Ten Beautiful Books to Give as Christmas Gifts

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The advent of the eReader did not, after all, signify the end of the book. Sales of physical books are up and, to meet the demand, publishers are increasingly issuing beautifully designed and illustrated editions you’ll love to look at as much as you love to read. And, these beautiful books are perfect gifts. Here are ten that are on my Christmas list…

As Kingfishers Catch Fire
As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Birds & Books
by Alex Preston, illustrated by Neil Gower

For the birdwatcher in your life, As Kingfishers Catch Fire is a gorgeously illustrated meditation on the endless grace and variety of birds. Tom Holland calls it, ‘A magical book: an inimitable fusion of ornithology, literary anthology and autobiography.’

 

 

Making Winter
Making Winter: A Creative Guide for Surviving the Winter Months
by Emma Mitchell

I was fortunate enough to attend one of Emma’s Silver Clay workshops in Cambridgeshire last year and so can confidently testify that she embodies the Danish philosophy of Hygge. Her Instagram feed is a delight to the eyes. Making Winter is a book full of her wonderful images and inspiring ideas for nature-orientated crafts.

 

Alias Grace
Alias Grace
by Margaret Atwood

For the box set binge-watcher, if you were captivated by The Handmaid’s Tale, another of Margaret Atwood’s novels has been adapted for TV and is now available on Netflix. Alias Grace is based on a true story, explored and unravelled with all of Margaret Atwood’s trademark subtlety and ambiguity. But, of course, you should read the book first, and it’s available in this stunning hardback edition.

 

Baking with Kafka
Baking with Kafka
by Tom Gauld

Tom Gauld is a regular cartoonist for The New Yorker, The New York Times, New Scientist and The Guardian, amongst others, and I love his signature wry, fatalistic humour. In Baking with Kafka, he explores important questions like: How do you get published during a skeleton apocalypse? What was the secret of Kafka’s lemon drizzle cake? And, What plot possibilities does the exploding e-cigarette offer modern mystery writers?

The Lost words
The Lost Words
by Robert Macfarlane, illustrated by Jackie Morris

We’ve heard that terms relating to the natural world are disappearing from the dictionary as they fall out of use: words like dandelion, otter, bramble and acorn. The Lost Words is a collection of acrostic spell-poems, exquisitely illustrated by Jackie Morris, created with the intention of reclaiming these words and ‘re-wilding the language of children’. (It’s also a gigantic book – two feet high!)

 

Gentleman-in-moscow
A Gentleman in Moscow
by Amor Towles 

On 21 June 1922 Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to house arrest in the Hotel Metropol, his life is only spared because he once wrote a socialist-sympathising poem. Over the next forty years the Count makes a life within the confines of the hotel against the backdrop of a politically tumultuous period in Russian history. The first half is quite anecdotal, but if you persevere the main impetus of the narrative becomes clear in the second half and the final chapters are sublime. A Gentleman in Moscow is available in this stunning black and gold hardback edition.

The Bear and the Nightingale
The Bear and the Nightingale (The Winternight Trilogy #1)
by Katherine Arden

For lovers of fantasy, Vasya lives in a small village in the woods in northern Russia. She has grown up hearing stories of the ‘Winter King’, a Russian equivalent of Jack Frost: ‘Frost-demons have no interest in mortal girls wed to mortal men. In the stories, they only come for the wild maiden.’ In addition to her wild wandering in the woods, Vasya has special gifts – she alone can see the household spirits that protect their home and she can talk to horses. When a young, fervent Christian priest arrives in their village and turns people against the old gods and superstitions, he upsets the balance of nature and unwittingly prepares the way for one much more dangerous than the Winter King. Vasya must remain free of societal constraints to protect her family and her village from this threat. This story reads like a beautifully woven Russian folk tale – thrillingly atmospheric, lyrical and otherworldly.

The Language of Thorns
The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic
by Leigh Bardugo, illustrated by Sara Kipin 

For your teenager, whether they are familiar with the world of Leigh Bardugo’s ‘Grishaverse’ or not, they will enjoy the lavish illustrations and beguiling tales of ‘dark bargains struck by moonlight, of haunted towns and hungry woods, of talking beasts and gingerbread golems, where a young mermaid’s voice can summon deadly storms and where a river might do a love-struck boy’s bidding but only for a terrible price.’

A Skinful of Shadows
A Skinful of Shadows
by Frances Hardinge

My go-to book for children’s birthday presents last year was Frances Hardinge’s superb novel, The Lie Tree. Her new book is out and available in a striking hardback edition. A Skinful of Shadows is the story of twelve-year-old Makepeace, a ‘bear-hearted girl’ who becomes possessed by a spirit which gives her strength when she is sent away to live with rich and powerful relatives and faces the possibility of civil war. But it’s not just for the kids, Hardinge is a mesmerising storyteller and I’ll definitely be reading this one too.

 

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls
Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls
by Elena Favilli, Francesca Cavallo

A great empowering feminist read for your daughter, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls is the result of a viral crowdfunding campaign to highlight strong female role models in books. It is vibrantly illustrated by sixty female artists from all over the world, and introduces us to one hundred remarkable women and their inspirational lives, including Ada Lovelace, Malala, Amelia Earhart and Michelle Obama.

 

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13 Great Summer Reads 2017

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13 books, published since last summer, that I have read and can highly recommend.

 

34200289Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – by Gail Honeyman

The runaway hit of the summer. Everything in Eleanor Oliphant’s life is scheduled and predictable, she’s entirely self-sufficient and she’s completely fine, until an accident forces her to allow some other people into her tightly-controlled life and everything begins to unravel. Eleanor is a strangely detached and pedantic narrator, so much so that I had to go back and check how old she is because she sounds 50 years older than she is. But when you get beyond this facade, this is a wonderfully warm, uplifting and heart-breaking story.

 

32511982Midwinter – by Fiona Melrose

Midwinter is about two Suffolk farmers, father and son, Landyn and Vale Midwinter. Vale’s mother was violently murdered in Zambia ten years earlier but since their return to England father and son have never really spoken about what happened or made peace with each other. A boat accident is the catalyst that sparks the beginning of the novel and finally tears open the old wound between father and son. I am deeply envious of Fiona’s beautiful way with words—powerful prose and a moving story.

 

32595029Little Deaths – by Emma Flint

Inspired by a true story, Little Deaths is about the kidnapping and murder of two children in New York in the sixties. Ruth Malone is a single mother who, because of the way she dresses and the male attention she receives, becomes the main suspect in the horrific murder of her own children. This is a very well-written, evocative book but the way Ruth is treated makes for a painful read.

 

 

31195557The Power – by Naomi Alderman

If you haven’t yet read this book, you should, particularly if you’ve been watching the new adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The Power imagines a world where young girls, and later all women, develop the ability to produce electric shocks with their hands. At first their ability leads to liberation and justice for enslaved women and victims of abuse—but of course, power corrupts, the pendulum swings wildly in the opposite direction and suddenly men are the abused and enslaved ones in this scenario. There are so many great role-reversal moments in this book, right from the introductory notes when a female editor praises the male ‘author’ for including lots of good, strong male characters. Naomi Alderman also does not shy away from some truly disturbing scenes of rape and torture as men become the weaker sex. Despite this The Power is an important story because the horrors that some woman face, even today, are made fresh when you flip the gender switch—we should feel outrage and disgust, because the way things are should not be the norm. A brilliantly though-provoking, if thoroughly uncomfortable, read.

 

29584452The Underground Railroad – by Colson Whitehead

The story of Cora, a slave on a Georgia plantation, and her escape via the Underground Railroad, in this case imagined as a literal Underground Railroad, is interspersed with real notices about runaway slaves. Somehow this blending of fact and fiction, the historical reality of slavery with a slightly surreal version of the railroad only makes the horrors more vivid and shocking. A heart-breaking read.

