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Among Others

Anna Davour from Landet Annien, lover of SF and other strange flavours of fiction.

Among Others by Jo WaltonAmong Others by Jo Walton is the diary of Mori, a girl who reads a lot. It's also a boarding school story, and a fantasy story with magic and fairies, but most of all, it's a story about growing up reading SF and fantasy.

Perhaps I am a perfect reader of this novel. Actually I find it difficult to imagine what it's like to read Among Others if you did not love SF and fantasy as a teenager, and if you never longed for people who would understand the kind of things you cared about.

I have not read all of the books mentioned in this story, far from it, but I know the authors and recognize most of the titles, and that really connects me with her mind. The story would work even without that meta-connection, but so much of the depth comes from the sense of recognition. Mori uses the books to understand and discuss her life and the world.

"It's a granfalloon in the purest sense, and I am enduringly grateful to Vonnegut for giving me the word."

"Robert Heinlein says in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel that the only things woth studying are history, languages and science. Actually, he adds maths, but honestly they left out the mathematical part of my brain."

"It would be like living on Anarres. I'll take that over this any day."

Robert Heinlein, Will Travel xxx  

The year is 1979 and the world is very similar to the one we know. Mori – Morwenna Markova/Phelps – is fifteen years old and on the run from her insane mother after a terrible event that killed her twin sister and left Mori crippled. Social services brings her to a father she doesn't even remember and who lives under the rule of his three rich sisters. The aunts send Mori to the boarding school Arlinghurst, which is just as boring as you can imagine – especially for someone who cannot run.

From a Wales full of industrial ruins populated by fairies, she comes to an over-cultivated England with almost no space for magic. From a big family and lots of friends, she comes to a place where she is in many ways an outsider.

"There are other people like me out there. There is a karass. I know there is, there can be." (Don't worry, all of the science fiction words she uses are explained in the book.)

Slowly, Mori makes herself a new life. She gets to know her father and grandfather, discovers interlibrary loan and finds a book club. She chooses life, and finds out what the proper boundaries for magic are.

I must confess that I often have problems with diary novels. All of my experience with real diaries tell me that you usually write more when your life is boring, and when interesting things happen you don't have time to take notes. Also, you never write about those little things that seem insignificant but turn out to be really important later – when that happens in a fictional diary it completely cuts off my suspension of disbelief.

These problems don't exist here. Jo Walton has perfect explanations for how Mori has time to write so much (and read, for that matter), and even allows for several days to write long entries about important events. I like that.

The book club Mori joins at the town library in Oswestry is described in a way that makes me want to jump into the page and participate. It seems in many ways to be the perfect book club. Everyone has read a lot, and they can have meetings every week. They can discuss an author and various aspects of her work, and expect most of the people present to be able to contribute.

I wonder if that is possible at all, today. The amount of fantastic literature published in the previous decades is just staggering, and the variety of the field is so huge that you have to work hard to get an overview. In a general SF book club chances are that someone reads only hard sf, someone reads only stuff published before 1980, and someone cares for nothing but space opera and romance. You cannot expect everyone to know the same authors.

Still, something similar to the discussions in the Oswestry book club actually happens now and then, especially at science fiction conventions, and I love it. I can certainly relate to Mori's reactions to learning about fandom.

"There's a magazine, a 'fanzine' called Ansible! It's for information about what's going on in the SF fan world, it's funny, and it's so exactly what I would have called it that I love the author, sight unseen without meeting him."

(You all know, I hope, that Ansible still exists and you can read it online.)

Kurt Vonnegut; Cat's Cradle. James Tiptree Jr James Tiptree Jr 

When I put this book down, it was with a feeling that there are so many books I would like to read, or reread. Vonnegut, especially Cat's Cradle. Something, anything, by James Tiptree Jr. (Mori: "I'm so glad that I knew she was a woman in advance, because it would have been an awful shock to have discovered it when everyone starte saying 'she'.") John Brunner. Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence. Some classic Heinlein, definitely. Delany, especially Babel-17 and Triton. Robert Silverberg, stories from his good period about 1969-1974 or so. And that Zenna Henderson, one of the few names I actually didn't recognize (perhaps I should have).

Among Others is more than anything a story that celebrates the love of reading. It's really contagious! I never understood why people are not more interested in talking about what they read.

Susan Cooper; The Dark is Rising Robert Silverberg; Sailing to Byzantium (Five Novellas)    Ingathering: The Complete People Stories by Zenna Henderson

The Postmistress - Sarah Blake

We at The English Bookshop are very proud to announce that Helena D. of Bokhora and Dark Places fame will start blogging with us occasionally.

