Reading: symphonies & graveyards, emperors & English villages

Disclaimer: I mention Harry Potter in 3 out of 6 of these rambly book paragraphs. If you have a problem with that, you should probably leave now, because I can’t promise it won’t be 4 out of 6 next time.

150-emperoroftheeightislands Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn

Comparisons to Game of Thrones get throne (sorry) around a lot at the moment, mostly by people who seem to think George R. R. Martin invented fantasy. But in this case, the comparison (drawn by my very fantasy-literate friend Alanna) is apt. In Hearn’s novel, a diverse bunch of point-of-view characters with various claims to various lands and titles go on long, meandering journeys back and forth across a Japanese-inspired empire, occasionally bumping into each other when they’re not busy being abruptly killed off. Most notably, we follow boy hero Shikanoko as – before our very eyes – he is shaped into a legendary figure by forces largely beyond his control, and at points it’s hard not to wonder if he may ultimately turn out to be the bad guy. The style is simple and elegant, the characters interestingly conflicted, the way magic works imaginative and very distinct from fantasy books with a more western setting – here, magical power seems primal, bound together with death, birth and sex. Another similarity to Thrones: this volume is far from a standalone book, and relies on its yet-to-be-released sequel to resolve most of its plots.

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Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Wonderful isn’t the first word that comes to mind when I think of post-apocalyptic fiction, but it fits this book in a very literal way. Station Eleven is full of wonder at our modern civilisation – which in the story has recently fallen to a deadly flu virus – and at the things the scattered few survivors have lived through and lost. It is a winding, non-linear tale about people trying to hold on to bits of the past, fragments of a world that is rapidly fading from living memory into the realm of myth – and at the centre of it all is the Travelling Symphony, a troupe who play music and perform Shakespeare for those other survivors who want a taste of the world that was. The sheer ambition, the interlocking mysteries and the incredible care with which every word has been chosen all remind me of a David Mitchell book, and make me happy to jot down Emily St. John Mandel’s name below his on my shortlist of authors to read everything by. (Side note: the audiobook performance by Jack Hawkins is exceptionally evocative, and will give you shivers like you’re huddled by a big fire in a log cabin out in the snowy woods, even when you’re just popping to Tesco for cat food.)

150-harrypotterandthecursedchild Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne & John Tiffany

I have not yet seen this play in the theatre, but I think I can safely say watching it would be a much better experience than reading it. On paper (or Kindle screen) it can feel like questionable fanfiction – familiar characters in new and unlikely situations, presented in an uncomfortably bare-bones style with little of the flavour of a novel. The plot is easy to criticise as more a Greatest Hits of Harry Potter than a true eighth installment, finding convoluted ways to bring in just about every element of the wizarding world you could possibly want to see on stage. This would be thrilling if you were actually watching it, but as I read my main reaction was “oh, I guess that’ll be really cool for the people who managed to get tickets”. Having said all that, there were odd bits that made me remember why I love the series so much. The new character of Scorpius is pretty great. And Rowling isn’t afraid to take risks, portray Harry in a more negative light than ever before, and show Hogwarts from the perspective of people much more socially alienated than him. As a social alien, I appreciated this greatly.

150-thegraveyardbook The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Don’t think I’m obsessed with Harry Potter or anything, but The Graveyard Book has a lot of Potter about it: a boy grows up in unusual, magical surroundings, has a series of episodic adventures, and gradually learns more about his past and the shadowy man who murdered his parents. Of course, as it is only a single, fairly short book, it doesn’t have quite the same impact, but there is a lot crammed into these eight chapters. I enjoyed the dense, self-contained world of the graveyard, with its underground tombs, weird dream-like other planes and ghostly characters from across the sweep of history. On reflection, a few aspects of the ending strike me as cheap ways to stir up readers’ emotions while checking some generic coming-of-age boxes along the way – but they still gave me a bit of a tingle, so I guess Neil Gaiman knows what he’s doing. I only wish I could get my brain to stop trying to make literal sense of his work, because it does tend to put a bit of distance between me and his beautifully crafted worlds.

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The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling

It took me a long time to get into The Casual Vacancy. It’s not that I was expecting Quidditch and Polyjuice Potion – honest! – but it seemed reasonable to expect some of the charm of Harry Potter. Instead, this book felt like a rather humdrum soap opera with a focus on unlikeable characters judging one another. To be honest I may not have kept going, except for two things: a) I had bought the audiobook and decided to let it play in the background while doing other things, and b) it was written by J. K. Rowling who is still probably, by some measures at least, my favourite author. I’m glad I made the effort. The cast may be less colourful and cartoonish than that of Harry Potter, but some – Krystal Weedon springs to mind – are no less vivid and fascinating, if you can get past all the ugly hypocrisies Rowling dwells upon so unflinchingly it feels almost unfair. And in the end, all the mundane, unpleasant, judgemental pieces come together to form something powerful, compassionate and furious. In that way, at least, this book lived up to my expectations.

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Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

I seem to have been reading a lot of coming-of-age stories lately, and my jumbled thoughts on the genre will hopefully take the form of a larger blog post soon. This book treads some fairly familiar ground, documenting a year in the life of a 13-year-old poet and stammerer, burdened by secrets and self-doubt, as he traverses the tense tightropes of school and family life in the English village of Black Swan Green. But the journey is made memorable by David Mitchell’s inventive way with words, his talent for suddenly revealing unexpected and beautiful truths that have been there all along, and his habit of shattering his narratives into fragments which feel almost like self-contained stories in themselves, but which together add up to something much more enigmatic and affecting. As with all his books, I’d like to go through this again with a highlighter in an attempt to trace all the secret connections, in this case to figure out what exactly is going on with that moon-grey cat…

Note: I also reread Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere recently for my book club, and enjoyed it quite a bit more the second time round. So I’ve retroactively awarded it a star, over on the Books I’ve Read page. Don’t tell me I can’t do that! I make the rules around here!

Reading: handmaids, wallflowers, pigs & civil wars

Still plodding along with this whole reading thing, even though my brain doesn’t seem to want me to at the moment. Meh, if I did everything my brain wanted me to do, we’d all be in trouble.