 

 

33590076How to Stop Time – by Matt Haig

How to Stop Time is a Benjamin Buttonesque novel about a man with a strange medical condition that extends his lifespan to several centuries. Tom Hazard (great name) teaches history at an inner city secondary school in London, a suitable occupation for one who has in fact met William Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald and various other historical characters. A shadowy organisation called the Albatross club has been protecting people like Tom for many years—from being burnt as a witch in the 17th century to being experimented on by scientists in the 21st century. Their most important rule, however, is don’t fall in love. But how do you find meaning in your life when you’ll outlive all those around you? Matt Haig has a gift for writing profoundly and movingly about vast subjects like life, love and time, without being reductive or cheesy. A thoroughly enjoyable story.

 

34372486The Ice – by Laline Paull

If you loved The Bees, just to let you know up front that Laline Paull’s second book is nothing like The Bees. But the fact that the author can write two such different books is testament to her vast and flexible talent. The Ice is a thriller about business, politics and development in the Arctic Circle and reminded me of a John Le Carre novel. Sean Cawson and Tom Harding meet as students and bond over a shared passion for arctic exploration, but while Sean focuses on becoming a successful businessman, Tom is an environmentalist and their conflicting values put pressure on their friendship until Tom disappears in a terrible accident. When Tom’s body reappears, the inquest begins to uncover layers of deception in their shared business venture and, possibly, a motive for murder. It is set in the future but hardly—with its calving glaciers and melting ice caps it feels very contemporary. The one thing it does have in common with The Bees is an environmental message. It took me a little while to get into the story but once I was in she had me hooked till the end.

 

29486766Strange the Dreamer (Strange the Dreamer #1) – by Laini Taylor

Definitely worth the wait, Laini Taylor’s new epic fantasy novel is everything I’d hoped it would be. Lazlo Strange is an abandoned orphan refugee, rescued by monks, who becomes a librarian obsessed with the mystery of the lost city of Weep on the other side of an impassable desert. Until one day an emissary party arrives from the lost city and ‘Strange the Dreamer’ decides that he will do anything he can to join them on their return journey and see the Unseen City for himself. Lazlo is a great character, the story is a tribute to the ‘fools who dream’ and it’s lovely to have a protagonist/saviour who’s not an amazing warrior, but instead is a researcher and storyteller. And of course there is romance, magic and mystery and everything else you would expect from Laini Taylor. A wonderful escapist adventure.

 

33837269A Conjuring of Light (Shades of Magic #3) – by V.E. Schwab

The third and final instalment in V.E. Schwab’s fantasy adventure is set in not just one London—but four different parallel dimensions of London. Expect fantastic world-building, action, suspense and vivid characters: Kell, a realm-travelling magician from Red London and Lila, a resilient and resourceful pickpocket from Grey London whose sole ambition in life is to be a pirate. Victoria Schwab is one of my favourite fantasy authors and A Conjuring of Light is a perfect ending to an epic series.

 

35158816Our Dark Duet (Monsters of Verity #2) – by Victoria Schwab

The only author to make two appearances on my list, (because she’s prolific and brilliant), Our Dark Duet is the second and final book in the Monsters of Verity series. ‘This Savage Song’ introduced us to a brand new, brilliantly weird universe. It sounds a bit Romeo and Juliet (the Baz Luhrmann version) – the city of Verity is split down the middle and ruled by two families with opposing philosophies, the Harkers and the Flynns. In the first book their children, Kate Harker and August Flynn, start out spying on each other and end up going on the run together. But of course, there are monsters and this is no simpering romance. In the sequel, Kate Harker is hunting monsters in Prosperity to atone for her sins until something darker than she’s ever faced before leads her back to Verity. August Flynn has stepped into his brother Leo’s shoes and is slowly losing touch with the part of himself that longed to be human. It’s only when Kate and August reunite and work together that they can rediscover the good in themselves and take on the horrific ‘Chaos Eater’. ‘For never was a story of more woe…’ this one is a heartbreaker. The world Victoria Schwab has created in this series is dark, richly layered and wildly imaginative, as in the Shades of Magic Series. I thoroughly enjoyed these two books.

 

34108705The Hate U Give – by Angie Thomas

Starr is a sixteen-year-old girl who lives two, deliberately separate lives. At her exclusive school in a wealthy area she is one of the only three black kids in the school and has assigned herself strict rules of behaviour to fit in, if not blend in. After school, she goes home to her other life in Garden Heights—a life of poverty, crime, drugs and gangs, but also warmth, family and community support. When her unarmed friend is shot by a white police officer while she is in the car, her worlds collide and she has to decide how to reconcile the two different parts of herself. Read this book. It is not only timely, topical and important but also gripping and engaging and should be required reading in secondary schools.

 

34931507One Of Us Is Lying – by Karen M. McManus

Five students arrive in detention on a Monday afternoon at Bayview High: the brain, the beauty, the criminal, the athlete and the outcast. By the end of detention one of them is dead and, by process of elimination, one of them must be a murderer. ‘The Breakfast Club plus Gossip Girl murder mystery’ is a great elevator pitch and this book sucked me in straight away. I did guess the ending but it was well plotted and skilfully unspooled for the reader—an enjoyable read.

 

28116830Mooncop – by Tom Gauld

I am big fan of Tom Gauld’s comics so I couldn’t resist this, and, like the rest of his work, Mooncop is beautifully drawn, poignant, wry and meditative. Just lovely!

 

The Bantham Swoosh

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Rebekah and I at the finish of the Dart 10K in 2015.

We leave Kingston at 11:30am on Saturday the 24th of June to drive down to Devon for the Bantham Swoosh, a 6km swim down the River Avon estuary, culminating in a final ‘swoosh’ up to Bantham Beach as river becomes sea. Rebekah and I have done several swimming events together, including the Dart 10k in 2015, but this is our first swim together this year.

There is already a queue for the parking at Bantham Beach when we arrive at 4:30pm. We have a walk down to the beach to see the finish. It’s a grey day, but at least it’s not raining. Despite the weather, the prospect from Bantham Beach is spectacular: the rugged hills of Bigbury on the opposite bank, Burgh Island and its iconic art deco hotel where Agatha Christie wrote two of her novels, and of course the estuary itself—a deep blue stretch of choppy water, surging and foaming on the shore.

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We walk over the headland for the view downriver, the final stretch of the swim where the estuary widens, the boats are moored and the river edge is lined with boathouses. The walking route is marked out with flags, bunting and cheerful retro signage.

IMG_1702Back in the parking lot we change into our costumes, take an obligatory unflattering selfie in our wetsuits and swimming hats, and make our way to the swimmers’ pen. We have our briefing and then pile on to the buses—a surreal sight: a procession of retro-style ‘Tally Ho’ buses, full of adults sitting in pairs in wetsuits. It is an image in keeping with the friendly and charmingly-whimsical ethos of the Outdoor Swimming Society, which prizes the joy of swimming above any physical fitness challenge. Rebekah and I agree to stay together and take it easy and enjoy it. It’s a swim, not a race, after all.

We drive to the start at Aveton Gifford and unload.

“Does anyone want a banana?” A marshal waves a single, solitary banana in the air. Why is it all alone, what’s wrong with it? We wonder.

“The start is over there,” another marshal waves us in the direction of the water.

It’s about 7pm when we crack each other’s glow sticks, not a euphemism, and wade down a boat ramp into the river. The water is cold but not heart-stoppingly cold. Just finger-chillingly, toe-numbingly cold. We politely breaststroke across the river with some ooh and aahs to signal that it’s a bit nippy. I gently lower my face in the water and then hurriedly retract it as I swim into a large snarl of seaweed. I do the seaweed-clearing breaststroke for a few strokes, but then since it doesn’t look like it’s going to get better, I put my head down and start doing a seaweed-clearing front crawl instead. The scratchy fronds drape over my head and frame my goggles like a witch’s wig. I do a little duck dive to try and dislodge the river flora. The water is extremely salty.

