wandering_star in 2021

Questa conversazione è stata continuata da wandering_star in 2021, part 2.

ConversazioniClub Read 2021

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wandering_star in 2021

1wandering_star
Modificato: Gen 5, 6:20am

Happy new year everyone!

My thirteenth year in Club Read - I so enjoy this community and failing to dodge the book bullets flying from it.

My reading tends to be pretty varied. I don't much like setting myself specific targets as that instantly makes a book unappealing to me. But I expect to be reading quite a lot about Japan in 2021 as I will be moving there later in the year. You can see this from my Christmas book haul: (no idea why LT flips the photo upside down! - sorry)



Last year was an odd reading year, as it was for everyone I think. During the first lockdown I read War and Peace, which I really enjoyed.

Other highlights of the year were:
A Manual For Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward
Alice in Bed by Judith Hooper
The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
Red At The Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
Transactions In A Foreign Currency by Deborah Eisenberg
Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha
Us (poetry) by Zaffar Kunial

Non-fiction of various sorts:
Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast
Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik
Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch
Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat
Me by Elton John

And in crime and thrillers
Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner
The Unsuspected by Charlotte Armstrong
Then We Take Berlin by John Lawton
Safe Houses by Dan Fesperman
Real Tigers by Mick Herron

2lisapeet
Gen 3, 8:56am

Nice Christmas haul, and Happy New Year!

3karspeak
Gen 3, 10:38am

I just started Stuff Matters and am really enjoying it. What an ability the author has to turn the mundane into a fascinating topic!

4rocketjk
Gen 3, 10:41am

Greetings and Happy New Year. I'll look forward to following along with your reading this year. I've been gradually reading my way through A Manual For Cleaning Women and I'm quite in awe. Cheers!

5Dilara86
Gen 3, 10:54am

Happy new year! That's a nice book pile you have here!

6kidzdoc
Gen 3, 1:09pm

Happy New Year! I own but have not yet read three books on your list of favorites, Love and Other Thought Experiments, Brit(ish), and Salt Fat Acid Heat, all of which I hope to get to this year.

7raton-liseur
Gen 3, 1:18pm

Happy new year, I hope it will be a more serene literary year.

8AlisonY
Gen 3, 2:07pm

I've only read a few Japanese novels but have really enjoyed them all. Looking forward to your reviews from your book haul - they're all new titles to me.

9dchaikin
Gen 3, 4:51pm

Happy 2021! Wish you well on your move.

10RidgewayGirl
Gen 3, 5:00pm

That is a very nice stack of books and I wish you all the best with your upcoming move.

I share your tendency that if I put a book on a list to read, it instantly becomes less attractive to me.

11Nickelini
Gen 3, 6:14pm

I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Slippery Noodles. What a fun title (and I just finished a bowl of yakisoba, so fitting)

12sallypursell
Gen 5, 11:02pm

Hi, dropping by to say Happy New Year, and leave my star. Very interested to see what you read this year.

13lilisin
Gen 6, 2:43am

Placing my star on your thread to see what you're reading. And I'm also giddy with excitement that we're going to get to hang out again soon!

14markon
Gen 6, 12:27pm

Dropping by to add my star and say hello.

15wandering_star
Gen 8, 11:38am

Hello everyone and thanks for your good wishes!

>11 Nickelini: I too am looking forward to reading Slippery Noodles although I think it will make me hungry! Incidentally if you are interested in Chinese food, Chinese TV made a terrific series called "A Bite of China". Many of the episodes are available on YouTube either subtitled or dubbed into English.

16wandering_star
Gen 8, 11:59am

First book of the year is 1. The Year of the Rabbit by Tian Veasna

A graphic novel memoir of the author's family's experiences during the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia.

Even though I actually studied this period in one of my university courses in South East Asian politics, there is something about a family story, and especially one told graphically, that makes the reality of it hit all over again. Also (and I hope this doesn't sound glib - I'm not in any way suggesting that the experiences compare), I think I have more understanding now of what it feels like when normal life is suddenly disrupted by a massive external force. Before, when I thought about people living through something like the Blitz, or the Khmer Rouge period, I imagined it as something that they lived through, without thinking about what it must have been like when it started and they had no idea really what was happening or how long it would go on for.

This book shows clearly what it was like for one family. Educated urbanites (they flee Phnom Penh in their Mercedes and trade their Lacoste shirts along the way for food), they have to hide their backgrounds and start to get used to a very brutal and difficult existence. The hunger, as well as the fear, come through very strongly. There is one terrible scene where some teenage cadres pull up the family's tomato plants and trample on the ripe tomatoes because the family hasn't been given permission to grow food for themselves. I couldn't get over the waste of the tomatoes.

A good read, although occasionally pretty tough.



17wandering_star
Gen 8, 12:27pm

2. Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan

The narrator of this book is a writer called Delphine. She is the same age, and has the same family, as the author Delphine. Her most recent book was a runaway, but controversial, bestseller - seen as a tell all about her family. (The author's previous book before this was about a woman with bipolar disorder).

Delphine (the character) is slightly overwhelmed by the reaction to her book, which includes hate mail accusing her of betraying her family. She meets a woman called L., who quickly becomes close to her. L. is strangely invested in what Delphine is going to write next, encouraging her to make her next book one that goes even further than the last, to the extent of rubbishing any tentative plot outlines that Delphine tells her about.

There are other strange things about L. too - for example, some weeks into the relationship she tells Delphine that they were at school together, and when it turns out that Delphine has an old school photo she quickly adds that she was sick that day and wouldn't be in the picture.

This sounds like a psychological thriller / domestic noir, doesn't it? And that's what I was expecting when I started reading this. But in fact it is a brilliant exploration of truth, and fiction, and lies, and how the borders between them can be made slippery, and what happens when they are.

I think if you were looking for a pure psychological thriller, you would be frustrated by the pace. But otherwise - I can't believe that I had not heard of Delphine de Vigan (the author) before. It's the sort of book I want to go round pressing into people's hands and urging them to read it.

I tried to explain an idea I kept returning to; whatever you write, you are in the domain of fiction: ‘Even if it happened, even if something similar occurred, even if the facts are attested, you’re always telling a story. You’re telling yourself a story. And ultimately, maybe that’s what matters. Those little things that don’t adhere to reality, that transform it. Those places where the tracing paper comes away, in the margins, in the corners. Because no matter what you do, it crinkles and curls and betrays you.’

18Nickelini
Gen 8, 2:33pm

>15 wandering_star:
Oh, I'll look for those Bite of China videos. Thanks

19rhian_of_oz
Gen 9, 9:58am

>17 wandering_star: Consider me urged.

20dchaikin
Gen 10, 2:52pm

Cambodia interests. I haven't done a graphic novel in a while. Maybe time to check my library again (it's been a almost a year). Also, nice review of Based on a True Story. Mentally noting.

21wandering_star
Modificato: Gen 11, 9:47am

3. The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah by Benjamin Zephaniah

It's a bold move to start your autobiography by saying "I hate autobiographies. They’re so fake," so I guess Benjamin Zephaniah must hold this opinion pretty strongly. In trying not to be fake, though, he has stripped out a lot of colour from the book. His life has been very interesting, taking him from a childhood where his was the only black family in his neighbourhood, through Rastafarianism and radical politics, before he finally follows his childhood dream of becoming a poet. A famous one too - the book contains maybe the best anecdote I've ever heard about the weirdness of celebrity, which is the fact that he once said, on the spur of the moment in a TV interview, that he collected money - this was basically a joke but as a result people started to send him banknotes from all over the world and he became fascinated by them, and did indeed start a collection.

This might strike you as a low-key or even boring hobby, but banknotes can tell a lot as to what a country cares about, or what the rulers of that country care about. And there are some very interesting stories behind the designs of notes: some are about revolution, some about work and industry, and some are designed by the greatest artists of their day. I enjoyed looking at the detailed artwork and also getting hold of rare ones. I liked it when people laughed at my hobby, then I would pass them an album of notes and that would be it – they would be engrossed for the next two hours.

But as I was saying, although the content is interesting, the language is very plain (surprisingly for a poet's memoir - few of the rhymes promised in the title) and even more than that, the storytelling is emotionally pretty deadpan: I was involved in petty crime, then I heard the police were trying to fit me up for a murder so I decided on a change of scene... Nelson Mandela asked to meet me, he was a down-to-earth guy... (I am paraphrasing, but not much!)

There is some dry humour, and clearly a lot of passion about making a difference in the world, but I felt that the book could have been a lot more engaging. Especially right at the very end when Zephaniah talks about what poetry means to him, and you see how the book could have taken off. The poetry within me is not owned, yet it is a part of me, and once it is spoken it becomes a part of anyone who opens their mind and receives it. If misfortune, sickness and death will come to us all, then we should let some poetry into our lives to ease the pain.

22wandering_star
Modificato: Gen 11, 9:50am

4. Ghostland: in search of a haunted country by Edward Parnell

The reading theme of the year so far seems to be 'books that aren't what I expected'. Given the subtitle and the great cover art, I was expecting this to delve into the UK's many local myths and legends. Instead it's something closer to a memoir, as the author makes rambling journeys around the UK, seeking out the locations of various ghostly, terrifying or otherwise supernatural stories (in books, films, TV and radio), tells us about his experiences there and the plots of the stories, and weaves in some memories of his childhood and (in a rather awkward fit) various family tragedies.

At one point Parnell turns away from books about the supernatural to talk about WG Sebald. By this point I'd already concluded that Sebald was one of his influences - the book even resembles The Rings of Saturn, with plenty of black and white photos included in the text. Unfortunately Ghostland does not benefit from the comparison, basically because the book is not more than the sum of its parts. If you are interested in reading plot summaries of spooky stories with a few anecdotes about their authors, you'll be interested in this. I enjoyed that fine - Parnell writes nicely and it was good to be reminded of (or inspired to read) some of the books which he mentions. But there's nothing bigger than that, not even any analysis of the folkloric roots or how the stories have influenced each other, never mind a larger worldview such as infuses every observation that Sebald makes.

What we do get in The Dark Is Rising, however, is the arrival of eleven-year-old Will Stanton, soon to discover that he's the last of the Old Ones, on the side of the Light and tasked with keeping the forces of Dark at bay in a Manichaean struggle. It is a book I loved when I first read it (I would have been a similar age to its central character), especially its depiction of the longed-for snowy Christmas that renders its time-shifting Thames Valley setting into a magical, albeit malevolent, wilderness.

23wandering_star
Gen 12, 10:12am

5. Beneath The Streets by Adam Macqueen

A terrific political-ish thriller which takes the Jeremy Thorpe scandal as its jumping off point, imagining what could have happened next if the murder attempt on Norman Scott had been successful.

Tommy, our narrator, used to be a rent boy and now ekes out a fractionally more respectable living helping a private detective get compromising photos of his targets. One day, by accident, he is brought in to the case of a young man who appears to have been beaten to death. The police don't seem interested - but not for the usual reasons that they might not worry about investigating the death of a young prostitute. Instead, it seems that someone from higher-up took over the case and closed it down.

The thriller part of this works well - I liked the narrator and the pace was good - and it is also a good portrait of the era, and a clever weaving of truth and fiction. (I thought I could see where the narrative stepped away from reality, but from the author's note at the back of the book, it turned out there were more elements drawn from the truth than I had thought).

I could tell from the jiggling pinstripes that he would be home within the hour, taking off his jacket in a hallway in Surbiton or Orpington or one of those other places that only exist as names on railway departure boards, making excuses to his wife about broken rails or ASLEF go-slows while she fetched him his gin and tonic and told him what a poor hardworking dear he was. I’d been with plenty like him when I was still on the game.

24baswood
Gen 12, 7:03pm

>23 wandering_star: Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction - what a curious episode that was.

25lisapeet
Gen 13, 3:06pm

>22 wandering_star: That reminds me, I wanted to post about a great podcast I just listened to on The Dark Is Rising. I imagine there must be a few fans here.

26dchaikin
Modificato: Gen 14, 1:00pm

>22 wandering_star: will pass, but like the quote (and I haven't read Dark is Rising, nor know anything about it)

27lisapeet
Gen 16, 10:41am

>26 dchaikin: I wrote a bit about the book on my thread just now if you're interested. It's really a worthwhile read, I think, even if you're not that into YA or fantasy. It's just... fun, and atmospheric.

28rachbxl
Gen 17, 4:14am

Glad to have found your thread (I’m very late settling in this year). I love the sound of Based on a True Story.

29avaland
Gen 17, 5:13am

>21 wandering_star: That's an interesting review of a disappointing book :-) Looking forward to stopping in from time to time to see what you have been reading and what you have to say about it.

30wandering_star
Modificato: Gen 18, 4:50am

>24 baswood: Yes, and much stranger in detail than in outline. I vaguely knew the story but it was quite something to discover the details of what actually happened.

>25 lisapeet: I’ve now seen this on your thread, really nice post! I love Backlisted too. Their February reads are going to be Karoo and Job and I am thinking of trying to read one before I listen to the podcast. I do own The Dark Is Rising but it’s in storage so I won’t be able to get to it for some time. Ghostland also talked a lot about Alan Garner too, which in my brain is in the same category as The Dark Is Rising (“folk horror inflected UK children’s classics which I used to look at the covers of a lot in the library but never actually read”), so I might read that soon. (Those are on the kindle so are more easily accessible).

31markon
Gen 18, 7:08am

>25 lisapeet: Thanks for pointing out this episode of Backlisted. I'm a Susan Cooper fan & enjoyed this podcast. Intrigued by the idea of a holiday read.

32lisapeet
Gen 18, 8:07am

>30 wandering_star: Huh, Alan Garner is someone I've never heard of, nor his books, I don't think. I wonder if he had less UK/US crossover than Susan Cooper, which would explain why I didn't find him (or, since I was a kid in pre-internet, pre-Amazon times, and none of my friends read like I did, why my parents didn't find him and pass him along).

33rachbxl
Gen 18, 10:33am

>30 wandering_star:, >32 lisapeet: I hated Alan Garner but loved Susan Cooper. I remember the misery of having to read Garner's Elidor at school when I was 11. Whenever I see mention of him and his books I wonder what it was I disliked so intensely.

34wandering_star
Gen 18, 12:14pm

>32 lisapeet:, >33 rachbxl: OK. I will attempt one of the Alan Garners and report back.

35wandering_star
Gen 18, 12:17pm

6. There's No Such Thing As An Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura

There really are a lot of Japanese novels about awkward misfits. Maybe because it is a society that sets so much store by external conformity?

Anyway, I enjoyed this one very much, perhaps because more actually happens in it than in most of these misfit novels, and because it goes for quirky humour with an occasional touch of fantasy, rather than the slightly bleaker tone which you often get. (I'm thinking for example of Convenience Store Woman).

Our narrator is looking for "an easy job" - one which doesn't involve too much thinking, and especially one that doesn't involve a lot of responsibility for other people. Through the book she does half-a-dozen of these jobs, each one odder than the last - including a bizarre surveillance job, making adverts for a community bus service (where one of her colleagues appears to have magic powers), and staffing an information desk in the middle of a forest. In the job where she is responsible for writing blurb for cracker packaging, the company makes a solemn analysis of how different types of packaging might affect the lives of their customers. In this way, the humour comes from the surreality of ordinary life, taken to extremes in the tasks she's given - a frequent request is to 'just look out for anything out of the ordinary', but as she examines human behaviour with a slanted perspective, you start to wonder what on earth is ordinary/normal behaviour and what isn't?

In the end, though, I didn’t read the magazine on my train ride home. It had been a very busy day – in addition to three lost people, I’d also had to deal with a man who’d buried his wedding ring on impulse in the forest, then decided he wanted it back and asked me to search for it with him. Frankly, I was exhausted. When I told Mr Hakota about the ring man, he calmly informed me that they got quite a few such people. Unable to bring themselves to throw away or sell their rings, not even fully convinced they were ready to get rid of them, they would come to bury them in the forest.
Nodding along as the man told me that he’d figured he’d probably need his wife when he got old, I had thought back fondly to the days when I’d sat in my hut, quietly perforating tickets.

36wandering_star
Gen 18, 12:51pm

7. How Much Of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang

California, in the dying years of the gold rush. The promise of easy riches still draws many people, but they generally end up working brutally hard as coal miners for low pay.

The book starts with the death of a Chinese miner - although he always calls himself a prospector, not a miner - leaving his two young children to fend for themselves. The story then spools forward and backwards, to show us what happened to his children next and how his family had ended up as they were.

This is a very poetically written book. Each chapter is named after an element - mud or bone or blood or water or, of course, gold - and these elements grow out into themes (for example, water refers not just to rain or the lack of it, but to cleanliness, to the power of water in nature, to the changeability of 'water' personalities in the Chinese zodiac).

