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March reads!

Here’s a round-up of what I’ve been reading this month:

Let the Right One In – John Ajvide Lindqvist – 1/10

I really, really hated this book and was very disappointed in it. It was self-indulgent and depressing and not terribly well-written either. It had the bones of a good 200-page or so novel in it – if they had just concentrated on the story of Oscar and Eli – but as it was it was flabby and I didn’t enjoy it one bit.

The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupery – 7/10
This was good, but I really wish I’d read it when I was a kid. The allegory was a bit to glaring (and yet incoherent) for me to properly immerse myself in the story. The drawings are fantastic and the writing is very, very engaging, but I think I’m just a touch to old (and too cynical? I am a law student after all…) to be swept away by it.

The Godfather – Mario Puzo – 9/10
I enjoyed this a great deal, much more than I had expected to. A lot of people complained about the plain, unadventurous style of writing but I felt it really suited the subject matter. There is some extraneous material – the sex scenes and the whole vagina storyline (no, really) are kind of pointless – but it doesn’t really impact too much on the overall narrative. The last scene with Vito is particularly moving.

A Winter Book – Tove Jansson – 8/10
This was very good, although some of the time I felt a touch disconnected with the narrator. I think that might be because of my weird relationship with short stories though, and these are very short. However, I really got a sense of Finland from it, and Tove Jansson seems like an endlessly fascinating sort of person. The chapter with the letters from Japan made me cry.

The Solitaire Mystery – Jostein Gaarder – 10/10
I think you either love Gaarder or you hate him – I think a lot of people feel his naive sense of wonder is a bit put on and I will admit that he does tend to repeat themes in his books. But I genuinely love everything about his style, his sense of language, the sheer fascination he has with the world. The plot is stronger in this than in some of his other works, and that definitely plays to his advantage. Genuinely beautiful. (But like I said, I have loved everything else that Gaarder has done, with the exception of The Castle in the Pyrenees.)

The 39 Steps – John Buchan – 8/10
Despite being largely set in Scotland, Buchan avoids most of my stamping ground so I don’t have a connection with this on that level. That said, there is something essentially Scottish about the deep vein of silliness that runs through this slight novel.

Espresso Tales (Scotland Street #2) – Alexander McCall Smith – 7/10
Love Over Scotland (Scotland Street #3)- Alexander McCall Smith – 7/10
The World According to Bertie (Scotland Street #4) – Alexander McCall Smith – 6/10
Taking these all together for obvious reasons. This series is such great escapism and capture a particular element of Edinburgh really well, I think. Matthew, Bertie, Big Lou, and Cyrill continue to be my favourites, and I like how sedate the pacing is. Of the three, TWAB was my least favourite, but I’m not sure if that’s because it was my third Scotland Street novel in three days! I really didn’t like that two pieces of character development from the previous novel (regarding Irene and Pat) were essentially wiped out by the end of this one, and I’m pretty sure I noticed a few mistakes – the most glaring being that Bertie’s room was mysteriously pink again?

Pygmalion – George Bernard Shaw – 10/10
What can I say that hasn’t already been said? Not a wasted word in this, and the final scene between Eliza and Higgins is incredible. Eliza has to be one of my favourite literary inventions.

Wonder – R.J. Palacio – 7/10
Started off strong, but too many point-of-views drag this one down slightly. There’s also a very sad bit about three-quarters of the way through that made me rate it a little lower because of my aversion to that particular thing (I don’t want to spoil it but if you’ve read it you can probably guess). It’s a very sweet story, if a little unrealistic, but it’s a children’s book so I was hardly expecting grim and gritty. I would have liked a bit more of Auggie’s experiences, and if we were going to have different narrators, why not have the parents? It would probably be a neat lesson in understanding how adults feel towards their children for the age group this is aimed at.

Childhood’s End – Arthur . Clarke – 10/10
Last, but most certainly not least. This is just plain fantastic. Again, not a wasted word. Turns the usual cliches about what first contact with alien species would be like upside down – I genuinely can’t say more than that without spoiling the magic of this one. I didn’t really know a lot about Clarke before (I know, for shame) but I will definitely be reading some more stuff by him now!

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born with the gift of a golden voice

Sorry about the brief absence in posts – I had some technical difficulties coupled with a super-heavy schedule. Things should be back on track now!
embassytown

 

“Word spread because word will spread. Stories and secrets fight, stories win, shed new secrets, which new stories fight, and on.”

 

I can remember the specific moment, when I was a child (which is really saying, before I was the me that I am now), that I realised that reading was more than just saying the words off the page in order without making mistakes. I had this book of Greek myths with the most gorgeous pictures elucidating something so magical, so fantastic, that I desperately wanted to be inside the book (despite the horrible things that happened to all sorts of people in the stories). I had been able to read for a while, but I hadn’t really read anything much except for the usual kids’ stuff and I don’t think anyone thought I had an unusually strong ability in that area. So it was much to my parents’s surprise when I recited, word-for-word, the foreword to the book, with clear comprehension of what I was reading, in my politest (non-Weegie) voice. They were excited. They were surprised. They knew, then, what I know now – that the love of the written word is a fine thing, the chief joy of my life in terms of culture. But at that moment – the moment that the spark lit behind their eyes that maybe, just maybe, I would be good at this thing – I knew that there was a difference, between reading and understanding, between seeing and knowing – between knowing and loving.

