Of late I’ve been lucky to read some amazing books, and I thought I’d share a few that really stood out for me. I don’t do reviews normally — I’m just not very good at writing them, so I tend to stick to ratings. Review writing really is an art — and one that I do not possess! But I think these books really deserve both mention and reviews, so here they are, and for each I’ve included a quote that I really enjoyed.
This is a must for any mythology and fairytales/folktales lover. In the Night Garden starts off with a little girl who has been cast out into the Palace Garden of a sultan. Around her eyes are two large, inky stains, which are in fact made of tiny writing — said writing containing magical tales that coil around her eyes.
When the sultan’s youngest son encounters the girl, she begins to tell him the stories imprinted on her eyes. The stories coil and flow in and out of each other, until they weave a magnificent tapestry. Valente was a poet before she wrote novels, and it shows: her writing is as breathtaking as the sheer range of mythology and fairytales she creates, but there is humour and self-awareness to these tales too. These are, by the way, not fairytales for the faint of heart, but they are as beautiful and dark as those collected by the Brothers Grimm.
I couldn’t decide between these two quotes, so you get both! From the start of the book:
Once there was a child whose face was like the new moon shining on cypress tress and the feathers of waterbirds…
Now this child had a strange and wonderful birthmark, in that her eyelids and the flesh around her her eyes were stained a deep indigo-black, link ink pooled in china pots. It gave her the mysterious taciturn look of an owl on ivory rafters, or a racoon drinking from the swift-flowing river.
And from within one of the stories etched on the girl’s eyes:
“Well,” the Marsh King pursed his beak politely, “at any rate, your manliness need only last for a relatively brief period. I have already discussed this in detail with some of the lower Stars—white dwarfs and the like. I shall bundle you up tight as a mitten in a human skin until,” and here he cleared his long blue throat dramatically, “the Virgin is devoured, the sea turns to gold, and the saints migrate west on the wings of henless eggs.”
“In the Stars’ name, what does that mean?” I gasped.
“I haven’t the faintest idea! Isn’t it marvelous? Oracles always have the best poetry! I only repeated what I was told—it is rather rude of you to expect magic, prophecy, and interpretation. That’s asking quite a lot, even from a King.”
Don Tillman is a professor of genetics with Aspergers. When he turns his sharp intellect to the problem of finding himself a wife, he goes about this with his customary precision and scientific know-how: he creates a sixteen-page questionnaire to help him identify the perfect partner. Enter Rosie, a barmaid, a smoker, a drinker, a late-arriver. Rosie is entirely wrong — she is in fact immediately struck off the list as potential mate.
When Don agrees to help her search for her father using DNA testing, an uneasy but touching friendship blossoms between the two. I’m sure you can guess where the story is headed. This book is brilliantly written, it’s laugh out loud funny at times, tear-jerkingly touching at others, but most of all I think Simsion did a fantastic job in finding the humour and emotion in a delicate subject matter, without it ever being unkind or overly sentimental.
There was only one bar of that name, in a back street of an inner suburb. I had already modified the day’s schedule, cancelling my market trip to catch up on the lost sleep. I would purchase a ready-made dinner instead. I am sometimes accused of being inflexible, but I think this demonstrates an ability to adapt to even the strangest of circumstances.
I arrived at 7.04pm only to find that the bar did not open till 9.00pm. Incredible. No wonder people make mistakes at work.
In true Mieville style, this is beautifully written, wonderfully imaginative, and full of weird and wonderful creatures and people. In the world of Railsea, the ‘sea’ is made of soil and covered with a complicated network of rails. The soil crawls with giant moles, man eating worms, giant rats, and all sorts of other scary creatures that would make an easy meal of anyone stepping onto the soil.
Our story beings aboard a moler train (a train whose crew hunts the giant moles), whose captain is obsessed with catching a giant albino mole ever since it took her arm a few years ago. Sound familiar? Our hero, a young lad called Sham, finds a picture in a train wreckage of something that should be impossible and as a result soon finds himself hunted by pirates, train-folk, salvagers, not to mention the monsters that roil beneath the soil’s surface.
While Railsea does make references to Moby Dick, it’s nothing like the classic. It’s fast paced and exciting: I think I read it in a couple of days. My favourite aspect of this book is in a very Mieville-like detail: the word ‘and’ spelled out never appears in the book. Instead it is represented by an ‘&’. A symbol that makes perfect sense in a world centered around rails.