It's also a book full of ideas, particularly around belonging and, even more, loss.
But they’re kids. Nine and eight. Uncareful with their toys, their knees, their elbows. They let the name for themselves drop down the cracks in their sleep, with a child’s trust that there is always more the next day: more love, more words, more time, more places to go with the shapes of their parents in the wagon seat, the sway and creak of travel lulling them to sleep.
Again, the theme of loss covers not just what individuals have lost or will lose, but things like what has been lost from the land with the arrival of settlers and the development of mines and cities.

Finally, it's a very sad book. And there is a lot of foreshadowing of plans going awry, so I spent a lot of the reading time with my stomach churning with worry for the characters. Partly because of this, I would say it was a book I appreciated, rather than enjoyed. But it's very interesting and I will definitely look out to see what Zhang writes next.

37rachbxl
Gen 18, 4:23pm

>34 wandering_star: Good plan. I look forward to seeing what you think.

38SandDune
Gen 18, 4:29pm

>30 wandering_star: >32 lisapeet: Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was just about my favourite book as a child, whereas I’d not come across Susan Cooper until fairly recently. I’ve been reading The Dark is Rising books recently, but for me their outshone by Alan Garner’s work.

39stretch
Gen 18, 4:35pm

Little late the proceedings, but I'm already adding to the wishlists! >16 wandering_star: looks amazing, one of my favorite books of all time In the Shadow of the Banyan is a very similar story about the Khmer Rouge, it was such a terrible and nonsensical time. >35 wandering_star: So many books about awkward misfits, and I am here for it.

40Nickelini
Gen 19, 12:15am

>35 wandering_star:
There's No Such Thing As An Easy Job is on my radar, and my younger-daughter's radar too. It's published in Canada in March. Good to hear it's worth reading.

41lilisin
Gen 19, 3:04am

>35 wandering_star:

That one I just purchased in December and will be reading soon. Glad to see you enjoyed it.

>36 wandering_star:

This is a book that has been on my radar for awhile but it has been a recommendation from people with whom I'm not sure our tastes align, so I'm happy to see your experience with it. I think I'll officially add it on my wishlist not but still waiting till it comes out in paperback.

42AlisonY
Gen 19, 3:19am

Catching up. The Tsumura in particular sounds up my street - great review.

43dchaikin
Gen 19, 1:44pm

>36 wandering_star: I’m listening to How Much of These Hills is Gold now. I was not into it, and now about 60% through the narrator has switched and I’m feeling i may need to re-listen to beginning again. I guess i’m warming up to it.

44kidzdoc
Gen 23, 8:04am

I'm sorry that The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah was a disappointment, especially since I bought a copy of it at Daunt Books two or three years ago. I'll drop it a bit lower on my TBR order.

How Much of These Hills Is Gold is definitely not a cheery or uplifting read, although it was very well written and, IMO, worthy of its Booker Prize longlisting.

45wandering_star
Gen 23, 12:13pm

I definitely agree Darryl - especially to bring this author to wider attention.

46wandering_star
Modificato: Gen 23, 12:27pm

8. Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam

A family head to a holiday rental outside the city. They're enjoying their summer relaxation until one night there is a knock on the door. The house's owners have arrived. Something strange has happened in the city, and they thought to come out to their retreat for a little bit. The holidaying family are initially a little annoyed but soon discover that they cannot get any information about what's happening in the city - no internet, no television, no phone calls. So, stuck in the same place with these strangers, what will they do?

There has been a lot of buzz about this book and I can see why. It is rare to get quite so gripping a story with quite such beautiful prose. The book is excellent at creating an unsettling, uncertain atmosphere. (One morning I woke up and read a few chapters before going for a run. My whole neighbourhood felt a bit off, a bit eerie). I read the final third in a sitting because I couldn't stop, despite the sense of oncoming doom.

We - although not the book's characters - do learn a little bit about what is actually happening - the most effective parts of this were when the author focused in on an individual (eg one of the characters is thinking about the super in their building, and the author comments that he is trapped in a lift and will die there) rather than the big picture of what has happened. Another part I found very powerful is when the people in the house know for sure that things are not normal but they pretend, somehow, that they are - telling amusing stories, thinking about the money markets, making plans.

There is stuff that is not so good. Sometimes the polished-ness of the prose felt overdone. And the characters are not complex individuals. But none of this really mattered with a story like this.

Amanda was trembling. Not shaken but shaking, vibrating. She went quiet. A noise so big, how could you meet it but with silence? She thought what she was doing was screaming. The feeling of a scream, the emotion of a scream, but in fact she gasped, like a fish flipped out of its pond, the noise deaf-mutes make in moments of passion, the shadow, the silhouette, of speech.

47wandering_star
Modificato: Gen 25, 2:14pm

9. Lies, Damned Lies, and History by Jodi Taylor

This was a pure comfort read after the last book. It's the seventh, I think, in a series about time-travelling historical researchers. The books have a certain formula - go back in time, get into trouble, narrow escape, repeat. In fact as I started this one I wondered if I really need to buy any more or whether I'd get as much from re-reading the ones I already own. But I thought this one was pretty good - the team get into a more unusual scrape, and there's a bit less of the sillier end of the humour.

‘No,’ said Markham firmly, from his moral advantage as our resident criminal expert – from the criminal’s point of view, of course. ‘You always plan your exit strategy first. Never mind how we get in – how do we get out?’

48raton-liseur
Gen 23, 1:02pm

>36 wandering_star: Really liked your review. Thanks for putting this on my radar.

49Nickelini
Modificato: Gen 23, 7:36pm

>46 wandering_star:
I've heard so much about Leave the World Behind and it sounds like such an interesting, compelling read. Something about it says it's not for me though, so I don't plan on getting a copy. I can imagine this showing up as a book club selection next year, and if it does, I will read it. (Said by someone who is on her third month of not reading my book club's montly book).

50rhian_of_oz
Gen 24, 10:08am

>47 wandering_star: I read the whole series last year and it was quite a comfort. Does your library have them? Because I think they're worth continuing with but not necessarily if you're not sure you want to commit money.

51auntmarge64
Gen 24, 12:51pm

Stopping by to drop a star. Glad to see your review of Leave the World Behind. I have a hold for it at the library.

52bragan
Gen 24, 7:35pm

>46 wandering_star: Sometimes the polished-ness of the prose felt overdone. And the characters are not complex individuals. But none of this really mattered with a story like this.

Yeah, I think that describes it pretty well.

And I'd say even if the characters are maybe not deeply complex, there is something that felt very recognizable about most of them, in a realistic sort of way, and it's possible that's exactly what the story needed them to be.

Still don't think I've quite forgiven Alam for writing a book that was entirely too good at traumatizing me at a vulnerable moment, though. :)

53wandering_star
Modificato: Gen 25, 12:48pm

>49 Nickelini: I've never been in a book club, but I've always imagined that's one of the problems with them!!

>50 rhian_of_oz: it's not the cash so much as the TBR... although these are only a tiny proportion of the problem...

>52 bragan: yes, agree on both points! Although there is a lot that's good about the book it didn't necessarily make me think, must keep an eye out for what he writes next, as I did with for example How Much Of These Hills Is Gold.

54wandering_star
Gen 25, 1:02pm

10. Murder in the Age of Enlightenment by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

A collection of seven short stories, mostly first published between 1918-1922, mostly with a supernatural or criminal element. (I'll come back to that 'mostly').

No one had lived at this palace for many years, and the magnificent gardens had been neglected and left to grow wild. The desolate sight must surely have given rise to all manner of conjecture, not least among which were the rumours about the fate of Her Ladyship, who had died there. It was said that even now, on a moonless night, she could be seen gliding mysteriously through the gallery in her crimson robes, her feet not touching the ground.

I have to confess to getting this because of the beautiful cover:


As a collection, it was rather varied. One of the stories, "The General", felt so distant from me in place and time that I just couldn't understand what the point of it was. Others were more effective - my favourite, "Hell Screen", is about a talented painter who works for a very brutal lord. The lord is praised, and the painter criticised, in the story, but I think this was a deliberate subversion. The collection also includes the story "In A Grove", which inspired the Kurosawa film Rashomon.

The story which stands apart from the rest though is the final one, "Cogwheels". It was published later - after Akutagawa's suicide - and rather than being a creepy story about demons or murder, it produces the uncomfortable experience of being inside the head of someone (a writer) who is having paranoid delusions. It does this effectively, but to then read on the back cover that Akutagawa was "haunted by the fear that he would inherit his mother's madness {and} suffered from worsening mental health problems towards the end of his life" made me feel that I had been prying into pain that should really have remained private.

55rocketjk
Modificato: Gen 25, 2:29pm

>49 Nickelini: & >53 wandering_star: I had never been in a book club either until I finally joined a men's book club that had its first zoom meeting just a couple of weeks ago, mostly as a defense against all this social isolation. (I live in a very small rural town.) Before you hate on me for the fact that we're a men's book club, I should tell you that most of the guys in the group are the husbands of women who have been together in a women-only book club for about 20 years. Anyway, I never wanted to be in a book club because I never wanted to have to read books selected by anyone else for me. However, sometimes you just want to say "yes" to an invitation from friends. Well, one rule that we copied from our wives' group is that we rotate the book selection among members (we are going alphabetically by first names) and, more importantly, the person who selects a book for the group must have already read the book. (I guess that's two rules.) This keeps us from "much-hyped book from the best-seller list that turns out to be a disappointment-itis." Obviously, not everybody is going to like anything we read, but at least we know that the selector has read and likes the book.

56wandering_star
Modificato: Gen 26, 9:42am

11. Breakwater by Katriona Chapman

A graphic novel about a group of people who work in a cinema in Brighton, on the south coast of the UK. Two in particular drive the story - Chris, who has been working at the cinema for some time. Earlier in her life she wanted to become a social worker, but a family situation meant she couldn't start her studies, and now she lives a quiet life, working at the cinema and spending her evenings by herself. One day, a new colleague joins the team. Dan is an engaging guy who gently encourages Chris to come out of her shell. But he is not uncomplicated himself, and eventually Chris will have to decide whether getting involved with other people is worth the effort.

(Unusually, Chris' answer in the end is no. Which is pretty honest, but also means that this is not a feelgood read.)

Nice artwork, which goes with the melancholic tone. I particularly liked the way the cinema is almost a character in itself, with its huge derelict ballroom upstairs.

57rhian_of_oz
Gen 25, 9:14pm

>55 rocketjk: The attraction of bookclubs to me (besides reading and talking about books) is reading books I haven't chosen for myself. Yes it can lead to some stinkers, but my experience has been predominantly positive. I hope yours is too.

58Nickelini
Gen 25, 11:31pm

>55 rocketjk:

I agree. I don't read everything my book club chooses, but I've definitely discovered a lot of good books I wouldn't have read otherwise. In my book club, we meet once a year to suggest books and then we vote on them. So the ones chosen are the ones we most want to read

59rocketjk
Modificato: Gen 26, 8:06am

>57 rhian_of_oz: & >58 Nickelini: I agree with you both. My reaction has always been more emotional than rational. Anyway, I liked the first book we read, Homeland Elegies, which I might have gotten to eventually but not for a good long while. I'm certainly keeping an open mind about the process. Thanks for the encouragement!

60lisapeet
Gen 26, 11:29am

>55 rocketjk: I just find the experience of talking about books with other people a lot of fun—people I like, that is. I've only been in two book clubs, both of which I joined in the past couple of years, and they're all made up of friends. But hanging out and yapping about a book, even if I didn't care for it, is one of the most agreeable ways to pass a couple of hours, IMO.

>56 wandering_star: That looks really nice, and wasn't on my radar before. Wishlisted now, thanks.

61wandering_star
Gen 27, 5:19am

I think I've only been invited to join a book club once, and we never managed to meet - the session kept being postponed, and then COVID hit and work got crazy...

62wandering_star
Gen 27, 9:23am

12. Let It Be Morning by Sayed Kashua

The main character in this novel is, like the author, an Israeli Arab journalist working for an Israeli newspaper. After a particular security incident, he notices that his colleagues' attitudes to him have changed, and he decides to move back to his parents' village. Many in the village think he was crazy ever to leave, but his wife is deeply unhappy about the decision to move back. They are settling in when one morning, the village is cut off from the outside world - by tanks and roadblocks, but also by the severing of communications, electricity, and water supply. A lorry tries to break out of the village to go to work, and is shot by an anti-tank missile. The book then focuses on how people react to the situation. The village council decides to round up the Palestinians in the village in the hope that they are who the security forces are after (unfortunately they do not discuss this with the army, and so the first two who are sent to the roadblocks are shot). Others protest, try and attack the roadblocks, or attack and loot from each other.

An interesting enough, if rather bleak, read, and no-one comes out of it very well.

We'll always have wars in this godforsaken place. Take any six feet in this place and you'll find too much damage, too much turmoil, too much chaos in every part of our lives, which means the wars will never end. The real wars in this village are the wars over honor, over power, over inheritances and over parking places. Actually I sometimes think it would be a good idea if war did break out, to distract the inhabitants from their cruel and never-ending little fights.

63markon
Gen 27, 1:32pm

>62 wandering_star: Sounds too bleak for me.

Re book club discussions - is this a question we've ever discussed on the avid reader thread?

64LolaWalser
Gen 27, 2:23pm

>62 wandering_star:, >63 markon:

I'm interested, I liked two other books of his, but I'm interested also if it's the case that he's getting "bleak" (he used to write a humorous column and for television--comedies mostly IIRC). Although, that he left Israel for the US maybe speaks for itself on that account...

Hi, wandering star, enjoying your thread very much. :)

65wandering_star
Modificato: Gen 28, 9:35am

>64 LolaWalser:. Thank you! What you say about Kashua is interesting - I hadn't heard of him apart from this book. It's not written in a bleak way, if that makes sense, it's just that what happens is a bit bleak. It's quite a long way into the siege that the narrator stops thinking about what a great story he'll be able to file if he can just get to a working phone, for example.

66wandering_star
Modificato: Gen 28, 10:10am

13. Uncle Vanya by Chekov, Pam Gems translation

The other night I watched the recent production of Uncle Vanya (available here if you have access to the BBC iPlayer). This was a stage production which only ran for a few days before COVID closed down theatres, but the actors went back into the theatre to film this for the BBC. The contemporary playwright Conor McPherson wrote this version, and it has some very vivid, modern language.

Back in 1992 I saw Uncle Vanya at the National Theatre, with Ian McKellen as Vanya and Antony Sher as the arrogant professor, as well as Janet McTeer as the professor's young wife. I have one very strong memory of that production, which was in the Cottesloe (the smallest of the three theatre spaces). In the first scene, all the furniture, rugs and so on were in the middle of the stage. As the play went on the furniture etc was gradually moved to occupy more space; but in the final act when all the visitors leave the house, the furniture was back in its original space, giving a real sense that whatever else left with the professor and his wife, the expansive sense of being interested in other things, of wider possibilities, was gone too.

I was curious that although I had this one strong memory, I had forgotten so much of the plot; and also curious about the differences between the translations. This one was originally done in 1979, revised in 1992 for the production that I saw. The language is definitely stiffer, as you can see from the two texts below, but I think the BBC production cut a few bits out - in some cases justifiably, but sometimes it was good to see the full text. Anyway, it was just as moving to read it as it had been to watch the production.

Gems:
For twenty-five years I've run this place. I've been working and sending you money… you couldn't have had a more conscientious steward, and have you ever thanked me for it all these years? All these years, right from the beginning when I was a lad, up to now I've been getting 500 roubles a year. It's a pittance! And not once… not once did you ever offer me any more… not a rouble.

McPherson:
I'm saying that for twenty-five fucking years I have managed this estate. I’ve sent you more money than any land agent would have. And I've raised your daughter for you in your absence. And in all that time you haven't ever once thanked me. And, and, in all that time and even now, I never received more than 200 roubles a year. 200 roubles. A year. Children in the city get more pocket money than that. And it, and it never crossed your mind to add so much as a rouble more.

67rocketjk
Gen 28, 12:24pm

>66 wandering_star: I love this play. It was one of the Chekhov plays I studied for my Masters Degree oral exam. I personally don't really understand the desire to modernize the language, but if it helps more people gain access to the story, c'est la vie!

I have several times greatly enjoyed the movie "Vanya on 42nd Street," which features Wallace Shawn in the title role. Don't be fooled by the title, though. It's basically a filmed version of the play done in a then-abandoned old theater on 42nd Street (before all the restoration of that part of Manhattan was done).

I saw a staged production of the play done by the normally excellent ACT Theater in San Francisco which made me mad because the gun scene was played for laughs. Ugh!

68kidzdoc
Gen 30, 5:14pm

>66 wandering_star: Nice review of Uncle Vanya, Margaret. I haven't seen the play yet, but I'll be on the lookout for any productions of it.

