Saturday, 29 August 2015

August Reads

I've been a bit slow with the reviews this month, so I've currently only got two reviews published for the books I read (although the others are all currently written as first drafts and just waiting for some editing before I schedule them, so I'll hopefully be a little bit more on track within a week or so). I'm also still working on trying to get myself into a proper schedule and publishing at the same time every week too, but I think it might be another month or more before I get that established and ready.

Anyway, here's the books I've read this month:

A Slip Under the Microscope - HG Wells
This feels like a little bit of a cheat read, because as with The Sleeper and The Spindle below, it was a very short read that's bumped my read count up from four to six for this month -- although four books a month is still a pretty good rate considering I'm not at university/on summer break. Anyway, I've linked my review above if you want to know more about what I thought.

This is definitely one of those books that it seems like everyone has read, and I do tend to be a bit of a sucker for wanting to read what 'everyone' is reading, so naturally when I saw this on Overdrive I put it on my list and borrowed it as soon as it was available. A good read for people in their early twenties, especially students who are nearing graduation/recent graduates.

The review of this one is to come, probably within a few days of this post being published. An enjoyable enough read, but not a series that I plan on completing in the future. Interesting premise, though, and probably the kind of book that I would have enjoyed more when I was still the same age as its target audience.

Fishnet - Kirsten Innes
I was looking through my Goodreads account recently, and noticed that my Scottish fiction shelf (which I created to see how much Scottish fiction I read) was woefully lacking, especially given that most of the books I had read were assigned reading at university. Last month I read Kirsty Logan's The Gracekeepers which was brilliant; this month I found my way to another Scottish writer (and female too, double bonus). I discovered this one in the list of nominees for the Edinburgh International Book Festival's First Book Award and then saw it was available on Overdrive. I'm not going to say much about what I thought, as the review of this one is in the works, but overall I did like it and I think Kirsten Innes is an author I'll be looking out for in future to see where she goes next.

The Sleeper and the Spindle - Neil Gaiman (illustrated by Chris Riddell)
A wonderful short read with stunning illustrations (I'm such a sucker for good artwork). It's the kind of book you want to keep somewhere accessible and pull out whenever you need to just escape for a little while... but it's also the kind of story that I want to read to my potential future children as well. I do love the way that people are writing fairy tales these days, and I think it would be delightful if Gaiman went on to write more fairy tales like these and formed a whole collection of them.

The Rosie Effect (Don Tillman #2) - Graeme Simsion
This one took me a while to read this month, mainly because it's been a lot easier for me to read ebooks lately (aside from the Wells, this is the only physical book I read and finished this month) but luckily it was such an enjoyable and accessible read that the gaps between me reading didn't cause any real problems. I've also read an interview where Simsion said he's thinking of writing a third (and presumably final) instalment of the Don Tillman series which I'd be thrilled to read. A delightfully funny read that I'd definitely recommend to anyone. 

So that's what I've read this month! 

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

The Opposite of Loneliness - Marina Keegan // Book Review

I've had a bit of a break over the past week or so where I haven't really been writing reviews, to the point where I've now got four reviews waiting to be written – oops! My memory has started to fade on this book, so thankfully I did have the foresight to scribble down some notes at the time that I can work from!

I imagine a lot of people know the context to this book of short stories and essays; the author, Marina Keegan, passed away at twenty two in an accident. I won't go too much into who she was and what she achieved before she died, because a lot of it is covered in the introduction to the book. 

The book is split into two parts – her fiction and her essays. Some of the stories were almost hard to read because I couldn't get what had happened to her out of my head, especially in one of the stories (I didn't take note of the titles of them) in which a girl who is in a casual relationship finds out her sort-of boyfriend has been killed in a car accident. 

Other stories were curious and compelling, like the story of the older woman who reads to a young blind man. The underlying theme to all the stories seemed to be the very different kinds of relationship that can exist, primarily between men and women but also between family members and friends. The main thing that would have made me appreciate the fiction more (and perhaps above her non fiction) would have been more diversity in the relationships and characters she portrayed; there were no obvious, strong examples of characters who weren't white and straight. 