The Postmistress - Sarah BlakeLondon, 1940. While bombs fall over streets, monuments, and shelters, American radio reporter Frankie Bard is in the thick of it all: the nightly raids, the fear, the neighbours who suddenly, from one day to the next, aren't there anymore. Her reports make it all the way back to her native America, to a small Cape Cod town where people struggle with grasping the reality of war. One of her listeners, Emma, is a lonely doctor's wife. Another one, Iris, is the postmaster (never -mistress!) of their small town. While the Second World War lurches closer, their lives are interwoven - and will never be the same again...

Okay. Before I start telling you what I liked about The Postmistress - and there is plenty to like, rest assured - I just have to comment on how happy Sarah Blake made me by not only naming the doctor's wife Emma, but also choosing to introduce her as a reader of novels (the first scene featuring Emma finds her reading Anna Karenina). Admittedly, I am a geek, but I do love it when authors, without becoming too clever or full of themselves in a postmodern "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" sort of way, throw in a couple of allusions to literary classics. The classic Blake refers to is, of course, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, but you already knew that, right...?

With or without literary allusions, "The Postmistress" is an utterly absorbing read; the kind of book that makes you want to curl up in bed and forget all about time, place, and everyday life. I must confess I shed a tear or two in the process of reading, and I am so sorry that I wasn't able to make it to the book club discussion at the Stockholm store, because this is truly a novel meant for sharing with others.

Other things I liked with The Postmistress (please note that this is not a complete list):

  1. The opening sentence "it began, as it often does, with a woman putting her ducks in a row". And no, the ducks are not literal ducks (that might actually have made it even more awesome). 
  2. The way Sarah Blake manages to connect all the different places and people without, as is often the case with multilayered novels, putting more effort into one of them. Whether her characters are in the US or in Europe, at a small town post office or in a bomb shelter, the language is always pitch perfect, the there-ness - I suppose "presence" would do as nicely - total. 
  3. The ending (which made me cry). 
  4. All of it, really (except for a particularly detailed depiction of child birth going horribly wrong. I just can't read about the stuff anymore, not that it was ever a favourite topic of mine).

In a lucky turn of events, I stumbled across another novel by Sarah Blake, Grange House, in the clustered basement I like to call my very own personal library. Some people would call that a clear sign of (book) shopaholism as I had evidently bought the book, then promptly put it on the shelf and forgot all about it. Me, though? I'd go with serendipity. Thus, my newfound friendship with Sarah Blake continues! Grange House ought to turn our friendship into a full-on love affair, seeing how it is a Gothic ghost story set in 19th century Maine... I'll keep you posted! In the meantime, I'll leave you with a list of a few of my favourite WW2 novels. In all fairness, I suppose what unites them beyond the obvious - they all, one way or another, deal with Great Britain in the 1940's - is the fact that they are all great stories. You can never get too much of those.

Helena's top 5 of the month: Novels set in war-time Britain

The Night Watch - Sarah Waters
The Night Watch - Sarah Waters 
Arguably Waters' finest moment to date, this exquisitely written and beautifully paced novel tells the story of four Londoners in the 1940's. Its cast will haunt you long after you've finished the last page.  
The Guernsay Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows The Guernsay Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Impossible title, lovely book. I never knew the concepts "feelgood novel" and "war story" could go together, but here you have proof. A warm, cosy, best friend type of read. 
The Report - Jessica Francis Kane The Report - Jessica Francis Kane
Kane's much-acclaimed novel deals with the aftermaths of the 1943 Bethnal Green catastrophe, where 173 suffocated to death in the newly built Bethnal Green tube station. 
Goodnight, Mister Tom - Michelle Magorian Goodnight, Mister Tom - Michelle Magorian 
My very first encounter with World War II. An unforgettable, deeply moving novel that I look forward to introducing to my children when they are old enough.
The Outcast - Sadie Jones The Outcast - Sadie Jones

Granted, this one is a bit of a stretch as it is set in post-WW2 Britain. However, the memory of war still lingers in the minds and hearts of its characters and, frankly, this is too good a read not to mention (even though I do feel the theme cracking a wee bit..). Something about the overall tone made me think of Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road: middle-class lives gone to waste in a suburban surrounding so occupied with keeping up appearances that happiness is never an option... Jones' second novel, Small Wars, takes place in 1950's Cyprus and is just as captivating. Can't wait for her third one!