69wandering_star
Gen 31, 5:24pm

>67 rocketjk: The gun scene being played for laughs would annoy me too - surely the whole point is that it's both ridiculous and very, very serious.

I do think there are benefits in having more modern language. I see this as one of the positives about translated work, you lose out on the author's words but - for plays in particular - you don't get distanced from the characters by archaic language.

It's almost like each translation is an adaptation for a contemporary audience. (I once saw a Sri Lankan film which was an adaptation of The Cherry Orchard, and the story about former elites falling on hard times translated very well to the new environment).

Of course on the other hand, if the translation is very modern, it dates itself - I'm thinking of the Beowulf translation published last year which starts "Bro!"

70wandering_star
Gen 31, 5:25pm

14. Seashaken Houses: a lighthouse history from Eddystone to Fastnet by Tom Nancollas

It’s only a couple of months since I read a non-fiction but kind of memoiry book by someone who is fascinated by lighthouses… and this will go on my shelf alongside Stargazing and Lighthouse which are both about the experience of lighthousekeepers.

This one is about rock lighthouses in particular - the ones which are built on reefs or islands, out to sea. Their development is a history of great engineering prowess, and also of bravery on the part of the men who built them. In one case, they could only work for two hours at each low tide, before the foundations were covered by the sea. In another, the boat which brought them out broke free of its moorings, and they would have drowned but for the unexpected arrival of a boat carrying mail. (Nancollas notes, “The next day, eighteen men would not go back”.)

Nancollas mixes history - both how lighthouse design developed, and how technology changed how lighthouses were operated - with visits to the eight lighthouses that he focuses on. This is not one of those books of micro history that would persuade someone to be interested in a completely new topic. But if you are interested in lighthouses then it’s a good read.

Imagine a time-lapse film of this patch of sea, reaching back three centuries and rewound at speed. It would show four towers falling and rising upon the Eddystone reef: one disassembled, one combusting like a firework, one destroyed in a storm, their materials cycling back from stone to wood, their forms regressing from engineered simplicity to experimental folly, the types of ships darting around them devolving from diesel to steam to sail, until the time-lapse halts at the first Eddystone lighthouse of 1698, a thing of outlandish fantasy.

When I first became interested in lighthouses there was a faded romance about the idea of the lighthousekeeper, since by then there were no manned lights any more. It was not until reading this that it occurred to me that the need for lighthouses is itself diminishing with technology such as GPS - although I was pleased to learn that lighthouses still play a navigation role, even if only as a backup option.

71janemarieprice
Gen 31, 8:14pm

>70 wandering_star: I'm not sure I want to get into this at the moment but I've always been fascinated by lighthouses. Both the function and romantic appeal.

72rocketjk
Feb 1, 8:57am

>69 wandering_star: "I do think there are benefits in having more modern language. I see this as one of the positives about translated work, you lose out on the author's words but - for plays in particular - you don't get distanced from the characters by archaic language."

Sure, I see both sides of the question and understand what you're getting at. For myself, however, I like being put in the time and place of the play's origins. If the story is strong enough, such as in Uncle Vanya, the themes and humanity will come through anyway, and in a way more strongly: this is what they were dealing with then, and we're still dealing with it now. So I guess I'm saying that it strengthens the feeling of universality for me.

But, as we used to say back in the distant past, different strokes for different folks. I suppose if that phrase were translated to more modern language, it would be, "To each his/her own!" :)

And there are enough different productions and translations of Uncle Vanya to go around!

74wandering_star
Feb 4, 9:24am

>72 rocketjk: that's a good point about strengthening the sense of universality - I hadn't thought of that.

>73 SassyLassy: I haven't - is it good? The Stevensons' story does come up a little bit in Seashaken Houses.

75wandering_star
Modificato: Feb 4, 9:28am

15. Sharks in the Time of Saviours by Kawai Strong Washburn

Nainoa’s mother has always known there is something different about him - that in some way he is connected to the spirits, the ancient gods of Hawaii. As a young boy he discovers that he has powers to heal - but he always feels a responsibility that he should be doing more. At the same time, his siblings feel overshadowed by him, and each push further into their own abilities - basketball for his elder brother, study for his sister.

There are many remarkable things about this book. The language is beautiful and vivid, especially so when describing physical sensations - swimming, basketball, and also how it feels to Nainoa when he is healing someone. Here's his sister hula dancing:

I did the warm-up, same as the girls inside: ‘Ami, ‘uwehe, kaholo, hela, the step and swing, arms like lightning bolts sometimes and then like water. Rock and circle of the hips. My back and all those bones. Stiff as a spear.

There’s a real economical beauty about the words, which gives them power.

It was never her body itself that I cared about. The surface or whatever. It was how she wore it: tension and flex, asymmetric, solid.

It’s also a perspective that I’ve never seen before - a native Hawaiian family, and thinking about Hawaii and what it was and what it is now.

For all these reasons I would thoroughly recommend it. It does have flaws. For example, while the language is great, the chapters are narrated by different family members, and their voices all sound pretty similar.

Also, one of the real themes of the book is, what happens when the thing which makes you special is taken away - whether that’s a personal ability, or the traditional culture of a people. Of course what happens when that thing is taken away is that you lose your way for a bit, and when the characters lose their way the energy of the story drops for quite a long time.

But I would always rather read a book which tries to do something interesting, even if it doesn’t quite pull it off, than one which is happy to retread old paths. I’m keen to read what this writer does next.

Side note: this book was similar to How Much Of These Hills Is Gold for me, as an interesting, unusual and ambitious book. In fact the thing which pushed both these books from ‘sounds interesting’ to ‘want to read now’ is that they were both on President Obama’s 2020 books of the year list! Of the others, I own Long Bright River and am planning to borrow Luster and The Vanishing Half from the library.

76sallypursell
Feb 4, 11:18pm

Both those books about lighthouses sound great to me. Thanks for bringing them up, ladies.

77wandering_star
Modificato: Feb 13, 6:32am

16. Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein (audiobook, narrated by David Aaron Baker)

A collection of short stories, mostly about the human impacts of future tech. Sounds a bit like Ted Chiang? I don't think anyone has as interesting ideas about technology and our lives as Ted Chiang does, but Weinstein has a nice touch when it comes to writing about the emotional side of that impact. I liked his style and the economical world building in the stories. The audiobook narrator is good too.

Several of the stories didn't work, but the ones that did were good enough to make it worth reading the book.

My favourite stories were:

"Saying Goodbye to Yang" - a future world where Americans don't give birth to children - they either clone themselves or adopt. The narrator has adopted from China, and so bought a Chinese robot to be a big brother for his daughter. One day the robot breaks down. This story is all about the things the narrator doesn't know - whether it's about the technology, or about the people around him. Very moving.

"The Cartographers" - a company which creates and sells artificial memories - and how its own employees can get sucked in.

What the populace wanted, what they still want, what they always want is pulp cybernetics. Perhaps not so cheap as the corner store memories China's producing - $8.99 porn thrills so poorly constructed you can see the patches of light where the software burns through the girls’ skin. But give them palm trees, a restaurant with an attractive server, coral reefs, and sand dollars for the kids, and you have a package that retails for $79.99.

It was shortly after Circuitry did the article on us that Quimbly began experimenting with bad memories. It was a natural progression for him. He specialized in emotional recollections: childhoods, marriages and adolescence. He'd always cringed from anything Hallmarky, the happy marriages and quintessential childhoods - puppies and kittens, as he called them.

His first generation of memories all contained some element of sadness within them - grandchildren for the childless elderly, and losses of virginity to lonely men who’d never known love. But there was something truly sinister to Quimbly’s second batch: he sold heroin addictions to artists wanting darker aesthetics, affairs to couples who’d never cheated on one another, gun fights to rappers and suicide attempts to goth kids.


"Ice Age" - the final story, which gets the reader to think about climate change from a fresh perspective, by imagining a world turned cold rather than hot - and how individual responsibility and individual selfishness play out.

If that all sounds intriguing, there are a few of his stories online (though none from this book):
Sanctuary (I think this one is best)
The Prophet
We Only Wanted Their Happiness

78kidzdoc
Feb 8, 7:31am

Great review of Sharks in the Time of Saviors, Margaret. I purchased the Kindle edition of it late last year, and hopefully I'll get to it this summer.

79lisapeet
Feb 8, 12:58pm

>78 kidzdoc: I've had that one for a while too. I'm looking forward to it—the cover drew me in initially but I've heard so many good things about it.

80RidgewayGirl
Feb 8, 1:54pm

>75 wandering_star: Excellent review. You very much summed up what was so good about this book and it's weaknesses. I'm really looking forward to seeing what Washburn writes next.

81wandering_star
Feb 13, 6:40am

17. Couch Fiction by Philippa Perry

A graphic novel by a psychotherapist, not quite non-fiction but a depiction of what a typical series of interactions between a therapist and a client might look like.

Last year I read Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb, similarly a memoir by a therapist, about her experiences on both sides of the couch. I found that fun, but particularly got a lot from some of the comments which seemed like they might be relevant for me. I was hoping for something similar here but because this book is just about one single client, there wasn't that variety.

What there is, is a close examination of what the therapist is thinking about, and how that differs from what she says, as well as the same things from the client's point of view. Perry's therapist makes some mistakes and these are pointed out by the author. I think this could be interesting in terms of 'demystifying' the process of therapy, if that's what the reader wants.


82wandering_star
Feb 13, 6:54am

18. The Only Story by Julian Barnes

Most of us have only one story to tell. I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there’s only one that matters, only one finally worth telling. This is mine.

But here’s the first problem. If this is your only story, then it’s the one you have most often told and retold, even if – as is the case here – mainly to yourself. The question then is: do all these retellings bring you closer to the truth of what happened, or move you further away?


That's from the first page of The Only Story. You read this and you think, OK, this is going to be a story about memory and truth. Which it is, but not in the way that I expected.

It's the story of a love affair, between university student Paul, and Susan, a married woman thirty years older. I don't think there is any way that I can describe the impact of the book on me without spoilers, unfortunately, so the rest of this review goes into a bit of detail about what happens.

The story is told in three phases. Phase one, the romance. Their meeting, their flirtation, the way the relationship develops. Susan's husband crops up, but he's really a figure of fun. At one point Paul mentions in passing that the reader shouldn't assume this was just a summer fling, that he and Susan were together for over ten years. When I read this I was slightly surprised but thought no more about it, assuming that the story was being told in chronological order and we'd get to that bit later.

Phase two, the darker aspects of the relationship. This starts with the husband's occasional violence towards Paul, then develops into showing us his violence towards Susan. And finally, once Paul has managed to get Susan away from her husband, Susan's gradual slide into alcoholism and the way that Paul copes, or doesn't cope, with it. This part is really unbearably sad.

Phase three is the part where Paul looks back on the story and tries to make sense of it, and the impact that it had on his later life. Above all - which is the true story of their relationship, and of his past? Is the happy part truer than the unhappy part, or vice versa? What is the most honest way to remember a relationship like this?

This book is good in all the ways I can think of a book being good. It uses language skilfully (for example, Paul shifts from calling himself I, to you, to he, through the three phases and depending on how much he wants to create emotional distance from what he's describing). It's well constructed (for example, with callbacks later on to phrases which occurred earlier in the book, which in a later context hit you with a different meaning). There are clever, quotable asides about life and love, about British culture, about the themes of the book. It really makes you think. But it's not so clever that it forgets humans and their emotions, as clever writers sometimes do - quite the opposite in fact. It's gripping. I am sure that I would appreciate it even more a second time. But it is just too sad.

In short, this was very very good; and I never want to read it again.

83wandering_star
Modificato: Feb 13, 7:30am

19. Unnatural Causes by Richard Shepherd

After that experience, I felt that I needed to read something which was a bit less emotionally draining. When I saw that my library loan on this had come in, I thought, that'll be a good option. In fact, this book starts with a description of the Hungerford mass shooting and the psychological impact it had on the author (it was his first big case). Of course, this is a memoir by a forensic pathologist, so what was I thinking?

In fact, I know what I was thinking. When I was at school I had read a book, also the memoirs of a forensic pathologist, which I remember as a series of episodes almost like mini detective stories. Of course, times have changed and now people in stressful professions know that they need to talk about the stress and its impact on them. (I *think* the earlier book was called something like "How to Murder Your Wife" which tells you about the tone it took and the era it was written in...)

The role of forensic pathologists has also changed in the last decades - they no longer play a key part in unravelling the puzzle, but are one of many separate experts who provide pieces of the mosaic to the police. Shepherd discovers (and is disappointed by) this early on when he comes up with a detailed description of what he thinks happened and is told "don't bother, Doc ... the guy's coughed".

Despite this, I found the book really interesting. As a forensic pathologist in central London, Shepherd worked on a number of well-known cases (both crimes, and mass casualty events). In addition there are some of the 'mini detective story' case studies. But it's not just a series of gory stories. Shepherd is interested in the nature of truth, and about justice - and in the way the whole policing and justice system operates to deliver (or not) those goals, and how he as an individual fits into that, both in his formal role and his individual interactions with people.

They needed me to say, ‘It wasn’t your fault. She took the right medication for her epilepsy in the right doses.’ This was the truth. I said it.
They needed me to say, ‘She isn’t dead because you failed to hear her cry for you in the night.’ This was the truth. I said it. And I added, ‘It is most unlikely that Alannah cried out at all. But IF she did, and IF you had heard, and IF you had rushed in, there was still nothing you could have done.’ That phrase is important to so many of the bereaved. One of the normal phases of grieving is guilt. There was nothing you could have done won’t magically wipe away guilt, but it may allow it to pass more quickly. I hope so.
So that is what I gave them. The truth as I understood it. Unvarnished by phrases designed to save them from it. Beautiful in its simplicity. Unfiltered by the rawness and violence of the emotion a death causes. Allowing myself to become involved in their feelings had added a complication to the truth that could help no one, and I determined never to let it happen again.

84Nickelini
Feb 14, 2:11am

>82 wandering_star:
The Only Story sounds really good. I'm not sure why this wasn't on my radar, considering I loved the Sense of an Ending. Well it is now! Thanks for introducing this one to me.

The opening that you quoted is strangely similar in thought to the novel I'm currently reading, Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill by Belgian writer Dimitri Verhulst. It starts: Somewhere, in one of the many narrative repositories that have been set up here and there for us to draw on when the world needs a story, it must be possible to find the fable that tells us that people, on their arrival in the realm of the dead, must lay claim to a trait, one only, that characterizes the life they have just led.

Except this is so much more convoluted than the Barnes. I had to read it three times to get where it was going. At any rate, The Only Story is on my wish list.

85wandering_star
Feb 15, 3:55am

>84 Nickelini: That's interesting Joyce how it flew under the radar. I just had a look at Julian Barnes' bibliography, and he's basically put out a book every couple of years since 1980. I wonder if it's because, even though his books are good, there are so many and so consistent that it's not exciting when one comes out and so there isn't a 'buzz'?

Have you read The Noise of Time? That's the last one of his I read, three years ago I am surprised to see. That's excellent too.

I agree with you about the opening of your current read!

86wandering_star
Modificato: Feb 15, 4:41am

20. Mordew by Alex Pheby

Mordew is a city state of great inequality. The slums, by the sea wall, are dank and wet and ankle-deep in something called the Living Mud, which produces strange half-alive, deformed creatures. Further inland you have the Merchant City, which works hard to keep the Mud out, and whose residents only venture down to the slums to visit brothels or for other illicit purposes. Above the Merchant City rises a magical glass spiral road, leading to the residence of the Master of Mordew. Nathan Trewes, almost thirteen, lives in the slums. He has some sort of magical power, which he calls his Spark. His father has always been strict with him not to use his Spark. But his father is dying...

Before the story itself starts, the book contains a map (of course), a reader's note about the glossary at the back of the book (of which more later), a partial and partially-defined cast of characters, and a five-page list which starts like this:



I think this list is a perfect encapsulation of the book. Mordew is packed full of ideas, some brilliant, some OK, but all just piled up higgledy-piggledy without any kind of structure.

I think Pheby really enjoyed writing the grotesque and gruesome details of life in the slums, as this takes up the first half of the book. (It's also a lot of fun to read if you enjoy that kind of over-the-top Gothic stuff - it reminded me of Gormenghast, or at least my distant memories of reading Gormenghast some 30 years ago). But then halfway through the book Nathan comes into his powers, and is taken by the Master to live with him. At this point Pheby seems to get a bit bored with the exposition, and the pace at which events happen speeds up dramatically. Nathan has to be taught to use his powers, for example - so he has a couple of lessons and then bosh, education done, on to the next bit of the story.

As for the glossary. The reader's note hints that there are things in the glossary which are not known to the protagonists of the book. I thought it might contain easter eggs which would help me understand the shape of the story, so when I finished the main story I started reading diligently away. Then I heard an interview with the author in which he said he was working on the next book in the trilogy, whose glossary would contain the same entries but with different descriptions and definitions. At which point I decided that I could really get away with just skimming the glossary.

