Bookish round-up: February 2018

As far as the weather is concerned, February is, often, an unpleasant sort of month. If it isn’t raining, it’s probably gearing up to snow, and the days are short on light and prone to being inhospitably freezing.

But, as far as reading is concerned, February is the perfect month. The poor, unreliable weather means that outdoor pursuits are usually non-existent, and, when they do take place, they are uninviting and frequently postponed. On the other hand, indoor pursuits, such as reading, are both infinitely more preferable, and strongly recommended during particularly bad weather, for safety’s sake.

A strong advocate of safety, I enjoyed February very much.

23403402The first book I read was A Darker Shade of Magic by V E Schwab. This book came to my attention through the wonderful world of Instagram, and I am so very glad that it did. It’s brilliantly written, with wonderfully descriptive prose, interesting characters, and superb, detail-oriented world-building. Every part of A Darker Shade of Magic is expertly composed, and the richness of the setting engages the reader from the very first sentence. Books like this – dynamic, exciting, unpredictable and innovative – are the very reason that I love the fantasy genre so much. I gave A Darker Shade of Magic 5 stars.

Second was Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder. I first read Poison Study years ago, and this year, wanted to experience that world again. While the reader is presented with more than sufficient detail to comprehend the particulars of the novel, Snyder’s prose is sparse, with little emphasis on descriptive imagery. The factual aspects of the setting, and in regards to world-building, are not lacking, but more could have been done to flesh it out, and imbue it with greater vibrancy. That said, the plot and characters are engaging, the dialogue is consistently realistic, and the merging of fantasy elements with Synder’s detailed, thorough world-building, works well. The narrative is given depth and nuance by those very details, compensating for the arguably sparse, almost simplistic, prose. I gave Poison Study 4 stars.

I then read The Traitor’s Niche by Ismail Kadare (translated by John Hodgson). I still don’t really know what to think of it. It’s a very peculiar book, incredibly morbid, and uncompromisingly dark. Reading it isn’t exactly an comfortable experience. But it is intriguing, with a considerable amount of philosophy held within its pages. Despite its subject, it doesn’t verge upon horror; instead, it provides a sophisticated exploration of human nature, bolstered both by an attention to detail, and a sincere willingness to delve, unflinchingly, into the darkest, deepest depths of the human condition. The Traitor’s Niche brings into sharp, discomfiting, and often shocking relief, the relationship between the mind and the body, and, even, the relationship between the head and the rest of the body, and ventures into a variety of topics including the importance of language in regards to culture. I gave The Traitor’s Niche 5 stars.

910154After The Traitor’s Niche, I turned to Stolen by Kelley Armstrong, which belongs to my favourite genre (urban fantasy). I have always enjoyed the way in which Armstrong weaves the supernatural into the unfailingly ordinary in regards both to her plot and to her characters, and this is equally the case in Stolen. Given voice by dynamic, first person prose, which lends it a considerable sense of personality, its detailed imagery, intriguing characters and engaging world-building all contribute to the presentation of an assured, well-paced narrative. Two long-standing themes from Armstrong’s work – that is, the treatment of women and found families – also appearestablishing the nuanced humanity of the characters and an extra dimension to the plot. I gave Stolen 5 stars.

Finally, no bookish round-up could ever be complete without a nod to my ever-expanding TBR shelf.

In February, I added:

  1. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. I want to read more books written by women, and, in particular, by women with difficult cultural experiences to my own. The reviews that I have read of Freshwater are overwhelmingly positive; most suggest that the reader was overwhelmed in entirety.

  2. A Gathering of Shadows (Shades of Magic #2). I added it to the list as soon as I finished A Darker Shade of Magic, which, given everything I said above, shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Newly introduced to Schwab’s work, I now can’t wait to delve into the rest of the series.

  3. All the Names they Used for God: Stories by Anjali Sachdeva. Again, I want to read more books written by women of varying experiences, and this has been given glowing reviews. It seems likely to be an exceptional read, and a journey that I’m very much looking forward to embarking on.

  4. Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck. I like my books dark and atmospheric, preferably with an outpouring of strange strong to overwhelm the unwary trespasser. This collection of stories seems likely to deliver on all fronts. As far as I’m concerned, “here there by monsters” is an invitation to settle in for my favourite kind of reading experience.

  5. The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale. For similar reasons to the above, I’m interested in reading The Toymakers – that is, for magic, for mystery, and for the unexplained sparkle partially hidden behind half-locked doors. At the very least the chance to explore a world that isn’t my own, and to step into a text in which imagination flows free.