Sara Blake in the bookshop

Death from the Skies!: The science behind the end of the world...

Anna Davour from Landet Annien, lover of SF and other strange flavours of fiction.

Death from the Skies!   - Plait, Philip This is a book by Philip Plait. You might know him as the Bad Astronomer, which doesn't mean that his astronomy is substandard of course. I liked his writing before, so I was happy to finally get around to reading Death from the Skies.

It's a wonderful book, and seriously scary. Especially in the beginning.

Each chapter treats a threat to our little blue and green world from the universe around us. It starts small, with asteroids in the first chapter, and escalates through flares from the sun, effects of nearby supernova explosions, gamma ray bursts, black holes and possible threats from alien civilizations. The three final chapters take the really big perspective, and deal with the death of the sun, the collision of our galaxy with the Andromeda, and finally the slow death of the universe itself.

There are two tricks Phil Plait uses to make me not want to put the book down. What makes the book so charmingly readable is the conversational style with lots of little exclamations and parenthetical remarks. This makes it easy to follow along, but it never dumbs down the explanations of the science. The second trick is the dramatic openings to each chapter, a fictional account of how an ordinary person would experience the particular disaster of that chapter.

After reading about the horrors following a really big solar flare coming in our direction I want to know everything of course. How big is the risk? What could we do about it? And so I'm caught.

The part of the book dealing with things that will not happen in our lifetime never feels as urgently relevant, but still interesting. I'm sure even those who never had an interest in astronomy could enjoy this book, especially those who like speculation.

I sense stories in these scenarios, partly stories I recognise but also those that could still be written. The final chapter of Death from the Skies puts pictures in my head from Olaf Stapledon's The Star Maker, and of course I cannot read about supernovae destroying planets without remembering Arthur C. Clarke's story "The Star". Something written by Jack McDevitt echoes in my head in the chapter about alien attack. I search my memory for stories about civilisations struggling to escape from an impending gamma ray burst or a near collision with another star system or something like that, but nothing comes to mind immediately. Surely there are plenty of stories about living under a cosmic threat, it's just that I haven't yet read every disaster story.

Star Maker (SF Masterworks #21) - Stapledon, Olaf  Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present - Doctorow, Cory Engines Of God; McDevitt, Jack Olaf Stapledon; The Star Maker - The Other Side of the Sky

So I started thinking about end of the world, and about why we seem to love reading about disasters (and what comes after). Actually, I got sort of carried away, pulling out one book after the other from my shelves.

Postapocalyptic stories are on the rise, nowadays often spiced with some version of zombies. Why do we like stories about the end of the world? More to the point, how can we enjoy reading about worlds that build on the death of the majority and ruined lives for the rest? We can get a guilty pleasure from the suffering of others, that's well known. In fiction it's at least not immediately exploiting our unfortunate neighbours, like in the tabloids.

"No humans or other animals were harmed in the writing of this story," we could say.

Maybe we just want to be scared, in a safe way. Or maybe we just want to be safe, to feel that it could be worse, so my life is OK, really. But I don't think this is the main attraction of the postapocalyptic setting. Strangely, disaster stories are at the core very optimistic. They are usually stories are about survivors, and how they deal with the situation and try to do their best in spite of everything. At least for me, that's usually the most interesting aspect.

Cormac McCarthy; The RoadOne example is Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006), which brought the tropes of the post-nuclear-destruction story to a broader audience. It takes place just a few years after the Catastrophe, which is never explained but seems to me very much like a nuclear attack or perhaps a huge meteor impact. This background is used to explore the struggle to keep humanity in an extreme situation. For the sake of his boy, the father really tries to be strong and bring some kind of normality to their daily life. They ought to be the good guys. Sometimes that's just very difficult.

My general quibble with this type of story is nevertheless that despite showing us heroes, it is generally overly pessimistic about human nature. Seriously: what we know about how humans react in a real crisis tells us that they would huddle together, helping rather than hunting and fighting (or eating) each other. People are social, at the core. Cory Doctorow (author of for example For the Win) has mentioned something about wanting to write a disaster story where people are. I would like to read that one. I liked his When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth, which is a story where people don't fight and kill each other after the fall of civilization.