Her non fiction stood out to me more because it felt more relatable – I started to feel a kind of connection with the person that was Keegan, to understand a little about who she was, what mattered to her in life, and to see the things that I share in common with her. The piece about her gluten intolerance was one particular example that stood out to me because I can empathise with dealing with food intolerances – and she's also had a positive influence on me, making me realise the importance of respecting my body and making responsible choices about what I eat, avoiding (for the most part) the foods that make me unwell. 

It was clear too that she cared about the environment, humanity, the future of these things.. one of the pieces she wrote that still sticks in my head now a few weeks after finishing was the one she wrote about people being head hunted out of Yale into jobs that weren't really their career goals, jobs that were almost stop gaps or 'experience building' for them; the overall implications of this piece affected me because right now I'm in the same boat, just having graduated university and not really knowing where I'm going with my life or knowing how to get into the kind of career I really want (never mind narrowing myself down to just one ideal career!). 

Ultimately I would say that this isn't exactly a brilliant and outstandingly well written text, but it felt real and human, and in particular is likely to be very relatable to people in their early twenties who feel a little bit lost and who care about the future.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Man Booker 2015
Longlist TBR

I've never really been the kind of person to choose in advance what books I'm going to read next. Normally, I just go pick up whatever book I feel like reading once I'm finished with one, or if I've bought a new book I sometimes start reading it straight away (Hollow City being the most recent example). 

However, I do kind of want to get into a habit of giving myself a guideline of what I want to read next  – since I've finished uni I have so much more reading freedom that I almost don't know what to do with it. So far I've only really made decisions based on which books I'm going to read in the winter (Burial Rites, The Snow Child, The Miniaturist, and probably re-reading The Silkworm are on my winter list so far) because I feel like they're the kind of books that will be better suited to a cold environment. 

One TBR list I have now made, as the title of this post will indicate, is the books I want to read from the Man Booker longlist for this year. There are 13 books on the longlist this year and, after having a read of all their synopsis', I've picked six that I hope to read, and there's two specifically that I want to read ASAP and definitely before the shortlist is announced (if possible). It would be interesting to attempt to read all 13 books and take the most informed guess as to the shortlist/winner, but I just don't have the time or money right now - maybe someday! 
(Quick note: I haven't put Marilynne Robinson's Lila on my Booker TBR, but only because I want to read Gilead and Home first, or it would be on there!)

So here goes: my Man Booker 2015 TBR!

The Chimes - Anna Smaill

 I'm quite a big fan of novels where the dystopian/post-apocalyptic world is actually a real place (ie London, in this case) because I like seeing how people will envision the changes to somewhere so familiar to so many. I don't know a lot about it aside from the synopsis on the Booker website, and I intend to keep it that way until I read it! (What a gorgeous cover, though?!)

Sleeping on Jupiter - Anuradha Roy

Again, I don't actually know enough about this one to give a good description, but I've written it in my Booker TBR list with lots of exclamation points around it - so even if I don't remember what the synopsis was now, it clearly got me excited at the time! It's not going to be available in paperback until April next year, so far as I can tell. I haven't bought this one yet but I expect I will soon.  

The Year of the Runaways - Sunjeev Sahota

This one focuses mainly on three Indian men, who live together in Sheffield with other migrant workers, and one British Indian woman, who is married to one of the three aforementioned men but does not live with him, or want much to do with him. The novel switches between shorter chapters about the four characters' lives in Sheffield with their own personal stories about their lives before they came to Sheffield, which is a format I quite enjoyed recently in Andrea Levy's Small Island. I'm also always interested to read more books about cultures outside of my own, and books that explore how migrants experience the Western world and native Westerners. However, I don't know if I can hold out much hope on reading this one before the shortlist comes out as the paperback isn't released until.... and I need to pinch the pennies, but if it makes the shortlist I'm definitely bumping it up the list to buy when I can afford it or when the paperback is released!

