculosis sanatorium. It’s somehow very ordinary and very strange at the same time.

“The building, the trees, the lake, could never again be the same to me as they were on that first day, when I was caught by their mystery and authority. On that day I had believed myself invisible. Now it seemed as if that was never true.”

First published in Great Britain 2012 by Chatto & Windus.

Source: Foyles, Bristol.

The Dead Lake
by Hamid Ismailov
translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield

This strange short book started out with so much eerie promise but it got a little boring in middle. In fact, I put it down for a month and wasn’t sure if I would pick it up again, but I’m glad that I did. The language is beautiful and the story almost a fairy tale. It’s about Yerzhan who lives in a remote part of Kazakhstan where the Soviets test atomic weapons. As a young boy he fell in love with the girl next door and one day, to impress her, he dived into a forbidden (and almost certainly radioactive) lake. The consequences of this action are odd and fantastical, which is fitting for such an empty, unsettling landscape.

“Yerzhan stood there with his heart pumping hard, pounding its rhythm against the wall – or was that the heavy passenger express that pounded on the rails with a rhythm that pulsed through the ground? Whatever the cause of the pounding, Yerzhan just stood there nailed to the floor, more dead than alive. And once again that same implacable, visceral fear rose up from his trembling knees to his stomach, where it stopped like a hot, heavy, aching lump.”

Published 2014 by Peirene Press.

Source: Peirene gave this away as a free e-book to newsletter subscribers.

Rivers of London
by Ben Aaronovitch

This had been recommended to me by basically everyone and we accidentally ended up with two copies of it, so I’ve been meaning to read it for a while. It’s the story of Peter Grant, constable for the Met, who at the start of the book is at the end of his probation, waiting to be assigned to a department, so his whole career could hinge on how he handles guarding a crime scene in Covent Garden. Which would be easier if this particular murder case didn’t appear to involve ghosts and all manner of strangeness. This book is a lot of fun. It explores fantasy, magic, policing, class, race, history and death, doing so with great humour and plenty of action. There are already four sequels, which I know people rave about as much as this first book.

“Rush hour was almost in full flood when I got on the train, and the carriage was crowded just short of the transition between the willing suspension of personal space and packed in like sardines…I was sending out mixed signals, the suit and reassuring countenance of my face going one way, the fact that I’d obviously been in a fight recently and was mixed race going the other. It’s a myth that Londoners are oblivious to one another on the tube: we’re hyper-aware of each other and are constantly revising our what-if scenarios and counter strategies.”

Published 2011 by Gollancz.

Source: Heffers Bookshop, Cambridge.

Empower: Fight Like a Girl

Empower
Women of TV have united against lupus by writing a short story collection! All proceeds go to the Lupus Foundation of America.

This special collection of short stories comes from top women writers of some of the best shows on TV, including: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Family Guy, Battlestar Galactica, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek: Voyager, Eureka, Twisted, Malcolm in the Middle, Being Human, Chuck, Gilmore Girls, Castle and Game of Thrones.

In this anthology, you’ll discover supernatural thrillers, crime mysteries, horror, comedies, and more.

Authors contributing stories to this volume include: Amy Berg, Cherry Chevapravatdumrong, Akela Cooper, Liz Edwards, Jane Espenson, Shalisha Francis & Nadine Knight, Lisa Klink, Pang-Ni Landrum, Lauren LeFranc, Kam Miller, Jess Pineda, Jennifer Quintenz, Lisa Randolph, Kay Reindl, Kira Snyder and Jeane Wong.

These fabulous ladies contributed to the anthology in honour of the very awesome Maurissa Tancharoen Whedon, who is a singer/dancer/actress/writer/producer who also happens to have lupus (yes, I have written about her before).

As you’ll know, lupus is an issue close to my heart. SLE is an incurable chronic disease with diverse symptoms, from fatigue and joint pain to organ failure and recurrent miscarriage (with a whole lot more besides). It affects about 5 million people worldwide, of which 90% are female, so the female focus of this anthology makes a whole lot of sense. There are many many women around the world fighting hard against this disease and I am all for anything that gives them a boost.

The timing is because, in the US at least, May is Lupus Awareness Month. Lupus UK tends to designate October instead. But any of time of year is good to me for spreading lupus awareness!

You can buy Empower: Fight Like a Girl now for £3/$5 here (UK) or here (US). Enjoy!

Summer reads in brief

Sneaking this in while the weather’s warm enough to pretend that it’s still summer, even if it is September. Thunderstorms are summery, right?

Smoke and Mirrors

Smoke and Mirrors
by Neil Gaiman

This is a truly eclectic short story collection. There are tales told in poetry, in screenplay format, in one page or 30 pages. There’s comedy, reality, fantasy, science fiction, erotica; sometimes all five at once. There were stories that stunned me (“Changes”, “Babycakes”), stories that I loved unreservedly (“The wedding present”, “The goldfish pool and other stories”) and stories that were less lovable but perhaps more surprising in their inventiveness. There were stories that felt like familiar Gaiman fare, such as the stray cat that fights every night to protect its adopted family (“The price”) or a retelling of “Snow White” from the perspective of the stepmother (“Snow, glass, apples”), but there were also stories that felt very far from my previous experience of Gaiman and it gave me new love for the man discovering his wider talents.

“Memory is the great deceiver. Perhaps there are some individuals whose memories act like tape recordings, daily records of their lives complete in every detail, but I am not one of them. My memory is a patchwork of occurrences, of discontinuous events roughly sewn together: The parts I remember, I remember precisely, whilst other sections seem to have vanished completely.”

First published 1999 by Headline.

Source: Borrowed from a friend.

A Stainless Steel Rat is Born
by Harry Harrison

A month or so ago, I had just read two very serious books indeed and badly needed some light-hearted fun, so Tim recommended this by his favourite writer. It’s a boyish adventure – it’s in the future, in space. The young main character, Jim diGriz, decides that he is going to be a master criminal. This creates many a situation where he has to survive on his wits and make use of his slightly unbelievable level of skill at everything. Only once or twice is he caught out by the naivety of youth, which makes him a tad irritating. However, the book is touching in the right moments and thrilling in the right moments. So overall, it was just what the doctor ordered.

Published 1985 by Random House.

Source: Borrowed from Tim.

A Tiny Bit Marvellous
by Dawn French

This was another fun romp, although about as different from the Stainless Steel Rat as you could get. Though I dislike the term, this is solidly chick lit: it’s funny (as you might expect from Dawn French), easy and quick to read but not particularly deep or moving. It’s the story of a nuclear family – mum, dad and two teenage children. It didn’t help that I disliked most of the characters. Mo (the mother) is cold. Dora (the daughter) is the epitome of brat. Peter/Oscar (the son) is a complete drama queen, but it’s nice that there’s a gay character where it’s not a big deal to anyone that he’s gay. And the dad, well he’s barely a character at all. A plot twist near the end is fairly unbelievable. However, before that point it’s mostly pretty believable, and readable despite some irritating turns of phrase.

Published 2010 by Penguin.

Source: Bought secondhand from a charity shop.