A weird thing about The Road is also that the topic seems almost dated. One of the scenes that has stayed with me is when the man finds a private bomb shelter. It's of a kind people used to build during the period when we lived under the threat of The Bomb. It had not been used, and is still stocked with food and water and everything you could want to survive on your own for a time. At the same time as it saves the father and his son, it seems to tell us something about the futility of our efforts to stay safe. Perhaps this scene particularly resonates with us who grew up under the threat of nuclear war.

Adams; WastelandsBut nuclear holocaust is not what we primarily feel threatened by today. Reading the anthology Wastelands (2008), edited by John Joseph Adams, I noted that the current generation of disasters in fiction indeed seem to lack one common fear, but start from various ugly visions of epidemics, environmental destruction or terrorism. It's a way of dealing with our fears, and making sense of them.

By imagining all the ways things could go wrong -- seriously wrong -- we learn something about our world, what we mean in it and what it means to us. That's the beautiful starting point for Phil Plait in Death from the Skies.

Alan Weisman; The World Without UsYou could do like the journalist Alan Weisman with The World Without Us (2007), and study what we do with our planet by trying to figure out what would happen with it if we just disappeared altogether. This book was a bestseller and inspired several tv shows and articles in major news magazines. The author has visited various parts of the globe and studied the effects of human activity and talked to various experts about what would happen to these things if we didn't maintain them. It tells us a lot about our place on this planet, what effect humans have on the world at this stage of our civilization. Polymers are forever.

Nonfiction like these two books is probably very good background reading for science fiction authors who want to create plausible scenarios for their stories. It's also almost as good as fiction for those of us who like to read about the end of the world as we know it.

Haunted House Stories and Andrew Pyper’s The Guardians

We at The English Bookshop are very proud to announce that Helena D. of Bokhora and Dark Places fame will start blogging with us occasionally.

Andrew Pyper The GuardiansFor as long as I can remember, haunted house stories have intrigued me. It is such a classic, simple set-up, really; yet there is so much room for exporation not only of the haunted house but of its inhabitants and their hidden inner rooms. Why, a psychoanalyst would probably even argue that the haunted house is the people living in it, their inner demons channelled through the menacing creaks and moans of the building and what have you. Now, I’m no psychoanalyst (sometimes a cigar is just a cigar) but like I just said, I happen to be a big fan of the haunted house genre, whether it is portrayed in cinema or in literature. Which is why I came to read Andrew Pyper’s new novel The Guardians.

Actually, that’s not one hundred percent accurate. There are three reasons for my picking up The Guardians and gulping it down in three tense reads – which, as any parent of small children will know, is as close as you can get to reading a book in one sitting. The first, arguably strongest, reason has to do with my obsession with haunted houses. The other two reasons are called The Lost Girls and The Killing Circle. I stumbled upon the former novel (Pyper’s much acclaimed debut from 2001) at a book sale half a decade ago and immediately found myself sucked into his atmospheric, engaging account of a coke-fuelled Toronto lawyer travelling to rural Ontario where nothing is as it may seem. After that, Andew Pyper somehow disappeared on my literary radar for a couple of years. It happens every once in a while, and I’m sure you can relate: You read a book. You like it. You make a mental note to read more by the same author. Then the phone rings, or your kid wakes up too early from his/her nap, or the laundry is ready. Your potential new literary BFF is immediately demoted to those black, murky waters of the very back of your mind. The good news is that, eventually, said potential new literary BFF comes floating back to the surface. It might take a while, but in my experience, the right books tend to come to the right readers. In this aspect, I’m very much a literary romantic. But I digress – but not really, since my point is that Andrew Pyper was unintentionally demoted to those dark, murky waters a few weeks after I read and enjoyed Lost Girls. Then, somehow, he got back on my radar last year, when I read The Killing Circle and was thrilled by how scary and gripping it was. I love how Pyper’s novels are part good old ghost stories, part dark urban tales of lost souls and crushed hopes. The Guardian is no exception. The protagonist, Trevor, has come a long way since he left the small town of Grimshaw decades ago – at least on the surface. When one of his childhood friends is found dead, he is forced to confront his memories of what made him leave Grimshaw in the first place. Once back in the town he swore never to revisit, Trevor meets up with the surviving members of his childhood circle of friends and soon discovers that the dark secret the four friends vowed to bury forever is resurfacing… and potentially risking lives in the process.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Guardians and have no doubt that other fans of literary suspense with a spooky touch will, too. Is The Guardians ultimately a ghost story, by the way? I don’t know, and therein lies part of the appeal. But if we let go of haunted houses and boogymen for a moment, let me say this: The Guardians is perhaps a stronger coming-of-age story and – sorry for going all Hollywood movie trailer guy on you – depiction of one man’s struggle with illness (yep, there is that, too, although I’ll let you discover what illness and how it affects the story for yourselves), identity and the things he left behind. Pyper's characters are exquisitely portayed in all their flaws and imperfections and I am particularly moved by his portrayal of Trevor who, like his predecessors in The Lost Girls and The Killing Circle, are anything but perfect (such a drag, perfection!) and therefore deeply relatable. Stephen King fans will be pleased to know that there are certain echoes of early King (think It and Stand By Me) resonating throughout the story. Yet another reason to check out The Guardians!