The Moor's Account - Laila Lalami

The title of this undoubtedly caught my eye (and it's another one which is Rushdie approved, but I swear that's just a coincidence!). I love some good historical fiction, but I guess my love pushes it over into pickiness, because I tend not to actually read a whole lot of this genre. The reference to 'moor' in the title caught my attention because it made me think of Shakespeare's Othello, a play that I enjoyed immensely in my third year of uni. It was the kind of text that provoked a real interest in a kind of story that I haven't seen a lot of out there. Then, of course, I read more about the synopsis/description, "As this dramatic chronicle unfolds, we come to understand that, contrary to popular belief, black men played a significant part in New World exploration, and that Native American men and women were not merely silent witnesses to it" (source)

A Spool of Blue Thread - Anne Tyler

Much like the other books on my list, I don't know much about this one - but unlike the others I've picked, it's one I've seen over and over again. I've heard some comparisons to Marilynne Robinson as well, so at the very least I feel intrigued. Given that this was already low level on my radar, it's been nudged up to a higher priority by the Booker nomination, although it's not that high on my list compared to the ones above and is more likely to be the kind of book I'll pick up and read if the opportunity presents itself (like if I see it in the library) than one I'll actively seek right now. 

A Brief History of Seven Killings - Marlon James

This wasn't originally on my personal shortlist; I started out with five books that I had gotten very excited about and the other seven (excluding Lila, as mentioned above) didn't really catch my attention in the same way as the ones above. It wasn't that they didn't sound like good books... but you have to narrow it down somehow! One of these days I will read all the longlisted books, even if I only manage it the once...
Anyway, this one has caught my eye a few times in book shops since I saw it longlisted, but the tipping point to get it into the list was seeing it available on Overdrive, meaning that (assuming it's available to borrow) I can read it conveniently for free - which is perfect, since I'm still a skint graduate!

So that's my (somewhat delayed) Man Booker TBR. What'll you be reading?


Saturday, 15 August 2015

A Slip Under the Microscope - HG Wells // Book Review

This book comprises of two of Wells's short stories; 'The Door in the Wall' and 'A Slip Under the Microscope' respectively. It's my first Little Black Classic – I picked it up for 49p in Oxfam – and was actually on my vague list of Little Black Classics that I wanted to pick up and read, because I quite enjoyed War of the Worlds at uni (I might do a post at some point about the other Little Black Classics I want to read and why).

 I definitely preferred the first of the two stories, because I felt it had a much more poignant message, and was a more concise story. Although briefly framed by the narrator, who explains a little of his own setting before going into the story his friend told him, it was straightforward while still being intriguing. I liked the extra layer by having the story being essentially doubly narrated; the extra distance makes you even less sure what to think of this mysterious door in the wall. Is it real? Is it some form of escapism, some delusion, or a genuine fantastical/magical portal? It's hard to say whether the door was 'real' or a repeated figment of the imagination, a daydream of an escape from the pressures and stresses of reality, but it was a brilliantly written metaphor and definitely the kind of story I'd like to go back to every so often and re-familiarise myself with.

The second story was interesting enough, but just didn't catch my attention in the way the first one did (which makes me question the decision to order the stories as they have, but I suppose some people probably preferred the second story!). It focused on a young man who, driven by a desire to be better than his classmate, unintentionally cheats in an exam and has difficult moral choices to make. In some sense it was nice to read because it made me a little nostalgic for university, even though I studied an entirely different subject and did so in a different century). There was also nothing particularly negative about the story – it just didn't have the same effect as the former. I wasn't really invested in the outcome or particularly intrigued by the message in this one.

Overall, though, I liked this little short story collection and will probably be picking up more of these on my next day off.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The Gracekeepers – Kirsty Logan // Book Review

Where do I even start with this book? I loved it. I didn't want to finish it, because then I'd have to stop reading it. Everything about it is beautiful – the story, the cover, the world Logan created (seriously though, look at that cover! I want a poster of that cover). Part of me longs for this to be adapted into a film because I know how gorgeous it could be in the right hands – but part of me would also be afraid to see it as a film in case it didn't live up to the novel. I even wish I was a better artist, so that I could make art based on this book. It's that beautiful.

