Books, glorious books! I got through four lovely novels this month and a smidge of non-fiction. I also upped my posting schedule to three stories and one blog post every month, so I’m chuffed I didn’t lose out on reading time in the process. Other writing projects went down the pan a bit but… there’s always April to get back up to speed!
Onto the books…
The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
There is no doubt that The Night Circus is beautifully imagined and exquisitely written. It conjures up an atmosphere so vivid that you almost feel as though you are nestled inside one of the black and white striped tents of the Le Cirque des Rêves as you read it. If a circus like this really existed, I’d most definitely want to visit it. However, I wasn’t as swept away by The Night Circus as I’d hoped to be.
I think my main issue with the book was that so much was left implied or unsaid that the stakes didn’t ever feel high enough to grip me. The entire story is hinged upon a competition going on between two talented illusionists, Celia and Marco, which is forced upon them by their tutors. However, the reason for that competition – spoiler ahead – is simply that one tutor believes in teaching with books and intense study, while the other believes in more practical – and morally questionable – training methods. That revelation felt mighty anticlimactic, and it was skipped over in a matter of half a page.
Celia and Marco are expected to wait for one or the other of them to die in order for the game to be over, but they are in love. What is the solution? Surely, it is to say to hell with the game, and to simply be in love and continue on with the circus forevermore, as a couple. But no – apparently Celia finds that idea too exhausting. Why? I’m not sure! Perhaps I missed something along the way. Perhaps I didn’t read closely enough to really understand the dilemma upon which the plot hung, because in my mind there wasn’t all that much dilemma at all.
I completely understand why The Night Circus was met with such critical acclaim; it creates a world so magical that you yearn to be inside of it. However, I think my personal tastes longed for a more thrilling plot, with faster, more enticing twists and turns. Nonetheless, I would very much like to run away and join the circus, or to become a rêveur and spend my days following Le Cirque des Rêves around the world.
The Power, Naomi Alderman
If you haven’t heard of The Power, you’ve probably been living under a rock. This book won the 2017 Women’s Prize for Fiction and has been met with glowing reviews time and time again. But because I have a to-be-read list as long as my arm, I only just got around to reading it. Now, though, I know what all the fuss is about.
Women have developed the ability to send electricity out of their fingertips and inflict horrifying pain, injury, or even death upon others. All of a sudden, the balance of power completely shifts. Men are no longer the stronger, more dangerous sex, and we see the world change as women fight against all the injustices ever inflicted upon them. What happens when women try to rule the world? Well, ultimately, it’s not pretty. And it only serves to highlight the importance of gender equality in creating a safe and peaceful world for all.
What I loved most about The Power is that the story is told from the perspectives of four key characters, each of which is completely different and has individual motives for chasing after leadership and control. We explore politics, crime, and religion in a world in which the Power exists, and we also see things through the eyes of a man who has suddenly found himself having to be afraid of the “fairer” sex. The book is horrifyingly violent in places, laugh-out-loud funny in others, and absolutely gripping the whole way through.
Many compare The Power to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and it’s impossible not to draw comparisons. However, personally I enjoyed The Power significantly more because it was fast-paced, crammed full of action, and a genuinely thrilling read from start to finish, while also making you think on gender politics and feminism. It’s an important book but also highly entertaining, while The Handmaid’s Tale, for me at least, was very important but a little tedious in places (you can read my review of it here).
All in all, I thought The Power was an epic adventure and absolutely deserved of its awards and accolades.
Witchcraft in Yorkshire, Patricia Crowther
I had a little respite from fiction this month when I read
Witchcraft in Yorkshire, a 70-page book about the history of wicca and witchcraft in my home county. I have the seeds of a novel in mind and turned to this book to start my research. It’s a very easy read but jam-packed full of information about the legends, beliefs, and rituals of witchcraft through the ages in Yorkshire.
There’s a whole chapter dedicated to individual witches who were documented when they were brought to trial for practising witchcraft. Plus, it includes lots of titbits of information about common spells and rituals which will help me to focus my next areas of research. As I said, I only have a vague idea of a story at this point, and Witchcraft in Yorkshire was an excellent place start to get inspired and start figuring out exactly what kind of witchy tale I’d like to tell.