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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I read this for uni and reread it for book club. It portrays a deeply conservative future society called Gilead, where women like the narrator are forced to work as surrogate mothers in an attempt to counteract a spate of birth defects. This catastrophe seems to have flipped some awful switch in society’s attitudes towards gender: now it is commonly accepted that men can’t be trusted with the sight of female flesh, so women have to cover their bodies and faces; women can’t be trusted with independence, so they are not allowed to read or have money or walk outside alone. With the unflinching intelligence that seems to define her writing, Atwood dredges out the darkest prejudices that probably still lurk in more minds than we care to admit, and in classic dystopian style, creates a world that takes them to their logical, horrifying conclusions. Even if you don’t buy that a society like Gilead could ever really come about — well, first of all, based on historical precedents I would respectfully disagree — but also there is more than enough of our own world in here that it would be complacent not to feel uncomfortable.

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The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

A coming-of-age tale which is hard to talk about objectively, because it’s probably either going to hit you like a ton of bricks or sail right past you without making an impact. For me, it was the former. This was unexpected. Early on in the book my cynicism kept chiming in with scathing comments – “oh, of course the narrator is a sweetly naive teenage genius, oh of course he meets a ragtag band of social outcasts who take him in” – but as I got more and more wrapped up in the story, that ugly side of me was left talking to himself in the corner of the room while the rest of me sat with his mouth hanging open, unable to stop reading. There were long passages that hurt to read because clearly they were addressed to me and no one else – though considering the number of people who love this book, I suppose that can’t be the case. How do you build something so powerful out of such simple pieces? It’s not as if Perks is all that original, or all that immediately striking in its style. What it is is an exceptionally kind, open and emotionally honest book, and a friendly reminder that if you really care about the people who care about you, you should try to care about yourself, at least a little bit.

150-HalfOfAYellowSun Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The civil war in Nigeria is a conflict I knew so little about that I had to look it up to confirm that it actually happened in real life as well as in this book – so if you’re anything like as historically ignorant as me, it’s worth reading just to learn a bit about something rather important that few educators (certainly in Britain) seem to think is worth telling people about. Half of a Yellow Sun is a big, sweeping novel, a portrait of a fiery political situation told through the eyes of three characters from three very different worlds. Their characterisations are vivid, sharp and complex, their emotions often several steps removed from the emotions you might expect them to feel in a given situation. As admirable as this complexity is, the constant subversion of obvious emotions sometimes left me, as a (how shall I put this) somewhat less complex reader, struggling to relate. Only sometimes though. This is definitely up there with a few really great books that I’m annoyed with myself for not appreciating quite as much as I wanted to – but overall I still enjoyed it for its intricacy and intelligence, its humour and sadness. And the ending is pretty beautiful.

150-AnimalFarm Animal Farm by George Orwell

Another reread. This is the story of a workers’ revolution among the animals of Manor Farm, who chase out their human masters and seize control, before slowly realising that this new configuration of power has not resulted in the golden utopia they were promised. Animal Farm certainly deserves its status as a classic: it’s extremely well crafted and makes its points clearly and elegantly. To me, though, the directness of the allegory has always been mildly off-putting, and gives this book a bit of an educational flavour, like something designed to be taught in schools. But perhaps that’s just because Orwell’s follow-up, the magnificently terrifying Nineteen Eighty-Four, takes a lot of the same ideas and spins them into a much more complex and thought-provoking tapestry.

You can find more of my rambly book paragraphs over on the Books I’ve Read page!

Reading: drugs, clockwork bees, dark carnivals & mayhem

So far this year I’ve been reading at what feels like my slowest rate since I started uni way back in 2008. This makes me feel tremendously guilty for some reason; perhaps because I worry that my brain is slowly turning to mush, taking everything I learned on my English degree with it. But here’s what I’ve managed to read, anyway. Don’t judge meeee!

150-SomethingWicked Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

The creepy story of a malevolent carnival that shows up on the outskirts of a little American town and begins to exert some dark influence on the inhabitants. It reminded me a lot of Neil Gaiman, to the point that I’d be quite surprised if he didn’t read this at some formative stage of his development. It also gave me unexpected flashbacks to reading Goosebumps as a child, though this is definitely more grown-up, and some of the horrors a little more abstract and existential than R. L. Stine’s tended to get. Reading it, I always felt a few steps behind the story, struggling to keep track of what was going on as Ray Bradbury danced around pulling ribbons out of everything like the conjurer he undoubtedly was. Something Wicked is stuffed with brilliant images and ideas, but ironically I may not be quite enough of a grown-up to fully appreciate it.

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Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

A remarkable comic adventure thriller vaguely-science-fiction almost-fantasy novel, whose setting feels so unique that you occasionally have to remind yourself it’s actually set in a version of our world. But it’s the parts of our world we don’t see – undercover government organisations, the (literal) criminal underworld of London, the lairs of impressively evil Bond-esque supervillains, and generally the domain of people otherwise unable or unwilling to fit into normal society, perhaps due to their ridiculous names. Central among them is Joe Spork, son of a notorious/celebrated gangster, grandson of a quiet artisan specialising in clockwork, himself uncertain of which way to go. His inevitable journey of self-discovery begins when a retired spy named Edie Banister decides to use him to set in motion a chain of events that will threaten the whole world in an entirely original and unsettling way. What follows is a rich brew of cheerfully over-the-top characters, imaginative action sequences, witty writing and fascinating, often dark thematic material. Nick Harkaway is definitely a writer to watch and be fiercely jealous of.

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Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

I was cautious going into this book, because although it seems to be worshipped by a certain section of the population, I got the impression this was largely to do with the theme of masculinity, a theme so profoundly meaningless to me that when people talk about it in the context of real life they may as well be talking about unicorns. Thankfully, there is a lot more going on here than a bunch of guys reconnecting with their inner man-animals through the medium of beating each other up. Each chapter is beautifully, almost musically structured, with verses and choruses, themes and variations, echoes and refrains which provide a satisfying sense of progression even when the plot is unfolding in three different places and times at once. The writing is peppered with striking, meme-ready sentences which provide a clue as to how it accumulated its massive cult following. And yes, there may be a rebellious, even anarchic streak running through Fight Club, but any reader who sees it all the way to its chilling conclusion and still thinks “yeah, we need to do exactly what those guys did” is not a person I will ever understand.