In the same interview Pheby boasts about how quickly he writes and how little rewriting is necessary. I have to say that it shows in the book. It was sometimes a fun read, sometimes a bit of a slog, with some great elements. But with a bit of rigorous editing and rewriting, I think it could have been excellent.

87wandering_star
Modificato: Feb 15, 11:13am

21. Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art by Rebecca Wragg Sykes

Of the following three images, which two are closest in time?







According to Rebecca Wragg Sykes, there is less time between pictures two and three, than there is between pictures one (the Chauvet cave) and two (Lascaux). She uses this fact to illustrate our lack of understanding of the span of prehistoric time. Neither of these pictures is a Neanderthal artefact: but the era of the Neanderthals spans over 350,000 years, ten times the distance between us and the Chauvet cave art.

(On looking up the Chauvet caves to get this image, I find that the date of the artwork there is disputed, so on some estimates it's about the same length of time between both pairs of photos. Sykes also mentions that “fewer years lie between Cleopatra’s reign and the moon landings than between her and the building of the Giza pyramids”, dates which are less disputed.)

Kindred starts with the first discovery of Neanderthal remains, and ends with some thoughts on what our knowledge of Neanderthals has told us about Homo sapiens (including the remarkable story of one Samuel Edwards, whose parents had been slaves, who became a writer and evangelical lecturer and who first pointed out, in 1892, that hominin fossils demonstrated that all humans, whatever their race had a common origin and equal capacity for intelligence, civilisation and humanity). In between, Sykes reviews all that is currently known about Neanderthals, looking at how they lived, what they ate, and trying to work out what they knew and thought.

This book made me admire the ingenuity of two groups: Neanderthals, and the researchers who study them. Neanderthals were able to carve sophisticated spears (with the tips at the stump end, the hardest part; carved off-centre for increased strength and weighted to flu); they had glues (naturally found bitumen, but also birch tar derived from cooking birch bark in low-oxygen conditions; and in one place they couldn’t get birch bark, pine resin mixed with beeswax, to make it more shock resistant); they understood the properties of different stones (“when Neanderthals transported objects between sites, they moved those made from the best rock farthest, never bothering to carry poor-quality stone to richer areas. This implies not only constant weighing up and decision making, but an extraordinary knowledge of the geology across wide regions.”)

As for the archaeologists. Patient reconstruction of shards of stone, “an immense 4D jigsaw”, has helped to understand the process by which stone artefacts were made. Analysis of carbon and nitrogen isotopes from bones help to understand what they ate, and when children stopped being breastfed. Bone and tooth analysis can tell us about diseases (tiny scratches on the teeth of one “show over time that he switched his preferred hand for eating, potentially connected to a nasty root abscess”).

There is some incredibly rich stuff in this book. Footprints from around 350,000 years ago show the tracks of three Neanderthals who were walking down a mountain. “One zig-zagged down, another took a cautious curving path, slipping and sometimes dropping down a hand for balance, while the third ploughed in a straight line”. An 80,000 year old toddler footprint exists.

And there is so much left to discover. In 2020 the first piece of Neanderthal cord was discovered (a three-ply twist of plant fibre, made extremely fine). Before that there was no evidence that Neanderthals could make rope. Only 40 Neanderthal remains have been sampled for DNA, from the thousands of parts which are known. So there are many more discoveries and deductions to be made.

One caveat. Talking about books which needed an editor! This is written for a non-specialist audience, but it’s not popular science. Accessibility is not just about the words you use in each sentence, but about what information you choose to include and how you marshal this info. This book is very long and very dense. It is a fascinating subject, but you would have to be truly committed not to skim any of the book.

88Dilara86
Feb 15, 7:15am

>87 wandering_star: This book sounds fascinating! I've read in one of the reviews that some chapters start with a fictional vignette. How long and obtrusive are they? I'm asking because I hate the recreated scenes in documentaries...

89wandering_star
Feb 15, 8:19am

>88 Dilara86: After the first chapter or two, I skipped those. They're only about a page long though.

90Dilara86
Feb 15, 9:31am

Oh good! Thanks :)

91wandering_star
Feb 15, 11:43am

22. Recursion by Blake Crouch

Before I bought this I did the Kindle-read-the-first-part-free thing. In the first scene, a police officer goes to a NYC rooftop to find a woman about to commit suicide. She's been driven crazy by FMS (false memory syndrome), in which she remembers in detail a family that she never actually had. Tears carve trails through her eyeliner. “My son never existed. Do you get that? He’s just a beautiful misfire in my brain.”

I found this a really intriguing idea - the psychological impact of thinking you remember a life different from the one you have. So I bought the book. The cop's story is interleaved with another timeline, starting ten years before, in which a young scientist is working on a device which can record and play back memories. She's partly driven by wanting to find a solution to her mother's Alzheimer's. But there's only one person who's prepared to put up enough funding and resources for her to finish the project successfully - a tech billionaire who lives on an oil rig out at sea, for security reasons.

At this point I thought I knew where the story was going to go. A bit less introspective than my original expectations, but still could be fun. Sadly the book completely jumps the shark and from about a third of the way through just gets increasingly preposterous. There are plot holes galore and surprisingly few stakes for such a major piece of technology.

Under normal circumstances I probably wouldn't have bothered finishing this. But after the last two books I was just so happy to be reading something fast-moving!

92Nickelini
Feb 15, 3:17pm

>85 wandering_star: That's interesting Joyce how it flew under the radar. I just had a look at Julian Barnes' bibliography, and he's basically put out a book every couple of years since 1980. I wonder if it's because, even though his books are good, there are so many and so consistent that it's not exciting when one comes out and so there isn't a 'buzz'?

I see it came out in 2018 and that was one of those years I wasn't paying any attention to new books. I would have thought I'd noticed it since then, but maybe, like you say, he has so many good books that it just got lost in the mix.

The Neandertal book sounds fascinating! I don' t have a space for that in my current reading life, but I enjoyed your comments very much

93AnnieMod
Feb 17, 1:48pm

>87 wandering_star: This sounds fascinating - and fits with some of my current reading (it seems like I keep finding more pre-history books...). One of the historians I had been reading lately makes a point that part of that wrong perception of time comes from the fact that things just took much longer back then - a thousand years brought less progress than a month brings today - not because we had changed that much but because change, technology and evolution are cumulative.

>88 Dilara86: >89 wandering_star:
I used to hate these. Then I read After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000–5000 BC last year and found that they can be very effective when used properly - especially when they connect to the narrative around it.

94avaland
Feb 24, 9:30am

Popping in again to catch up with your latest reading. You are reading such wonderfully varied books! (that's why I love this group)

>70 wandering_star: Funny to see your review of the lighthouses book as I was just checking website to see if some of the nearest lighthouses were accessible at all (are the parking lots plowed, are they all closed for the winter...etc) so we could make a winter pilgrimage. The book sounds like a nice content mix and I just might have to put that on my wishlist.

95NanaCC
Feb 25, 4:13pm

Just catching up. I’m way behind on everyone’s threads. You’ve read some interesting books so far. I saw your comment about Julian Barnes. The only book of his that I’ve read is England, England. It was very weird, and didn’t leave me wanting to read more. I might try another based upon your comments.

96Nickelini
Feb 25, 9:09pm

>95 NanaCC:
England, England was a bit manic, and not his best.

97wandering_star
Mar 7, 1:28pm

>94 avaland: Thank you. I actually feel like so far this year my reading is even more varied than usual! Probably because of all the very different book bullets I get from other Club Readers ;-)

I have a little bit to catch up on...

23. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner

I was prompted to read this classic of British children's literature by reading about it in Ghostland (see discussion further up this thread). This was one of those books I looked at a lot in the library when I was a kid, but never actually managed to read. (I can't remember if I tried and failed, or even if I every borrowed it).

It is the story of a brother and sister who are sent to live on a farm one summer - a farm close to where their mother grew up. One evening, walking in the woods, they have a strange encounter - and the story goes from there.

I definitely enjoyed reading this. The adventures the children have are gripping and scary, and the physical landscape of the book is great. Apparently it is very closely based on the real countryside (and real local legends) around Alderley Edge in Cheshire. That said, it's clearly a children's book - a relatively straightforward adventure story, so I am not sure why I never managed to read it when I was younger. (I believe the sequels are darker and a bit more complex).

The air was still; and although the sun shone in a cloudless sky, there was not enough warmth in its rays to melt the thin blades of snow that stood inches high even to the tips of the slenderest twigs on every tree. Pyethorne was a wood of lace that day. There had been floes on Redesmere at dawn, but now the ice here was unbroken, thick, and blue as steel.

98wandering_star
Mar 7, 1:42pm

24. Mama Day by Gloria Naylor

Mama Day interleaves three stories - that of Ophelia (known as Cocoa by her family); her lover George, who she meets after moving to New York; and that of the place that Ophelia is from, an island called Willow Springs, between Georgia and South Carolina but through a quirk of history, not part of either of them.

Ophelia and George both narrate their own stories but the most compelling character in this novel by far is Willow Springs itself - a piece of land which has kept its own history, legends and tradition, which are fantastically rich. Naylor builds up a picture of this rich legacy, through hints in conversations between characters in which not everything is explained for the reader:

Miranda stops at the foot of the porch. “Somebody sure don’t want me and my cakes in their house today if they sweeping straight toward me.” “Not you I don’t want, it’s this here dust.” Abigail laughs. “And I ain’t sweeping salt, am I?”

-and also in some set piece scenes featuring the island's beautiful traditions, such as the Candle Walk which replaces Christmas.

All this is so fabulous that I spent quite a lot of the time while reading asking why on earth this book is not better known. But then unfortunately I realised that with all this wonder going on, the relationship between Ophelia and George just can't compete. Willow Springs is so magical, and their relationship is SO PEDESTRIAN. She wishes he spent less time watching football. He won't speak to her after they've had a fight. Who cares?! Especially when you can turn the page and read about the island luxuriating in a summer's day, or the town hunkering down before a storm. And the big problem with this is that it reduces the stakes of what is actually going on with the story, so there is a gap at the centre, despite the power around it.

Despite this, I think Willow Springs is sufficiently compelling that the book is worth reading. I would love to spend more time in this world.

The night is so thick she can tell she is there only by the scraping of her feet and the tap, tapping of the stick in the loose gravel. A moonless night with only the call of the katydids and marsh frogs. A night to swallow you up, the stars hid by clouds, and memory guiding her tired feet home.

99wandering_star
Mar 9, 9:02am

25. Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

Funnily enough, another book that I used to look at a lot when I was younger, although I was a teenager at this point. I used to be fascinated by the Virago editions with the green covers, and this was one of them.



I don't know if it's because of a buried memory of this cover, but reading Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead made me think of Stanley Spencer's paintings - they both have a style which is almost childish in its simplicity, but use it to depict quite grandiose content, which lends the whole thing a surreal edge.

As in Spencer's painting "The Resurrection, Cookham":



and as in this book, which tells the story of a series of terrible events befalling a quiet English village, and how this affects the village as a whole, as well as the children of the family at the heart of the story. By the end of the story, many people are indeed dead, and the others are all changed.

From the first line - "The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows" - we are in a surreal world, even though everything that happens has a rational explanation. (The first scene is the aftermath of a flood). This surreal edge, along with the artless childish style, makes it a little hard to engage with the awfulness of what actually happens in the story. It's not just all the deaths. The Willoweed children are semi-feral poorly looked after by their terrible father, who in turn is terrified of his mother, who rules the household with an iron will.

It was weeks since they had had their morning lessons. They guessed this would go on until their grandmother suddenly realised what was happening. Then there would be a great tornado, in which their father would become almost crushed to a pulp, and the lessons would start again with new vigour, until Grandmother Willoweed lost interest in them and they would gradually peter out again.

How much you enjoy this book probably depends on how you feel about awful things being narrated in this offbeat, almost jokey way. It's an odd book. I enjoyed it a lot at the level of individual sentences, but I can't quite make sense of it as a whole.

100wandering_star
Modificato: Mar 9, 9:19am

26. An Economist Walks Into A Brothel: And Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk by Allison Schrager

As you can tell from the title, the author of this book looks at risk through the lens of some unusual situations - from big wave surfing and professional poker to the work of paparazzi and the legal sex trade.

I was expecting this to be a book about the psychology of human responses to risk - how we (mis)understand it and what that means for our decision making. I guess I was thinking of something similar to Thinking, Fast and Slow. In fact it's really about managing personal finances, and specifically investing. Which is something I am not at all as interested in. Furthermore, I found Schrager's descriptions of the different 'worlds' quite superficial, and her segues between the extreme situations and our daily lives sometimes a bit banal. "While most of us will never experience combat in our lifetime, we can still learn from McMaster's experience on the battlefield and better prepare for what we don't see coming".

I did get some useful information from this book, such as the idea that people often take a risk just because they feel like a change, rather than thinking about what their goal actually is, (hello, populist politics since 2016...), or that when quoted statistics, we should look for frequencies rather than probabilities (the example here was a study which quoted a 100% increase in risk for a particular cancer, but this turned out to be from 1/7000 to 2/7000).

101lisapeet
Mar 10, 7:48am

>99 wandering_star: That's a great cover. I've only ever seen the NYRB reissue. And hmm... I've been meaning to try something by Comyns, though I'm not sure if that one would be my cuppa tea. I've also heard good things about The Vet's Daughter—have you read that one?

102SandDune
Mar 10, 2:27pm

>97 wandering_star: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was absolutely my favourite book as a child. I read Alan Garner’s memoir recently, Where Shall We Run To and many of the locations mentioned in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen are based on real places.

103markon
Mar 11, 11:10am

>98 wandering_star: Interesting observations. I remember liking this when I read it, but don't remember the flow of the story. May need to revisit.

104markon
Mar 11, 11:19am

>98 wandering_star: Interesting observations. I remember liking this when I read it, but don't remember the flow of the story. May need to revisit.

>97 wandering_star: I am planning to buy Boneland by Alan Garner to read the "conclusion" to this series. (Written decades after Moon of Gomrath, and definitely not a kids fantasy. ) I like his writing. Would like to read his autobiography too.

105wandering_star
Mar 18, 10:23am

>101 lisapeet: I have read The Vet's Daughter and from what I remember it's also quite dark, possibly with less surreal leavening than Who Was Changed. I think the book of hers which is different from the others is Our Spoons Came From Woolworths which is more autobiographical.

>102 SandDune: Mr wandering_star is from Cheshire, maybe next time we visit his parents I can go and have a look at some of the scenery from the book!

>104 markon: Will be interested to see what you think of Boneland.

106wandering_star
Modificato: Mar 18, 10:43am

27. Remain Silent by Susie Steiner

The second book I've read by this author featuring this detective. In this case, the mystery is around the death of a Lithuanian migrant worker. It looks like a suicide by hanging, but for two things - the fact that two other Eastern European migrant workers have been found dead in recent weeks, and the note (in Lithuanian) pinned to the hanged man's trousers.

This crime novel is very good but also very depressing. Grim, and not in any way that could possibly be construed as glamorous, as sometimes crime novels can be (dramatic violence, extreme self-destructiveness on the part of the detective). This is just relentless and sad, whether that's in the treatment meted out to the migrant workers or the state of the detective's marriage.

There are phases of life that are depressing, when it feels as if things are ending – vigour, fertility, excitement, pleasure – and nothing new seems to be coming over the horizon in the way of refreshment. The blame for this can be laid at the door of marriage, but at what gain?

107wandering_star
Mar 18, 10:43am

28. Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima

This story takes place over twelve chapters, one per month. It was originally published as a serial (the story starts in April, and this chapter was published in June, with one chapter following each month until the year was out). It tells the story of a woman who has recently been left by her husband, and is trying to make a new life for herself and her daughter.

The territory of light of the title is a nickname that she gives to the apartment they find when they first set up on their own - the top floor of a commercial building, it's a strange place to live, but one of the things that attracts her to it is its brightness. Light is clearly also a metaphor throughout the book, though it's not always obvious what it symbolises. This is actually one of the things I really liked about reading this - there are things which are definitely symbolic of something, but you can ponder the meaning for a while. For example, in the chapter in which the narrator's husband finally agrees to divorce her, the final scene is of her and her daughter watching some strange but beautiful distant explosions.

There was another blast and a new red glow lit the night sky. By now I’d forgotten my fear. The entire sky had a sunset tinge; a shower of sparks glimmered, and to the right a burst of light surged like an animate thing, while around it the sky was flushed with the lingering glow of the second explosion. The streets too were reddened by the sky. A fourth and a fifth explosion followed, a little smaller, then everything fell quiet. The array of colours, however, was growing in complexity and beauty.

