Summer reading, had me a blast

So, what usually happens with me over the summer is I drag a big pile of books and DVDs home and then I do an average to poor job of getting through them all over the Christmas and new year break, because even though I might not necessarily be at work, there’s still plenty to do at home (taking the Christmas tree down, letting the 3 year old help, cleaning up after that disaster and so on…)

This year I had the misfortune of getting a cold in the new year that turned into a chest infection and necessitated quite a bit of lying in bed feeling sorry for myself. Which as everyone knows is the perfect time to get some reading done. Here’s what I managed to rattle through as a result *cough*.

Cover of American GodsAmerican Gods – As recommended by Pickle Bronwyn, this is a great read. It spans a great many topics – Norse mythology, theology, Americana, First Nations beliefs – and it’s also kind of a road-trip novel. Engrossing and enjoyable.

Like a Queen – To say Aussie writer and mum Constance Hall is a phenomenon is not overstating the case. Her posts on parenting and relationships and the importance of building other women up rather than tearing them down are massively popular, largely due to Facebook. In only a couple of years she has recruited a legion of fans (or “Queenies”) from all walks of life who love her brash, no-BS yet tender approach to modern womanhood. Her book is more “hippyish” than I usually go for but it’s brutally honest and raw too which is very affecting. A great, affirming read for harangued and under-appreciated mothers.

Cover of You can't touch my hairYou can’t touch my hair: And other things I still have to explain – Phoebe Robinson made a fan out of me within about three pages. She’s wickedly funny, scathing and more than a little bit goofy while tackling pretty important issues like racism and sexism. I learned a lot about African American hair from this as well as what sexism looks like to a female actor/comedian. I LOVED this book (even though I cannot fathom why she put The Edge at the top of her “which order I would have sex with the members of U2 in” list. The Edge. REALLY?). It’s a humorous mixture of pop culture, social awareness and general badassery. Highly recommended.

Cover of Talking as fast as I canTalking as fast as I can – Actor Lauren Graham’s memoir is a lot like what you imagine her personality to be – considered and cheerful with plenty of quips, non sequiturs and tangential observations. It’s a must-read for Gilmore Girls fans and recommended companion reading if you’ve recently watched the rebooted “A year in the life” series. Don’t read this expecting to get the low down on any Hollywood scandal though. No careers are ruined. No beans are spilled. But it is a light, amusing read that makes me keen to check out her first novel (a second is in the works) as well as her screen adaptation of The Royal We. There’s also a handy “writing process” guide borrowed from another writer included that I may well put into use. Also, how much is that cover photo crying out for some book-facing? So. Much.

Exhibit A.

Cover of The world according to Star WarsThe world according to Star Wars – I am a sucker for any book that indulges my desire to ponder the many facets, nooks and crannies, and minutiae of the Star Wars universe. And Cass Sunstein, one of America’s most highly regarded legal scholars, obviously feels the same since he wrote this book, seemly to fill that exact niche. It’s a mixed bag (the section on the U. S. constitution was a bit tenuous, in my opinion) but there are plenty of opportunities to ponder the meanings, symbolism and politics of this most popular of sci-fi series’ and to view it through a variety lenses. Recommended for fans.


Hidden Absurdities

Your local Christchurch City Library is filled with popular titles everyone loves. The Jodi Picoults, Nora Roberts and Jamie Oliver cookbooks fill the library shelves. But how about the more obscure and, dare I say it, slightly odd books that live in our library?

A while ago I started collecting photocopied front covers of books with odd titles, or about unusual subjects, or books I just couldn’t imagine would have an audience, even a niche one. Many of my library colleagues started collecting for me too as the more obscure books passed through their hands. I now have an ever expanding pile of great covers.

How to Bombproof your Horse  is my favourite so far. It’s actually about teaching confidence and obedience to your horse in tricky situations such as crowds. I also took a double take at 1080 Recipes. Is it just me or would most Kiwis see that as cooking with possum poison? There are so many quirky titles hiding on the Non-Fiction shelves in your local library, it’s well worth a browse. Have you got a favourite quirky title?

cover for Bombproof your horsecover for When pancakes go bad

cover for Domestic slutterycover for Knit your own moustache

cover for The art of making fermented sausagescover for 1080 recipescover for How to make love to a plastic cup

Small is beautiful

Book cover: The Library Book My library seems to be filling up with large and beautiful coffee table books at the moment (I have a strong suspicion that other libraries are sneaking them in here at night, when we aren’t looking).  They ARE beautiful, with their giant pages, shiny covers, and gorgeous multi-page spreads of breathtaking photographs of exotic places. But they don’t make my heart beat faster.