It’s busy but not excessively so, there are just over 400 swimmers registered for the dusk swim, much fewer than the 1600 swimmers who swam the Dart 10k the day we did in 2015. It’s relatively easy for us to swim together. I keep an eye on Rebekah, she has less natural insulation than I do and she battles with the cold. Today she looks extremely pale, although I am looking at her through my blue-tinted goggles so that might have something to do with it.

I’m feeling good. I was worried that I haven’t been able to get to the pool for the last three weeks, but it seems the hours I put in before that crawling up and down at Hampton Pool, while not doing much for my cold-water acclimatisation, has accustomed my shoulders to the long haul (and given me a lovely bottom tan.) I fall into an easy rhythm and I am also breathing bilaterally without having to think about it too much.

In the briefing we were told we would be able to see the bottom of the estuary while we were swimming. This seems unlikely at the beginning, it is murky and full of seaweed. But at some point I look down and I can see the sandy riverbed below me.

“I can see the bottom.” I tell Rebekah.

“Where?” She asks.

“Down there,” I point. I try to work out how far down it is, as though this would help her to find it. The cold water has clearly gone to both of our brains at this point.

From about halfway I can feel the wetsuit chafing the back of my neck. I have slathered it in Body Glide, which has served me well in several other long-haul open water swims. (It has also caused a teenaged shop assistant to snort at me when I asked for it in Sports Direct—helpful tip: order it online.) But it’s not doing the trick today. I wonder if the salt water is dissolving the Body Glide faster than fresh water. Because it’s salty I realise how much water I habitually swallow when I swim. The inside of my mouth has puckered up like a bashful snail retreating into its shell.

I zone out a bit and I start thinking about a character in my novel—a robot who likes to swim. To start with she would have to be well-sealed. I think about the mechanics of a robot swimming. It would depend on what materials she was made of. Plastic or rubber would float but a solid metal robot would sink like a stone doing the front crawl. She would have to develop a specialised swimming stroke. I imagine my robot curled in a ball on her back, like the hull of a boat, flapping her feet extremely fast like some sort of motorised engine. Or perhaps sculling on her back like an upended turtle. I enjoy the thought of my upside-down turtle-sculling robot.

By this stage, the water is a lot clearer and we can see the bottom easily—no confusion about where it is. It’s also quite shallow, as evidenced by lots of swimmers standing up in the water.

“Why is everyone standing up?” We ask each other. Rebekah and I stand up too, just to see what the attraction is.

“Ooh it’s all slimy,” Rebekah says, lying down again.

“It’s great, isn’t it?” says a man standing near us, grinning manically.

“Are you walking?” Rebekah asks me.

I realise that I have started walking downriver. She has a point, this is supposed to be a swim. I lie down again and carry on swimming.

At this point I spot a crab scuttling over the sand I was quite recently walking on. I see a crab burrowing in a billow of sand, and then another one. My toes shiver and curl up on themselves.

“Crabs!” I tell Rebekah, “lots of crabs,” just to warn her in case she feels like having a walk too.

She dips her head down, “Large crabs!” she confirms.

There will be no more walking for us.

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Our route, courtesy of Rebekah’s swimming watch…

Then we start to see boats and the river opens. We must be nearly at the end. I start looking for the pink boathouse that signals the start of the swoosh, but I can’t remember which side of the river it’s supposed to be on. We swim through the middle of the boats and I narrowly avoid several buoys.

When we get past the boats the current picks up and suddenly we’re getting pulled along. I put my face in the water and do a few strokes. It’s like when you walk on the travellator at the airport.

“I feel like Michael Phelps!” I tell Rebekah.

“But does Michael Phelps feel like he’s swimming fast, or does it just feel normal to him?” asks Rebekah, helpfully. She has clearly acclimatised to the cold water by now.

We finally spot the pink boathouse and prepare ourselves to be swooshed. I try to lie on my back with my feet in front of me like an otter, as the woman at registration told us to, but the waves are quite big and it’s tricky to float over waves feet-first. I resort to bobbing upright like a cork instead, turning to look at Rebekah and the other swimmers enjoying this moment as we’re swept along. There are big smiles all around and couple of whoops. Too soon we see the beach and the cheerful volunteers waving us in. Reluctantly, I swim for the shore. It’s still light, not even nine o’clock yet. We’ve been in the water just over ninety minutes.

The marshals and spectators welcome us up the beach, over the line and usher us towards the steps up the hill. At the top of the steps we’re handed something really useful—a beautiful dark blue ‘Swoosh’ towel. (I like a medal but there’s a limit to how many days after a sporting event a 36-year-old woman can wear her medal before people start to give her the side-eye.) A towel is a fantastic medal-substitute and it keeps us warm as we walk over the dunes and back to the Bantham Beach parking lot. The sandy pathway is lit by twinkling strings of bulbs, a magical gauntlet, and ends with the Swoosh sign and hot chocolate.

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IMG_1699We retrieve our bags and go straight for the pasties and pints. There are no tables or chairs left so we collapse on the grass, our wetsuits peeled to our waists and set about answering that age-old question—can a pasty ever taste better than it does after a 6km swim in cold, salty water? The answer is no, of course.

At home I observe that my neck has chafed in a pleasingly symmetrical manner, which proves I was swimming straight and consistently doing bilateral breathing. Result.

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The merch: a good haul.

Forty-Five Square: Poetry

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These poems were originally published in Forty-Five Square: Poetry (Birkbeck – June 2014).

 

Essaouira

 

We took a grande taxi from Casa to the white city—
four hours through scrubby hillscape, past goats
and cryptic signposts to the enclosing walls.

A trail of trucks obstructed the square each bearing
the legend Kingdom of Heaven in stark Helvetica,
we unloaded our bags in this other realm.

The medina was manned by gesturing djellabas,
corridors cast with kilims and ceramics, endless cats—
the odour of urine haggling with earthy cumin.
We, exposed westerners, fought our way through
the masses, armed with defensive palms and bad French,
seeking high-ground—a place to uncover our heads.

The riad was court-yarded, mosaicked, set with birds,
and bougainvillea, for us to wear cerise, draw and drink
mint tea poured from an improbable height.

I walked the ramparts, trod the citadel and was moved,
stirred by the steadfast hulk of history and—below the walls,
surging and rolling—the same endless sea.

I bought a pair of babouches in tooled maroon and wore them
to seem less of a tourist, but back home the stench was too much—
I disposed of them and framed the photos instead.

 

Portrait of a Moroccan Traveller

 

I am the type of person who travels to Marrakech—
the Rose of the Desert—with artists and those who
discern the rhythm of her dance through history.

I am the type of person who visits art galleries,
not just postcard stands, who photographs the
effect of stippled light in the souks.

I am the type of person who can spell Marrakech,
I have actually read Hideous Kinky and I don’t
misquote Casablanca, like everyone does.

I am the type of person who sits at a table on the square
at night, charmed by a dazzling bouquet of lights diffused
in the steam rising from a thousand dishes, holding court
in Place Jemaa El-Fna in the sickle-shadow of Koutoubia,
consuming a lamb tagine with relish, though it tastes like goat.

I am the type of person who turns to smile
as a stranger photographs me.

(In this place, I am the type of person
who looks like they could be someone famous.)

 

Sagrada Família

 

There it was—looming
like a molten taper over the financial district.
Grasping for the sky, green and scaffolded—
Gaudi’s temple.