In the mood for more haunted house stories? My top 5 of the month delves deeper into the haunted house novel, past and present. Lovely chills coming right up!


The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe

1. The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe 

A must-read for any horror aficionado. Poe's story is just as compelling - and plain scary - a good 170 years after its creation.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

2. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson 

"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality." So begins Jackson's 1959 novel, by many considered as THE haunted house novel. It has been a while since I read The Haunting of Hill House, but if my memory serves me right, "many" are not far off the mark.

The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons

3. The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons 

Rivers Siddons is most known for her romantically tinged Southern novels, but this one excursion into the horror genre is easily the best thing she has ever written if you ask me. Here, she offers an interesting take on the haunted house tale: the house in her novel is brand new and set in a seemingly idyllic Southern suburb. I'm all for old dilapidated Georgian mansions in remote villages, but was pleasantly surprised by just how well sheer horror and afternoon cocktails on front porches go together. Stephen King - again with the King! - has called The House Next Door one of the finest horror novel of the 20th century. I might not go that far, but rest assured that Rivers Siddons' novel is well worth seeking out if you're in the mood for a slightly different haunted house story. I sometimes pray that Anne Rivers Siddons will tire of the grand old Atlanta families and Southern belles and write a new horror novel. It hasn't happened yet, but I'll keep my fingers crossed just in case.

The Haunting of James Hastings by Christopher Ransom

4. The Haunting of James Hastings by Christopher Ransom 

As the title suggests, the true hauntee (yes, that officially just became a word) of this novel is a person. However, I found his shabby yet once grand house in a slightly seedy LA neighbourhood so intriguing that I began fantasizing about living there myself. Then things got a bit too scary and I decided that I'm fine where I am, thank you. The Haunting of James Hastings was a fun, genuinely scary read, reminiscent of horror movies rather than horror novels. I mean that in a good way... I think.

Hell House by Richard Matheson

5. Hell House by Richard Matheson
Finally, a recommendation not only for anyone who might be reading this but for myself. I haven't read anything other by Matheson than the brilliant I am Legend, but Hell House keeps popping up in discussions with other horror fans and I want to see what I've been missing. In other words, Hell House, here I come (if I dare)!

Helena on Joyce Carol Oates

We at The English Bookshop are very proud to announce that Helena D. of Bokhora and Dark Places fame will start blogging with us occasionally.

On a drab February morning very much, I imagine, like this one, renowned novelist Joyce Carol Oates drove her husband of 48 years, literary editor/publisher Raymond Smith to the emergency room where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. Little did they know that the trip to the ER was to be their very last trip together – on 18 February, after seemingly improving, Ray died after contracting a secondary infection. He was 77. 

“Life changes in an instant.” Anyone who has read Joan Didion’s haunting memoir A Year of Magical Thinking will recall this line. This is also true of Oates’ unexpected journey into widowhood: you leave your husband’s bedside early in order to go home and arrange for his homecoming – which surely must be weeks, days even, away? – and receive a call in the middle of the night to please come quickly. You leave the hospital as a wife and return as a widow. To become a widow is, in a way, to survive a loved one – but how does one really survive when life as you know it has come to a screeching halt? Oates offers no definite answers, but provides a poignant and, for such an intensely private writer, surprisingly intimate take on her nightmarish descent into widowhood. Yet through it all - the desperation, the 5 am suicidal thoughts, the beady-eyed “lizard-thing” urging her to end it all, to put herself out of her misery – Oates remains, essentially, a writer. Her unique tone permeates the grief and makes A Widow’s Story not only a must-read memoir, but a must-read literary work. Her use of the “lizard-thing” as a way of explaining her anguish, for instance, bears echoes of her more horror-tinged works, while the frantically hyphenated tale of her “hospital vigil” – those six days of hope and despair leading up to her husband’s death – eerily mimics her husband’s shortness of breath as well as the poetry of Emily Dickinson, a writer whom Oates greatly admires and refers to on several occasions throughout the book. It is very, very impressive – and comforting to see Joyce Carol Oates return to form. Because while I admit to being an avid (manic?) reader of virtually everything Oates publishes (a full time job, I’m telling you!),  there has been something lacking in some of her more recent work. To be able to find the essence of everything I love about Joyce Carol Oates in one single volume – over forty years after her debut novel! – is a wonderful thing. I’d recommend A Widow’s Story to old JCO fiends like yours truly as well as those new to her writing. It is a gut-wrencher of a read: brutally honest and unfliching in its portayal of love, loss, and anguish. It is also, ultimately, a story of survival and – sorry if this comes off Oprah Winfreyish – the healing power of words. For grief renders us at a loss for words, and to be able to articulate one’s grief, and do it as eloquently as poignantly as Oates... surely that must be a blessing? 