This relates to another odd facet of my childhood. I was brought up by non-religious parents and am an only child. My primary schooling – from ages five to eleven – was vaguely Christian in a sort-of non-specific Protestant way, and we learned a lot about other religions, chiefly Judaism and Islam. My parents in no way discouraged discussion of religion, and, both coming from Catholic families, I attended quite a few first communions and confirmations. However – perhaps owing to the introduction to the Greek myths at such a tender age – I somehow fundamentally lacked understanding in a rather crucial way. I didn’t actually realise that anyone really believed any of this. I thought the biblical stories – the exodus, all the things that Jesus “did” – were just that. Stories. It was not until late on in my primary education – probably around the same time that my parents made the decision that I was attend the local Catholic high school (for educational reasons as opposed to moral or ethical ones) – that I realised that these belief systems were not equivalent to the Greek myths. That they weren’t just things that people used to believe in order to make sense of the world. That they were very prevalent, and that people were very serious about them. Needless to say, I was flabbergasted.

This is my round about way of showing what I brought to the table when I read Embassytown: a sense of wonder at the power of the written word, an attachment to fairytales, and a mild bemusement at organised religion. Perhaps it partially explains why I like it so much. China Mieville’s command of the written word is awe-inspiring, that much I had known for a long time. But this book is more than that – it’s all about the way we communicate, how language can make us who we are, how it’s a fundamental part of who we are and our culture. It’s also a story about stories, about the stories we tell ourselves in order to rationalise our place in the world. About the structures and cultures and traditions that we build for ourselves, and how the removal of one pillar can cause the whole thing to collapse. The scope is so vast, and yet, in some ways, it feels intimate, touching. I think most of this is to do with Avice.

Avice is a wonderful main character. She is strong, without being a caricature. Too often do writers create binary women: either stereotypical damsels in distress or improbably Action-Man-like. A third category is, I suppose, characters who are trying to be the latter but have much more in common with the former (Katniss Everdeen, I’m looking at you). Mieville’s female characters are among the best I’ve ever seen because they just make sense. They are well-rounded, real-sounding people, who speak in a voice that resonates with my experiences.

Of course, his world-building is unparalleled. In place of New Crobuzon, here we have Embassytown, and what a weird and claustrophobic place it is. Throughout the book I felt oppressed by the buildings, by the furtive gossip, by those in power and their relationship with the native beings of that world. Everything was haunting and desperately… desperate.

Embassytown is a poem and a metaphor and a novel rolled into one. It’s the story of a women and of a nation. It’s the story of language and communication between those who are fundamentally alien to one another. It’s a story about the nature of morality. It’s a story told by probably the most talented contemporary author that I can think of. I can’t really say any more without spoiling it. But I can tell you that you should read it. I can tell you that, without exception, this is the best book I read last year.

(I hope I didn’t offend anyone with the religious discussion above – if anyone wants to ask me about the development of my beliefs or lack thereof, you’re more than welcome.)

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all i ever wanted was the world

I’ll skip the preliminaries, seeing as it’s all in the fancy About Me that I spent literally minutes making. Anything anyone who is theoretically reading this needs to know about me is there, and, theoretical reader, if you need to know anything else, get in touch.

Essentially, this blog is a bit of a creative exercise for me. I’ve always enjoyed writing, but, as with pretty much every writer who isn’t Stephen King, I have a tendency to be very undisciplined about it. A combination of things has led to a total absence of any kind of writing exercise in my life though: I’ve spent the last four years pursuing a very arduous degree, I had a bout of glandular fever in January 2011 which has left me with near permanent pain in my hands and shoulders, which has been exacerbated by my hypermobility, and I lost my father the month after that. Essentially, not the best few years for me. It’s easy when you’re feeling as rotten as I have to stop pursuing anything that takes any more effort than going to bed and hiding under the covers in case something else happens.

That said, I’m in a pretty good place now. I should graduate in June with a solid 2:1, I’m still in the happiest and most fulfilling relationship of my (admittedly short) life, my mental health is slowly improving, as is my physical health, and I feel ready to actually challenge myself to attempting something remotely creative again. What all the emotional and physical bullshit has been useful for is giving me plenty of time to sit on my arse and read, if not process my thoughts about what it is I’ve just read.

Enter this blog. Essentially, I’d like to make it my project to explore a bit more about what I think about the media I consume. Largely, this is going to involve stuff I have read and am reading, as that’s pretty much my major pastime, owing to a lack of a TV license (and a boyfriend who is a reluctant TV watcher), and a lack of inclination towards listening to as much new music as I did in my late teens (though with my improving mental health that has been returning!) I’m not saying I will never make crappy personal posts moaning about everything in my life, but I promise to tag those and you’re free to ignore them. I have a few projects that I’d love to actually attempt. The first is that stupid 30-day book meme that has been the bane of my life since last year, and I’m going to reattempt that straight away. The second is a touch more ambitious: I mentioned last year on my tumblr (which, I have decided, is not the platform for me) that I had an idea for a project I’d love to undertake. That is the Great Discworld Reread which I have been promising myself for years, and which seems even more enticing now that I only have two or three Discworld books left to read. It’s a bit of a monster of a prospect, and won’t start until this summer at the earliest, but it would really mean a lot to me to have a go at it. I also plan on doing monthly round ups of things read/watched/listened to, as well as a few other things I haven’t quite worked out yet.

Eventually, I want to get back to writing fiction. But I’m so out of practice (and so goddamn undisciplined!) that I need something a bit more concrete to work from first. Also I haven’t quite got the free-time to dedicated to that just yet. One day!

Oh dear, this was a bit long!