But it's not just enough to talk about how beautiful it is, because that's barely even the half of what's so wonderful about this book. It's creative and original, and everything I think I could have wanted from it. I didn't know a lot about the plot before I started reading; all I knew was that it focused on two women, North and Callanish, and how their lives come together in a flooded world where land is rare and the domain of the privileged few. Callanish is a Gracekeeper, living on her own tiny island laying the dead to rest in special mourning ceremonies; there's some secrets hidden in her past and the water and what it contains makes her uncomfortable. Then there's North, the girl with the bear. North is part of Red Gold's circus boat, who sail around the islands performing in exchange for food and other necessities.

The book is full of clever, complex characters. Everyone stands out, each with their own personalities and motives, and the world is subtly and brilliantly developed. There's no heavy handed explanation of how the world came to be flooded – although one can take a guess – but Logan still manages to develop the cultural and social differences between the 'landlockers' (who live on the islands) and the 'damplings' (who live on boats in the sea/ocean). The landlockers worship the trees and almost fear the water and what it contains, while the damplings find the land uncomfortably steady and mock the landlockers, calling them 'clams' (who happen to lack brains). There's even a fascinating scene where Logan gives us just a hint of the world that used to be, deep below the water.

I'm not sure whether I'd be happy to hear about a sequel to this book or not. I'd love to know more about the world Logan created, and spend more time with North and Callanish... yet it's such a perfect and beautiful book on its own, and that can be such a rare thing these days.

This is definitely the kind of book that everyone should be reading, although definitely not a book to lend to your friends as you might not get it back!

Friday, 7 August 2015

July Books

This was my quickest read of the month, as it took me less than 24 hours to read the entire book. I reviewed the book here if you want to know a bit more about what I thought of it. Ultimately, I think now (a month after reading it) that it is a worthwhile book to read, but I think I'd almost categorise it as a summer holiday read. It's the kind of book that you probably do want to read all at once; even though it isn't an outstanding book, I found it suitably compelling and I could imagine myself having really enjoyed it while sitting by the pool or on the beach (but I can't afford to go on holiday, so imagination is as close as I'll get to a beach holiday!).

Murder at the Vicarage
My first Agatha Christie, but it won't be my last. It was fun to read and a great start into the enormous canon of Christie novels. Review can be found here if you haven't read it. I look forward to reading more Christie novels (a lot of them are available on the library ebook service Overdrive, so I do plan on reading more in the next few months and it's also going to save me a lot of money on reading her books!).

The Art of Being Normal
This month's YA novel. I've been thinking that I might start making it a bit of a routine to read one YA novel a month. I've been thinking of doing something similar with reading a classic novel a month too, as there's so many classic novels I want to read and I think doing it as a kind of 'feature' might push me to read more of them. However, since I'm not reading as consistently and quickly as I did while I was at uni, the YA book a month goal is a lot more achievable (since I find them a lot faster to read than classics). The review of this one is available here if you want to know more about what I thought of it. 

The Gracekeepers
An immediate entry to my favourites list. A truly stunning book that will probably make its way onto lists like 'books I need to re-read every year' (which I never seem to manage, oops) and 'books to give as gifts' (with its partner list, 'don't lend this out, you'll never see it again'). The review of this one will be up on the 11th of this month and will be linked here once it's published.

Bad Feminist
This one sort of counts. I finished it at the start of August, but the majority of the time I spent reading it was in July, so I'll include it. I'll probably mention it in my August books as well, so I won't go into it too much now. The review of this one will be posted sometime later this month. Overall an interesting and worthwhile read.

