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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Reading around the Web: Writing

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 writing. Whether you’re thinking about it, doing it (or, indeed, thinking about doing it), the articles below may just help you get onto the right track.

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Recommended this week:

About Words Without Borders. Words Without Borders do an incredible job removing the barriers that prevent people all over the world from understanding and enjoying books.

If you want to write a book, John McPhee’s advice is indispensable (Roy Peter Clark, Poynter) covers John McPhee’s life and writing process. This is one in a series of essays on writing to be published in 2018.

New Sentences: From ‘Bone,’ by Yrsa Daley-Ward (Sam Anderson, The New York Times Magazine), a close reading of a particular line in Yrsa Daley-Ward’s poem, “kid”.

‘Persist. Read, write, and improve.’ Jesmyn Ward shares the best writing advice she’s ever received (Elizabeth Flock, PBS), which contains an interview with Jesmyn Ward on her favourite reading material, how she decides what to write about, and the writing advice that had the greatest impact on her.

10 of the Best Books of January 2018 (Frannie Jackson, Paste Magazine). My personal favourite, a list of highly-anticipated books with January release dates. Stock up your TBR shelf here!

 

Bookish round-up: December 2017

Books read: 2

  • Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor
    Genre: Historical fiction
    My rating: 4 stars

I really enjoyed reading Star of the Sea. Rich with detail, its prose draws the reader effortlessly into the setting and the time period, establishing not only the historical significance of the events, and the position of the characters in relation to them, but also the associated frustrations felt and the difficulties experienced by all kinds of people at that time. Star of the Sea brings that period of history to life with great confidence, and with an engaging plot and prose, is well worth a read for anyone who enjoys a little (or a lot) of history with their fiction.

But Gormenghast is one of the strangest series of books that I have ever read, and one of the most enjoyable. Its prose – equipped with both vivid, highly descriptive imagery, and an incredibly nuanced attention to detail – applied distinctly to the physical features and accompanying personality of each character, accentuates each to the extent that the ordinary turns into the grotesque, twisted into the unusual while remaining just recognisable. Ultimately, Gormenghast is strange – a strange set of books with strange characters and oppressively strange weather – and that is exactly why it is such an enjoyable read. Every inch of the setting and every twitch of every character’s expression forms an important, inescapable part of the narrative, and it is all equally, uniquely strange. No detail is omitted, no stone left without consideration. Well worth a read for anyone who enjoys a little creative flair alongside detailed imagery and exceedingly memorable characters.

What did you read in December 2017? Let me know in the Comments below.

Added to TBR shelf:

  1. Singapore Saga Vol 1: Forbidden Hill (Singapore Saga #1) by John D Greenwood.

  2. The Speckled People: A Memoire of a Half-Irish Childhood by Hugo Hamilton.

Check out my most recent book review.

Reading around the Web: Concepts and preconceptions

Reading around the Web is a weekly feature of recommended non-fiction reading, written 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.


Recommended this week:

 

Book review: Northern Lights – Philip Pullman

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“Without this child, we shall all die.” Lyra Belacqua and her animal daemon live half-wild and carefree among scholars of Jordan College, Oxford. The destiny that awaits her will take her to the frozen lands of the Arctic, where witch-clans reign and ice-bears fight. Her extraordinary journey will have immeasurable consequences far beyond her own world…”

(Read more here.)


Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, the first book in the series entitled His Dark Materials, is about a young girl named Lyra Belacqua. A ward of Jordan College, she knows the parameters of her world well, and spends her time almost entirely as she wishes, acquiescing only rarely and very reluctantly to the instructions conferred upon her by a variety of well-meaning if usually distracted authority figures. When children go missing, however, plucked uncaringly from their lives, Lyra’s world changes. Finding herself too close to comfort to those responsible, her principles – and loyalty to her best friend, Roger – demand action.

When I first read Northern Lights, I was enchanted. The plot, the characters, the setting, and the number and nature of the ideas lending weight and coherency to the entirety were a veritable feast for the imagination, and the novel had admirable depth and undeniable quality. I was hooked from the very first page, and held spellbound until the very last.

That is to say: Northern Lights trounced even the greatest of my expectations.

A quietly undisclosed number of years later, a re-read has proven that Northern Lights is just as enjoyable, and just as relevant in its approach and themes now as it was when I was first fortunate enough to read it. Readers of all ages continue to love and devour it, and such wide and lasting appeal should not – and cannot – be underestimated.

