Friday, 25 September 2015

#amreading The Book of Strange New Things

Author: Michel Faber

Discovered: Waiting at Marylebone railway station

Where read: (in part) A tiny cottage near Matlock, Derbyshire.

What's the story?

Michel Faber's novel was first published in the US to favourable reviews and is now available in the UK in paperback - cleverly published with 2 cover versions (see above). The novel is a slice of near future science fiction in which protaganist Pastor Peter Leigh is sent by a Christian organisation, USIC, as a missionary to far flung planet Oasis. The eponymous 'Book of Strange New Things' is, we learn, how the native Oasans refer to the Bible itself.

The Word's Shortlist view:
I must admit that what initial drew me to this book was the different covers which stopped me in my tracks in WH Smith (usually the least inspiring 'bookshop' on my travels). Having recently struggled with Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam I figured it was time to pick up another Sc-Fi novel, so job done I self scanned the novel and began to read immediately.

The premise of the book is brilliant, later life Christian Peter applies to become a space missionary and is blasted off to a planet on the edge of the galaxy to preach to a native alien species. Peter has not always been a pastor; his earlier years as a junkie petty criminal somehow appealed to the USIC panel who accepted Peter but not his wife Bea who is left home alone with cat Joshua.

This novel is at its best when Peter initially settles into his new surroundings at the base on Oasis; “There was a red button on the wall labelled EMERGENCY, but no button labelled BEWILDERMENT.”  The early meetings with the Osians are teasing and the initial dispatches to Bea back on earth capture the isolation of being so far away from home. 

But the trouble with the novel is that it fails to quite live up to its own hype. Oasis is a potentially brilliant setting in which a near future post-Earth utopia could play out but the narrative gets bogged down with Peter's endless anxiety about communicating with home. Faber paints a completely believable world in which the Oasans have an insatiable appetite for Bible teachings which is (sort of) juxtaposed with Bea's witnessing life on Earth unravel but Peter is just a passenger.

I fear Faber was quite right......“What do you expect? This place is one big anti-climax.” 

Who should read this book?

Fans of science fiction should certainly give this novel a go. More often than not I struggle with this genre but granted the premise is brilliant and the Oasans are a fascinating alien race.
What’s next on the bookshelf

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

Saturday, 19 September 2015

#amreading All The Light We Cannot See

Author: Anthony Doerr

Discovered: Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

Where read: (in part) During well deserved breaks from painting doors in my new flat in Old Town, Margate, Kent.

What's the story?

This year's Pulitzer Prize winner is an epic door stop of a novel set during and in the year's preceding World War II. These are well worn literary routes, it must be said, but what's compelling in this case is the viewpoint through which much of the novel is set; that of a blind young girl evacuated from Paris to St Malo to live with her Great Uncle.

The Word's Shortlist view:
This is a fast paced novel with a neat structure in which several distinct threads are destined to collide. Initially, in France, we meet Marie-Laure as her eye-sight fails and she is set tests and challenges by her father to develop her cognitive skills before her cataracts leave her completely blind. “Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”  Alongside this story, and over the border in Germany, we meet Werner an 8 year old orphan with unique skills with radios and circuitry which make him attractive to the Hitler Youth.

The years running up to the war are brilliantly played out through the eyes of these youngsters on opposing sides of a growing conflict. Although the novel is over 500 pages long there are times, such as the passages in the early days of Werner's training, where you wish Doerr would apply the brakes. There is a lot of story here but you wonder what ended up in the editor's waste paper basket. 

I was completely immersed on this novel from the start and wish I could of read it in one sitting - ok, that's a bit indulgent but the point is that Doerr paints such vivid pictures that you're drawn in from the off. “Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.” 

My only criticism is that, as the sub plots come careering together in the final chapters there is a tinge of fear that we've overlooked some missing chapters from earlier that would allow us to dwell a little big longer in this extraordinary world.

Who should read this book?

Read this novel and find our why it spent 58 weeks on the New York Times Hardback Bestseller list and ended up being shortlisted by the New York Times as one of top 10 best books of 2014.

What’s next on the bookshelf

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Sunday, 13 September 2015

#amreading Your Father Sends His Love

Author: Stuart Evers

Discovered: On Netgalley (thank you)

Where read: (in part) On the Jubilee Line over the course of a few days.

What's the story?

To be honest I received a review copy of this collection of short stories some time ago and, although I read it almost straight away,  just never got around to writing a blog post. Thanks to a little unplanned downtime this week I'm back on track. Stuart Evers punchy, witty and touching prose is perfectly suited to this collection of shorts that explore a whole range of parental relationships between sons, fathers and grandfathers. 

The Word's Shortlist view:
My posts about short story collections more often than not get far less views than posts about full length literary fiction. People tell me that they often find short stories hard to get into and/or difficult to recall individually afterwards. Its almost as if readers demand to to immersed in pages and pages of plot to get value for money. 