The façade wept.
I entered—crept under concrete boughs
then—was swept along on a tide of undulating walls
beneath mushroomed columns.
I climbed, inspired—the railings writhed,
staircases grew wild,
strange fruits bloomed in purples and corals,
cacti sprouted from pinnacles.
The windows—infused with saturated hues—
chorused in seraphic harmony.
Their glory reflected on my face—
I was revived,

but they just stood.
Petrified figures with panelled faces,
carved and cast,
the dead watching over the living.
Christ stretched out a squared-off hand and turned
a blunted face to the city.

Unfinished.
A Babel tower,
never quite achieving heaven.

 

What’s in a Name?

 

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet?
Some assume a nom de plume will alter ego
as magic potions or phone booths are wont to.

It’s an adhesive tag, clinging to your lapel
a prehensile digit, hooked by the crook of a little finger–
my name has a grip on me, whoever me might be.

I was given a biblical rope with which to hang myself:
a snare or noose that will forever be confused with
Rachel—at least my middle name is plain.

What is the merit of middle name? A second-choice
or passed down from ancient aunt to create new mutiny
to be wielded in parental wrath, or in school—ridiculed.

Used to be I’d give away my name in marriage—addition
is the contemporary way. It’ll be a squeeze though to fit
next generation’s quadruple-barrels on any register.

Shudder at the nomencratic cruelty of parents who
cradle their newly sprung and brand some awful appellation
into just born skin [think of Jenna Taylor, Peter Files].

Did Romney’s parents consider—one day a nation might
wonder if his given name was Mittens, did the Pitts
think what a spoonerism would do to little Shiloh?

In the moment of responsibility, think of the poor cat
you labelled Marmite and whether it does matter that
the name you’re set on means bucket in Afrikaans.

In documentation for my own named child, I penned
her initials: E.A.R. and, as they wheeled her off to insert
grommets into her glue ears, I laughed inappropriately.

At the end—for those of us so little accomplished
as not to warrant a Wikipedia page—all that’s left
is a name, cut in stone, to tell who we were.

16 Best Books of 2016

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Writing a post like this on the 15th of December makes me anxious—there are still 16 days left of 2016 in which I could read an incredible book, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Or perhaps I should read only terrible books for the next two weeks. (Any recommendations?) 16 books for 2016 seemed like an appropriate number—according to Goodreads I have read 154 books (so far) this year so this is roughly my top 10%.

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

This is my book of the year—I’m so glad Waterstones agrees with me and that this novel is finally getting some of the recognition it deserves. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies she retreats from London to Essex with her son Francis where they begin to hear rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent has returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter. Somewhere in between AS Byatt and Tracy Chevalier, The Essex Serpent is jam-packed with fascinating characters, atmospheric prose and intriguing plotting. It’s a brilliant book about love and friendship, science and faith. I read it on Kindle but I couldn’t resist buying the stunning blue Waterstones exclusive edition hardback as well.

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The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla

I have emigrated several times (from England to South Africa as a child and vice-versa as an adult) but as a white, English-speaking immigrant you get to blend in a lot more easily in the UK. Your ‘otherness’ is not so clearly signposted on your face. I like to think of myself as an open-minded, empathetic person—curious about other people’s lives, but these essays opened the door to a world I know very little about. This is an important book. It’s not perfect and it’s not exhaustive, but these fifteen essays give a fascinating glimpse into the British black, Asian and minority ethnic experience of living in the UK, storytelling that is essential in creating a diverse and inclusive society—an ideal that seems increasingly under threat.

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Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge is structured as a series of short stories based on characters living in a small town in Maine but most, if not all, of the stories feature the titular character, Olive Kitteridge, in some way and we’re able to follow the main events of her life through the book. Many of the stories are about marriage, relationships and loneliness—and there is a sense of melancholy that pervades the book. But there are also occasional glimpses of hope and redemption to make it bearable. It’s a poignant and moving book. My Name is Lucy Barton is Elizabeth Strout’s most recent book, and was on several literary award shortlists this year, but I personally enjoyed Olive Kitteridge more.

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The Power by Naomi Alderman

In the Atwood-esque world of The Power, young girls, and later all women, develop the ability to produce electric shocks with their hands. At first their ability leads to liberation and justice for enslaved women and victims of abuse—but of course, power corrupts, the pendulum swings wildly in the opposite direction and suddenly men are the abused and enslaved ones in this scenario. A brilliantly though-provoking, if thoroughly uncomfortable, read.

 

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The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Whatever you think about cultural appropriation, Lionel Shriver could NOT have written this book. A laugh-out-loud funny and wincingly satirical look at race in ‘post-racial’ America. When his hometown ‘Dickens’, a dodgy neighbourhood on the outskirts of Los Angeles, is literally taken off the map of California, the narrator reinstates racial segregation as a way of putting Dickens back on the map. A brilliantly clever and challenging book.

 

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Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

A strange and eerily beautiful story about family relationships and grief in a style that is part poetry, part stream-of-consciousness and part fable. The crow that arrives, like a profane version of Nanny McPhee, to help this bereaved father and his sons, is sometimes wise and maternally protective, sometimes vulgar and belligerent. Yet somehow the crow is the perfect catalyst to allow the family to move on with their lives. A short book, but a profoundly moving one. The whimsical cousin of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk.

 

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You Took the Last Bus Home by Brian Bilston

Brian Bilston (the Poet Laureate of Twitter) is a master of pithy wordplay and the supreme commander of the pun (my personal favourite is ‘Robert Frost’s Netflix Choice’). Many of the poems made me laugh out loud. He has much to say on the perils contemporary life: autocorrect, procrastinating on Twitter, holiday cottages with no wifi, delivery charges for internet shopping, Black Friday and the unreasonableness of someone wanting to borrow your mobile phone charger. The poems are sometimes Excel spreadsheets, flow charts and scrabble boards. Bilson’s loathing for The Daily Mail and Jeremy Clarkson is a frequent theme. He also has some poignant observations: like ‘At the Intersection’ a moving venn diagram poem on the ways we misunderstand each other, and ‘Chore Play’ – the awkward juxtaposition of seduction with the boring minutiae of married life. Brian Bilson’s poetry is witty, wise and always enjoyable.

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Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

I’ve read many YA fantasy series this year but if I had to pick one it would be Leigh Bardugo’s outstanding Six of Crows duology, Crooked Kingdom is the second book. This is an epic, rollercoaster of a story with a cast of brilliantly flawed and fascinating characters, and also a satisfying end to the duology. It was also great to see some of the characters from the Grisha trilogy pop up in here as well.

 

 

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Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

I have never read anything by this author before as he primarily writes non-fiction, so I had no idea what to expect. 1746: a mysterious young Englishman, Mr Smith, arrives in the then small town of New York with a bill of credit for £1000 but won’t tell anyone where he got the money from or what he intends to do with it. Golden Hill has a sense of authenticity that suggests a lot of research but it is also completely immersive, tightly-plotted and entertaining. It reminded me a little of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

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The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

Memory is a black Zimbabwean woman with albinism, on death row for the murder of a white man, Lloyd Hendricks. We don’t know how or why or even if she actually killed him and the details are spun out through the book, from her earliest memories of her childhood with her parents and two sisters, to her life with Lloyd and then later her time in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare and a final heartbreaking revelation. There is a particularly beautiful quote at the end which sums up the book perfectly: ‘To accept that there are no villains in my life, just broken people, trying to heal, stumbling in darkness and breaking each other, to find a way to forgive my father and mother, to forgive Lloyd, to find a path to my own forgiveness.’ Highly recommended – poignant, lyrical and intensely moving.

Portable Veblen
The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

The Portable Veblen is a simply lovely book about an incongruous selection of subjects: marriage, familial relationships, medical advertising blurbs, the FDA approval process, and squirrels. The squirrels are the most important bit of course. Elizabeth McKenzie is like a gentler, more whimsical version of AM Holmes. I particularly enjoyed this bit of wisdom a squirrel imparts to the main character Veblen: ‘I want to meet muckrakers, carousers, the sweet-toothed, and the lion-hearted…’ Don’t we all!