My most recent book review was of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Read it here.


Reading around the Web: International Women’s Day

The 8th of March is International Women’s Day, a celebration of women and their achievements the world over, and the chance, for anyone willing to take it, both to remember the great strides that have historically been taken against gender inequality and the suppression of female voices, and to think about where there’s still room for improvement, and how that might be achieved.

International Women’s Day, then, is a celebration of voices that have previously gone unheard or ignored, and of the creativity, strength and determination of women. But what about the well-established inequalities that hold many women back?

This is a topic that has given rise to lots of controversy. The #MeTIWDoo and Time’s Up campaigns have clearly emphasised the need for change and action in regards to the treatment of women, and of crimes committed against women, and award ceremonies are being consistently – and vocally – criticised for a bias against women, who are continually under-represented in a number of categories.

In addition to this, recently-published figures on gender-based wage gaps have highlighted ongoing issues in that area, and while the number of women in senior positions in the UK has increased,  multiple industries are still male-dominated.

While in many cases women do have a voice and are encouraged to speak out, it’s not the case that everyone always listens – or takes them seriously. In those same award ceremonies, there is a long-standing bias against people of colour, and while women in some societies have, for example, the right to vote, this isn’t the case across the board.

Celebrating Women’s Writing: Fiction (Waterstones blog) considers some of the most memorable fictional women as part of their campaign to mark 100 years of the first women’s right to vote in Britain.

Penguin are celebrating International Women’s Day with their #LikeAWoman campaign, for which they have established a pop-up bookshop. They identify a number of key inspirational books written by women, and consider the diversity of women’s writing on their blog, in Five transgender trailblazers for International Women’s Day.

In The League of Australian Women Fantasy Writers: A Short History (Unbound Worlds), Kim Wilkins looks into the exciting world of Australian fantasy writers, the history of the genre in Australia, and the influences that might have contributed to its popularity over and above other genres.

In There’s a True Story Behind Black Panther’s Strong Women. Here’s Why That Matters (TIME), Arica L. Coleman talks about Marvel’s Black Panther, and its inspirational female characters. Coleman draws attention to historical parallels and the long-established and damaging stereotypes that Black Panther actively denies and dismisses, and considers the importance of representation – especially when it is so high profile. This is exacerbated by the fact that media products of this kind are still frustratingly rare.

In 4 New Dystopian Novels with Feminist Focuses (Unbound Worlds), Matt Staggs highlights a number of recently-published dystopian novels written by women, with a nod to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The gender inequality foregrounded in these books is pointed and important, as the world in which we live is not so different, and our distance from their bleak perspectives not nearly large enough.

Reading around the Web is a weekly feature of recommended non-fiction reading. In last week’s installment, I highlight newly-published pieces on the topic of education.




Book review: Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

5 out of 5 stars for Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

Station Eleven

“One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time – from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as The Travelling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains – this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.”

(Read more here.)

Station Eleven is an engaging novel that begins with a pandemic and ends with tenuous, uncertain survival. Its many good qualities include thorough characterisation, an intriguing plot, and the total avoidance of “strong” characters with little recogisable humanity and a plethora of unexplained skills. Often classed as sci-fi, I would hesitate to restrain it to one genre, as it is an assured and thoroughly enjoyable novel that should appeal to any reader with at least a passing interest in fiction that assesses the emotional complexity of the average human being, while presenting an equally intriguing plot. It also manages to avoid many of the stereotypes that science fiction is unfortunately prone to.

As for me, I loved it.

Throughout Station Eleven, there is a definite sense of inescapable danger, and of looming jeopardy. At the beginning, this comes from the Georgia Flu, undoubtedly the greatest immediate threat to the survival of Station Eleven’s characters, and later on in the narrative it is the great unknown of life after the apocalypse that takes that dubious mantle. The surviving characters have little to nothing to rely on, and their experiences of a world prior to the arrival of the Georgia Flu are not much help at all. It is a fact of life for the survivors of the Georgia Flu that the changed world is profoundly unsafe, and for the reader, it is impossible not to appreciate the inherent vulnerability of Station Eleven’s characters.

This gives Station Eleven an impressive sense of realism. Intuitively, a post-apocalyptic environment is likely to be dangerous, at the very least because it is entirely unknown, a situation that no character could adequately have prepared for. With as yet inexperienced challenges likely to be lurking around every corner, those that inhabit the changed world are placed in a difficult – and often dangerous – position.