150-AScannerDarkly A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

I think the best way I can describe this book is as a strangely enjoyable exploration of paranoia and uncertainty. It’s no rollercoaster; the plot – relating to the life of a man leading a double life as a drug addict and an anonymous agent investigating, well, mainly himself – sidles along at a leisurely pace, taking in the entertainingly mundane conversations of its drug-addled characters, philosophical musings on identity, and explanations of scientific curiosities relating to the structure of the human brain. Already I can barely remember any actual plot points, but that’s not really a criticism, since I remember it being pretty consistently interesting and funny. I definitely need to read more Philip K. Dick. Also – though it is entirely coincidental that I read them back to back – someone could write a good essay comparing this book to Fight Club. To avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it to you to figure out why.

You can find more of my rambly book paragraphs over on the Books I’ve Read page!

Things I learned in Atlanta

A couple of weeks ago I travelled to America in the company of some friends of mine to attend Filmapalooza, the annual gathering of the winners of the 48 Hour Film Project (which we won last year in Edinburgh and Glasgow). It was held in Atlanta, Georgia, not a place I knew much about, but I was excited, particularly as I’d never been to America before.

The experience was a bit overwhelming and hard to summarise, so I’ve written a bunch of fairly unconnected paragraphs in the hope that together they’ll convey the whole chaotic experience better than a linear blog post could. Here goes!

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I kinda hate airports. For a person with social anxiety, an airport is an obstacle course of awkwardness. There are even forfeits: if you fail to understand the instructions being barked at you at the security checkpoint, your punishment is to be felt up by some guy you don’t know. And if I didn’t have two well-travelled friends with me, the whole thing would have been much worse, as nothing about the process of checking in / checking bags / passport control / boarding is at all self-explanatory, and there is the constant sense that if you do something wrong you’ll find yourself in a lot more trouble than if you, say, knock a Fruit Corner off a shelf at Sainsbury’s.

The actual flying part is okay, except when it’s not, but most of the time it is. I don’t understand how anyone ever has the nerve to put their seat back though. I think there should be some sort of prize — maybe a cash reimbursement — for getting through the whole flight without putting your seat back, especially if the person in front of you has. Also, sometimes the plane is way too hot and they only bring round tiny cups of water every hour or so, probably to stop everyone needing to use the toilet. And whenever there’s any turbulence I quickly think back over the last day or so of my life and convince myself that this would be a dramatically appropriate point for the plane to crash and kill me. And one time I noticed this bit of the wing that was flapping up and down as if it was about to come loose. Actually, maybe flying isn’t okay.

Atlanta is pretty. Just the right amount of sleek modern city centre surrounded by picturesque suburbs sprawling off into the forest. It feels nice and, considering the high crime rate, unexpectedly not scary. I didn’t think much about the fact that anyone passing me on the street could be carrying a gun, or that there’s no universal healthcare, or that they still execute people, or that they’re considering electing a billionaire cartoon villain who frequently makes misogynistic comments and has suggested banning an entire religion from entering the country on the basis that he thinks they’re up to something. I suppose the niceness is what allows the people living there to forget these things most of the time too.

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American people are also nice. Nice enough that I am now baffled as to where the stereotype of British politeness came from. The people I encountered in America were infinitely more polite than the grumps you meet in Britain – with the notable exception of the border control guy to whom I had to justify my existence at Atlanta airport, and who managed to make me feel like I shouldn’t be there as soon as I arrived. But border control guys aren’t technically people, so I won’t count him.

America may be nice, but here’s one thing it is not: it is NOT an enchanted land that causes me to shed all my social inhibitions the minute I set foot on its soil. As is my habit, I’d sort of fooled myself into thinking it might be, but the disappointing truth is that I am the same person even when I’m on a different continent. This meant a certain amount of standing around awkwardly at the social events I attended, particularly during the ice-breaker. And after that, a certain amount of staring out the window of a revolving restaurant rather than talking to the people I was with, and then a certain amount of staying in my room while my friends were off partying, talking to myself and trying to come to terms with the fact that this trip might not be quite the personality transplant I’d been hoping for. (That all sounds bad, but if you know me it’s actually pretty normal.)

Staying in a reasonably fancy hotel is a cool experience. If you ever get the chance to stand in front of a floor-to-ceiling window high above a nocturnal cityscape of twinkling lights, holding a drink and wearing an actual shirt with buttons and everything, you may experience the strong sense that you have finally “made it”. However, this sensation is fleeting and untrustworthy, and when you retire to the nice room you are only staying in thanks to a hefty discount, you may find yourself terrified to touch anything in case it costs you hundreds of dollars you don’t have. Seriously, they had a bottle of water with a cardboard thing around it saying “enjoy”, and it was only if you looked closely you could see it also said “$5”. After that I started looking for prices on everything. It took us several days of tentative experimentation before we discovered the Wi-Fi was actually free after all. Awkward unemployed Scots are not made for such surroundings.

Despite all that, the film festival was fun. The screenings — of ours and other people’s films — were very enjoyable, and the people I did talk to were nice and often quite complimentary about our films, which was double nice. If you’re lucky, I might do another blog post soon about my favourites of the other teams’ films, because there were too many good ones to cram in here.

cocacola1Coca-Cola World is a little pocket of brightly-coloured dystopia where any staff member who doesn’t show appropriate enthusiasm for the ubiquitous fizzy concoction is presumably taken to a back room and dissolved in a vat of it like an unfortunate tooth in a school science project. But it’s quite fun, and all the propaganda did help me remember how much I love Coke.

Zaxby’s is not a great restaurant for vegetarians. And by not great, I mean not only does it offer no substantial vegetarian options, but it also has slogans on the walls making fun of us for being sissies. The rebellious side of me felt that they’d initiated hostilities towards us, and that it would be quite within the rules for me to perform some minor act of vandalism in their restaurant that they wouldn’t discover until after I’d left. But then I found their drinks machine had raspberry Coke, so I decided they were okay. Coke is great.