The ground & rails were grey as the sky. Near the horizon, a nose bigger than him broke earth again. It made its molehill by what Sham thought a dead tree, then realised was some rust-furred metal strut toppled in long-gone ages, up-poking like the leg of a dead beetle god. Even so deep in the chill & waste, there was salvage.
It’s a small collection of poems, translated from Szymborska’s native Polish. The poems are beautiful yet very human and approachable. Each one is like a little treat, like a square of chocolate, to enjoy with a cup of tea — imitating Szymborska on the cover basically!
My favourite is An Idea, about a writer who is visited by an idea, dithers and faffs and reasons why she can’t write the idea, suggesting instead that the idea visit more talented poets, until eventually the idea fades and vanishes.
A few other favourite lines, first from the poem Here:
I can’t speak for elsewhere
but here on Earth we’ve got a fair supply of everything.
Here we manufacture chairs and sorrows,
scissors, tenderness, transistors, violins,
teacups, dams, and quips.
And from Non Reading:
We live longer
but less precisely
and in shorter sentences.
The book is quiet, contemplative, and as with all Ishiguro’s writing, incredibly subtle. The sadness of a life that passed Stevens by, regret at what might have been is only ever hinted at. He is unfailingly proper and never so much as thinks of indulging in self-pity.
I do not think I responded immediately, for it took me a moment or two to fully digest these words of Miss Kenton. Moreover, as you might appreciate, their implications were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed- why should I not admit it? – at that moment, my heart was breaking.
In a future where the ice caps have melted, the water has risen, and temperatures are soaring, London has become half submerged swamp-land in a new Triassic age. Prehistoric reptiles swim through lagoons in front of the now abandoned and inundated Ritz, the walls of which are covered by creeping tropical plants.
It’s an interesting, dark tale, exploring both what has happened to the planet and how this has affected the human subconscious, slowly changing their behaviour back to something more primordial. There’s also (for me as an ex-Londoner anyway) an incredible sense of excitement and discovery in exploring a half-submerged London through Ballard’s writing.
In the early morning light a strange mournful beauty hung over the lagoon; the sombre green-black fronds of the gymnosperms, intruders from the Triassic past, and the half-submerged white-faced buildings of the 20th century still reflected together in the dark mirror of the water, the two interlocking worlds apparently suspended at some junction in time, the illusion momentarily broken when a giant waterspider cleft the oily surface a hundred yards away.
I’m developing a bit of a thing for beautifully illustrated children’s books. This is one gorgeous book that most definitely deserves to be bought in hardback. The illustrations are by Chris Riddell, in ink with gold highlights.
And the story is very different from the story you think you know. There are no princes. There are no damsels in distress. It’s a clever and modern take on some well known tropes. For this book you get a quote and some pictures (click on the images to make them larger):
The queen called for her first minister and informed him that he would be responsible for her kingdom in her absence, and that he should do his best neither to lose it nor to break it.
She called for her fiancé and told him not to take on so, and that they would still be married, even if he was but a prince and she a queen, and she chucked him beneath his pretty chin and kissed him until he smiled.
She called for her mail shirt.
She called for her sword.
She called for provisions, and for her horse, and then she rode out of the palace, towards the east.
I came to Wodehouse (the creator of the infamous duo, Jeeves and Bertie Wooster) rather late, but I am making up for lost time. Wodehouse is brilliantly funny, manages to capture a certain aspect of britishness superbly well, but more to the point, the writing is absolutely delicious. It’s the kind of book that makes me want to stop every few sentences to read a line aloud.
While the Jeeves/Wooster series is what Wodehouse is most famous for, Leave it to Psmith holds a very special place in my heart, in part because it was my first Wodehouse read. The quote is the opening sentence of the book. When I read that, I knew I was going to have a very, very good time reading that book, and indeed, it didn’t disappoint.
At the open window of the great library of Blandings Castle, drooping like a wet sock, as was his habit when he had nothing to prop his spine against, the Earl of Emsworth, that amiable and boneheaded peer, stood gazing out over his domain.
I do have to admit, I wish the publishers did a better job with the covers — they’re pretty poor. If you haven’t tried Wodehouse, apply the old adage and don’t judge those books by their cover. They are well, well worth a read.
And that’s it for now. If you have any books of your own that you really enjoyed, I’d love to hear. I’m always on the lookout for books to add to my ever growing reading list and bookshelf!