It is no coincidence that I chose to publish this review on 14 February, which in our Western society equals Valentine’s Day. A day to love and be loved – or a day to shop oneself silly and collapse on the sofa after having OD’d on candy, the tacky red lingerie you’re never going to get around to wearing anyway still lying in its wrapper where it will remain forgotten, unloved, a casualty of the Valentine’s Day shopping bonanza we all fiercely criticise yet somehow keep alive year after year? I say: a day to reminisce over what it really means to love someone. Yep, this is where I go all memento mori on you (my apologies in advance). Because, as Oates points out, to love someone is also, potentially, to lose someone. When you say “I do” you not only agree to become someone’s spouse; the threat of widow(er)hood is also there, lurking in the background. “Until death do us part”: we say these words, hear them in endless Hollywood movies, but do we truly comprehend them? Is the reality – the fatality – of loving someone for the rest of our lives lost among the glossy wedding mags, the rom coms with the obligatory happy endings? As you can see, A Widow’s Story raises all sorts of questions regarding love, loss, mortality, and marriage. Therefore, it strikes me as an ideal choice for a book club. Book club or no book club: do read it! If, after having read it, you feel like exploring the massive jungle that is Joyce Carol Oates’ back catalogue, read on for some tips on where to continue.

Helena’s Top 5 of the month: 5 essential books by America’s Dark Lady of Letters

Blonde (2001)Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates

Arguably Oates magnum opus, this fictionalised biography on Marilyn Monroe is one of my all-time favourites. At nearly 900 pages, it may seem daunting, and yes, Oates does have a tendency to expand (in terms of words, that is...) but Blonde is definitely worth the effort! Truly a Great American Novel. Read it before it becomes a major feature film starring the always magnificent Naomi Watts. 

Bellefleur (1980)Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates

Fancy a bit of magic realism blended with a larger-than-life, sweeping Gothic family saga? Of course you do! More than thirty years after its original publication, Bellefleur remains one of Oates’ most imaginative and impressive works.

Rape: A Love Story (2004)Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates

Consider yourself warned: This pitch-black novella will most definitely upset you. I read it for the first time a couple of weeks ago and am still fuelled with rage – and haunted by the characters and Oates’ merciless exploration into the darkest, goriest parts of small town America.

The Falls (2002)Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates

Next to Blonde, this moving epic is, I think, Oates’ finest 21st moment... so far. A book that will stay with you long after you’ve finished it.

Female of the Species: Tales of Mystery and Suspense (2007)Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates

Oates is a superb writer of short stories and this collection of the mysterious, the scary, and the downright weird is one of her very best. As a life-long horror fan, I especially appreciate how Oates dives into particularly murky and, occasionally, absolutely terrifying waters. If you’re a parent, the story “Banshee” ought to come with a written warning – it is so horrific, I think I forgot to breath for a while. An oxygen mask may be required...

What I read on my Zanzibar vacation!


Well, I managed six novels during the trip, four of them set in Zanzibar! It was quite tricky to track down novels set in Zanzibar, and I unfortunately failed to find any written by zanzibari authors. The only zanzibari author I could find was the Booker shortlisted Abdulrazak Gurnah, but none of his novels are set in Zanzibar! So I wound up with:

1. The Africa Bar by Nick Maes The Africa Bar by Nick Maes
Very well-written interesting story about two British women and their respective intertwined zanzibari tales; one set in 1963 on the brink of revolution, and the other in contemporary Zanzibar. I was quite taken with this book, it felt very initiated and well researched. The heat coming off the pages was almost palpable.
Nick Maes in the bookshop

2. Zanzibar by Giles Foden Zanzibar by Giles Foden
Literary thriller based around the Al-Qaeda bombings of the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. Very exciting and incisive.
Zanzibar by Giles Foden in the bookshop

3. Lost Empire by Clive Cussler Lost Empire by Clive Cussler
Well. Chuckle, chuckle. My six-year-old enjoyed this the most. I've never read Mr Cussler before, but it's quite like an action film with lots of quirks and historical conspiracies and hidden treasure and, well. You get the idea.