Zaxby’s aside, finding vegetarian food in America wasn’t as hard as I expected – most burger places have a veggie option, and even the fried chicken place we ended up at on the last day offered the welcome option of ordering four sides in place of a main course. I won’t claim to have gained any real insight into American cuisine, since my diet both there and here consists almost entirely of bread, cheese, meat substitutes and sugar in various configurations, but I did discover that working out how much to tip is not quite the ordeal I’d been dreading. Oh, and non-alcoholic drinks aren’t an issue either, because literally everywhere has Coke. And why not? Everyone loves Coke.

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The museum at the Center for Puppetry Arts will make you happy if you like the Muppets. If you don’t like the Muppets you don’t deserve to be happy, so you should go there either way.

Six Flags Over Georgia, which we had planned as a treat for our last full day in America, turned out to still be closed for the winter. This was a bit of a downer, but on the plus side, we went to the Amazing Escape Room instead! I knew I’d like escape rooms, as they appeal to my unfulfilled childhood ambition to be a contestant on The Crystal Maze or Knightmare. And now I’ve done one (and we did escape, with over ten minutes to go, which is basically like getting over 100 gold credits after deductions in the Crystal Dome – shut up, it is!) I kinda want to do all of them. In the world. While swigging from a hip flask of Coke. I heard somewhere that Coke increases your brain power. Now where did I hear that?

Reading: machines, Horologists, all-knowing valets & the plague

150-CompanyOfLiars Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

An interesting and very readable novel that takes us on a journey through Medieval England, as a ragtag band of people decide to travel together in an attempt to escape the encroaching plague, and another, less earthly threat that begins to stalk them. The most memorable of these characters, aside from the moral but inscrutable narrator, are the exceedingly creepy horror-child Narigorm, and the consistently objectionable, intolerant, hypocritical, whinging, sexist, racist bully Zophiel, who somehow manages to be dislikeable in quite an enjoyable way, and therefore not actually as dislikeable as he really ought to be. As it is set at a time when elaborate superstition pervaded society in place of science and rationalism, this book made me empathise with non-scientific ways of thinking in a way I hadn’t before, and gave me a clearer (whether entirely accurate or not) sense of Medieval England than any history lesson could. Despite the memorable characters and intriguing plot, I think that’s the main thing I’ll take away from Company of Liars.

150-EenyMeeny Eeny Meeny by M. J. Arlidge

One of the first audiobooks I’ve listened to in a long time. I have an annoying habit of tuning out of them and having to rewind, so I chose something that seemed like it would be fairly generic and easy to follow. As it turns out, generic barely covers Eeny Meeny. Just about every gritty detective trope ever invented is present and correct here. There’s a brilliant but haunted female cop who indulges in a secret vice because she blames herself for a dark incident in her past. There’s another cop who is an alcoholic, and a few who may or may not be corrupt. There’s a shadowy psychopath playing grisly games with people’s lives. There’s an oppressive, humourless tone that occasionally makes you question why this is the fantasy world you’ve chosen to escape into. I suppose the Saw-like psychological horror of it, when removed from the off-putting gore of those films, appeals to the dark side of my brain. Somehow it kept me engaged enough to finish it, but if this had involved the effort of having to move my eyes, I may well have felt differently.

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The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Had this been my first David Mitchell book, it would have totally astounded me. But having already got my “wow, this is a writer of unworldly talent” moment out of the way, I just enjoyed Bone Clocks a whole damn lot. As in Cloud Atlas, the story is told in six sections, all very different in terms of setting, character and style. We begin in 1984 with teenager Holly Sykes running away from home and stumbling upon something huge and incomprehensible, and as we traverse the other sections we gradually begin to comprehend it. The threads that connect everything are a little less oblique than in Cloud Atlas, once we get past some enjoyable misdirection: at the start of each new section it can take a little while to find the main storyline again. I can see this putting some people off, but I just found it tantalising, and besides, the writing is so good that I could happily soak in it for hours even if it didn’t go anywhere. There’s a great deal more that I don’t want to give away, but if you are in the mood for a big, juicy, mysterious, beautiful book full of vivid language, interesting and amusing characters, grand metaphysical themes, and so many moving parts you could spend weeks taking them to pieces and admiring their intricacies – yep, this is one of those all right.

150-ThankYouJeeves Thank You, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

My first Wodehouse book, but the characters felt familiar straight away, which is probably a testament to how interwoven they are with British culture by this point. If you don’t know, the central characters are rich idler Bertie Wooster, whose good intentions are matched only by his complete inability to translate them into advisable actions, and his valet Jeeves, who seems to know more or less everything there is to know and will patiently bail his employer out of whatever situations he gets himself into. It all feels very innocent and benign, to the point of being naive, and as such it runs the risk of picking up and playing with certain cultural elements from the time it was written, without stopping to ask if they might be harmful. But throughout the book there’s an absolute lack of malice that makes it hard to take genuine offence; it’s something to shake your head at with a slightly disbelieving smile before moving on. Despite the fact I’ve heard all the books in this series are basically the same, I am tempted to pick up another one some time, and let the convoluted plots and winding conversations waste my time in a pleasant way.

150-TheAskAndTheAnswer The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

As a rule, series tend to get less colourful as they go along, and such is the case with Chaos Walking, apparently. The sense of wonder and discovery from the first book is largely replaced with an oppressive dystopian darkness; the many and varied locations are replaced with one town and its surrounding locales; and the humour is mostly gone. I’m not entirely fond of this trend, but regardless, The Ask and the Answer is a skilfully woven story, and there is plenty here still to like. The pace remains breathless but just possible to keep up with, the world continues to tease us with its secrets, and even the most loathsome characters become three-dimensional people before our very eyes. (This is of course one of the oldest of all narrative conjuring tricks, but it can still be miraculously affecting to be reminded that every human being is a human being.) To cap it all off, the cliffhanger ending of the first book is surpassed by an even crazier one! Book three will definitely appear here in the near future.