I particularly enjoyed the way that Mandel establishes the clear difference between the characters that experienced and can remember life before the Georgia Flu, and those that cannot. The decisions made and actions taken by the first group are acknowledged to have been variously influenced by their memories and knowledge of the pre-Georgia Flu world, while the latter group call upon more recent experiences, of something and somewhere entirely different. This manifests in a range of situations,and more widely in their understanding of morality, and how their justify their behaviour.

The Georgia Flu is a powerful catalyst for Mandel’s equally powerful characterisation. Its decimation of the population brings about widespread destruction – including of the basic urban infrastructure on which many of Station Eleven’s characters are used to – and inevitably brings about irrevocable change, as a result of which ongoing survival is often uncertain at best, and the survivors left damaged if not crippled by loss. Their desperate situation often makes them unpredictable, wary of strangers and understandably hostile to the unfamiliar. The survival of each day requires, as well as skill and determination, a kind of ruthlessness that not all of Station Eleven’s characters are willing to contemplate, let alone utilise. The varying reactions to the situation and its inherent difficulties reveal the innermost foundations of each character’s personality, by establishing their strengths and weaknesses and revealing the preconceptions that ultimately give rise to their behaviour. The result is a richly detailed, in-depth characterisation.

The characters that do not endure the same tests are no less richly depicted. Station Eleven’s narrative is non-linear, and by moving back and forth in time across the lives of her characters, and between life before and after the arrival of the Georgia Flu, Mandel brings to the reader’s attention events that take place across the full span of Station Eleven’s timeline, using examples of past behaviour to clarify future events and decisions, establish the history and often-complicated nature of the relationships alluded to throughout, and to give some indication as to the likely motivational factors behind a range of actions.

My favourite characters in Station Eleven are those that comprise the Travelling Symphony, a theatrical troupe that travel to bring something more than just plain survival to the friendlier, or at least civil, communities. (Usually in the form of Shakespeare.) The manner by which the musicians identify one another primarily by instrument is a wonderful detail, and the petty disagreements that arise within the group even under – and often because of – the severe circumstances, are inarguably authentic. Station Eleven’s characters are so richly depicted and characterised that they genuinely resemble real people, lending the narrative weight and pathos.

Music and theatre are not fresh innovations brought into the post-Georgia Flu world, and “musician” and “actor” are not new, post-apocalypse occupations. A holdover from before the arrival of the Georgia Flu, the fact that they remain constantly in use despite having no practical application to immediate survival shows that Mandel’s characters retain a very human desire for more than just the basic practicalities, reiterating the lasting complexity and depth of Mandel’s characterisation, and the realism central to Station Eleven. Her characters are irrevocably changed by their experiences, but they do not become unthinking and inhuman, deprived of identifiable humanity.

One of my favourite moments in Station Eleven is when Clark is told that his client is “sleepwalking”. Due to a range of factors, he has found himself in a particular occupation, one that he has come to realise that he doesn’t much care for. But while he might be interested in taking a different path, his responsibilities ensure that he considers taking a risk by leaving his stable career to be out of the question. Thus, dissatisfied, he works mechanically, with neither interest or passion. He sleepwalks. This is one of my favourite moments because it is so realistic, a state of affairs that many of us can relate to, and because it emphasises the often-painful relationship between dreams and reality in the novel as a whole. A world in which an infectious disease swiftly turns into an unstoppable pandemic that wipes out 99.9% of the population is not a world of happy endings, or a world in which dreams come true.

These are just a few of the many reasons why I enjoyed reading Station Eleven, and why I would definitely recommend it, even to readers who wouldn’t normally try anything like this. It has many excellent qualities, and on top of an engaging, well-structured and nicely-paced plot, it is insightful and empathetic, exploring the often-unpleasant depths and incongruities of the human condition in a manner that is assured and not without sympathy, and that contributes to, rather than detracting from, the plot. With an emphasis on character, it takes a refreshingly human-centric approach to its premise.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Reading around the Web: Education

This week’s theme is education.

Last week, I highlighted a few recently-published pieces on communication, a frequently controversial topic that remains subject to ongoing and often-divisive debate. This week’s theme is equally high profile, and generates a similar amount of lasting discussion.

In the UK, the quality of the education available to existing and future students of all ages is a constant concern. Schools are regularly inspected to ensure that they meet a range of requirements and that action has been taken in areas meriting improvement, and not a year goes by without adjustments being considered and implemented to the methods that teachers use to deliver lessons, and the structure and number of examinations that students will face at any given time.