 Lost Empire by Clive Cussler in the bookshop

4. Death in Zanzibar by M. M. Kaye Death in Zanzibar by M. M. Kaye
A period piece, written in the late 1950s. This is in the vein of Agatha Christie with maps of houses and staircases with secret buttons. It's about hidden treasure and murder and was quite a lark.

Death in Zanzibar by M. M. Kaye in the bookshop

5. In the Woods by Tana French In the Woods by Tana French
I broke off my Zanzibari reading with an Irish crime novel. I had high hopes for this and they were well founded. Great writing, interesting and complex characters. It felt a bit like Donna Tartt writing crime. After that I ran out of books, but the hotel library luckily were kind enough to exchange my Giles Foden for a copy of:

Into the Woods by Tana French in the bookshop

6. The Likeness by Tana French The Likeness by Tana French
The second book from Ms French and it's even better!! Even more Donna Tartt vibes. Happy surprise. The setting is pure magic; an old country house with four beautiful post graduate students desperately but with great style and determination hiding from the world. And then one of them is stabbed...

The Likeness by Tana French in the bookshop

That's it! Now back to the grindstone!

Pondering the Bookers


I've been reading nothing but Booker nominees for the last 8 weeks. I managed to read 8 of the 13 nominees and was lucky enough to finish the entire shortlist. It's been an interesting journey into many different worlds; from suburban Australia to a prison garden shed in Canada; from revolutionary America to jewish life in modern London; from the end of Jamaican slavery to airport bars at Gatwick; from backpacking in Lesotho to Egyptian grave excavations in the 1920s... Amazing how much thought has gone into all these works of fiction.

My two favourites were I think The Slap and above all the Alan Warner book. Neither of these made the shortlist, and I'm not sure what that says about me or the judges. Probably nothing. I will stop now. The final five longlist nominees will not be read by me at this point. I think I tried to bite off more than I could chew, but then I often do. Perhaps next year if I try this again in some form, some more of you will join me? Like a Booker support group?

Now I'm going to read a few good crime novels. The new Lehane is top of the list (but it's been stolen by my staff!!!)

Howard Jacobson - The Finkler Question

Howard Jacobson - The Finkler Question (The Booker Prize Winner 2010)

I was about halfway through Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question when the prize was announced last week. It's the story of Julian Treslove, a 49-year-old Englishman who experiences a kind of crisis triggered by an epiphany in the form of a mugging. It is very much a novel about identity, but perhaps even more a novel about what it means to be jewish today in Britain and the world. This novel has been called the first comic novel to win the Booker, and it is true that the language is quite witty, but the story itself is more tragicomic than comic. 
I felt it was interesting and I really enjoyed his language, but it wasn't my favourite nominee. He did go on a bit. 

Howard Jacobson - The Finkler Question  in the bookshop 

Tom McCarthy - C

Tom McCarthy - C

I found this novel challenging. It's the story of Serge Carrefax, his entire brief life at the turn of the last century, a time brimming with new technology and the clash and intermingling of the old with the new. The bare bones of the story are interesting, but the text is so dense with subtexts and references that it took me a long time to finish it, and to be honest I didn't enjoy it much. Which probably means it's a novel that will come back to haunt me for a very long time... It is currently the favourite to win the prize, of course... 

Tom McCarthy - C  in the bookshop 

Damon Galgut - In a Strange Room

Damon Galgut - In a Strange Room

This is a brief book retelling three episodes in the life of a traveller eponymously called Damon... He's South African and the stories take place mostly in southern Africa, India and in Europe. Galgut's writing is very sparse, thoughtful. The narrator is somewhere in the future from the events and keeps switching from describing himself as 'he' or 'I'. The writing feels very honest, very real. I liked this, the feel of it. 