Instead, and being the contrary kind of girl that I am, I am finding myself drawn to the other end of the spectrum. Beside my bed is a slim volume of short stories by A.S. Byatt; in my bag is a copy of Susan Hill’s The Small Hand; I recently finished re-reading Dan Rhodes’ Gold and Little Hands Clapping, and earlier in the year read and loved Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. I keep putting Alan Bennett’s Smut and The Uncommon Reader on the Staff Picks shelf, and I have just picked up The Library Book from the holds shelf.

I don’t know what it is about my current state of mind that is making me drawn to these wee jewels – at under 200 pages each, they certainly don’t keep me reading for very long, and I have to make sure I have at least two or three around all the time in case I finish one before my lunch break is over, but I can’t seem to go past them. Subject matter isn’t important, and neither is a fact-or-fiction differentiation. They DO have to be hard-backed copies to catch my eye, but apart from that it seems I am not fussy at all. I can quite happily dismiss the great solid tomes that everyone is carting around right now, but show me a tiny story and I have to have it.

Help me out here, folks.  Point out the common thread, so I can make sense of my addiction, and then feed it by suggesting more tiny titles …

Pick ‘n’ mix: the sequel(s)

Sometimes I come home from the library with armloads of new titles, new authors, debuts, ‘first’ books. This week, it seems, is Week of the Sequels. And it’s been a bit of a mixed bag, really.

A while ago I read the first in the Dog-faced Gods series, A Matter of Blood, and LOVED it. Book 2 was also a really good read. Book 3, sadly, has gripped me so little and annoyed me so much that I can’t even be bothered finishing it. It’s somewhere in the house, half-read and likely to remain that way until I find it and take it back to the library, destined to remain ever only half-finished.

Louise Penny’s series set in the tiny Quebecois town of Three Pines and featuring Detective Inspector Gamache was recommended to me by a friend. It’s been a long time since I read a ‘normal’ detective series, and I was a bit hesitant, but there’s just something about these books that I really like. I devoured Book 1, Still Life, and number 2, Dead Cold. Yesterday the third title arrived for me, and I can’t wait to pick it up. Interesting – there’s no zombies, mysterious inexplicable events (apart from the obvious murders), odd twisty interdimensional portals or much of anything really, apart from just damn good mystery writing.

I’ve only recently discovered Sarah Rayne, and I think I wrote about her somewhere here too … yup, here.  To my surprise and delight, she’s picked up and kept some of the characters from Property of a Lady, and they feature in recent release The Sin Eater. This was just as good a read as Property, and I’ll be a happy girl if this turns out to be an ongoing series.

I love FG Cottam’s books, and have just finished The Magdalena Curse.  While not a series in the strict sense, the more I read of these books, the more I see character and story patterns – impetuous but well-meaning intelligent man of action gets into sticky (often supernatural) situation, where only the interest (and then love) of a beautiful and super-sensible woman can save the day.  This sounds a bit naff, but truly isn’t – I really do like these books, and will continue to find and read them, but maybe I should take a bit of a break for a while, so the ‘pattern’ fades a bit.

Waiting on the shelf and still to be read is the second in writing team Preston and Child’s latest series featuring Gideon Crew.  The Agent Pendergast series by these guys is one of my most favouritest EVER series, and I had high hopes for Gideon, but I found book 1 to be pretty much bog-standard adventure.  I have been putting off picking up Gideon’s Corpse (!), because I am frightened it will confirm how I felt about book 1.

I’m also still on the waiting list for the next-in-series from Jim Butcher, Simon Green (two different series), Cassandra Clare, Ben Aaronovitch, and a heap of others including The Twelve  – the highly anticipated follow-up to Justin Cronin’s The Passage, a huge success with lots of readers from a couple of years ago.

What sequels are you waiting for? And what have you been thrilled or disappointed by recently?

Pick ‘n’ mix: Lies, it’s all lies

Cover of Born LiarsIs House right? Do we all lie? According to some recent books we not only do it, it is now the norm in our society. Personally I’m a bit sceptical that it’s a new thing, but here’s what they have to say.

The Post-truth Era argues that “Deception has become commonplace at all levels of contemporary life” and that in this world “borders blur between truth and lies, honesty and dishonesty, fiction and non-fiction.” Oprah might agree with the last bit after her stoush with the author of A Million Little Pieces, a memoir that turned out to be fictional and which the author defended as being “subjective truth”. He’s not the first one though, his is just one in long list of fictional memoirs, some of which made their authors a lot of money.