 

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The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North

How well can you truly know another person? This book tells the story of Sophie Stark, an indie filmmaker, from the perspective of those people who supposedly knew her best. The result is a collection of stories and reminiscences that build a fragmented, abstract image of an artist, like one of Sophie’s own experimental films. Anna North is a wonderful storyteller and in that her writing did remind me of Jennifer Egan’s. It’s a beautifully written, thought-provoking read. 

 

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The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

The Wayfarer is a tunnelling ship that creates wormhole-type shortcuts through the fabric of space and we meet the mixed-species crew on the day that a new human member, Rosemary, is introduced for the first time. Short afterwards they’re offered their most ambitious job yet – to travel to a distant planet inhabited by a particularly belligerent species and create a tunnel home. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is proper, hardcore sci-fi complete with space travel, weird looking aliens and shedloads of impenetrable sci-fi jargon, but it is also brilliantly inventive, thought-provoking and moving. I couldn’t put it down.

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The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

Fourteen-year-old Faith Sunderly is a budding natural scientist. She possesses a passionate curiosity that gets her into trouble but also serves her well as she investigates a suspicious death and explores the properties of the mysterious Lie Tree—a tree that thrives on human lies and yet bears fruit that illuminates truth. It’s rare to find a book with such a good message that is not at all moralistic or preachy. The Lie Tree is a thoroughly researched and beautifully written piece of historical fiction, woven together with dark and mystical elements and a strong feminist sensibility.

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Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Just brilliant: vivid, compelling and honest. I’ve never read anything by this author that I didn’t like, but I found the themes of cultural identity, assimilation and the immigrant experience particularly resonant in this book.

 

 

 

The Vegetarian
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
(translated by Deborah Smith)

Plagued by terrible nightmares, a once dutiful and submissive wife, Yeong-hye, decides to become a vegetarian, seek a more ‘plant-like’ existence and ultimately aspires to become a tree. Dark and disturbing but also hauntingly beautiful and intensely moving. The Vegetarian was also the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2016.

 

 

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Bonus Book: Swing Time by Zadie Smith
I’m a third of the way through this so I don’t have a conclusive opinion yet. Of course, it’s crammed full of Zadie Smith’s typical wit, insight, and beautiful prose. Damn it! And so far I’m enjoying it more than NW.

 

That’s all folks, working on the ‘Best Bookcovers of 2016’ for my next post.

Twenty Books to Read This Summer

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I’ve done this for the last couple of years on the Writers’ Hub so I thought I’d continue the tradition on my own site. Same format: ten newish books that I’ve read recently and can highly recommend, and ten books I haven’t read yet but are at the top of my To Read list for the summer.

TEN RECOMMENDATIONS:

Essex SerpentThe Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

This is my top recommendation for the summer—read this book, if nothing else. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies she retreats from London to Essex with her son Francis where they begin to hear rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent has returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter. Who knew there was an Essex serpent? I’d only heard of the ‘Essex lion’ which as I recall turned out to be a slightly overweight tabby.

Somewhere in between AS Byatt and Tracy Chevalier, The Essex Serpent is jam-packed with fascinating characters, atmospheric prose and intriguing plotting. It’s a brilliant book about love and friendship, science and faith.

And just look at that beautiful cover—I’m quite sad that I bought the Kindle edition. This will definitely be going on my best book cover design list at the end of the year.

The Book of Memory

The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

Memory is a black Zimbabwean woman with albinism, on death row for the murder of a white man, Lloyd Hendricks. We don’t know how or why or even if she actually killed him and the details are spun out through the book, from her earliest memories of her childhood with her parents and two sisters, to her life with Lloyd and then later her time in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare and then a final heart-breaking revelation. There is a particularly beautiful quote at the end which sums up the book perfectly:

To accept that there are no villains in my life, just broken people, trying to heal, stumbling in darkness and breaking each other, to find a way to forgive my father and mother, to forgive Lloyd, to find a path to my own forgiveness.

Highly recommended—poignant, lyrical and intensely moving.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

I’m a sci-fi wuss—I like sci-fi-lite, speculative fiction, dystopian fiction, fantasy, but I’ve always found proper sci-fi rather terrifying. (Still traumatised from watching the Lost in Space TV series when I was a kid). And ‘The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet’ is proper, hardcore sci-fi complete with space travel, weird looking aliens and shedloads of impenetrable sci-fi jargon. And yet I completely loved this book and I couldn’t put it down.

The Wayfarer is a tunnelling ship that creates wormhole-type shortcuts through the fabric of space and we meet the mixed-species crew on the day that a new human member, Rosemary, is introduced for the first time. Shortly afterwards they’re offered their most ambitious job yet—to travel to a distant planet inhabited by a particularly belligerent species and create a tunnel home.

Becky Chambers has taken all of the conventions of sci-fi for the structure of this novel but on top of that she has layered some incredibly rich characterization—in particular the distinguishing traits and motivations of the various alien races. (The alien’s perspective of humanity also provides a humorous note). The most poignant piece of characterisation though is the life she instils into ‘Lovey’, the Wayfarer’s AI operating system. Lovey’s personality has developed through many hundreds of hours of interaction with the crew and, even though she doesn’t have a body, they view her as a member of the crew.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a brilliantly inventive, engaging, thought-provoking read.

The Last PilotThe Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock

The Last Pilot begins with Jim Harrison, a test pilot in the Mojave Desert in the 1940’s and follows his career through to the peak of the space race in the late 60s. It starts out with a lot of technical jargon about flying and aeronautical engineering but it is very quickly apparent that the heart of the story is the relationship between Jim and his wife, Grace.

I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. It’s obviously a compliment to the author’s writing style that he has been compared to Cormac McCarthy, but it does also imply that the book might be miserable and depressing—the blurb even seems to suggest that the book is about failure and tragedy. But it’s not.

The prose does have a kind of sparse realism, but the emotional depth builds up in the spaces behind and between the lines. It is superbly written—beautiful and heart-breaking. Setting Harrison’s personal tragedy against an epic backdrop of space exploration doesn’t diminish it, instead it somehow makes it universal.

Portable Veblen

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth Mckenzie

The Portable Veblen is a simply lovely book about an incongruous selection of subjects: marriage, familial relationships, medical advertising blurbs, the FDA approval process, and squirrels. The squirrels are the most important bit of course. I particularly enjoyed this bit of wisdom a squirrel imparts to the main character Veblen:

I want to meet muckrakers, carousers, the sweet-toothed, and the lion-hearted…

Don’t we all!

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The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

It’s rare to find a book with such a good message that is not at all moralistic or preachy. The Lie Tree, winner of the Costa Book of the Year 2015, is a thoroughly researched and beautifully written piece of historical fiction, woven together with dark and mystical elements and a strong feminist sensibility.

Faith Sunderly is a fourteen-year-old girl, who is, by virtue of her age, gender and the time period she lives in, rendered invisible in society and definitely perceived as less important that her six-year-old brother. Faith’s father is a clergyman and a well-known natural scientist but at the opening of the novel he has just been accused of fabricating some of his most famous fossil discoveries. The family have fled from the scandal to the small island of Vane where Faith’s father has been invited to join a fossil dig.

Faith, a budding natural scientist herself, possesses a passionate curiosity that gets her into trouble but also serves her well as she investigates a suspicious death and explores the properties of the mysterious Lie Tree. Faith is a great character—possessing all of the intelligence and strength of mind you would hope for but combining it with occasional spitefulness and sullenness that just makes her more real.

The Lie Tree itself, a tree that thrives on human lies and yet bears fruit that illuminates truth, is a brilliant invention at the heart of this story. Altogether it’s a beautifully crafted, thrilling, intriguing story and Faith is an inspiring character.