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
The guy who scanned my obnoxiously large stack of books through the till in Waterstones told me to have tissues ready for The Book Thief. I didn’t heed his warning, but I really should have. I did that gross, super snotty, blotchy-face kind of crying as I read the final chapters, and I’m still feeling a bit delicate now, an hour and a half after finishing the book.
The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany and it follows the life of Liesel, a young girl who is taken in, aged 10, by poor, downtrodden, and unbelievably loving foster parents. Death narrates four years of Liesel’s life in which she settles into her new home and lifestyle while a world war kicks off. It explores what life was like for folks who, as quietly as possible lest they face potentially lethal consequences, tried to rebel against the atrocity of the Nazi government.
Death makes for a fantastic narrator because he is able to provide great detail of Liesel’s environment – a poverty-stricken road in a small German town – while occasionally panning out to the wider context of the war. We saw soldiers blown to pieces on battlefields. We were shown the mass clear-up bodies after the bombs fell. We were told of Jewish people leaving fingernail marks on the shower room doors as they were gassed. Many of these moments were completely separate from Liesel’s individual story, and yet hearing about them gives us a more vivid, emotive understanding of the era in which a young girl was forced to grow up.
I loved that Death offers us tonnes of spoilers throughout the book. Every now and again, he skips ahead a few months, or even a few years, and lets us get prepared for some harrowing, heartbreaking events yet to take place. It felt frustrating, at first, but the reason it works is because it enhances the horrible sense of foreboding you feel throughout. War isn’t pretty and never truly offers any real winners, no matter which side finally emerges as victorious. The Book Thief demonstrates the very many ways in which WWII caused devastation to ordinary people, even those who weren’t directly persecuted for their race or religion. Knowing from the off that horrible things were set to happen to Liesel’s friends, family and neighbours made me feel a desperate sense of hopelessness, which is exactly how millions of people, all over the globe, must have felt while the world was at war with itself.
I know that most people have probably already read The Book Thief, since I’m reading it 11 bloody years after its original publication. However, if this is one you’ve heard about and haven’t got around to yet, please go ahead and read it. It’s beautifully written, both witty and devastating, and it draws you into a neighbourhood so vivid that you almost feel like you’re right there. You will need the tissues.
Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman
No, I hadn’t read any Neil Gaiman until now. Yes, I am ashamed of myself. Now we’ve go that out of the way, let’s talk about his debut novel, Neverwhere.
I loved the concept of a London Below, where people slip through the cracks and time gets muddled and magic is real. I loved the villains of the tale, Mr Croup and Mr Vendemar, who were delightfully sinister and violent and repugnant. I loved the Marquis de Carabas and his sassy cleverness. I adored Old Bailey, the eccentric bird-man. But Door and Richard? Ultimately it was their story that was told, but they both fell a bit flat for me.
Richard was intentionally wishy-washy and a bit useless, but he wasn’t endearing enough for me to forgive him his shortcomings. Door I felt lacked personality – she wasn’t weird enough, considering all of the other weirdness going on in London Below. I rooted for them, of course, but I think that’s because I was rooting for the Marquis more than anything; he was too great a character to succumb to the evils of Coup and Vandemar.
Despite my lack of love for the protagonists, I still adored Neverwhere. It’s like a children’s adventure story, only with more blood and guts and grime. In other words, it’s everything I want in a story. Stardust is next up on my Gaiman reading list; I’ve seen the film and I know I’ll be in for a treat.
School Days, K. Ingalls – A heartbreaking story about a school shooting, which emphasises just how horrifying and wasteful gun violence is and how it affects so many lives, even of those who weren’t directly involved in the shooting. You know a story is good – and important – when it makes your heart race and brings tears to your eyes.
Letter to Mr Writer S Block, Padma at The Soulitary Reaper – A polite and witty middle finger to writer’s block.
March, Jennifer Patino – Gorgeous prose about the changing seasons and its influence on mental health.
Butterfly Kisses, Gaynor Jones – A love story that spans decades, told in just a handful of paragraphs.
scabbing a free coffee, Matt Starr – This is “a first person story about a foul mouthed dickhead” which is basically everything I want in a short story.