More recently, discussions have focused on how well education prepares students for the workplace, and when and where they might be given the opportunity to learn the skills likely to improve their chances of landing the job that they want. Of increasing importance is the future result of a good or lacking education, and how the first is to be adequately differentiated from the latter.

Further muddying the waters is inconsistent criteria: in some cases, extra-curricular activities are deemed indispensable, and in others, top grades are the first and last items on the agenda.

Recent proposals have resurrected age-old concerns that education now focuses too firmly on tests, and that students are being encouraged to learn not to gain skills and knowledge, but solely to populate their CVs with good grades. From this perspective, lessons are, increasingly, engineered only to meet the demands of the syllabus, and reliable understanding of a subject in entirety is unnecessary once the requirements for each exam have been met.

Clearly, this is an important topic of discussion. A good education can be vital for future career plans and prospects, and how that education is received is no less significant. High quality teaching means very little if it isn’t delivered successfully, and if a student can’t, for whatever reason, engage with it.

Here are a few recent contributions to the topic.

On 20th February 2018, Penguin Random House released Educated (in hardback!), a memoir by Tara Westover. Born into a survivalist family that distrusted the government, Westover was home-schooled for years, and thought that the children in mainstream education were brainwashed. More or less on her own, she achieved the grades for university, and went on to achieve a PhD at Cambridge. Westover talks in her memoir about finding a balance that allowed her to reconcile her family’s beliefs with her later experiences and the wider world, and while she recognises that without her determination to succeed, her upbringing could easily have been an insurmountable barrier to her academic achievements, she also shows that it was, in its way, vital – for she was always told that she could achieve anything that she put her mind to, and shown the value of self-reliance. In addition, Westover casts some doubt on mainstream education, and emphasises instead the importance of hard work, belief and an open mind.

In Meet the UK’s contender for the million-dollar Global Teacher Prize (TES), Henry Hepburn interviews Andria Zafirakou, a finalist for the 2018 Global Teacher Prize. The Prize, now in its fourth year, was founded to recognise exceptional teachers that have made a significant contribution to their profession.

In Schools scrap PE time because of exam pressure (The Telegraph), Olivia Rudgard discusses the impact of removing students from classes such as PE to focus on their other subjects, and the claims being made that this is detrimental to the physical and mental health of those students.

In Tuition fees should be based on career prospects, says Education Secretary (Independent), Ellie Cullen discusses Damian Hind’s view that university tuition fees should be subject to variation, based on what he calls the “value” of the course – to be determined by factors including the future benefit of the course to the student. The launch of a government review into university funding has cast a spotlight on tuition fees, which are often criticised for being prohibitively high.

Web-based teaching can improve science understanding for struggling pupils (ScienceDaily) depicts the results of a three-year study by the Taylor & Francis Group, which shows that web-based learning tools can be beneficial to to developing and improving an understanding of science, particularly so for students that struggle with the subject. This is an important finding that has ramifications generally for how science and, potentially, other subjects, might most successfully be taught.

Reading around the Web is a weekly feature of recommended non-fiction reading. In last week’s installment, I highlight newly-published pieces on the topic of communication.

Bookish round-up: January 2018

Books read: 

  • Equal Rites (Discworld #3) by Terry Pratchett
    Genre: Fantasy
    My rating: 4 stars
  • The Bone Season (The Bone Season #1) by Samantha Shannon
    Genre: Fantasy, YA
    My rating: 4 stars

I’m a dedicated Terry Pratchett fan. I love his characters, his settings, his consistently inventive turn of phrase, and his prose. Further, his books are a masterclass in wordplay, his use of parody is flawless, and his questioning (and dismissal) of well-established fantasy novel tropes is undoubtedly refreshing – and often a relief.

As such, the fact that I enjoyed reading Equal Rites probably won’t come as much of a surprise. It has all the key hallmarks of a Pratchett novel – that is, it’s clever, it’s entertaining, and it overturns a not inconsiderable number of the aforementioned fantasy novel tropes, as well as being populated with interesting characters and a rich variety of settings – all of which I enjoy. Further, while it arguably has a less firmly defined, rich plot than Pratchett’s later work, it has a clear narrative structure and plenty of depth.