For me, the short story format works perfectly for trying new writers or genre without fully committing to a verbose novel. I love to read work that's taken stylistic risks and fermented down a core idea to a succinct nugget of literary prose. Stuart Evers book doesn't disappoint.

In these 12 stories Evers presents a totally honest narrative that sweeps across the full range of male identities from the young gay son in Lakelands to the new father in Frequencies and the grandfather in These Are The Days. Each story is fresh with tender prose as Evers really understands the characters he writes about which is, in part, why Your Father Send His Love is such a great read. We're in good hands with such an honest story teller.

Who should read this book?

If you one of those readers, and I know you're out there, who eschews short story collections in favour of conventional novels then this is the book for you. Make September your month for pithy prose! After this collection try Stay Up With Me by Tom Barbash      

What’s next on the bookshelf

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Saturday, 12 September 2015

5 books to read this September..

Read, reviewed and remembered - my favourite reads from the last few months

The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler 

The Elephant Vanishes - Haruki Murakami

The Children Act - Ian McEwan

The Paying Guests - Sarah Waters

Stuffocation - James Wallman

Monday, 7 September 2015

#amreading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A Simple, Effective Way to Banish Clutter Forever

Author: Marie Kondo

Discovered: Mayther Bookshop, Marlow

Where read: (in part) The Harbour Cafe Bar Kitchen, Margate

What's the story?

Off the back of reading James Wallman’s brilliant Stuffocation I came across the work of Japanese ‘organising’ guru Marie Kondo whose tidying manifestos have sold in the millions across the globe. Time Magazine even went as far as hailing her one of the World’s 100 most influential people in 2014. But, having already accepted the challenge to sort out my clutter what more could I learn from Ms Kondo?

The Word's Shortlist view:

Have you ever marvelled at the simplicity and order of a Shinto shrine or admired the calmness of a Muji store? Then this book is for you. Marie Kondo has developed a system of tidying that she now promotes as the ‘KonMari’ method which, she claims, can have life enhancing implications when perfected.

In short, the KonMari method goes something like this. Gather together all of your possessions (yes even the stuff hidden under the bed) and sort into themes such as clothes, books, keepsakes etc. Now carefully sort these piles into categories e.g. jumpers and shirts, fiction and non-fiction, so that you can assess exactly what you have been storing/hoarding. Now for the fun part. Consciously sift through each category and keep ONLY the items that “spark joy”. Chuck everything else.

Without over simplifying, the truth in the KonMari method is two-fold. Firstly, you can only tidy and organise your life once you are surrounded exclusively by things you love and cherish. Secondly, with everything in its place tidying becomes a routine habit rather than a weekly chore. This blend of being in orderly control of the things you love is essentially where the KonMari method claims to enhance your life.

Who should read this book?

Clearly there is only one way to test Marie Kondo’s theory but in the meantime this is a great read and a way to immerse yourself in one of Japan’s great contemporary thought leaders. You might even end up with tidy shelves.      

What’s next on the bookshelf

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr


Tuesday, 1 September 2015

#amreading The Big Sleep

Author: Raymond Chandler

Discovered: I've been meaning to read this book for literally years

Where read: (in part) Iris and June, Victoria, London (

What's the story?

The Big Sleep was THE novel that introduced the World to private investigator Philip Marlowe and in so doing put American crime drama on the map. Chandler's novel sees Marlowe hired by the wealthy Sternwood family to investigate a case of blackmail involving his two daughters. The story takes Marlowe deep into the underbelly of 1930s Hollywood as corpses turn up, relationships are uncovered and confessions are made in a labyrinthine plot.

The Word's Shortlist view:

I've lost count of the times I've read that Chandler influenced writers, film makers and artists - he almost single handedly defined 'hard-boiled' a uniquely American sub genre of the detective/crime canon whilst also selling bucket loads of books that have mostly been adapted for film. So, what is that that makes Chandler's books so compelling?

For me its the grimy and seedy Los Angeles settings that perfectly evoke a world outside the bright lights of Hollywood like the pornography library in this novel. “It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in.” Its a world that Marlowe/Chandler understands well from film noir and from pulp fiction magazines. 

Its also the women.“She lowered her lashes until they almost cuddled her cheeks and slowly raised them again, like a theatre curtain. I was to get to know that trick. That was supposed to make me roll over on my back with all four paws in the air.” Chandler writes about strong and commanding women, the pulp fiction femme fatale.

Finally, its the poetic prose which lifts The Big Sleep and other Chandler works from straight forward crime fiction to classic literature.  “Under the thinning fog the surf curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form inself on the edge of consciousness.” Chandler's use of language is often in beautifull contradiction to the subject and settings.

Who should read this book?

Fans of fiction and of American culture. Start with The Big Sleep and immediately run out and buy The Long Goodnight and Farewell my Lovely.

What’s next on the bookshelf

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Tweet of the week:

There is something seriously wrong in #birmingham. £180m on a new library and no money to fill the shelves. Vanity over literacy