It turns out that the explosions were coming from a chemical factory, in an incident which caused several fatalities. The reader can't help but wonder what the meaning is of this far-off but beautiful disaster. Are we the readers enjoying viewing her tragedy from a long way off? Is she saying that in her future she will look back on this time differently, as a necessary and positive step in her life?

The book is short and slight but very interesting. It was first published in 1979, when Tsushima herself was the single mother of a small daughter. It must have been a ground breaking work at the time, given how much the narrator is conflicted in her feelings towards her situation, her ex-husband, and even her daughter. But while she worries about society's reactions to her as a single mother, there are lots of small pieces of evidence that there are other people in the same situation as her.

One thing I loved about the book was the way that her daughter finds joy in small everyday things, such as playing in the water when the roof is flooded, or dropping pieces of origami paper and watching them flutter in the wind.

108LolaWalser
Mar 18, 1:20pm

>107 wandering_star:

That sounds remarkable. I have to confess your reviews manage to give such a sense of completeness that I find myself feeling I've read the book.

109lisapeet
Mar 18, 8:22pm

>107 wandering_star: That one sounds wonderful. I'm adding it to the endless list.

110wandering_star
Mar 19, 7:04am

>108 LolaWalser: That's nice to hear. I will shortly be reviewing a book I picked up because you mentioned it, so you can find out whether my descriptions are accurate!

111stretch
Mar 20, 7:05pm

>107 wandering_star: I'm starting to think this year will be my year of Japanese books, I'm moving this up the TBR for sure now.

112wandering_star
Mar 21, 7:39am

>108 LolaWalser:, >109 lisapeet:, >111 stretch: I forgot to mention that I picked this up because it was a read for the Japan Society (UK) online book club. It was really interesting to see how differently people thought about the book - perhaps because the symbolism is not heavy handed, so there are different ways you can interpret it.

113wandering_star
Modificato: Mar 21, 8:19am

29. The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams

Now this is a book for anyone who loves words. It's about language - a vast, failed dictionary, being worked on in two timelines - one of the original compilers, around 100 years ago, and a young woman in the present day working to digitise the archive and root out what turn out to be a lot of false entries scattered through the database. It's also a book which glories in language, whether that's obscure words, to the possibilities of what language can do. It's the sort of thing that sets off fireworks in my brain.

Look how much there is in one paragraph:

I’ve heard people say that dog owners often look like their pets, or the pets look like their owners. In many ways David Swansby looked like his handwriting: ludicrously tall, neat, squared-off at the edges. Like my handwriting, I was aware that I often looked as though I needed to be tidied away, or ironed, possibly autoclaved. By the time afternoon tugged itself around the clock, both handwriting and I degrade into a big rumpled bundle. I’m being coy in my choice of words: rumpled, like shabby and well-worn, places emphasis on cosiness and affability – I mean that I looked like a mess by the end of the day. Creases seemed to find me and made tally charts against my clothes and my skin as I counted down the hours until home time.

And then this is the next:

David Swansby was not a physically threatening presence and it would be unfair to say I was cornered by him in the cupboard. The room was not big enough for two people, however, and a corner was involved and certainly in that moment I was directly relevant to that noun becoming a verb.

I am honestly not sure how much sense the story made in the end, but that didn't matter - I fell pretty hard for this book.

114lisapeet
Mar 21, 9:58am

>113 wandering_star: Oh that's funny, I just posted about this on rhian_of_oz's thread. I can't wait to get to this one, plus I heard really good things about Williams's first collection, Attrib. The First Draft podcast had a great conversation with her a few weeks back.

115wandering_star
Modificato: Mar 24, 6:50am

30. Man in the Holocene by Max Frisch

An elderly man sits in his cottage in the Swiss Alps and listens to the rain. It seems to have been raining for ever, and Geiser becomes increasingly obsessed by the rain and by the idea that his valley might be flooded or that the mountainside he lives on will start to slip. Geiser is worried that he is starting to forget information, so he writes important things on little slips of paper that he pastes up in his house - later he realises that he can just cut out sections from books and paste them up too. The reader follows Geiser's thoughts, mostly, and also reads the notes that he puts up, and so we can see where his mind is wandering to. However, as we know from our own thoughts, the mind doesn't always go to the most important thing; and so the book starts out funny and ends up very poignant, as we come to understand Geiser's situation better.

I found this book in the library after Lola Walser mentioned it on another thread (in connection with literature and geology, I think). I had never heard of it or the author before. I enjoyed it very much.

In London the sun is shining.

Actually nothing much can happen, even if it keeps on raining for weeks and months; the village lies on a slope, the water is running off, one can hear it gurgling around the house.

At least no mist today --

The valley looks unharmed.

The hot plate is not heating up --

A lake, the color of brown clay, gradually filling the valley, a lake without a name, its water level rising day by day and also during the nights, joining up with the rising lakes in the other valleys until the Alps become an archipelago, a group of rocky islands with glaciers overhanging the sea -- impossible to imagine that.

116wandering_star
Mar 24, 6:52am

>114 lisapeet: Thanks for pointing me in that direction - The Dictionary of Lost Words sounds good too!

117Dilara86
Mar 24, 8:23am

>113 wandering_star: Thanks for the review. This book sounds right up my alley!

>115 wandering_star: There is so much enabling going on on LT! I also discovered Man in the Holocene this year after reading LolaWalser's mention.

118Nickelini
Mar 24, 3:17pm

>115 wandering_star: thanks for the positive comments on this one. I’m reading everything Swiss I can find but I’ve been avoiding the old white men.

Swiss literature translated into English is mostly old white men.

Off to find a copy

119LolaWalser
Mar 24, 3:38pm

>115 wandering_star:

Ahh, as the source of the mention, I'm glad you enjoyed it. It's one of the very rare books I read again fairly soon after the first time, there is something about Geiser's increasingly "geological" sense of time and his surroundings that appeals to me so much. It's as if an ant were to realise its position on the planet. And it's not a coincidence that it happens as he starts to forget his own life, the details of his personal existence. The "local" and the private had obscured the global and the general, the fog is lifting, the life remaining in the old man is some sort of a "cosmic" life. It reads like an elegy, maybe a dirge at the end... you can picture the old man settling into the layers of mud, fossilizing.

120markon
Mar 24, 8:25pm

Book bullets all over the place! I am definitely a word , and Man in the holocene also sounds fascinating.

121rocketjk
Mar 25, 12:40pm

>115 wandering_star: I read Frisch's I'm Not Stiller several years back and thought it was very good in many different ways. The narrative really draws you in, or at least it drew me in, although the ride is not a smooth one and can get very dark.

122AlisonY
Mar 26, 5:49am

Catching up after being very behind. I was starting to write a few comments on particular books, but I'm too behind and there were too many that interested me! Suffice to say I took many book bullets from my catch up here.

123SandDune
Mar 26, 5:52pm

Man in the Holocene sounds very much my sort of thing.

124wandering_star
Mar 26, 5:58pm

>119 LolaWalser: Yes, I really like that way of thinking about it.

>121 rocketjk: I'm Not Stiller sounds very interesting.

Apologies for all the book bullets! ;-)

125wandering_star
Mar 26, 6:14pm

31. That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry

I picked this up after listening to a reading of Barry's short story "Fjord of Killary", in which a publican tells the story of a night in his pub in the Irish countryside, where it rains so much it could be the last night on earth. I loved this story and wanted to read more by the author. (The story appeared in the New Yorker here and the reading can be found here).

This collection was very much more of the same: telling the stories of people who are outside society, by choice or otherwise. Love is found and lost and sometimes found again. The stories are funny, but with an undertone of bleakness which becomes more apparent as you go through the book. There are raconteurs, drinkers, writers, depressives (to the extent that I occasionally worried that as an English person it was patronising to relish something so stereotypically Irish). There's even another story, like "Fjord of Killary", narrated by a publican who is also a writer, which contains the wonderful line, "They entered my pub like a squall of hectic weather."

As you can see from that there is a tremendous economy of language, which I enjoyed very much. (Another of my favourite quotes isn't even a full sentence, but an aside: "Setanta’s plan – if it could be held up to the light as such – ").

Turns out I also own Barry's novel, Night Boat to Tangier, which I am looking forward to reading.

The fright betrayed a weight of feeling that was a surprise to her. She had carried it without knowing. Though she knew well enough that it was the idea of him rather than the fact – the idea of a long, thin, sombre man, in a soak of noble depression, smelling of lentils, in a damp pebbledash bungalow, amid a scrabble of the whitethorn trees, a man ragged in the province of Connacht and alone at all seasons, perhaps already betrothed to a glamorous early death, and under some especially mischievous arrayment of the stars he was all that a girl could ask for.

126wandering_star
Mar 26, 6:30pm

32. Citadel of Weeping Pearls by Aliette de Bodard

Thirty years ago, a princess disappeared - along with her entire space habitat, the Citadel of Weeping Pearls. The princess was a talented scientist who had developed many cutting-edge military technologies, and at that time, the Empress had been worried that her daughter would turn these weapons against her. Now, though, the Empress is getting old, and wants to try and find her daughter - though we don't know if this is because she is sorry to have lost her, or whether she wants to get her hands on the weaponry, now that the empire is threatened from outside. Many at court, however, have done quite nicely out of the princess' absence, and may not want her to be found. At the same time, elsewhere in the universe, an engineer whose mother vanished with the Citadel is getting close to the goal of her researches into who to find it.

I realise that my synopsis sets this up as a chase and action type of story. It's actually more about loss and grief.

I enjoyed this novella. I like the world it's set in, de Bodard's Xuya Universe, a space-empire which has grown out of imperial Vietnamese culture; I have also read The Tea Master and the Detective, set in the same world. I also have a weakness for stories with sentient ship minds. (I am sure there are some bad ones of these, but the first I ever read was the excellent Ancillary Justice series).

Mem-Implants. Ancestor implants. The link between the living and the memories of their ancestors: the repository of ghost-personalities who would dispense advice and knowledge on everything from navigating court intrigues to providing suitable responses in discussions replete with literary allusions. Five of them; no wonder Grand Master Bach Cuc had always been so graceful, so effortless at showing the proper levels of address and languages whatever the situation.

127wandering_star
Mar 26, 6:39pm

33. The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion by Kei Miller

The same morning that I heard the Kevin Barry short story, I listened to a Radio 4 Bookclub interview with the Jamaican poet, Kei Miller, and promptly ordered this collection. The poem of the title, whose stanzas are scattered through the book, is a dialogue between the cartographer and a Rasta, who mocks his attempts to fit the reality of Jamaica onto a piece of paper.

ii. in which the rastaman disagrees

The rastaman has another reasoning.
He says – now that man’s job is never straight-
forward or easy. Him work is to make thin and crushable
all that is big and as real as ourselves; is to make flat
all that is high and rolling; is to make invisible and wutliss
plenty things that poor people cyaa do without – like board
houses, and the corner shop from which Miss Katie sell
her famous peanut porridge. And then again
the mapmaker’s work is to make visible
all them things that shoulda never exist in the first place
like the conquest of pirates, like borders,
like the viral spread of governments


Lots of the other poems deal with the same dialogue, between maps as power (justifying colonialism over an ‘unmapped’ territory, choosing what to leave out and what to emphasise) and maps as the way that ordinary people understand the world around them. Several poems take a Jamaican placename and tell the story behind it - taking us through much of Jamaica's history but also the way that history can be reclaimed. It's an excellent collection.

128Nickelini
Mar 27, 1:45pm

Hello, Margaret. I'm spending a Saturday morning going down internet rabbit holes, and discovered the novel I'm Staying Here, and through that found your list "Rising Water." What an interesting list. I don't really get how lists function here on LT, but I think I'm following it, and I've suggested The Town That Drowned by Riel Nason. I've had it on my TBR for years so I don't know if it's good or not, but it fits your category perfectly. I see that Haweswater is also on the list and that's another one on my TBR so maybe this will be my year to read about rising water.

On a related topic, have you read Wave by Deraniyagala? It's a memoir written by a woman who went on Christmas holidays to Sri Lanka with her husband, children and parents and the Boxing Day tsunami struck and she was the only survivor. Emotionally it was a tough read, but it was excellent.

There is a sunken village near my husband's hometown in Tuscany that I always mean to visit. They had plans to drain the manmade lake temporarily to increase tourism, but I'm not sure what happened now that we have a pandemic.

129wandering_star
Mar 27, 10:10pm

>128 Nickelini: Thanks Joyce! It's great that you added to the list as well. The Town That Drowned looks interesting.

One summer I was on holiday in Spain and we drove past what must have been a reservoir with very low water - so you could see the tops of the town's houses, and most of the church. It's always stuck in my mind. I probably would be interested in visiting a sunken village if that was possible.

I haven't read Wave, although I've heard about it. I was actually living in Sri Lanka when the tsunami happened. I had gone to India for Christmas but came back a couple of days after it and was a little bit involved in supporting some of the survivors. A colleague of mine was in the same situation as Deraniyagala - she lost her husband and all three sons. So much tragedy. One of the humanitarian workers who I spoke to told me that the tsunami was unusual because, unlike most disasters, there were relatively few serious injuries - people tended to come away with fairly minor injuries, or not to survive at all.

Did you know Deraniyagala is now married to the actor Fiona Shaw?

130wandering_star
Mar 27, 10:19pm

Two crime reads to bring me up to date with my reviews: 34. Long Bright River by Liz Moore and 35. An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good by Helene Tursten. Although both crime, they could hardly be more different.

Long Bright River focuses on Mickey, a female beat officer in Philadelphia, who realises one day that she hasn't seen her sister Kacey for some time. The relationship between the two is not great, but Kacey is an addict and sex worker, so Mickey often sees her when she is patrolling her patch. At the same time that she discovers that no-one has seen Kacey for at least a month, it emerges that a serial killer is targeting marginalised young women. Concerned that Kacey has become a victim - either of the serial killer or of any of the other forms of violence that she could be subject to - Mickey sets out to find her. This was an excellent read, which looks at the bleak reality of deprivation and addiction in some parts of America today, as well as police corruption.

In a moment of clarity, once, Kacey told me that time spent in addiction feels looped. Each morning brings with it the possibility of change, each evening the shame of failure. The only task becomes the seeking of the fix. Every dose is a parabola, low-high-low; and every day a series of these waves; and then the days themselves become chartable, according to how much time, in sum, the user spends in comfort or in pain; and then the months.

An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good is a lot lighter (thank goodness), five short stories focusing on an elderly Swedish lady, Maud, who has very definite ideas about how things should be... and turns out to be quite ruthless in achieving them. Fun.

At last Maud was beginning to recover from the intrusion. Because that was exactly what it was: an intrusion into her calm, peaceful world, where she set the pace and rhythm of her day. “No,” she said again, just because it felt good to say no to this person.

131wandering_star
Mar 27, 11:48pm

>128 Nickelini: Coincidentally, today making lunch I listened to a very old NYT books podcast (July 2019) about the best 50 memoirs of the last 50 years - the reviewers all mentioned Wave as one of their highest rated memoirs.

132dchaikin
Apr 15, 9:38am

Stopping by to wave hello. Enjoyed catching up here.

133wandering_star
Apr 17, 8:59pm

Hi Dan and everyone else! Seem to have got a bit behind with my reviews again...

36. Men to Avoid in Art and Life by Nicole Tersigni

This book collects some of the images from Tersigni's Twitter feed, where she posts classical paintings with rather more contemporary captions.





I follow Tersigni on Twitter, and enjoy seeing these pop up in my feed, but I was a bit worried that the humour would get tired in a book, looking at one image after another. That actually didn't happen, and I chuckled my way through to the end. Of course, some are funnier than others, but I think Tersigni has a good eye for matching the image with the caption - they aren't totally interchangeable. It's surprising (or is it?) just how many paintings there are in which men are talking while women stare out of the picture silently.

134wandering_star
Modificato: Apr 17, 9:12pm

37. The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

The premise of this book is that once, a group of Native American teenagers did something very bad while on a hunt - and now, ten years later, bad things are happening to them in turn.

I am *extremely* wimpy about horror, but after a while I had heard so many great reviews of this book that I thought I would give it a go.

Although very horrible things do happen to people in the story, I am not sure I would describe it as a horror novel. The thing which I can't deal with - in horror films or books - is that creeping tension, constantly being played on, that something terrible is about to happen. The Only Good Indians doesn't have that - which made it possible for me to read it, but would it disappoint a horror fan?

As it went on I felt there were a few things which didn't make sense within the book's own internal logic - which is a bit of a problem in a book about revenge/karma for something which happened in the past. But overall, there are some brilliant bits of writing in this book, and it was interesting to read it.  