One

One by Sarah Crossan

Winner of the Carnegie Medal and the YA Book Prize in 2016, One is the story of conjoined twins Tippi and Grace told in prose-poetry from the perspective of Grace. It is beautifully written, insightful, gripping and terribly moving—a book that messes with all of your preconceptions about conjoined twins.

This book was actually recommended to me by my nine-year-old, who LOVED it and nagged me until I read it too.

I bought it in hardback and I love the eye-catching turquoise and cerise cover design and the American cover design looks amazing too.

This Savage Song

This Savage Song by VE Schwab

I would read a dishwasher instruction manual written by Victoria Schwab. There seems to be no limit to her imagination, I loved both of her Shades of Magic books, and This Savage Song introduces us to a brand new, brilliantly weird universe.

It all sounds a bit Romeo and Juliet (the Baz Luhrmann version, of course)—the city of Verity is split down the middle and ruled by two families with opposing philosophies, the Harkers and the Flynns. Their children, Kate Harker and August Flynn, start out spying on each other and then end up going on the run together. But of course, there are monsters and this is no simpering romance.

I loved this story, particularly the musical component, and can’t wait for the next instalment.

Uprooted

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Agnieszka lives in a quiet village in the shadow of a malevolent, corrupted forest—the only person who can keep them safe is a wizard called The Dragon. In return for his help, though, he selects one young woman to serve him for ten years and Agnieszka is convinced that this time he’s going to take her best friend, Kasia.

These days it is fashionable for forests to signify wisdom and goodness, so it was refreshing to encounter a forest-as-creepy-villain, with shades of Tolkien.

Uprooted is a magical, thoroughly engrossing and enjoyable read.

The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian by Han Kang (Translated by Deborah Smith)

Plagued by terrible nightmares, a once dutiful and submissive wife, Yeong-hye, decides to become a vegetarian and seek a more ‘plant-like’ existence. Her husband becomes increasingly sadistic in response, her sister’s husband, a video artist, becomes obsessed with documenting her, but all Yeong-hye wants is to become a tree.

I’m almost hesitant to recommend this one as it is dark and disturbing—not exactly a ‘beach read’, but if you’re not put off by that The Vegetarian is also hauntingly beautiful, uncanny, powerful and intensely moving.

Translated by Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian was also the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2016.

 

TEN BOOKS ON MY TO READ LIST:

The Muse


The Muse by Jessie Burton

Next up in my Wimbledon book club, I’m sure I don’t need to say much about The Muse because, if you read The Miniaturist, then I’m sure you were planning on reading this one too. Another beautiful cover.

 

The Girls
The Girls by Emma Cline

The viral hit of the summer, as recommended by Lena Dunham amongst others—a Charles Manson-type scenario, set in California in the summer of ’69.

 

Museum of You
The Museum of You by Carys Bray

I loved A Song for Issy Bradley so I’m definitely going to read Carys Bray’s next novel—Clover Quinn curates an exhibition of her dead’s mother’s things to surprise her Dad.

 

My Name is Leon
My Name is Leon by Kit De Waal

Been meaning to read this one for a while—the story of Leon and his little brother Jake and what happens when they have to go into foster care.

 

Nothing Tastes as Good
Nothing Tastes As Good by Claire Hennessy

YA fiction, Annabel is dead and has been assigned as Julia’s ‘ghostly helper’—she’s convinced it’s her job to help Julia get thinner, but is that really what she’s supposed to be doing?

 

The Otherlife
The Otherlife by Julia Gray

Another YA novel I’ve been looking forward to: mystical alternate worlds, Norse mythology and exclusive boys’ school friendships—an interesting mix.

 

Vinegar Girl
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

Part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series—a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. I’ve never actually read Taming of the Shrew but I loved Ten Things I Hate About You—that’s got to count for something, right?

 

Lucy Barton
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

This one has been nominated for all of the major awards and is about a relationship between a mother and daughter. I’ve got Olive Kitteridge loaded up on the Kindle right now, so might just have to read that one first.

 

The Loney
The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

Winner of the Costa Books First Novel Award in 2015, this one has an intriguing cover and an even more intriguing name. What or who is the ‘Loney’—I’ll let you know when I find out.

 

Mooncop
Mooncop by Tom Gauld

This one will actually only be published at the end of the Summer but I’m looking forward to it anyway. You may have seen Tom Gauld’s whimsical comics in The Guardian, Mooncop is about the adventures of the last policeman living on the moon—I’m imagining a kind of contemporary Little Prince.

War and Peace Interpreted for a Jane Austen Fan

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It’s my sister’s fault that I hadn’t read War & Peace before. As teenagers we enjoyed a fervent rivalry that resulted in us claiming completely opposite tastes in most things, in particular, the family bookshelves were divided between us. I got Austen and the Brontes, while she got Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. It was the new BBC series that finally prompted me to read the book. (My ‘read the book before you watch the series’ policy trumps even sisterly enmity.)

I started reading on the day before the first episode was broadcast, managed to keep ahead of the action over the next month, and finally finished reading the week before the final episode. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but old habits die hard, and I couldn’t resist comparing it to my teenaged favourite. And so, in lieu of a review, here is a Jane Austen version of War & Peace:

(Warning: Contains plot spoilers.)

War and Peace Interpreted for a Jane Austen Fan

In St Petersburg, Mr Collins says awkward things about Napoleon at Lady Dalrymple’s soiree and makes everyone uncomfortable.

Mr Collins’ best friend is Mr Darcy. Mr Darcy is married to Louisa Musgrove. She has a moustache that everyone finds charming. Mr Darcy does not care for it.

Sir Walter Elliot is looking for good marriages for his children, Henry and Mary Crawford. It goes without saying that Henry Crawford and Mary Crawford have an incestuous sibling relationship.

In Moscow, Mr and Mrs Weston love their children but worry about their finances. They have four children, only the middle two are important: Frank Churchill and the beautiful but flighty Marianne Dashwood. There is also a cousin, Anne Elliot, but she is poor and doesn’t matter. Frank Churchill is devotedly in love with her when he’s around and he remembers to be.

Mr Darcy goes home to his grumpy dad, General Tilney; his sister, the pious Fanny Price; her companion, Mrs Clay; and his wife, Louisa Musgrove. He decides to go to war because he will get to wear a feathery hat and what’s the worst that could happen? He could die but he hates his life and wife anyway. Mr Darcy leaves.

Henry Crawford proposes to Fanny Price because she is very rich. While she is considering it she catches Henry Crawford making out with Mrs Clay. She turns down the proposal.

War.

War.

More war.

Noticing that the troops have lost morale and are retreating, Mr Darcy picks up a flag and nobly leads them into battle.

MR DARCY IS DEAD!

After the battle Napoleon inspects Mr Darcy’s magnificent noble corpse. BUT the noble corpse is still breathing.

MR DARCY IS NOT DEAD!

Frank Churchill brings his friend, Colonel Brandon, home on leave with him. Colonel Brandon performs a spirited Mazurka, loses his head and proposes to Marianne Dashwood. Marianne Dashwood turns him down because she’s only 13. Frank Churchill falls in love with his cousin, Anne Elliot, again, but tells her that she shouldn’t wait for him as it is likely he will forget about her when he goes away. But Anne Elliot vows to stay true to him alone.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh dies, cuts her sickly daughter out of her will, and leaves her great fortune and title to her favourite illegitimate son—Mr Collins.

Now Mr Collins is rich and titled Mary Crawford decides to marry him. She flirts with him a lot and he seems to like her but he doesn’t actually propose. So she just announces their engagement at a party and everyone goes along with it.

The dashing and dastardly Mr Wickham has an affair with Mary Crawford. Everybody knows about it. Eventually Mr Collins works it out and challenges Mr Wickham to a duel. Mr Collins, despite not even knowing how to fire a pistol, manages to shoot Mr Wickham. Sadly, Mr Wickham does not die of his injuries.