Northern Lights isn’t needlessly complex or disappointingly simple. It is clever and accessible, never condescends to younger readers, and postulates the concepts that form the foundation of the narrative in an understandable and engaging fashion. Aiding comprehension is the fact that they are presented to the reader in intuitive terms by the protagonist, Lyra, and the rich, logical details are easily enough to satisfy even the most discerning mind. Lyra’s youth and refreshingly direct approach make her an ideal character to shepherd readers through Pullman’s world, and the possibility of thorough engagement with the protagonist’s perspective encourages an immersive experience.

Thematically, Northern Lights has broad scope, from the representation and perception of children, and of youthful characters, to the ramifications of pursuing unchartered waters and unprecedented, live-changing, discoveries. The protagonist, Lyra, proves to be a useful vehicle in the exploration of such topics, for her practical, no-nonsense approach and unflappable sense of fairness cast the inconsistencies and uncertainties behind popular assumptions into sharp relief, and she regularly challenges groundless prejudices. An obvious example is the moment in which Lyra played a pivotal role in liberating Iorek from his captors – while many of the other characters were hesitant to take a stand, or concerned by his ferocity, Lyra just saw a brave, proud, misunderstood creature that had been treated with needless cruelty, and knew that she had to offer what assistance she could.

Importantly, Northern Lights isn’t a feel-good romp. While it is definitely a tale of adventure and grand exploits, helmed by a young, heroic protagonist, it is also poignant and sensitive, moderating victory and achievement with prevailing loss and realistic complexity. The destruction wrought upon the lives of the unfortunate children cruelly experimented upon is undeniable, and while Lyra succeeds in liberating them from the facility in which they were being held, the damage cannot be reversed. Further, she ultimately delivers her best friend, Roger, into the greedy clutches of Lord Asriel, as a result of which he tragically perishes.

Roger’s death is an important plot point, propelling Lyra into a startling new world, freshly determined to pursue and fight for her beliefs, and to discover more of what she was so ignominiously introduced to. It also provides evidence for the maturity of Pullman’s approach to a narrative primarily populated by youthful characters, as difficult scenes are neither sugar-coated beyond all recognition nor needlessly, starkly harsh. The vulnerability of children – especially to adults – is recognised, but so is their strength and their tenacity, within realistic bounds.

It would be remiss of me, even foolish, to conclude a discussion on the merits of Northern Lights without reference to “daemons”. From the experiments conducted by the Oblation Board into the possibility of separating children from their daemons, to the armoured bear wishing to obtain one so that he might become human, “daemons” are foregrounded in Northern Lights, presenting an important aspect of the narrative, and an interesting addition to the development of the characters. A daemon is the physical manifestation of the human soul, visible in the form of an animal, and they vary in accordance with the person with which they are linked, changing constantly throughout childhood, and settling upon a final form during puberty. Assumptions can be made about personality and mood from a daemon, and there are strict, unspoken rules against touching that of another person. Pullman’s development of his characters involves establishing their daemons, and as such it is an exciting and inspiring addition to a narrative already rich in detail. Their inclusion remains a unique and impressive concept when considered in the wider context of fantasy novels.

Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights is a clever, imaginative novel, filled to the brim with intriguing ideas and many details capable of engaging and inspiring readers of many ages. The language is, on occasion, plain, but never tedious, and lacks neither detail nor rich description. Pullman’s world building is arguably my favourite aspect, but everything from the structure of the plot to the variety of the characters is enjoyable. As such, I am happy to give Northern Lights 5 out of 5 stars.

Bookish round-up: January 2017

I finished just two books in the cold, unfriendly month of January, both by the incomparable J. V. Jones.

I am always amazed by Jones’ flawless world-building, and the uncompromisingly high quality of her work. Her novels arguably fall into the bracket of traditional (or epic) fantasy, but there are no embarrassing instances of inexplicably all-powerful ‘mysterious’ men, or tiresome heroes somehow able to wield a sword with unbeatable skill despite being in possession of no prior experience and little physical strength. Jones’ work is complex and nuanced, her characters are realistically diverse, and her prose is immersive.

To clarify:

Books read: 2

Started: A Song of Ice and Fire by G. R. R. Martin

Favourite read: 

J. V. Jones’ A Cavern of Black Ice

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“In Spire Vanis, an uncrowned ruler steals magic from tortured captives, while an innocent girl is haunted by nightmares of ice. On the frigid steppes, two brothers find their kinsmen slain by swords that draw no blood. At a remote homestead, a hardened warrior leaves his family to follow a raven’s summons.

And in a deadly wilderness where nature and the gods have no mercy, two young fugitives will confront the unfolding of an apocalyptic prophecy…”

Read more about A Cavern of Black Ice from the source.