150-StoriedLifeOfAJFikry The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

On the surface, this story about an embittered bookshop owner learning to love again after a child is abandoned in his shop should be the sort of thing that reaches into your heart and squeezes unbearably tight. But – and I don’t know why this is – it did very little for me. One problem I can actually put my finger on is that the change in Fikry’s character seems to happen almost as soon as the child shows up. There is little reluctance on his part to let someone new into his damaged heart, and once he has, it is pretty much smooth sailing from there on. No major setbacks, not much struggle to adapt to the idea of loving again – just all the pieces of a happy and fulfilling life appearing one by one and falling neatly into place. If there is a message here, it feels a naive and rather alienating one. Also, I wasn’t sold on some of the thematic stuff – I got the sense the author was trying to suggest that stories can interweave with people’s lives in all sorts of subtle but profound ways, but I can’t think of many ways this was actually demonstrated, aside from the literal fact of the main character’s occupation. I will say this though: the rest of my book club loved A. J. Fikry, and they are clever and discerning people. Perhaps parts of it were targeting receptors that are missing from my messed up brain.

150-TheMachineStops The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster

I won’t lie: I read this partly because it’s short and I needed another book to achieve my Goodreads reading target for 2015. But it had been sitting on my shelf since I was writing my dissertation on dystopias four years ago, so it was probably about time I got round to it. It has that odd combination of qualities that old books set in imagined futures tend to have: a few really prescient aspects combined with stuff that now comes across as rather over-the-top and silly. But the prescient stuff hits home far more than I am comfortable with, especially since that home for me consists primarily of a small room in which I spend most of my time staring at various screens, talking to my friends (and strangers – hello to both!) via technology. Worth a read for those interested in partially fulfilled, concerned-frown-inducing dystopian prophecies.

You can find more of my rambly book paragraphs over on the Books I’ve Read page!

Reading: meteorites, shrinking alphabets, trolls & Noise

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The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

Lent to me by a friend who wanted to correct the slightly negative impression I had of Patrick Ness following More Than This. And happily, it worked! I lost myself in this story in a way that’s upsettingly rare these days, but which took me right back to the fantasy books of my childhood. The world, beginning with Prentisstown (a primitive religious settlement where people’s thoughts are constantly audible to everyone else and girls are unheard of), is beautifully realised, the themes (empathy, gender, secrets, religion) are complicated and deftly handled, and the style is much more flavourful than the gritty but bland stream-of-consciousness of so much YA. There are some quietly beautiful moments, but overall it moves about as fast as a book can without making you forget the stakes — there is just enough time, at points, to go “phew, maybe things are finally going to be okay now — OH JESUS CHRIST”. I only hope the rest of the trilogy lives up to it, seeing as the twists and tension and emotion have already been cranked up to potentially unsustainable heights. But having seen now what this author can do, I’m hopeful.

150-EllaMinnowPea Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

Ella Minnow Pea is set on a small island whose residents, for reasons too convoluted to go into here, find themselves having to express themselves in an ever-shrinking alphabet. As they do so, their classical letter-writing eloquence is replaced by a different sort of eloquence, as they bend language in all manner of creative ways to get around the new rules. This leads to some laugh-out-loud moments and genuinely ingenious constructions — and a funny sort of slasher movie thrill, as we anticipate which letter may be killed off next. While the island’s slide into tyranny is interesting (beginning with what seems a quirky and inconsequential ruling, ending with neighbours grassing on each other, Nineteen Eighty-Four style), there is not much of an emotional thread, and the ending is perhaps a bit too quick and neat to be entirely satisfying. Still, this is an enjoyable example of what a storyteller can do when s/he makes the very deliberate decision to discard realism – there’s a lot of cool stuff that can only be done without that millstone around your neck.

150-SmokeAndMirrors Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman

If there’s an unsettling way to blend the everyday and the mythical, Neil Gaiman has probably thought of it. Even his novels can read like short story collections sometimes, as he crams ideas into every available space until I can barely keep up with them all. So in some ways, an actual short story collection is an ideal format for him. The styles contained in Smoke and Mirrors are wildly diverse: there are stories written in iambic pentameter and other forms of verse; there are stories which achieve (for me at least) an almost T. S. Eliot level of incomprehensibility (I’m looking at you, ‘Cold Colours’). And then there are my favourites, which are essentially modern fairytales: ‘Troll Bridge’ and ‘The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories’ spring to my mind as highlights. Also worthy of note is the amount of disturbing, gruesome and sexual stuff going on in these pages, meaning you should only buy this book for your granny if your granny is exceptionally awesome. (In my case this book was a gift from an exceptionally awesome friend.)

150-AlexWoods

bookstar

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

I thought the main character in The Mirror World of Melody Black reminded me of me, but that was before I met Alex Woods, who is almost scarily like me on a number of levels. He’s socially awkward! He’s called Alex! He has an unhealthily puritanical attitude towards alcohol and drugs! He’s self-deprecating and constantly bemused by situations! Okay, a lot of these attributes are fairly standard ‘nerdy kid’ tropes, but written in Gavin Extence’s wonderfully relatable style, they were quite striking to me. What I appreciate most of all is that this is a coming of age story that isn’t afraid not to check all the usual ‘coming of age’ boxes. Instead, it checks much more interesting boxes like ‘bonked on the head by a meteorite’ and ‘starts a Kurt Vonnegut book club’ and (here comes one of those scarily-like-me things) ‘is home-educated after dropping out of school due to bullying’. Ultimately it celebrates honesty, kindness, and all the strangeness and mystery of the universe. Which is nice. And it made me cry – which felt natural and familiar but on reflection I can’t remember the last book that did that.

150-MrMercedes Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

I would have expected that when a writer as experienced and prolific as Stephen King gets his hands on a new genre, he would want to do something weird and different with it. But instead we get something that feels fairly by-the-numbers: Bill Hodges, a washed up ex-cop haunted by his past, receives a taunting message claiming to be from the Mercedes killer, one of the perps who got away. And of course he goes behind his department’s back in a desperate attempt to solve this one last case and give his life meaning again. The most disappointing thing is the portrayal of the villain, who feels like a grab-bag of psychopath cliches rather than a portrait of an actual human being. King never encourages us to feel what he is feeling, and we are therefore free to dismiss him as a horrible, racist, misogynistic monster. This not only feels like a wasted opportunity, limiting the story to being fairly hollow genre fiction, but it makes spending time in his company not particularly enjoyable. Okay, I’m sounding pretty negative here, but overall Mr Mercedes is a solid enough thriller, with that addictive cat-and-mouse dynamic that always keeps me turning the pages. Just don’t expect anything more.