And the DNFs...
Apple Tree Yard
I started reading this one, because as usual I keep craving thrillers and crime novels and other such similar genre novels. I can't remember precisely how far I got into it, but I just wasn't invested in the story at all and nothing interesting seemed to be happening. I've read a few reviews of this book where people didn't like the narrative voice, and I'd have to agree. I might try it again one day when I have more time to sit down and get further through it (I was reading it on my lunch break over a few days before I decided to stop). It was a library ebook so if I never go back to it, there's no money lost.

The Bees
It doesn't quite feel right to categorise this as a DNF, because I barely even started it. I borrowed it with Overdrive in the morning, started reading a few pages, and then decided that I didn't really want to read this one yet because it's one of those books that I think I would rather sit down and give myself a chance to really get into it first. I definitely plan on going back to this one at a later date.


In future I plan to do this as a separate blog, but since it's already a week into the month, I'll include my August TBR books at the end here.

A Slip Under the Microscope
Already reading this one, and by the time this post goes live I'll probably have finished it! My first ever Penguin Little Black Classic, picked up in the Oxfam charity bookshop.

The Opposite of Loneliness
Again, I've already started reading this one. I started reading it last month but I was kind of having a bad day and didn't really want to read more of it as it was making me a little bit unhappy in a way that I didn't like. I'm going back to it this month though, but maybe not reading it late at night when I'm tired and grumpy...

The Rosie Effect
I've only just started this one. The first book in the 'Rosie' series, The Rosie Project, was a great and enjoyable book that I read last year, if I remember rightly. This was featured in a haul I did earlier this year, and I've decided to get around to reading it this month. I've got a lot of unread books on the shelf, and I want to try to get through more of my physical books instead of reading library ebooks all the time!

I'm not sure what else I'll be reading this month, as I keep wavering over which books to read next and as for my goal of a YA novel every month, that all depends on what YA books are available to borrow on Overdrive!

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

The Art of Being Normal – Lisa Williamson // Book Review

The Art of Being Normal // Lisa Williamson

The Art of Being Normal was one of those books that immediately caught my interest, because it's the first book that's ever crossed my radar – due to its popularity amongst the people I follow on Goodreads – that was about someone who is transgender. I know that if I was actively looking for books with trans characters, I'd find them; but aside from non fiction books written by trans people, there weren't really popular books cropping up in my feeds.

What I really liked about this book is that it's not just about trans identity, but also about being a teenager. It's about the struggle of coming to terms with your identity at an already confusing and complicated time in one's life; about dealing with crushes and bullies and being the new kid at school, or an unpopular one. At times, as a twenty two year old reading about fifteen and sixteen year olds, I did roll my eyes a bit – usually at the slightly cheesy/cliched 'teen speak' or slang – but then this book is meant to appeal and be relatable to teenagers, so that's understandable.

However, I think this is the kind of book that anyone like me (ie, cisgender) should read, even if you aren't a teenager any more. It highlights some the issues of being trans when you're a teenager in an already hostile environment (because what high school isn't full of kids ready to be hurtful and cruel towards anyone that's 'different') and the difficulty of talking to one's parents about identity.

Importantly for me, the main characters – Leo and David – weren't just two dimensional stick figures, which can be more of a problem both in YA books and in books that deal with more difficult topics. I really fell in love with both of Wililamson's main characters, and cared deeply for them and their fates. Admittedly not all the characters were as strong as this; I felt that David's best friends, Essie and Felix, weren't as well developed and sometimes felt flat to me – but in general, it was an enjoyable and emotive book and I liked most of the characterisation.

It isn't by any means an authoritative text on being trans – it shouldn't be, either. You wouldn't read a single book about any other topic and decide that you knew everything you need to know about it, and I know that I want to read more books with trans characters in future. I hope to read more books by trans authors, too; as far as I'm aware, the author of this novel is cis and was inspired to write the novel based on her experience working at a gender identity service within the NHS. However, it's potentially an excellent stepping stone into understanding more about being trans for someone who hasn't had much experience with it, and definitely the kind of book that I hope lots of young people are reading.