A Cavern of Black Ice is an unforgiving, atmospheric tale. The known world hangs in the balance, teetering on the thinnest of edges, and Jones’ characters, irrespective of the sides on which they stand, or the purity of their motives, find no easy successes. They suffer often and harshly, victories are ordinarily fleeting, and those most deserving of kindness and peace are rarely fortunate enough to find it. Hideous prophecy compels action, not laxity, and seems ill-disposed to look kindly upon reluctance.

I would strongly recommend any novel written by J. V. Jones, but A Cavern of Black Ice is a particular favourite, for the prose, the characters – Raif Sevrance, skilled and knowledgeable in many areas, painfully helpless in others, and consistently tortured by an act denounced by the traditions of his people as an unforgivable betrayal – and, of course, the unarguable vibrancy of the setting.


Check out my most recent book review here.

 

TV Review – Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (2016)

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Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (2016) follows the adventures (and misadventures, of which there are no small number) of Dirk Gently, a Detective with a sunny disposition, a dubious relationship with the unwelcoming CIA, and an impressive number of colourful leather jackets. In the first episode, he obtains an assistant and (briefly) a kitten, and the subsequent instalments detail the ever widening and bewildering parameters of his investigation, which includes, among other things, abduction, murder, body swapping, time travel, and a magic light bulb. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency  is unpredictable, startlingly clever and thoroughly bizarre. This review will touch on a couple of reasons as to why it is also compelling TV.

Dirk Gently, the titular character, neglects to utilise any of the recognisable or expected methods by which cases are ordinarily investigated, instead postulating an approach with greater scope, undeniable freedom, and the regular employment of a range of questionable – though exciting – vehicles. He works on the basis of mostly unexplained knowledge backed up by profound enthusiasm (and the frequent repetition of “everything is connected”) and Todd, his assistant, initially does little more than get carried along for the frequently baffling ride.

Exceedingly well depicted and wonderfully written, Dirk Gently’s character arc is sympathetic and engaging, all the more so for the fact that it is not entirely – or even predominantly – explained in full. His depiction is not without depth and reasonable variation, for he is by turns knowledgeable and unaware, surrounded by friends and utterly alone,  confident and painfully uncertain, but the viewer is provided with only the occasional indication as to what he might have experienced prior to his current case. The gaps, however, encourage a sense of mystery rather than irritation. As answers are provided for other questions throughout the show, there is arguably some sense that this will, too, eventually be answered in full. The character of Dirk Gently is not without believable flaws, and he freely admits to a host of mistakes.

The other characters are equally interesting and experience considerable development, above and beyond the aforementioned plot. Amanda Brotzman suffers a disease that causes painful hallucinations, and at the beginning of the series is housebound. By the point of the finale, however, she has gained in confidence and certainty, leaves the house regularly, and lives her life on her own terms – often unapologetically, but always with compassion, and a thorough understanding of the less laudable quirks of human nature. Her depiction gains greater impact in that while she is frequently shown to suffer often from her particularly debilitating illness, she is also in possession of dependable insight and arguably the most reasonable perspective of all the characters in the show. There is no indication that her illness renders her incapable in any conceivable way, and no suggestion that the other characters even consider that to be a possibility, which too often transpires on other shows.

Every character in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is vital to the narrative, and as richly defined and vibrantly depicted as the next, whether they appear for just a handful of minutes, or in every single episode.

It is around the murder of Patrick Spring and the abduction of his daughter Lydia that the plot predominantly circulates, in the context of which the various characters often clash, frequently at length, and usually in the spirit of unutterable confusion and a vague sense of established and necessary opposition. Each episode works inevitably towards the possibility of the case being solved, and this lends a wide-reaching, cohesive structure to a show in possession of no small amount of increasingly incongruous content, and a reasonable if not entirely convincing reassurance that the weirdness does not in fact exist without cause. It may just be that the cause has yet to sidle into view.

Finally, while the specifics of the plot are no small cause for concern (that poor, tiny, defenceless kitten), and there are no few scenes that border upon the heart wrenching or at the very least decidedly painful, there are also moments of genuine happiness, good fun, and undeniable humour. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is neither relentlessly dark nor cheerfully light-hearted, but instead, like the plot and characters, contains the good, the bad, and the undeniable depth and surety of excellent storytelling.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is an brilliant show with strong writing, intriguing and diverse characters, and a narrative that is always peculiar and never tediously predictable. It is unique in its structure and extremely well crafted, and I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone with a particular interest in the weird, the wonderful and the ceaselessly wacky, or with an admitted preference for people in leather jackets. It’s almost impossible to categorise this show with any certainty, other than in the realm of sci-fi, but wherever it belongs, it should be recognised to be of very high quality – and exceptionally gifted at generating considerable confusion.