Mr Collins hates his wife and goes to live in another city. He has doubts about his atheism and becomes a Freemason.

Mr Darcy returns home at the exact moment his wife Louise Musgrove, dies in childbirth. He feels bad because he hated her, a sentiment that was not worthy of his noble character.

Mr Darcy meets Marianne Dashwood and is charmed by her. He had believed that, at age 31, he was too old for love, but now a whole new bright vista opens up before him. Perhaps he will even take his shirt off—there may be scything and some lake-swimming.

His grumpy dad, General Tilney does not approve, and tells Mr Darcy to take a year to think about it. Mr Darcy agrees and proposes a secret, year-long engagement to Marianne Dashwood. Marianne is desperately in love with Mr Darcy and agrees.

Marianne Dashwood forgets the noble Mr Darcy and is seduced by Henry Crawford at the opera. Not knowing that Henry Crawford is already married she agrees to elope with him. Anne Elliot intervenes and ruins everything. Marianne Dashwood has a tantrum and renders herself dangerously ill. Mr Collins visits her as she is nursed back to health.

Mr Darcy will never forgive Marianne Dashwood and vows to kill Henry Crawford.

The Westons and their children are completely broke so they go to their country estate to ride on sleighs and hunt wolves. Frank Churchill falls desperately in love with his cousin, Anne Elliot, again, and pledges to definitely marry her one of these days, if he remembers to.

War.

War strategy.

Some more war.

General Tilney dies of terminal grumpiness. Frank Churchill rescues Fanny Price from her revolting peasants. She is very grateful and looks at him with shimmering tears in her giant luminous eyes. Even thought she’s not very pretty, Frank Churchill falls in love with Fanny Price’s grateful giant, luminous eyes.

Mrs Weston hopes that Frank Churchill will marry Fanny Price, because she is very rich and it will save the family fortunes.

Mr Darcy declines all promotions and honoured positions in the war—the only noble way is to fight with his regiment on the front line. A bomb falls on his regiment but Mr Darcy is too noble to shelter from the bomb that may well be his noble fate. Mr Darcy is blown up by the fateful bomb.

MR DARCY IS DEAD!

Mr Darcy is not dead, he is wounded.

In the hospital he is lying next to Henry Crawford. Henry Crawford has had his leg amputated in unsanitary conditions so it seem likely that he will die. He deserves it for what he did to Marianne Dashwood. Bastard.

The Westons escape from Moscow, inadvertently taking the wounded Mr Darcy with them. Marianne Dashwood nurses Mr Darcy and he forgives her for being seduced at the opera.

Napoleon marches into Moscow ready to graciously pardon the lives of Russian inhabitants in return for their allegiance. All important Russians inhabitants have already left. Napoleon is pissed off.

Mr Collins decides to assassinate Napoleon. He does not succeed or even get anywhere close. Mr Collins becomes a prisoner of war but the privations render him lean, manly and philosophically optimistic. His wife, Mary Crawford, dies in St Petersburg while attempting to choose which one of her lovers she will leave her husband for.

Mr Darcy is too noble for this world.

MR DARCY IS DEAD!

He’s properly dead this time. Marianne Dashwood is devastated.

Mr Collins returns from being a prisoner of war all lean, manly and philosophically optimistic. He is still eccentric but his newly-found benevolent love for all mankind and his thrilling war stories make him the focal point of every soiree. Marianne Dashwood falls in love with him and they get married.

Mr Weston dies and the family are now properly and completely broke. Frank Churchill is a bit embarrassed about it but eventually marries the pious Fanny Price with her luminous eyes, and the family fortunes are saved. Anne Elliot continues to love him longest, when all hope is gone.

They all live happily ever after. Except for Anne Elliot who has to live in the same house as Frank Churchill and his rich wife. And except for Mr Darcy, who is dead.

Independent People by Halldór Laxness

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Independent PeopleHalldór Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 and is to date the sole Icelandic Nobel laureate. Independent People is one of his most well-known novels, and, according to Wikipedia, is ‘considered among the foremost examples of social realism in Icelandic fiction in the 1930s’. I also did a Twitter search and found that Hari Kunzru had nominated it as one of the ‘world’s most depressing works of literature’. This did not particularly inspire me to read the book but it was selected for book club so here we are.

Independent People is about Guðbjartur Jónsson, a sheep farmer, in rural Iceland in the early twentieth century and, apart from sheep, Bjartur’s main passion is independence. His primary goal is to be an independent man: owning his own land, supporting his family and not in debt to anyone. In addition to being a farmer, Bjartur is also a well-respected poet. The book is an interesting blend of the harshly pragmatic realities of farming life with supernatural elements of Icelandic myths and legends. Bjartur’s land is supposedly cursed, haunted by an evil woman named Gunnvör and the demon she was in league with, Kolumkilli, and his first act as landowner is to rename it from ‘Winterhouses’ to the more optimistic ‘Summerhouses’ in defiance of this supposed curse.

In addition to the battle with Kolumkilli over his land, Bjartur also has a longstanding rivalry with Ingólfur Arnarson Jónsson, son of the wealthy local Baliff, whose life is intertwined with Bjartur’s in several ways and who is inexorably successful at all he sets his hand to, while Bjartur trudges through life in stiff-necked, principled poverty.

The book is tough going to start with: the weather and the lifestyle are both bleak, there are disturbing scenes of slaughter, starvation and death. Bjartur is so pig-headed about his independence that he forces his children to live in deprivation rather than ask for help, and is more solicitous for the wellbeing of his sheep than his family. A notable low point was when his first wife dies alone in childbirth while he is away from home, the dog shelters the newborn child and miraculously keeps it alive until Bjartur gets home. After discovering what has happened he goes out again to see the Baliff and spends ages reluctantly hemming and hawing about asking the Baliff’s wife for help with the baby (still at home being babysat by the dog), wasting time with his pig-headed stubbornness as the baby’s life hangs in the balance. This was just one of several moments when I wanted to scream at him.

Despite this inauspicious start the baby survives to becomes the light of his life, his flower, Ásta Sóllilja (beloved sun lily) and the relationship between Bjartur and his daughter is the heart of the book. There is quite a bit about Icelandic history and politics that made me shamefully doze off, but as soon as the book turned back to Bjartur and his interaction with his family, Ásta Sóllilja in particular—I was hooked. Laxness’s characterization is deft and his portrayal of Ásta Sóllilja’s teenaged sexual awakening is as sensitive and nuanced as his portrayal of Bjartur’s independent spirit. The novel was strangely funny as well, I think this description of Bjartur’s afternoon nap sums his character up pretty well:

The man himself remained unaltered. He allowed himself no greater luxury in his mode of life than that of sprawling on a haycock for four minutes during the daytime, in the hope that he would soon roll off, preferably into a puddle.

These moments strike a lighter note in the unrelenting misery of Bjartur’s life and help the reader to forgive him his faults.

As annoying is he is, there is something noble and poignant in Bjartur’s desire to be independent regardless of the fact that the system is stacked against independent men like him. And despite the awful weather, the hardship, the politics and Bjartur’s frustrating, self-sabotaging stubbornness, Independent People is a thoroughly absorbing saga—grim but gripping. You’ll be glad to know, and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say, that there is a small sliver of hope and redemption at the end, to give the reader some sense of closure.

Books like this are the reason that I belong to a book club (several book clubs in fact), I would never have read this book otherwise and even if I had started it I might not have continued reading it. Having pushed through to the end, and wept copiously through the final chapters, I can concede that it was worth the effort. A literary masterpiece, albeit a rather depressing one.