You can find more of my rambly book paragraphs over on the Books I’ve Read page!

Inside Out: subtlety, sadness and empathy

It’s been a few weeks since I saw Inside Out, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. This is generally a sign that it’s time to arrange my thoughts into something resembling a coherent blog post.

First off I should confess that I don’t really get films. I mean: I watch them, I (usually) understand their storylines, I recognise the hard work that goes into making them, but I just don’t have the reverence some people seem to have for the medium. As a rule I don’t sit in the cinema as the credits roll and think “now that was a great film”. But in the past, Pixar has been responsible for at least two notable exceptions to this rule (namely Finding Nemo and Wall-E – though I also liked Brave enough to write a blog about it), so I was very interested to see what they would do with the idea of personified emotions, a premise so far up my street that I practically live in it.

There will be spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film, see it as soon as possible (assuming it’s still playing) and then come back and read this. Or just see it and don’t bother reading this, since it is a perfectly self-contained work of art, to which my blabbering will probably add very little.

Major Spoilers barks: “MAJOR SPOILERS BEGIN HERE!”

At the core of Inside Out is a question not many stories tend to ask, despite the fact that it seems fairly central to the experience of being human: what is the point of sadness? The question is posed very early on, but it’s phrased as a joke so like an idiot I didn’t notice it was actually the set-up to some of the more profound and emotional moments in the latter half of the film, where we finally realise that Joy and Sadness do not have to be enemies.

I don't know much about fair use law, but I think I'm more likely to be allowed to use this image if I say something about it. So … um, I like it. It's a good image.

I don’t know much about fair use law, but I think I’m more likely to be allowed to use this image if I say something about it. So … um, I like it. It’s a good image. Like how the film is good, only the film is even better.

This is where I think Pixar did things differently from other filmmakers who might have tried to make a film with this basic premise. Because the most obvious route, if you want to put the main character in a bad psychological place, would be to remove Joy from the control room and leave Sadness there to take the reins. But instead, Joy tries too hard to retain control and as a result both she and Sadness are exiled. In many ways this is a much better representation of what actually happens when a person is emotionally damaged, when they shut out other people, when they get depressed — whatever you want to call it. And it allows for a resolution much more complex and meaningful than in the parallel universe version of the film, where the evil Queen Sadness is finally defeated by wise and incorruptible Joy.

Another ingenious element of the film — and I’ll admit this is something that films, especially Pixar films, can do very well — is the way it creates a vocabulary, a visual language all of its own, around the concept of the memory sphere thingies. From the beginning we are taught what these look like, how they are created and stored, and what the different colours mean. Not only does this provide a lot of intelligent laughs along the way, but by the end we are primed to understand exactly and implicitly what the new, multicoloured core memory means, without the characters needing to say a word. The visual vocabulary that has been established over the course of the film is subverted in a way that conveys a new meaning, a meaning that never has to be explained in conventional terms. It’s all there in the imagery, so it bypasses the linguistic circuits of your brain and just grasps you by the heart.

But on reflection, I think the best and cleverest thing about Inside Out is how mundane the Out part is. Again, Pixar did not take the obvious route: it would have been so easy to cook up a melodramatic real world story to trigger all the fireworks in Riley’s head. But no, they keep it subtle and restrained — just a few little nudges which begin the process of her inner world absolutely falling apart.

To me, this only adds to the story’s power, because it demonstrates how seemingly trivial things can have a serious impact on a person’s psychology. Especially in fiction, people are often expected to display superhuman emotional strength, or be criticised as weak. If we didn’t see Riley’s inner world, I have no doubt that a portion of the audience would go: “oh for god’s sake, the spoilt little brat’s sulking and running away and crying just because she had to move to San Francisco?” But because of the metaphorical world so lovingly crafted by Pixar, we understand. We feel what she is feeling. The everyday trials of growing up, so easy for cynical adults to scoff at, are portrayed as heartbreaking, world-destroying — which is great, because that’s exactly how they feel to the person going through them.

So not only is Inside Out a beautiful, funny, inspiring experience from beginning to end, it has caused me to think long and hard about the purpose and potential of storytelling. I certainly can’t think of another film that creates empathy in such a unique, vivid and powerful way. And in an age that sometimes feels characterised by a horrifying lack of empathy for other human beings (see pretty much every newspaper currently being printed in the UK, the comments section of every online article and video, etc.), perhaps that’s something art should aspire to more often.

First draft fever

I’m giving myself an hour to write this post. That may seem like a long time, but I am a slow writer, a slow reader and an all-round slow thinker. I can easily spend the better part of a day carefully composing a blog post, or – as has happened a shameful number of times – write one in fits and starts over the course of several weeks, and quite possibly never finish it. So this is an attempt to speed myself up and, in the process, maybe find a sustainable way of updating this blog more than once in a blue moon.

This year, I’ve also adopted a similar approach when it comes to writing novels. After spending so many years painfully extracting The War of Undoing from my head like a troublesome tooth, I wanted to get on and hammer out something completely new to prove to myself that I could. So at the beginning of March (before I finalised TWOU, actually) I set myself the task of writing a first draft of a new, shortish (60,000 word) novel over the course of six weeks. This would mean writing 2,000 words a day and working 5 days a week. 2,000 words was right at the edge of my ability when I was rewriting The War of Undoing back in 2012, so this seemed ambitious but not impossible.