It’s a violation, would be a foul in any game with a whistle, but, too, it slows the whole world down, lets Denorah sort of see this not from her triple-threat position, but from the side, in ledger art, like this battle between the two of them is so epic that it’s been painted on the side of a lodge, and inside that lodge, an old man with stubby-thin braids is recounting the story of that one time the Girl played a game for the whole tribe. How each dribble shook the ground so hard that over in the Park great mountainsides of snow were calving off, rumbling down, shaving the foothills of trees. How each time the ball arced up into the sky it was merging with the sun, so that when it came down it was a comet almost, cutting through that orange circle of a rim. How each juke was so convincing that the wind would come in to take that player’s place but then would get all scrunched up because the player was already back in that space, cutting the other way, her path as jagged and fast as a bolt of lightning.

135Nickelini
Apr 18, 1:32am

>133 wandering_star:
I don't know if it was Tersigni, or someone else doing something similar, but every time I run across these I LOVE them. And I find the more I read, the more I like them. Thanks for letting me know she's on Twitter so I can follow her.

136LolaWalser
Apr 18, 3:57pm

>133 wandering_star:

Thanks for the laughs. :D

137kidzdoc
Modificato: Apr 19, 2:32pm

I'll definitely have to follow Nicole Tersigni on Twitter! The women in those paintings, especially the first one, have classic STFU looks on their faces.

ETA: Her photo on Twitter looks to be another STFU classic, mixed with utter horror.

138wandering_star
Apr 21, 7:21pm

>135 Nickelini:, >136 LolaWalser:, >137 kidzdoc: - enjoy!

38. Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan

This book started blisteringly well, with a young woman who describes herself as the Devil's daughter telling the story of how she killed her father and rowed in a coffin from her remote Scottish island to Edinburgh, to a tenement building in Luckenbooth Close. What happens to her there leads to that building being cursed/haunted through the decades.

The book moves forward through the decades from 1910 to 1999. There are three sets of three interlocking stories (over different time periods), moving upwards through the nine floors in the building. So it's a lot of different characters and a lot of different storylines and perhaps unsurprisingly, some of them are better than others. As this is the poorest, dingiest part of Edinburgh, most of the characters are outsiders in some way, whether through their gender/sexuality, race, poverty, profession or being William S Burroughs (this was probably my least favourite storyline, along with the lesbian serial killer couple).

I think I might have enjoyed this book more if I'd read it rather than listening to it as an audiobook - it might have been easier to spot the connections and echoes between the stories. Plus, one of the four readers was less good than the others.

Something else which started to bother me was the writer's incredible sloppiness about anachronistic vocabulary - a young woman in 1945 talking about yin and yang, say, or the use of the word 'download' in 1963 (I did check Merriam-Webster and this is first recorded in 1975). A small thing maybe, and if I'd been enjoying the book better these things might not have snagged my brain so much.

To sum up: lots of interesting elements, but overall a bit of a frustrating read.

I don’t attempt contrition. It’s not in my array of convincing facial expressions. I try out impassive. Honest isn’t something I carry off. Neither is concerned. My mother always said I did a good line in unreadable and impassive. I arrange my features into something to appropriate these attributes. The woman snorts.

139wandering_star
Modificato: Apr 27, 10:13am

39. River Kings: A New History of Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads by Cat Jarman

This history focuses on Viking travels south and east from Scandinavia, up rivers rather than across seas. It’s a story you don’t often find in histories of the Vikings, which focus more on the raids on the British Isles and the cross-Atlantic journeys. In fact, before this, the most I have read about the ‘eastern Vikings’ was in the (fictional, rollicking) The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson. I was quite fascinated by this aspect of Viking history, so it was great to be able to dive into it with this book.

We start in Derbyshire, England, at a grave in which was found a carnelian bead which must have been dug out of the ground in what is now India. Each chapter moves east, as far as Constantinople (called by the Vikings Miklagard - there’s graffiti of a Viking ship in the Hagia Sophia - and between the tenth and fourteenth centuries Scandinavians formed the majority of the emperor’s bodyguard) and even the Caucasus (visited by one ‘Ingvar the Far-Travelled’) and Baghdad.

The book also has a focus on the physical remains and what they can tell us. It turns out that there are more Viking artefacts east/south of Scandinavia than to the west. And what they tell us is pretty amazing. Firstly, trade and cultural contacts between west and east. Never mind coins from Samarkand turning up in York - a bronze Buddha statue was found as part of a Viking settlement near Stockholm.



It wasn’t just contact, but a fascination with the foreign - there is evidence of Viking artefacts with pseudo-Islamic designs, perhaps to hint at an association with the famously high-quality eastern silver. Sometimes the Vikings were objects of fascination too - in a letter describing the Viking attack on Lindisfarne in 793, the author berates his own countrymen for their desire to look like the Vikings. “Look at your trimming of beard and hair, in which you have wished to resemble the pagans. Are you not menaced by terror of them whose fashion you wished to follow?”

Human remains can tell a story too. Comparing isotopes in the bones can tell us whether people grew up in the same place they were buried. A skeleton in Oxford is a second-degree relative (uncle, nephew, half-brother etc) of a skeleton in Denmark. (And both had had smallpox).

Fascinatingly this book also includes some descriptions of Viking settlements and cultures by people from the Middle East - an Arab merchant who visited Hedeby (in what’s now Northern Germany) in 950 (he describes it as “a large town at the very far end of the world ocean”, and its inhabitants as wearing “artificial make-up for the eyes: when they use it beauty never fades; on the contrary, it increases in men and women as well”.) Another Arab merchant describes a marketplace in Mainz in 965: “It is extraordinary that one should be able to find, in such far western regions, aromatics and spices that only grow in the far east, like pepper, ginger, cloves, nard, costus and galingale.” The only eyewitness description of a Viking funeral comes from another traveller, who left Baghdad in 921 on a mission to bring Islam to the Volga region. He describes the Rus (eastern Vikings) as the most perfect physical specimens he had ever seen – tall and ruddy – with green tattoos of trees and figures covering their bodies from their necks to their fingertips.

I’m always fascinated by early contacts between cultures, so I loved all this. At times I felt that a thematic focus would have been clearer, but in the end I can see why the author chose a geographical way of structuring the book.

Silk fragments have even been found in England and Ireland: almost a hundred pieces at Viking Age sites in places like Dublin, Waterford, York and Lincoln. The latter of these was large, twenty centimetres wide and sixty centimetres long, and almost certainly would have been used as a headscarf, with a weave that matches Byzantine silks very closely. Even more remarkably, it is so similar to a piece found in Coppergate, York, that it’s likely the two came from the same roll of cloth. This could be taken to suggest that the fabric was acquired through trade rather than being the personal possession of someone who had travelled, but we do have indications that some items were kept for the travellers themselves, too: in the Laxdæla saga, the flamboyant character Bolli Bollason (dubbed Bolli the Magnificent) returns home to Iceland from a stint in the Varangian Guard – the personal bodyguard to the Byzantine emperors – wearing nothing but the finest clothes made of scarlet and fur, clothes given to him by the emperor, and weapons and armoury decorated with gold.

140wandering_star
Apr 27, 10:30am

40. The Little Hotel by Christina Stead

A fascinating short novel, set in a hotel in Switzerland soon after the end of WWII. It's the cheapest decent hotel in the lakeside town, so it attracts a mixed crowd of guests - the ones who want to stretch their money that little bit further, or hide themselves and their secrets away from high society. It starts off funny - this crowd of eccentrics, each with A Past, falling out with each other and making trouble for the hotel staff - but gradually you realise that they are here because they have no home they can go to, or worse, that going home would represent the closing off of all hope that they could ever have a new start, that their lives could change for the better.

I read this for one of apublicspace.org's 'virtual book clubs' - the way it works is that there's a reading schedule for each day, and a hashtag (#APStogether) to find each other's thoughts on Twitter. I'm currently reading Persuasion the same way. It's really nice to see what others spark on - and I've seen more in the books this way, for example I never really notice shifts in point of view, so it's good to have others pointing out the effect it has.

‘Si, si, Signora, leave it to me, ho capito,’ said Luisa very fast, but she would think it over before she really understood. To me she would say pettishly: ‘Why can’t she learn a few words?’ I explained to Luisa: ‘She says that she thinks it vulgar in Americans to go abroad and come back home and say words with a foreign accent.’ Luisa cried, ‘Indeed, indeed! Then let me assure the lady that she is in no danger of being vulgar. Never. She is very elegant. The height of elegance.’

141Nickelini
Apr 27, 12:07pm

I'm super interested in those last two. Thanks for the introduction. I definitely need more books (I'm lying)

142wandering_star
Apr 27, 7:45pm

>141 Nickelini: Oh, reason not the need, Joyce! :-)

143dchaikin
Apr 28, 6:04am

>139 wandering_star: cool that there is a book on this aspect of the Vikings. Wondering if the name Russian come from the Viking Rus. Enjoyed both reviews.

144rocketjk
Apr 28, 11:11am

>143 dchaikin: "Wondering if the name Russian come from the Viking Rus."

According to historian Valerie Hansen, it does, as described in her recent book The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World - and Globalization Began. The past few posts here, in fact, have put me in mind of this book precisely for that reason. I posted a rather longish review on the book's work site and on my own CR thread.

145LolaWalser
Apr 30, 3:12pm

>139 wandering_star:

Heh. Picturing stolid Vikings murmuring "been there, done that" off-side every time some would-be discoverer plants a flag somewhere.

146lisapeet
Maggio 1, 9:13am

>139 wandering_star: Hmm, interesting. I feel like I should know more about the Vikings than I do, so maybe that book's a good place to turn.

147wandering_star
Maggio 4, 10:05pm

148wandering_star
Maggio 4, 10:13pm

41. Lightseekers by Femi Kayode

An interesting crime novel. Our sleuth, Philip Taiwo, has recently returned to Nigeria after many years living in the US. As a favour to a friend of his father’s, he goes to a small town in the boondocks to investigate a crime. The question is not who committed it - there is video footage of three young men being beaten to death by an angry mob - the question is why? The official story is that the boys, all university students, were stealing from the locals, but that doesn’t seem to make sense.

The detection story is rather long, but that’s because the story is also about Philip and his attempts to understand the society around him, moving from a naivety born from his long years out of the country, to a sadder but wiser understanding.

‘How will we do that?’
‘There must be some kind of record of sale, or reports of it being stolen …’
My voice trails off as Chika shakes his head in the way that has become all too familiar.
‘Oga, I’ve told you to forget all those American protocols you’re used to. Where does one start to trace a firearm around here? Could easily have been smuggled across the border, or stolen from the police. The police themselves might well have recovered it from armed robbers and sold it on the black market. That’s a wild goose chase at best.’


The story does, unfortunately, jump the shark - a first novel problem I think, in that the author wants to squeeze every single idea into the narrative. But I still enjoyed it as a perspective on a world we rarely get to read about.

149wandering_star
Modificato: Maggio 4, 11:15pm

42. The Story of the Stone, Vol. One: The Golden Days by Cao Xueqin translated by David Hawkes

The Story of the Stone, also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber or A Dream of Red Mansions, is one of the four great classics of Chinese literature. (It has even more names in Chinese by the way). I have actually read the whole thing before, the summer before I went to university. (I studied Chinese, and this was one of the suggestions on the pre-reading list). I decided that this would be my 'big read' for this year, in the same way that I read War and Peace in 2020. Like War and Peace, it's turned out to be a delight to read - although I did skim the framing story, which goes on for AGES.

There's a saying that the way someone goes bankrupt is 'gradually, then suddenly'. In Volume One the Jia family are at the 'gradual' stage - living lavishly, spending more than they bring in, but with enough wealth that they don't notice. When their story properly starts, in Chapter Six, they are introduced brilliantly through the eyes of an elderly lady who has decided to try and leverage her extremely distant connection to the family to tap them up for a job for her son, or some money. We see her persuading her son that the journey is worth doing - but he doesn't want to waste his time, so sends her off instead (symbolic of the general uselessness of the men in the family in this story). She carefully plans her approach, first asking to see the lowest-ranking family member with whom she has a connection, and then using this to inveigle a meeting with a more senior member. As she's shown into her Ladyship's room, she initially mistakes one of the maids for the person she's come to see - such refined manners and beautiful clothing. The maid, like everyone else that Grannie Liu has come into contact with, quickly sizes her up and decides where to place her in the room. Grannie Liu looks around and sees all kinds of wonders - including something which she doesn't recognise, but the reader knows is a clock. The family casually give her 20 taels of silver - enough for the Lius to live on for a year.

For me it's this story of the family which is the core of the book. It's what I remember most clearly from my long-ago reading - I was so absorbed in the book that towards the end I caught myself reducing what I used in order to save money for the family! The book also details the luxurious and educated lifestyles of the Chinese literati, with lush detail of everything from clothes to decorations. But it's not dazzled by this surface glory. There is a long passage in the book where one of the daughters of the family, who has been chosen for an Imperial concubine, is allowed to return home for a visit. We see all the lavish preparations and the detailed protocol around the visit - but also the scene where the formal part of the visit is over and she is allowed to be with her family in private, and we see how sad she is in the life that has been allocated to her. Later there is a scene where Baoyu (the beloved son and heir of the family and the main male character in the book) says to one of his servant girls that her sister ought to join her, and she replies bitterly that her life is not one to be envied.

There's a lot more in this book - in particular, religious/spiritual symbolism explained by the framing story, and the central relationships between Baoyu and two distant female cousins who also live within the household, the practical, pragmatic Baochai and dreamy wistful Daiyu. The reader is 'supposed' to want Baoyu to end up with Daiyu, but I can't go with that. I remember from my previous reading that Daiyu was incredibly drippy (there's a famous scene later in the novel where she buries autumn leaves, weeping at their passing) but I had not remembered that she's so passive-aggressive, always taking offence that her feelings haven't been considered and flouncing off saying 'well I'm just a poor relation and no-one wants me here'. She sets my teeth on edge!

Lanterns of crystal and glass were fixed to the balustrades which lined the banks, their silvery radiance giving the white marble, in the semi-darkness, the appearance of gleaming drifts of snow. Because of the season, the willows and apricot trees above them were bare and leafless; but in place of leaves they were festooned with hundreds of tiny lanterns, and flowers of gauze, rice-paper and bast had been fastened to the tips of their branches. Other lanterns made of shells and feathers, in the form of lotuses, water-lilies, ducks and egrets floated on the surface of the water below.

150wandering_star
Maggio 5, 9:08am

43. Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

In the first chapter of this book, a WWII bomb hits a department store in South London. The description of this is astounding in its vividness and detail.

In the air, even where there is no abrading grit, no flying rain of bricks, a sudden invisible jolt of intense pressure travels outward in a ring. A tram just coming round the far bend from Lewisham rocks on its rails and halts, still upright; but through it from end to end passes the ripple that turns the clear air momentarily as hard as glass. At the very limits of the blast, small strange alterations take place, almost whimsical. Kitchen chairs shake their way a foot across the floor. A cupboard door falls open, and hoarded pre-war confetti trickles out. A one-ounce weight from the butcher’s right next door to Woolworths somehow flies right over Lambert Street, and the street beyond, to fall neatly through the open back upstairs window of a house in the next street beyond that, and lodge among the undamaged keys of an Underwood typewriter.

Everyone in the shop is killed, including five children. But then the book imagines what their lives might have been, if they had not been killed that day. Five years on, and every fifteen years after that up to 2009, we dip into each of their lives. Sometimes what we dip into is a significant moment - the first encounter with someone who will greatly affect the course of their life to come - sometimes a mundane one - a family barbecue. For a while I couldn't really understand what the book was doing - I couldn't see a common thread or theme, and the book was so different to Spufford's first novel, a rollicking historical fiction. And then I realised that the ordinary and haphazard nature of their life stories was the whole point. Life is like that. You have good parts and bad, glorious moments and low times. People help you out, or they damage you. And every life is a story worth telling, because every life has a human being at the heart of it. I found this extremely moving.

It turned out that Spufford basically set out his stall with the epigraphs he chose for the book, which were three:
"The last word would belong, not to time, but to joy" (Penelope Fitzgerald)
"They are all gone into the world of light" (Henry Vaughan)
"Everything was available in Sidcup" (Keith Richards)

151wandering_star
Maggio 5, 9:23am

44. The Majesties by Tiffany Tsao

This book is billed as Crazy Rich Asians meets My Sister the Serial Killer, and while I normally don't much like 'this book is A meets B'-type blurbs, in this case it's pretty accurate.

The book starts with our narrator Gwendolyn waking up in hospital. Her sister Estella took advantage of a family wedding to poison the entire (wealthy, Indonesian Chinese) family. Gwendolyn is the only survivor. But the effects of the poison have blurred her memories so she has to gradually work out what on earth drove Estella to do what she did.