Born liars described by the BBC as being ‘erudite’ looks at lying as an evolutionary necessity, part of our need to deal with social interaction. I noted when watching Robert Winston’s series A Child of Our Time that he chose the ability to tell a white lie as a marker of pre-school child development. Therein perhaps lies the room for confusion, because a white lie both upholds the social system and apparently contravenes the same system’s rules regarding honesty. Where do white lies start and finish? Is lying on your CV now considered a white lie? Does that matter?

CoverWriting a review of the book for The New Republic Online, Gregg Easterbrook suggested that “whether something is believed has become more important than whether it’s true.” Possibly, but is that a new concept? – politicians has been at it for a long time.

In one of my favourite detective novels The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey uses her detective to expose the highly misleading bad name given to Richard the Third by the political lies of the Tudors. All history is lies, as they say.

In the end the point made by Dorothy Rowe in Why We Lie seems the most pertinent to me – that it is ourselves we hurt the most when we lie – a theme already endlessly explored through fiction over the ages.

Pick ‘n’ mix: Oh, the horror!

CoverI’m not a big fan of Halloween, to be honest – I don’t find the idea of sending your kids out to knock on strangers’ doors and demand things with the threat of violence in any way attractive.  I am also a wee bit of a wuss when it comes to horror at the movies – Hostel and Saw don’t really do it for me either; although I do have a great fondness for Asian horror movies, which have the ability to thoroughly unsettle me in a really enjoyable way, and without the so-called torture-porn approach of a lot of current Western-style films.

What I DO love is curling up with a book and a blankie and being scared silly by what I’m reading.  It’s hard to find good-quality horror writing (believe me, I know, I’ve looked; and I’m sure our library selectors would agree).  A lot of it is either silly, or rubbish, or really icky, and some is an unholy combination of all three …

So for those who want to get into the spirit of horror before Halloween, without having to resort to cutting holes in sheets and stocking up on pre-wrapped sweeties, here’s a pick ‘n’ mix selection of a few of my favourite horror writers.

FG Cottam is a recent find, and I particularly enjoyed The Waiting Room, which reminded me so much of one of my favourite episodes of Sapphire and Steel, it was like watching the series over again – a double bonus!  Beautifully written, with believable characters, Cottam’s books have the ability to unsettle and disturb while also being a great read, and I’m waving them at everyone I talk to at the moment.

Sarah Rayne’s Property of a Lady was another great read – I love horror books that feature houses as setting (and/or character), and I found this one really enjoyable too.  Clocks that wind themselves, mysterious rooms with heavy draperies, and unexplained footsteps in the attic are always good for a wee chill.

If, like me, you enjoy Asian horror, try Thomas Randall’s new series The Waking.  First in the series Dreams of the Dead is a genuinely creepy story of American teen Kara who moves to Japan with her father, and finds herself caught up in a supernatural mystery of missing girls, murderous school students, and Japanese demons.  Again, the writing is excellent, the characters warmly drawn and the authentic setting and atmosphere make these books a must-read, not just for teens but anyone who loves good horror.

And I can’t let you leave without talking about one of my favourite ever horror books.  Now over 50 years old, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House still has the power to keep me awake at night and disturb my peace of mind in the daytime. Don’t say I didn’t warn you …

Pick ‘n’ mix grows up: from Charlotte’s Web to An Education

CoverPosh literary types call them bildungsroman, publishers call them coming-of-age novels, and we – well, we just read them and love them.  We’ve all read at least one and often they stand out in our minds.

Sometimes they’re books, sometimes  movies, and sometimes they are the best of both.

In essence (and being screamingly simplistic), the coming-of-age genre works like this:

  • The main character is young;
  • Some stuff happens to him/her;
  • They grow up.

Clearly there’s a bit of actual physical aging involved, but usually it’s more about some sort of emotional, spiritual or psychological journey towards maturity.

The transition can be from child to teenager – think Charlotte’s Web, or Anne of Green Gables, or Labyrinth.

Or teenager to adult – The Catcher in the Rye, I Capture the Castle, Jane Eyre.

Coming-of-age novels often inspire great devotion in their readers, and those who love them read them again and again. They often translate exceptionally well into movie form – think of recent well-received films like An Education, The Kite-Runner, The Secret Life of Bees, and Never Let Me Go; or older favourites like Stand By Me (from Stephen King’s short story The Body), The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off …

But I’m waxing lyrical (again).  I made the mistake of googling ‘coming-of-age’, and now have a TONNE of new titles to find, and old favourites to re-read and re-watch:

If you’re interested:

And finally!  Tell me below all the mistakes I’ve made, the titles I’ve missed, and why I should read your fave coming-of-age novel next.