Two weeks later, I somehow finished the first draft of the new book – let’s call it Project Rose – having managed to churn out around 4,000 to 6,000 words a day, as well as working weekends. I was astonished at myself. I’d heard of people writing drafts that fast, but I never thought I was capable of doing so myself. In case you are interested, here are the tricks that I think helped me achieve this:

  1. I made the rule that I would not overthink what I was writing. This was a first draft, after all, and if I wrote something incredibly stupid and rubbish, no one ever had to know. So if a potentially stupid and rubbish idea came into my head, as long as it amused me, I would put it in anyway and worry about it later.
  2. Going against my natural inclination to tinker, I absolutely forbade myself from going back and making changes to bits I’d already written. If I changed my mind about a plot element or character, I would carry on writing AS IF I had made all the necessary changes earlier but without actually doing so, and make a note of the change so it could be implemented in a rewrite.
  3. I was working from a plan. Not a massively detailed plan, but a brief chapter-by-chapter outline and some more in-depth notes which I’d spent a couple of months gradually cobbling together. This meant that no matter how many weird tangents I found myself going off on, I could always look at the plan and go “oh right, I’ve got to do that now”, pick up the draft and set it down pointing vaguely in the right direction like you would a remote control car with an especially erratic remote control.

And with those helpful hints comes a rather large disclaimer: the draft didn’t turn out very well at all. I can say that confidently because I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to subject it to its first major rewrite, and even with care and attention it seems vehemently opposed to the notion of being good. The quality of the writing is wildly variable (thanks for that, trick #1), it’s riddled with inconsistencies (cheers, trick #2) and it goes out of its way to conform to the most ludicrous plot points even when it has to drag the characters along kicking and screaming in order to get there (oh, trick #3, you bastard). There are things about it that I like, but for now I think I’m going to do the classic writer thing of leaving it in its (metaphorical) drawer for a while longer, and see how it looks to an older, hopefully more mature me.

Did I mention I wrote another first draft in May and June? Yeah, a first draft of a completely separate book, this one based on Project Chippy, the aborted detective webseries I mentioned on this blog back in 2012 – let’s call its novel incarnation Project Fishy. I mostly used the same methods as I used back in March, though I got derailed a bit more along the way, by doubts, plot problems and such. I haven’t gone back and looked at that first draft yet, but I suspect I’ll find that it’s just as flawed as Project Rose.

But I’m liking writing these first drafts, even if they’re nowhere close to being in a fit state for anyone else to read. Having two first drafts sitting there awaiting my attention is a much better feeling than the one I had before, which was “oh god, once I publish The War of Undoing I’ll have nothing new on the go and I’ll probably never be able to write anything again”. I’ve at least proved myself wrong in the most literal sense there – I have written more stuff. It may not be good, but I have written more stuff. So nyah, unrelenting negative voice in my head. Plus, writing first drafts is much more measurable than fiddling with drafts you’ve already written. I can look back on 2015 so far and say “Look! There are 120,000 words that didn’t exist in that order before.” Whereas last year … well, let’s not talk about last year.

So I’ve decided to embrace this first draft fever and write another one, starting next week. Unlike the others, this one will be set in Kyland, and will be a sort of prequel, telling a story about the Raining children’s time living in Tarot before all the craziness of The War of Undoing happens. My codename for it is Project Hopeless, which may mean something to the two or so people who have read TWOU and actually remember world details. I’m probably going to use a slightly different system for writing this first draft, making more notes before each chapter to keep myself on track, but I’m sure whatever system I use will still lead to an avalanche of horrendous problems for my future self.

Actually, who cares? I have plenty of future selves, and it’ll only be a problem for some of them. I have a feeling the ones who are going to be writing this first draft are going to enjoy it very much. And that’s my hour nearly up, so I’d better stop typing before this turns into yet another novel. Blog at ya soon! (God, I really need a way to end these things.)

June-July 2015 reading

150-Lolita Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Despite the controversy surrounding this book, the thing that struck me most about it was how beautifully and inventively written it is – certainly enough to make me feel guilty about calling myself a writer, and more disturbingly, enough to calm the sense of moral outrage stirred up by some of the early chapters. Before long, we are swept along on a strange journey in the company of pubescent-girl-fancier Humbert Humbert, a man we would be unlikely to have the chance to get to know in real life, and probably wouldn’t want to. But in the safe realm of fiction, we become desensitised to his unique way of seeing the world, worn down by his poetic vocabulary and biting sense of humour. Like a lot of morally ambiguous books, it’s hard to boil it down to any sort of message other than: “people are people, and people are complicated”. But that’s a lesson worth learning more than a few times.

150-MoreThanThis More Than This by Patrick Ness

There’s a lot about More Than This that I can’t say, but this is how it starts: a boy drowns, then wakes up in a strange, deserted version of a place he used to know. If you’ve read survival-based YA books before you’ll have some idea of what to expect — cobbling together resources in a world of darkness and despair, a simple stream-of-consciousness style — but there is also an enticing sense of mystery to keep you turning the pages. For the first third or so I was desperate to know what was going on, but when it began to become clearer I struggled to find it convincing, and without the core of intrigue to hold it together, my appreciation for the book kind of disintegrated. There are things about it that are commendable (again, I can’t elaborate without spoiling things), but ultimately the style, the logic of the world and the vagueness of the central themes were too off-putting for me.

150-Saga Saga, volumes 1-4 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

My friend Euan practically shoved Saga into my hands, and I’m glad he did. It’s a big, sprawling, colourful, funny sci-fi epic about two people from opposing sides of a war that has been “outsourced” to numerous planets and moons, who fall in love, have a baby and go on the run. Naturally the authorities from both sides see their love as the most dangerous thing in the entire battle-torn, explosion-riddled universe, and enlist some shady characters to hunt them down. So begins an ongoing rollercoaster filled with complicated, flawed characters, intelligent philosophical musings, and absolutely stunning artwork. In my quest for a theme I eventually settled on lost innocence: the newborn baby whose future self provides slightly jaded narration, the alien species that resemble Earth animals — these lend both humour and an odd pinch of melancholy to many scenes. Prudes’ note: these comics contain a fair bit of gruesome death and some moderately graphic sex, so if you’re squeamish you might run into a few scenes that cause you to … er, squeam, I guess.