I also enjoyed reading Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season. It’s an excellent urban fantasy novel, in which recognisable modern developments and advancements are seamlessly merged with creative supernatural elements. Further, its intriguing plot is supported by thorough, detail-oriented world-building, which stretches from politics to the justice system and the criminal underworld, and covers cultural beliefs, prejudices, and discrimination, providing a firm foundation for the subsequent narrative. The basic outline of the plot doesn’t present a completely unfamiliar pattern, but Shannon’s detailed world-building, and the flair with which she brings the supernatural elements of her narrative to life, easily compensate for any deficiencies in that area.

Added to TBR shelf:

  1. Red Rising (Red Rising Saga #1) by Pierce Brown, which came to my attention when Iron Gold was published this year. I’m a big fan of sci-fi, and this series promises to deliver on everything that I enjoy.

  2. The Bear and the Nightingale (Winternight Trilogy #1) by Katherine Arden, which was recommended to me by a reader with excellent taste. It looks like it will fit perfectly into my favoured ‘weird and wonderful’ category, and has excellent reviews.

  3. The Mime Order (Bone Season #2) by Samantha Shannon, which I added to the list as soon as I finished The Bone Season. I wasn’t previously familiar with Shannon’s work, and I’m looking forward to reading more of it this year.


Reading around the Web: Communication

This week’s theme is communication.

Over time, the methods that we use to communicate with one another have become both more numerous and more diverse, catering to a whole range of disparate needs and preferences. With a multitude of options at our fingertips for getting to grips with alternate methods of communication, and for learning new languages, we are able to successfully communicate more easily and widely than before, and an increasing number of people who previously had only limited options can now expect to be understood.


On the other hand, while the increasing ability to communicate easily and widely with one another has opened up the possibility of global conversation and interaction, it has, in tandem, increased the number of opportunities for and scope of harassment and bullying. Increased access and ease of communication, particularly online, has meant that users can face hatred and abuse from all sides.

On the back of this, it shouldn’t be surprising that communication is a controversial topic, and that the debate surrounding it is ongoing and often heated. Here are a few recent additions.

In Kazakhstan Cheers New Alphabet, Except for All Those Apostrophes (The New York Times), Andrew Higgins discusses the controversy surrounding the proposed creation of a new alphabet in Kazakhstan, and the inherent difficulty of reflecting unique verbal sounds in text in a way that is both comprehensible and acceptable.

In Not a Riot Grrrl Band: Musician Michelle Cruz Gonzales Sounds off on Punk Feminism (Los Angeles Review of Books), Kitty Lindsay interviews Michelle Cruz about Spitboy, the punk band formed by Cruz in 1990, and her brand of unapologetic feminism. A different take on this week’s theme, I have included this article because Cruz intended her music to communicate her stated feminist position.

In The Secret Sign Language of the Ottoman Court (accessed from JSTOR), Amelia Sloth explains why deaf servants were so popular at court in the Ottoman Empire and elaborates on the method of non-verbal communication used at that time.

In Why I created my 2018 ‘a year of sign language’ calendar, Amanda Sanford presents her sign language calendar, and lists a number of fantastic resources for anyone interested in learning more about what it is like to be deaf, as well as identifying key pointers – as well as places to start – to keep in mind when learning sign language.

Reading around the Web is a weekly feature of recommended non-fiction reading, compiled with the aim of drawing your attention to something a little different, a little inspiring, and very interesting.

Reading around the Web: Prizes and prestige

Reading around the Web is a weekly feature of recommended non-fiction reading, compiled with the aim of drawing your attention to something a little different, a little inspiring, and very interesting.

To submit an item for consideration for next week’s list, leave a link in the Comments below.

This week’s theme is prizes and prestige. I have been reading about books that have won awards, poring over lists of highly-anticipated publications with 2018 release dates, and comparing recommendations from a variety of well-regarded sources. These are my chosen highlights.

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6 books we’re excited to read in February (Abbe Wright, Read it Forward), in which books including Zadie Smith’s Feel Free and Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s thought-provoking novel, call me zebra come highly recommended.

Jhalak book prize for writers of colour announces 2018 longlist (Media Diversified), in which the 2018 longlist for the Jhalak Prize is announced, a cross-section of incredible work from British POC. This year, the judging panel is comprised entirely of women.

Books to get excited about in 2018 (from independent publishers) (Bex, Ninja Book Box), in which a varied array of texts due for publication this year, all from indie publishers, are given some well-deserved attention.

The Costa Book Awards (Waterstones), in which can be found details on the Costa Book of the Year 2017 and the other titles that were shortlisted for the award.

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