I am really pleased that an Indonesian writer is getting published. Ten years ago it was really hard to find any writing from South East Asia, other than Vietnam war novels and books from specialist presses. Greater diversity in publishing is definitely a good thing. Unfortunately, this book just did not work for me. It's not easy to take a story from a rom-com style light tone, into darkness sufficient to explain Estella's deed. You'd need a dawning sense of how terrible the family really is as they try and hang on to their wealth and influence - and I don't think Tsao manages the transition.

At the time, he was cultivating the persona of funny guy, though he would drop this in a few months when he finally realized that humor not only didn’t come easily to him—like a dog with good survival instincts, it refused to come at all.

152avaland
Maggio 5, 10:07am

Gosh, I can't believe I've haven't been to your reading thread yet! Too many distractions here these days; I'm having trouble keeping up. I have always enjoyed reading through your reading; it's always so interesting. That's kind of the cool thing about Club Read, isn't it? -- that so many of its members are drawn to so many different kinds of books. I may not read what others are reading but I love reading what they (including you in that "they") have to say about the books they read.

153wandering_star
Maggio 5, 10:42am

>152 avaland: Definitely! Such a wide range of interests, and such interesting things to say about them.

154dchaikin
Maggio 5, 1:03pm

>144 rocketjk: i remembered the reference in your review, but I couldn’t remember if you had confirmed the link or I had just made the assumption. And I couldn’t remember the title.

>149 wandering_star: this, on Stories of the Stone, is a lovely post. I’m fascinated by the existence of the work and everything you wrote about it.

>151 wandering_star: bummer

Enjoyed these last four reviews I just read.

155LolaWalser
Maggio 5, 1:34pm

>149 wandering_star:

I adore that book! I read the Penguin edition over twenty years ago and then the Gladys Yang translation for the Foreign Publishing Press in a group read here on LT in 2010 with a great thread leader and contributors: https://www.librarything.com/topic/72239

I don't remember disliking Daiyu--I'm afraid she probably struck a chord! It's such a vivid work, bursting with life. I hope I get the chance to read it again.

156Nickelini
Maggio 5, 4:49pm

>151 wandering_star: Sorry about the Tiffany Tsao. I seemed promising

157RidgewayGirl
Maggio 5, 5:01pm

>148 wandering_star: I coincidentally brought Lightseekers home from the library earlier today.

>151 wandering_star: Hmm, I'm going to keep this in mind anyway, mainly because I don't think I've read anything by an Indonesian author.

158wandering_star
Maggio 5, 8:30pm

>155 LolaWalser: Thanks so much for the link to the guided read thread! I will enjoy that.

I've just looked at the first few posts and seen a discussion about bound feet. In fact Xifeng (who is Han Chinese - she married into the family) is the only major character with bound feet. The Jias are a Manchu family and although the Manchus took on a lot of Chinese cultural practices when they became rulers of China, they never adopted footbinding. This is never specifically mentioned in the text but there are references eg to Xifeng being supported by maidservants.

159SandDune
Maggio 11, 2:36pm

>150 wandering_star: I’d seen Light Perpetual reviewed recently and it sounds just my sort of thing.

160LolaWalser
Maggio 11, 10:51pm

>158 wandering_star:

I don't remember those details, Xifeng was such a force of nature I guess it never registered. One could re-read the novel endlessly!

161wandering_star
Modificato: Maggio 12, 10:17am

45. Humble Pi: A Comedy of Maths Errors by Matt Parker

Pop-science book about maths, and in particular the way that humans get maths wrong - including not really understanding big numbers and probabilities; miscalculating based on misunderstandings (such as Columbus reading distances in Arab miles and calculating his trip in Italian miles, which were around 3/4 the length); and computer errors, my favourite one of which is the computer game Civilisation which accidentally made Gandhi a super-aggressive character:

The game designers had deliberately given Gandhi the lowest non-zero aggression rating possible: a score of 1. Classic Gandhi. But later in the game, when all the civilizations were becoming more, well, civilized, every leader had their aggression rating dropped by two. For Gandhi, starting from 1, this calculation played out as 1 − 2 = 255, suddenly setting him to maximum aggression. Even though this error has since been fixed, later versions of the game have kept Gandhi as the most nuke-happy leader as a tradition.

Mistakes go back a long way - there's a mistake in one of the record-keeping clay tablets in proto-cuneiform, the earliest writing ever discovered.

But sometimes of course mistakes can be very serious, and Parker talks a bit about this too, including advocating for a system which recognises that mistakes are inevitable some of the time and build a system robust enough to "filter mistakes out before they become disasters" rather than trying to be foolproof.

The thing which really broke my mind, although not a mistake per se, is the fact that the only way to produce true randomness is to use something in the physical world - tossing a coin, or in the case of one encryption company, pointing a camera "at a hundred lava lamps in their lobby. It takes a photo once a millisecond and converts the random noise in the image into a stream of random 1s and 0s."

Not everything in the book was new to me, but there was enough that was interesting. It is quite funny too, which makes it easy to read but possibly less likely to stick in your (my) mind afterwards.

162wandering_star
Modificato: Maggio 12, 10:30am

46. The True Queen by Zen Cho

Sequel to Sorceror to the Crown, although perhaps more accurate to say that it's a separate story set in the same universe, a Regency England within a magical world. The main character this time is a young Malaysian woman, who grew up with no memories of her early life - she was found on a beach after a storm, along with her sister, by a powerful witch who took them both in. For reasons of plot, she and her sister are sent to England, but on their way there through Fairyland (the quickest route) her sister disappears, so Muna is desperate to go back and find her.

This was a perfectly fine read, but nowhere up to the standard of Sorceror to the Crown, which I loved - the story is weaker and with a twist that I could see coming a mile off.

The steward who finally appeared seemed far from pleased to have been summoned forth. It looked like a tree that had contracted the notion that it would be amusing to walk the world as a mortal man but had got caught halfway through its transformation, so that it was neither wholly vegetable nor quite human. Nonetheless its countenance was perfectly expressive. “I should advise you to go away and come again when Her Majesty is in better spirits,” it said. “I should think her mood will have improved in around two hundred years or so.”

163wandering_star
Maggio 12, 10:58am

47. Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edogawa Rampo

Edogawa Rampo was the first modern Japanese mystery writer, starting from the 1920s, and heavily influenced by early Western mystery writers such as Poe, Conan Doyle, Chesterton and so on. His pen-name is a pun - the characters mean 'rambling chaotically along the Edo River', but the sound is close to Edgar Allen Poe.

Coincidentally, after I read this I heard a short BBC podcast about Edogawa Rampo, which made the case that his writing was also inspired by the process of modernisation which Japan had recently gone through, with many characters representing the uncertainty of a new type of city living where previously fixed social categories weren't relevant any more, and electric lights were creating deeper darknesses.

Last year I read an anthology of Victorian mysteries/gothic stories and was struck by how tame most of them were by modern standards. I can't say that about this book! Many of the stories contained elements which were pretty macabre and unsettling even by modern standards (at least by mine, but I am a bit of a wimp), regularly wrong-footing the reader.

From the moment I cut off my twin's life, I began to fear all mirrors. In fact, not only mirrors, but everything that reflected. I removed every mirror and all the glassware in my house. But what was the use? All the shops on the streets had show windows, and behind them, more mirrors glittered. The more I tried not to look at them, the more my eyes were attracted to them. And, wherever I gazed, his face - his mad, leering face - stared back at me, full of vengeance; it was, of course, my own face.

164SandDune
Maggio 12, 12:40pm

>161 wandering_star: I was at a conference two or three years ago and they had Matt Parker as the after dinner comedian. (It was the Charity Accountants Conference, so quite appropriate). He was pretty funny and I’ve been meaning to read his book ever since.

165dchaikin
Maggio 12, 12:50pm

Enjoyed these latest three. Kind of fascinated by Edogawa Rampo, who I’ve never heard of.

166sallypursell
Maggio 13, 11:28pm

>149 wandering_star: on This bunch of items, from this one to >163 wandering_star: was terrific! I'm so glad I came to catch up just now.

168lisapeet
Maggio 16, 9:26am

>167 wandering_star: Wow, that sounds... dark. I don't mind dark, though maybe not right now. But it does sound fascinating, too. Thanks!

169stretch
Maggio 16, 8:00pm

>163 wandering_star: I only learned of Edogawa Rampo's existence this year and he sounds absolutely fascinating and a Japanese Poe sounds great, but that podcast adds a lot to consider beyond his inspiration whenever I get to him.

170wandering_star
Maggio 19, 8:11pm

>165 dchaikin:, >169 stretch: Yes! Edogawa Rampo is a pretty fascinating character. I think people have written books in which Josephine Tey and Patricia Highsmith solve crimes (separately!) - I feel like there could be a good series of books where Edogawa Rampo is a rather macabre detective.

171wandering_star
Modificato: Maggio 19, 8:32pm

48. In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne (unabridged audiobook)

This book tells the story of two days on a South London housing estate, as tensions rise in the summer heat after the Islamist-inspired murder of a soldier on a nearby street. What happens is told through the eyes of six narrators, four young men (Selvon, Ardan, and brothers Yusuf and Irfan) and two older characters, Nelson and Caroline, who counterpoint the modern story, thinking about tensions and conflicts from different places and times (Nelson, from the Windrush generation, remembers Teddy boys and Enoch Powell - Caroline is from an IRA family who made her move to London for her own safety after they started a feud with soldiers from a nearby base).

The male characters' chapters are read by Ben Bailey Smith, aka rapper Doc Brown, who is brilliant at capturing the swing and rhythm of the prose. And that's the best thing about this book, along with the well-observed little details of everyday life for the young men, and the way that the different tribes on the estate form and mix. All of that I thought was great.

What worked less well for me was the overall story - I guess you need some 'drama' in the book but I would have been happy to follow these guys across the course of a normal week (or year) and I think a good writer can do a lot with apparently trivial ups and downs. Also, the character of Caroline seems to be there because otherwise the story wouldn't pass the Bechdel test. Full marks to Gunaratne for recognising that his narrative was short on a female perspective, but Caroline just is not convincing as a character, particularly compared to how real the other narrators feel.

Despite these critiques, I do think the book is worth reading and would particularly recommend listening to the audiobook.

Marc appears out the office chatting in French patois to his boy Lou. Marc is French, ennet. Him and his brother René been owning this gym since '99. They the kind of street French that mix in with our crowd easily. Not the Arabic sort but the same grimed-up Paris clan that come from the similar climate. Plus he knows his music, ennet, so that gives him affordances. Makes me think that if breddas like him are in Paris then Paris must be just like London except for bare model gash and shit food.

172lisapeet
Maggio 20, 7:51pm

>171 wandering_star: I’ve had that one in my list for a long time. I’d still like to get to it, but I’d read it in text format, not an audiobook. Still looks like it would sound good in my head, though.

173LolaWalser
Maggio 20, 9:10pm

Eeeehhh, predictably, lost me at "gash". I know it's a perspective, I know it's a vastly predominant male perspective, even, but at this life stage I'm not giving the d%#$@%s any of my remaining time.

174wandering_star
Maggio 21, 3:49am

>173 LolaWalser: Yes... there's a reason I chose that paragraph as my representative quote! (not that language like that occurs elsewhere, more about the way the narrators think/talk about women)

175LolaWalser
Maggio 21, 3:38pm

>174 wandering_star:

Oh, absolutely, I got that--I'm the last person to object to crude language :) But having to put up with that worldview--well, view of women--that's what I find myself less and less able and willing to do.

176wandering_star
Maggio 23, 9:22pm

49. The Searcher by Tana French

Cal is a retired Chicago cop. Wanting to get as far away as his previous life as possible, he ends up with a tumbledown house in the rural west of Ireland. His plan is to relax, work on the house, get to know the villagers over a few drinks. But a young neighbour, whose brother disappeared one day, gets to hear of his detective past and begs him to find out what happened.

This was a terrific read which would hit the spot whether you're looking for a good thriller or an atmospheric novel (or both, of course). French has an incredible control of pace: where far too many crime novels these days create a sense of tension by starting off with a scene of extreme violence, French does it by starting off with Cal suspecting that someone is poking around his house and spying on him. When it turns out that the spy is young Trey, the story settles down into slowly showing us the relationship developing between Trey and Cal, and introducing us to the wider village community, all of which is beautifully done - but that early uncertainty of Cal in this landscape is always there in the background.

The sense of place is fabulous as well. I heard an interview with French after finishing this and she said that she was inspired by classic Westerns - the theme of the outsider lawman coming to town, but also the intertwined history and specific morality of a tiny tight-knit community. That really comes through.

As for the outcome of the story, there was a point where I suddenly realised that, according to the structures of detective fiction, the perpetrator had to be person X - I was right, but even so the ending was surprising and revealed new aspects of the story.

There’s a burst of laughter. Cal can’t get the flavour of it. There’s mockery in it, but around here mockery is like rain: most of the time it’s either present or incipient, and there are at least a dozen variants, ranging from nurturing to savage, and so subtly distinguished that it would take years to get the hang of them all.

177wandering_star
Maggio 23, 9:40pm

50. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara, who narrates this short novel, is an AF - a robot 'artificial friend', purchased as a companion to a young girl called Jessie, who lives in a house with her mother and has lessons over a tablet (although she has one friend who lives nearby, and is occasionally put into formal social situations with a group of other young people).

Klara has a lot of time to observe the people around her, and think about what they do and say. She is often very perceptive about what she notices, although sometimes she gets things wrong; but whether she understands or doesn't, we learn a lot about human reactions.

An interesting read. Well-written, of course. I also liked the fact that not everything is explained - this is the way that Klara sees the world around her and some stuff is not known to her, or so much part of her world that she doesn't need to explain it. It did feel very short. It's hard not to compare this to Never Let Me Go, whose narrator is similarly slightly outside and slightly not comprehending "normal" human society - which was a shame, as I thought this was less layered than the previous book. But still worth reading.

Again, the possibility came into my mind that my limitations, in comparison to a B3’s, had somehow made themselves obvious that day, causing both Josie and the Mother to regret the choice they’d made. If this were so, I knew my best course was to work harder than ever to be a good AF to Josie until the shadows receded. At the same time, what was becoming clear to me was the extent to which humans, in their wish to escape loneliness, made maneuvers that were very complex and hard to fathom, and I saw it was possible that the consequences of Morgan’s Falls had at no stage been within my control.

178wandering_star
Modificato: Maggio 26, 6:59pm

51. The Hunger by Alma Katsu

A horror-inflected retelling of the Donner Party story (an attempted wagon train migration to the West Coast which had to overwinter in the mountains, leading to cannibalism).

This was a perfectly fine read but it couldn't seem to decide whether it was more about supernatural horror elements or human shortcomings. This meant that there were long periods of time where the reader forgot about the supernatural threat, but at the same time the human failures were undermined because they weren't the ultimate cause of what happened. It would have been more horrible just to focus on the way that the divisions between the group led to the bad decisions and ultimate terrible fate. Particularly since Katsu seems to have put a lot of effort in to building a narrative based on all the known facts, and creating characters who seem like real rounded people.

He made her think of a storm in summer, and though others might say it was a fool-headed thing to do, she wanted to run out into that storm, to feel its raindrops that, she somehow sensed, would fall gently against her skin.

179wandering_star
Modificato: Maggio 27, 9:40am

52. The Land Where Lemons Grow by Helena Attlee

(bought because recommended in The Meaning of Rice by Michael Booth)

Maybe a book about citrus fruit in Italy seems like a bit of a niche subject. But Helena Attlee makes it completely delightful and fascinating.

She writes well and vividly, in describing the fruits' appearance and taste (I saw a pile of oranges. Some were split in half, their flesh the colour of blood, of garnets or old crushed velvet, and I recognized the fruit that Italian writer Carlo Emilio Gadda described as arance imbibite di tramonti, ‘oranges soaked in sunsets’.)

She seems to have spent a lot of time in Italy (I think her day job is to organise guided holidays to Italian gardens) and so we also learn about how each citrus fruit fits into the local culture and environment. (The suckers, new shoots that come straight from the rootstock, also have to be removed during pruning. In Sicily suckers are called bacchettoni, and I’m told this is a word you might also use to describe your sister’s boyfriend if he were tall and handsome but utterly useless in every other way.)

And she has dug into history to find some interesting stories. One chapter deals with lemons in Sicily, which started to be grown there by the Moors, who understood irrigation (and even now the language of irrigation in Sicily is clearly drawn from the Arabic terms); became big business when supplying the British Navy (before they started to get the famous limes from the Caribbean); and were later even linked to the early years of the Mafia (which, according to this book at least, only got into the heroin trade after the bottom fell out of the lucrative citrus market).

Depending on your personality, this is either the perfect or the worst possible book to read at a time when you can't travel.