Damon Galgut - In a Strange Room  in the bookshop 

Alan Warner - The Stars in the Bright Sky

Alan Warner - The Stars in the Bright Sky

This is such an amazing book, my favourite of the longlist so far. The story is about five lassies from a small town in northern Scotland going on a holiday. They meet up at Gatwick to decide where to go, and along tags one girl's posh London uni friend Ava. The book is beautifully constructed and the wonderful writing works very well in contrast with the often crass dialogue. It's quite literary, with several nods to Beckett, and at the same time the storyline could almost be chick-lit. I was very surprised by this and I do enjoy being surprised. I'll read more of Mr Warner I'm sure. You should too. And you have to get acquainted with Manda Tassy, one of literature's most amazing characters in a long time. 

Alan Warner - The Stars in the Bright Sky  in the bookshop 

Andrea Levy - The Long Song

Andrea Levy - The Long Song

The tale of a Jamaican sugar plantation during the 1800s, or actually the tale of slavery during that period. Told from the perspective of house slave Miss July, we get insights into the daily life and tribulations of the estate and how it is viewed by both sides, but mostly it is the slaves' story. Many dramatic events both in the personal lives of the characters and in Jamaican 19th century history are woven into the telling. It has everything, but I found it felt like something I'd read many times before (except for the setting) and that because of that it didn't quite reach me. Quite a feat though, and probably an important book. 

Andrea Levy - The Long Song in the bookshop 

Peter Carey - Parrot and Olivier in America

Peter Carey - Parrot and Olivier in America

This is a romp of a tale. It reminded me a bit of Suskind's Perfume (the character of Parrot) but also of Stephenson's Quicksilver (the lusty telling of the story). Olivier is a french aristocrat trying to understand his world after the revolution. Parrot is an English orphan with a great skill for mimicry. Fate brings these two together and sends them on a mission to study the young nation of America and in particular its prison system. But this book is about so much more! And it's quite humourous. If I have any complaints it might be that it ran a bit long. But - quite enjoyable!
Now on to the next one! Three down, nine to go! 

Peter Carey - Parrot and Olivier in America in the bookshop 

Emma Donoghue - Room

Emma Donoghue - Room

This book almost made me put it down after the first few pages, it's that emotionally strong. It's told through the voice of 5-year-old Jack who has spent his entire life in captivity with his Ma, locked up in a tiny Room by a man who kidnapped Ma seven years ago up to keep as a slave. It's a very very small world in their Room and Jack telling about his existence is excruciating. But it's completely fascinating. I couldn't put it down. And it's very nicely realized. Sometimes it's difficult to interpret Jack's thoughts, shaped as they are by his specific limits of experience, but you always understand in the end. One to remember. Like a much darker Dog in the Night-time in a sense.
Emma Donoghue - Room in the bookshop 

Chris Tsiolkas - The Slap

Chris Tsiolkas - The Slap

Very well written, cleverly constructed novel on suburban angst; this has already won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, The Australian Literary Society Gold Medal AND is on the Man Booker Prize 2010 longlist. At a barbecue on a summer lawn a man slaps a child who is not his and this starts off a series of events in the concerned families. The story is told from 8 points of view: eight quite different voices; young and old, male and female, pro and con, all carry the story forward. I found this intriguing and utterly captivating, although I thought perhaps some characteristics were surprisingly shared by very disparate people.... But do read, and be challenged.
Chris Tsiolkas - The Slap in the bookshop 

What I Read on my Easter Vacation!

I brought four books to the south coast of Cyprus and enjoyed them all:

Harlan Coben - Caught

1. Harlan Coben - Caught. Another stand-alone thriller about the suburban soul. Perhaps not his finest, but quite thrilling and his characters are overall believable and engaging.

Don Winslow - Savages

2. Don Winslow - Savages. Yeah! This is not actually published until June, but I was lucky and got a hold of a prepublication copy. This is great writing, political, smooth, SoCal/Mexico drug wars/philosophy. Great language, solid points made. Highly recommended. When you can find it...

Jonathan L Howard - Johannes Cabal the Necromancer

3. Jonathan L Howard - Johannes Cabal the Necromancer. Good, original, English, somewhat gaimanesque, a bit quirky fantasy. Johannes sold his soul to the devil ten years ago and now he wants it back! A deal is struck, but who's fooling who? Read!

Karen Campbell - Shadowplay

4. Karen Campbell - Shadowplay. The third novel about glaswegian police-woman Anna Cameron, this is not actually published until next month, but Karen was nice enough to present me with a sneak preview copy... These novels are so good. Anna Cameron is such an intriguing character and the writing here really shines. Great intrigue. Do not miss out on these books!