Best Book Cover Designs 2015

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It is always interesting to see book cover design themes that recur in any particular year—last year was all about bright print process colours: cyan and magenta in particular, and correspondingly bright coloured page edges. This year the palettes are a bit subtler, but there are loads of interesting textures and a continued referencing of the design and printing process itself—a celebration of the medium as well as the message. Long live beautiful books.

These are some of my favourite cover designs of 2015—in particular, designs that are attractive but also appropriate to the content. I have credited the illustrator/designer where I have been able to find out who they are.

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The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood, designed by Pei Loi Koay (Bloomsbury)

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian societies are always grimly neon bright and plastic, and the colour scheme reflects this perfectly. The orange outfits and white bars also make reference to the penitentiary-orientated society of this book. There are a few things about this cover that seem maliciously intended to annoy graphic designers: the descender on the ‘g’ of Margaret Atwood that just dips below the white bars, and the white bars themselves that are not evenly spaced and are just slightly off the perpendicular—subtle enough that you don’t notice immediately but still creates a sense of unease, a sense that there is something not quite right. Perhaps, like the deliberate flaw in a Persian carpet, these ‘mistakes’ are meant to remind us to distrust the appearance of a perfect society when created by fallible human beings.

A Darker Shade of Magic

A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab (Tor Books – US, Titan Books – UK)

Most of these are UK editions, but I have to mention this stunning US edition of A Darker Shade of Magic. There is something so compelling about the overhead perspective of the main character travelling between different versions of London: perhaps it is the way the cloak forms a V that echoes the author’s initial, the balance of geometric shapes, the bold red and black colour scheme, the subtly elegant typeface, or just the pitch-perfect harmony of the whole design.

The Ecliptic

The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood (Scribner)

The title of Benjamin Wood’s second novel is beautifully constructed, with sketched renderings of the mathematical structure of the font just visible. The disorientating interaction between island and the sky, in hypnotic concentric circles, tells you immediately that all is not as it seems on this island.

 

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Don’t Try This at Home by Angela Readman (And Other Stories)

Kudos to And Other Stories who have broken away from their initial signature look of bold geometric shapes and created another brand that is just as striking and distinctive. I particularly love the Jackalope motif on Angela Readman’s debut short story collection. These book covers would make gorgeous wallpaper or upholstery—I quite fancy a Jackalope cushion. (This is meant as a compliment, just to clarify.)

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One Point Two Billion by Mahesh Rao, designed by Jonny Pelham (Daunt Books)

The retro matchbox design cover of Mahesh Rao’s short story collection, a riot of colour and variation, immediately tells you that these stories will be anything but monotonous.

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The Good Son by Paul McVeigh (Salt)

Another great retro-style design, the slightly distressed rendering of a wholesome image and the sinister addition of the gun suggests that the protagonist of Paul McVeigh’s debut novel will have some challenges to overcome. And there are those concentric circles again, in this case a target perhaps.

The First Bad Man

The First Bad Man by Miranda July (Canongate)

A minimalist typographic approach always makes a bold statement, particularly with a book that is difficult to categorise like Miranda July’s The First Bad Man (I shudder to imagine an illustrative representation of some of the scenes from this book.) The bright yellow stripe highlights a quote from AM Holmes—one of the few authors you could possibly compare Miranda July to.

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Randall by Jonathan Gibbs (Galley Beggar)

Another striking monochrome and yellow cover, Randall is a book about art and artists but the designer makes a wise decision to eschew any illustration other than blotches of the artist’s signature yellow paint.

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Everything is Teeth by Evie Wyld & Joe Sumner (Jonathan Cape)

Every single page of this graphic memoir is worth savouring and I particularly enjoyed the contrast of Joe Sumner’s Tim Burtonesque caricatures of Evie and her family, with his more lifelike sketches of the sharks drifting surreally through Evie’s recollections.

 

The Fox and the Star

The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford-Smith (Penguin)

It is the Waterstones Book of the Year so it hardly needs mentioning, but The Fox and the Star is just so beautiful I can’t resist. Inspired by the designs of William Morris and the stories of William Blake, every page is exquisitely rendered.

‘Dawn’ by Octavia E. Butler & ‘Boy, Snow, Bird’ by Helen Oyeyemi

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Inspired by Nikesh Shukla, Naomi Frisby and Dan L, I am participating in #DiverseDecember – a month of reading books by BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) writers. My Goodreads list shows that of the 120 books I have read so far this year, only 6 have been by BAME authors. I could definitely do better. I’m not interested in reading to some kind of politically correct quota, but I am interested in stretching my reading habits and exposing myself to a wider range of perspectives on the world.

Dawn Octavia Butler

I’d never heard of Octavia Butler and her classic Sci-Fi trilogy, Lilith’s Brood, but she was recommended on Twitter and I recently read that Junot Diaz included it in the reading list for his MIT ‘World-Building’ class. I decided to try the first book in the series, Dawn, published in 1987.

Lilith Iyapo wakes in an unfamiliar environment to discover that she is one of the few survivors of a nuclear apocalypse on earth and is now residing on a spaceship with an alien race, called the Oankali. The aliens, though basically humanoid in shape, have no recognisable eyes or nose, just a frightening proliferation of tentacles. They also have three genders: male, female & ooloi, and they copulate and reproduce in groups of three rather than couples. The ooloi can also manipulate genes.

Lilith (a mythological allusion to the first wife of Adam) has been specially selected and genetically altered to prepare a group of humans to resettle on the earth and build a new improved race of human/Oankali hybrids. The humans, however, do not accept Lilith as a benevolent mother – they perceive her as a threat in league with their alien captors, and are not willing to cooperate with this plan.

The Oankali ship is a fantastic feat of imagination, as is the psychological tension between the humans and the Oankali, particularly the capacity of the Oankali, despite studying them closely, to completely misunderstand human motivations and behaviour.

It’s been suggested that Octavia Butler’s trilogy refers to the integration of African slaves into American culture and the resulting African American identity, but the theme of the assimilation of aliens is just as relevant to the current migration of refugees to the UK and other countries. The refugees obviously do not have tentacles all over their bodies, but they may as well have if you consider the xenophobic reaction of the right-wing media. And of course the ethical issues surrounding genetic engineering are increasingly relevant in today’s society.

Dawn is a vividly evoked, thought-provoking read and I’d like to continue with the other two books in the series soon.

Boy-Snow-Bird

Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird has been on my to read list for a while, mainly because the US cover design is so enticing, but I didn’t really know anything about the book or the author. The only thing I’d heard was that it was a retelling of Snow White. It is one of those books it’s better not to know too much about before you read, so I’ll try not to include any spoilers.

Twenty-year-old Boy Novak has beautiful, long, white-blonde hair but she’s no Disney princess—she escapes from her abusive father, the rat catcher, in New York, and takes the bus to Flax Hill, Massachusetts where she meets widower Arturo Whitman and his beautiful daughter, Snow. Boy seems destined for the role of evil stepmother in this scenario but all is not as it seems. When Boy’s daughter Bird is born she brings a truth to light that has been buried for many years. Snow is the embodiment of the deception practiced by her father and her grandparents and bears the brunt of the exposure of this deception. The book is narrated by Boy in the first section, then by Bird in the second section with letters from the inscrutable Snow, and back to Boy again in the third section.

Boy, Snow, Bird is a book that continually subverts expectations. It is not a straightforward reinterpretation of Snow White but does utilises fairy tale language and imagery, and appropriately, mirrors are a recurring theme. The author approaches the narrative obliquely in a beautiful, assured prose style, and her story weaves a spell on the reader while addressing important issues of race and identity. I was utterly engrossed in this captivating tale.

Boy, Snow, Bird is Helen Oyeyemi’s fifth novel and I’ll definitely be reading more of her work.

Next up: I’m reading Mahesh Rao’s new short story collection, One Point Two Billion, and I’ll be revisiting a childhood favourite of mine, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D Taylor.