180wandering_star
Modificato: Maggio 26, 7:05pm

53. The Saltmarsh Murders by Gladys Mitchell

Gladys Mitchell occasionally pops up on lists of unjustly neglected authors from the Golden Age of detective fiction. On this basis of this book (slightly oddly, a Golden Age detective novel narrated by a character straight out of PG Wodehouse), one reason for the neglect might be that as her detective, Mrs Bradley, is an 'amateur psychologist', the story can take you through some quite out-of-date social attitudes.

(although they're not always out-of-date:
Her theory, startlingly borne out by personal observation, was that married happiness was extremely rare in any case, and was almost impossible of achievement when one of the protagonists was forty-seven and had a weak digestion, and the other was twenty and played the ukulele very indifferently.)

181Nickelini
Maggio 27, 1:06am

>179 wandering_star: The Land Where Lemons Grow sounds like my sort of book. Reading your comments reminded me of finding oranges on a mountain road in northern Tuscany, and walking under masses of lemons on the Amalfi Coast.

Sold!

182wandering_star
Maggio 27, 6:33am

>181 Nickelini: I was actually thinking about you as I wrote the review, Joyce!

183SassyLassy
Modificato: Maggio 27, 8:29am

>179 wandering_star: Sounds like just the kind of book I need!

ETA Just ordered

184karspeak
Maggio 27, 11:02am

>179 wandering_star: I have a Meyer lemon tree and a Persian lime tree in my backyard, and I have been experimenting with various lemon recipes, the majority of which originate from Italy. So I will definitely read this!

185Nickelini
Maggio 27, 6:47pm

>182 wandering_star: I was actually thinking about you as I wrote the review, Joyce!

Aw, now I'm blushing.

>183 SassyLassy:, >184 karspeak:

I ordered the book, too.

Who would have thought a little book about citrus would be so intriguing!

186wandering_star
Maggio 28, 10:51pm

54. Blockchain Chicken Farm: and other stories of tech in China's countryside by Xiaowei Wang

I thought (you know, from the subtitle) that this would be a book about tech in the Chinese countryside. In fact it is a book in which the author visits some Chinese villages and uses what they see there as a jumping off point for some thoughts about tech. Not particularly original thoughts either - there were a couple of points where the book made me see something from a new perspective (eg, if failure is essential to innovation, who gets the privilege of failing?) - but too much of it was what one friend of mine calls 'politics 101'. The book also sometimes segues without explanation into short passages set in the future, which I think are intended to be thought experiments, but don't seem to be grounded in reality about what tech might achieve, or even how societies might react to an imagined development.

Reading this book was SO FRUSTRATING. It's a really really good idea for a subject, and Wang gets to go to some places which could have been really interesting, but then does very little with that experience. For example, in one chapter they meet a young man who’s built up a business doing precision pesticide spraying by drone - I would have liked to know more about his life and business in concrete terms, instead the author mused first on the difference between his life and a gig economy worker in the US, and then on how long it would take before the market for agricultural drone operators was saturated.

Equally, I agree with the author that China shouldn’t be demonised, but the whataboutism became a bit annoying - and superficial, I think. For example in the chapter about facial recognition software, the author suggests that Chinese tech bros don’t worry about what uses their coding is put to, just as US tech bros don’t (this seems to be based on the author’s own time working in Silicon Valley, rather than on any actual conversations with the Chinese tech bros they meet). So - I think that is one useful element of an explanation, but it would be interesting to think about what else might be a factor. Personally I think that what happens in the world of Chinese tech will be with the rest of us before long - for example, doxxing started out in China (where it was known as "human flesh search engine" before it became common in the West).

Coincidentally while reading this I heard a podcast with an American academic who studies criminal procedure in China, who pointed out that the US legal system is based around limiting government power, so the US has been slow to think about limiting what corporations can do with data, whereas in China it’s the other way around - partly because of the party, of course, but also partly because of levels of trust in government. This is interesting and salient and also helps to think about eg the difference between US and European approaches on the subject. Unfortunately the book didn't deliver this kind of insight, either into tech and our lives, or even into how tech has impacted on rural China.

We operate under game theory conditions, under market forces, under the belief that we will lie to each other because someone else has more, and we have more to gain. And so we create solutions that further exacerbate this inequality. This is what happens when resources like food are treated as commodities to be bought and sold, to make money from, instead of as a basic human right.

187wandering_star
Modificato: Maggio 28, 10:56pm

55. Ajax Penumbra: 1969 by Robin Sloan

A prequel to Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. Before I started this I was slightly worried that as I read Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore back in 2013, I might miss some of the connections. I needn't have worried - even if you haven't read the other, this is a super-fun, sweet novella that would appeal to any book lover who likes stories with a fantastical touch.

“What didn’t I read? I read everything. We had the best library in the whole navy. The officer who oversaw it—I only learned this later—he’s part of the same … organization as Mo. He taught me to read Greek.” “Wait. You are saying that your aircraft carrier was related to this store somehow?” “Absolutely. Midshipman Taylor’s Fourth-Deck Book Depository. There’s a whole network of these places … it’s a tradition, Ajax. It goes back a long way.” “So, that makes two floating bookstores, then.”

188karspeak
Maggio 28, 11:02pm

>187 wandering_star: I hadn’t heard of this prequel before, thanks!

189wandering_star
Modificato: Maggio 28, 11:07pm

56. Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri

A story narrated by the ghost of a homeless man, as he wanders around Tokyo, telling us what he sees around him, and remembering his own life. The book juxtaposes banal overheard conversations, stories of disasters and upheaval from Japan's past, and the narrator's own tough life as a migrant worker, along with the sort of statements whch initially seem profound until you think about them: "Light does not illuminate. It only looks for things to illuminate." "Secrets are not necessarily hidden things. Events that do not bear hiding become secrets when one chooses not to speak of them."

To me the whole book ended up feeling pretty fake-profound. I was pretty disappointed by this as I'd been really looking forward to reading it.

190wandering_star
Maggio 28, 11:18pm

57. The Black God's Drums by P. Djèlí Clark

A very enjoyable urban fantasy novella set in a steampunk New Orleans which is a neutral zone in the long-running Civil War between the Confederates and the Union.

And like New Orleans, Shá Rouj is neutral territory. Where else can you find Frenchie corsairs making all nice with British Jack Tars? There’s Prussians, New Mexicans, Gran Columbians—even some Kalifornians, in their peculiar Russian dress.

The drums of the title are a mystical weapon, powerful enough on first use to drive away Napoleon's navy when they tried to take Haiti - but so powerful and damaging that the Haitian army has never used them again. Perhaps they are about to fall into the hands of someone who will be less cautious...

I was sorry to find out that this is a standalone story - would definitely read more books set in this world.

191lilisin
Maggio 28, 11:21pm

>189 wandering_star:

I didn't enjoy this book at all while reading it and it's only grown on me after finishing it. But not grown on me in the sense that I like the book more, but more on appreciating the message it was trying to portray. I think the topic was one that needed a book written about but I wish it hadn't been this particular book. I just felt like it included too many things that detracted from the main message.

I do think the translation is excellent though (I would not have wanted to translate this one!) and deserved the award it got. But I definitely understand why no Japanese person had heard of this book until it had won the international award which made it gain awareness in it's mother country.

192wandering_star
Maggio 28, 11:29pm

58. Persuasion by Jane Austen

I thought I'd read Persuasion before, but as I read it this time I realised I'd only seen the TV adaptation! (with Ciaran Hinds as Capt Wentworth and Amanda Root as Anne Elliott). What a great read. I do think my favourite thing about it was how all the shallow and self-centred characters revealed their faults every time they opened their mouths - like a series of mini-unreliable narrators. As well as a supremely satisfying story arc.

While well, and happy, and properly attended to, she had great good humour and excellent spirits; but any indisposition sunk her completely. She had no resources for solitude; and inheriting a considerable share of the Elliot self-importance, was very prone to add to every other distress that of fancying herself neglected and ill-used.

193wandering_star
Maggio 28, 11:31pm

>191 lilisin: That's really interesting. I can see that the book was about things (and people) that it is too easy not to think about - and perhaps that's why it was so praised. I completely agree with how you put it - needing a book on the subject, but not this book!

194LolaWalser
Maggio 29, 2:32pm

Speaking of not demonising China, I can't help thinking Biden's bone to the right won't help any with it. That's mild, considering what is being done to our colleagues. (OK, yes, I'm hopping mad.)

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01383-3

>192 wandering_star:

I always remember Persuasion as the book with proof that women in Austen's age--well, herself for sure--KNEW that the men were slagging them off because they ruled the means of representation of women. That it was a set-up and a con game. I used to know that passage by heart... something about it's men who have written women as inconstant, unfaithful etc.

195wandering_star
Maggio 29, 7:30pm

>194 LolaWalser:

“I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman's inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman's fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men."

"Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”


196SassyLassy
Maggio 30, 9:42am

>194 LolaWalser: Thanks for that link. I was so disappointed when Biden came out with this retrograde notion.

197LolaWalser
Maggio 30, 2:04pm

>195 wandering_star:

Thank you, that's it! Ha--funny how in my mind's eye it was a whole paragraph or so... :)

>196 SassyLassy:

Really infuriating. There was always so much racism and distrust toward Chinese scientists already, this is like a live ammunition salvo.

198wandering_star
Giu 1, 8:30am

59. The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans (audiobook)

"The Office of Historical Corrections" is the name of the novella which takes up about half of this book, but it nicely encapsulates the themes of the whole collection. All the stories are about our history and the difficulty of escaping from it - all but one, in fact, are about how America’s past affects identities and relationships, and the way people see or don’t see each other. There’s also something of a theme around making amends, or failing to make amends, for personal behaviour or societal decisions.

In an interview with the NYT, Evans said that she loves short stories because "you get to see a writer thinking about the same question in different ways but arriving at different answers". That's a great way to think about this collection. Some are very explicitly about race - "Boys Go to Jupiter" (which Roxane Gay says is one of the finest short stories she's read) deals with the consequences after a college student thoughtlessly borrows a Confederate flag bikini, and a photo of her in it is posted on social media. Others approach the issue in a different way. "Alcatraz", one of my favourite stories, is about a family reunion of sorts, between two cousins who last encountered each other when they were both children, when the white girl wasn't allowed to play with the mixed-race one. When the story takes place, they are both grown with families of their own. The most devastating element of the story, for me, was when the narrator - the grown daughter of the mixed-race cousin - realises that where she and her mother knew every detail of the other family's life, the white cousin's family didn't even knew she existed.

An excellent, multifaceted collection. The one thing I don't understand is the order that the stories have been placed in. The first story, "Happily Ever After", is to me the weakest by quite a long way, and the second story, "Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain", is also relatively less strong. I might have given up after reading these two. I'm glad I didn't, but I don't understand why the editor would have chosen this order. I actually went back and re-listened to "Happily Ever After" once I'd finished the whole collection, and while I liked it a little better this time - and could see how it fitted with Evans' themes - I still thought it was the weakest in the collection.

When Lyssa was seven, her mother took her to see the movie where the mermaid wants legs and when it ended Lyssa shook her head and squinted at the prince and said, Why would she leave her family for that? which for years contributed to the prevailing belief that she was sentimental or softhearted, when in fact she just knew a bad trade when she saw one. The whole ocean for one man.

199lisapeet
Giu 1, 10:17pm

>198 wandering_star: I loved this collection, and it's interesting to think about the story order... I felt like it was more of a slow immersion, like settling down into a bath. But I liked the second one a lot, so maybe not as gradual a buildup for me. Anyway, I think it's such a strong collection, and will be first in line for whatever she does next.

200wandering_star
Giu 4, 7:11pm

>199 lisapeet: Maybe I should re-read the second one as well - I think when I got to it the first time I was feeling underwhelmed so that might have gone into my reaction!

201wandering_star
Modificato: Giu 4, 7:37pm

60. Exhalation by Ted Chiang

There is so much writing around about the relationship between humans and tech, and so little of it is original or interesting. Ted Chiang's short stories are a shining exception. In "The Lifecycle of Software Objects", he writes about the relationships that humans develop with AIs, not from the dystopian perspective that you so often get, but starting from the insight (as he describes in the afterword) that the thing which makes a relationship is "the willingness to expend effort maintaining it". In "The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling", he compares a new technology which records our memories to the coming of writing to a non-literate culture, which highlights both the seismic changes which come from new technologies, and the way that once we have those new technologies we don't think about what may have been lost.

Both of these stories have previously appeared online, and I'd read them both before (Chiang produces his stories quite slowly so I'm always on the lookout for a new one) but it was a pleasure to discover them again here.

The other standout memorable story in this collection is "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom" (available here) which looks at how human nature would respond to the ability to see how your life turns out in alternate multiverses.

“If they don’t find a version of me that married Andrew, then I can just stop.” “And if they do find a version that married Andrew, how likely is it that you’ll ask them to interview her?” She sighed. “A hundred percent.” “So what does that tell you?” “I guess it tells me that I shouldn’t have them do the search unless I’m sure I want to know the answer.” “And do you want to know the answer?” asked Dana. “No, let’s put it another way. What would you like the answer to be, and what are you afraid it might be?”

I also particularly enjoyed "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" which is an Arabian Nights-style telling of a time travel story. The other five stories in the collection are slighter, but all still enjoyable.

202wandering_star
Modificato: Giu 4, 8:02pm

61. Lost Hills by Lee Goldberg

Crime. Eve Ronin is a homicide detective newly promoted from working robberies after a video goes viral of her arresting a film star for assaulting his girlfriend - a rare good news story for a police department mired in scandal. The first case she gets is a nasty one - an entire family have disappeared from their house, leaving trails of blood everywhere. Eve's pretty smart - but is she smart enough to crack this case?

I would say this was a medium-good crime novel. Quite a fun, well-paced story, and I like Eve; although while the author is savvy enough to poke a bit of fun at the fact he's used the cliché of idealistic rookie paired with grizzled veteran, there are other clichés he falls into without comment (such as the fact that Eve is implausibly brilliant at her job, or that the supposed perpetrator is cocky and self-confident in the face of police questioning). Also, while the (male) author has written a strong female lead, he can't quite stop himself from describing the other female characters from the point of view of their physical attributes, which makes me feel like maybe creating a female lead detective is a bit of a marketing thing. But I'm being picky. This book was good enough that I kept reading to the end, and I ditch a LOT of the crime novels I start, if the writing style bugs me or they aren't engaging enough.

“I might have an easier way to find out who he is.” “Like what?” “I’m not telling you yet because you’re so negative,” Eve said. “Have some faith.” “That’s the first thing you lose doing this job,” he said. “If you want to be any good at it.”

203RidgewayGirl
Giu 4, 9:52pm

Both the Evans and the Chiang are on my list of books to read and I'm glad they are good.

204lisapeet
Giu 4, 10:47pm

>201 wandering_star: I really liked that collection too. It brought me back to my early teen years, reading sf and mulling over some of the Deep Thoughts some of it brought up. Have you read Stories of Your Life and Others? I've heard big praise for that one.

205markon
Modificato: Giu 13, 6:39pm

>176 wandering_star: wonderful review of Tana French's The searcher.

And The land where lemons grow is going on my wish list.

206wandering_star
Modificato: Giu 15, 6:25pm

>204 lisapeet: Yes, I am a big fan! That's why I'd read some of the stories in Exhalation - after I finished that I was craving more Ted Chiang.

207wandering_star
Giu 15, 6:39pm

62. The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

Following on from Edogawa Rampo - I have been reading a few articles about the "honkaku" style of Japanese mysteries - literally 'authentic' or 'orthodox', they are essentially locked-room mysteries, popular in Japan in the 1940s and 50s. In this book at least, the author explicitly refers to the Western models, commenting that he wanted to write about this case because it was a good example of "the locked room murder mystery—a genre that any self-respecting detective novelist will attempt at some point in his or her career." The victim too is a fan of Western detective stories, with a shelf full of them in his study.

I think locked-room mysteries are less popular these days, probably because the solutions are often logistical rather than psychological. So for me the interest in reading this was more its setting, and the social change it represented. Set pre-war, the central event which precipitates the killing is the marriage between a member of an old upper-class family, and the daughter of a man who started as a poor farmer but who made money working as a migrant worker in the US. The detective too worked and paid his way through college in the US before returning to Japan. The setting is also pretty special - an old Japanese inn, in a snowy landscape.

208wandering_star
Giu 15, 7:12pm

That review takes me up to the end of May, a good place to break and start a new thread.

Join me here: https://www.librarything.com/topic/332985

209lilisin
Giu 15, 7:47pm

>62 wandering_star:

I haven't read that one but have loved the Seishi Yokomizo books I have read. My favorite, The Village of Eight Graves (tr. Bryan Karetnyk) -- which I read in French -- is coming out in the end of November and I really think you'll enjoy it. Definitely get your hands on it!

210wandering_star
Giu 18, 10:46am

>209 lilisin: Thank you for the great recommendation! I will!
Questa conversazione è stata continuata da wandering_star in 2021, part 2.