150-TheMirrorWorldOfMelodyBlack The Mirror World of Melody Black by Gavin Extence

A book whose title made me think it was going to involve some manner of journey into a dark and unsettling parallel world — and it does, though in a psychological rather than fantastical way. The main character’s discovery of the body of her neighbour causes her to question the way modern humans live, beginning with a futile, all-too-familiar, insomnia-inspired online search for a cure to alienation. Before long she is disregarding the rules of polite society left, right and centre, and spiralling into depression. I can see some readers being put off by the subtle and oddly episodic nature of the story, but for me this is one of those cases where the narrator IS the book, and the narrator is memorable, complicated and just pretty great. Recommended at the very least for perpetually anxious, intermittently depressed misfits like me.

150-SkulduggeryPleasant Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy

It’s been a while since I read a book aimed squarely at children, and I picked this up for a bit of light fantasy escapism (and because I was worried that my current novel featuring a walking skeleton might be ripping it off — seriously). It has definite shades of Neverwhere and of Harry Potter: magical things are going on behind the scenes of our world! Evil sorcerers are plotting to obtain ancient artifacts! But there are also some neat original ideas, two memorable central characters and more wit and style than most books aimed at the older YA market. My only worry is that even this first volume of the series burns through a hell of a lot of plot — sometimes too fast for us to feel its full impact, sometimes with an excessive focus on fight scenes. I’m interested to dip into the sequels and see if they develop in a way that appeals to me — I can see that going either way, to be honest.

150-ToKillAMockingbird To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

It’s strange picking up a book that’s such a classic you feel as if you already pretty much know the story — then you realise as you go along that you actually don’t know it at all, that behind the familiar names and oft-quoted passages, there’s a lot more to it than you’d always assumed. To Kill a Mockingbird is about race, of course, but it’s also about childhood, family relationships, fear, hypocrisy, demonisation and, perhaps most surprising to me, gender. Maybe everyone else knew this already, but Scout Finch is a fantastic example of a character who doesn’t fit where society expects her to, perhaps because her father has done his best to shield her from the corrupting influence of people’s stupid expectations, and … oh no. I think I’m reverting to my university self. I can’t help it, this book is just so crammed with insight. Not to mention it’s still absurdly, crushingly, shamefully relevant to the modern world. I know my endorsement means nothing at this point, but regardless: read read read.

And read loads more of my rambly book paragraphs over on the Books I’ve Read page!

January-May 2015 reading

150-BreakfastAtTiffanys Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

An interesting and gorgeously written study of a young woman with a childlike wandering spirit and a prodigious talent for making people fall in love with her, two attributes guaranteed to wreak havoc in the hearts of the men she encounters. Even if readerly distance allows us to see a few more of Holly’s flaws than these men tend to acknowledge, it is hard not to miss her a little bit after the story has come to its quietly beautiful end. Added bonus: the book is slightly less racist than the film. Added bonus number two: most editions include three short stories at the end, which are worth sticking around for, particularly A Christmas Memory.

150-OnWriting On Writing by Stephen King

I was rather confused about what this book was before picking it up, so perhaps I can clarify: it starts out with memoirs recounting interesting incidents from Stephen King’s life – fragmented, because as he states he didn’t want to include the boring bits. (It wouldn’t be King without something horrific, and in this section the horror mostly comes from various medical procedures he has undergone – if you’re squeamish about needles, you may want to skip the chapter about his visit to the ear doctor.) Then comes a separate, somewhat larger section where he gives writing advice, on for example how to use adverbs (preferably extremely sparingly, lol), how to develop the habit of writing every day, and where in the writing process you should start thinking about theme. It’s mostly subjective stuff, but it’s certainly interesting to hear opinions from someone so successful.

150-JonathanStrange Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

A wonderful, sprawling story about a bunch of English gentlemen who call themselves magicians, in an alternate history where magic used to exist but seems to have faded almost entirely from human knowledge. In the fashion of a nineteenth-century novel it moves quite slowly, and is a massive doorstop of a book, but the sort of doorstop you can get lost in; the footnotes and historical details make the most unlikely things feel chillingly authentic. There were points when I felt as though I was reading a new Harry Potter, which is a compliment I can’t extend to many books. There’s something about the combination of vividly drawn characters, the slow reveal of a mysterious magical world, and the sheer boundless imagination and unpredictability of the story, that fills me with inexpressible glee. Probably my favourite book I’ve read for at least a couple of years.

150-WeAreAllCompletelyBesideOurselves We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

This book was not remotely what I expected. Yes, I expected (from what little I’d heard about it) that it would be about the amusing peculiarities of a family, and it was indeed about that. But, as the narrator points out, everyone may think their family is weird – but hers is that little bit weirder. The reveal of this is one of the bigger “wait, WHAT?!” moments I’ve experienced lately – so if you can go into the book knowing as little as I did, I’d recommend it. It’s fiercely intelligent, witty and philosophical, but also unflinchingly dark and angry. If I have a criticism it’s that the ending seems to come out of nowhere, but I can forgive it that, because overall it doesn’t take the easy way out on the moral dilemmas it raises.

150-SoYouveBeenPubliclyShamed So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

This book was both aggravating and reassuring at the same time. Aggravating because it contains so many examples of online mobs being vicious and disgusting, individual people being petty and unreasonable, and the tabloid press being their usual despicable selves. But at the same time, Jon Ronson’s tone reassured me that I’m not alone in finding public shaming and bullying, even of people who “deserve” it, deeply unpalatable. Numerous times I’ve had to take a break from the internet or unfollow people on Twitter because I was finding myself more annoyed by people whose side I thought I was on than by the transgressors they were attacking. This book at least makes me feel like this isn’t some failure on my part: perhaps I shouldn’t strive to be more blind to my own side’s flaws, more prone to tweeting out acerbic put-downs and less empathetic to other points of view.

150-TheMiniaturist The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

This book took a while to grab me. At first it has definite shades of Rebecca (one of my favourite books), as the protagonist Nella arrives at the Amsterdam home of her new husband only to find an unsettling house filled with secrets and whispering characters. But it takes a definite turn about a third of the way through, and becomes something else. I suspect it is an angry book, since it contains things the author probably wouldn’t have written about if she weren’t angry, and that made me warm to it a lot more towards the end. It is lovingly crafted and melancholy and has a rather distinctive and interesting style, albeit one that tripped me up for a couple of chapters before I got into the flow of it. (Note: it may be worth mentioning that the Kindle version also has an unfortunate abundance of typos.)