Alternatively: Reading, reading, everywhere, and not a drop...of it is the reading I'm supposed to be doing. Okay, it needs work.
Ever done a history degree? If the answer is yes, then you’ll understand that I’m currently swamped in reading like, all the time. Tomorrow, in fact, I have three lectures, all with about 40 pages minimum of reading to be done for, or else you sit there slack jawed and lost for an hour. Have I done any of it, though? Uh, that’s a no.
I have been doing reading though! Contrary to what my mother might think, my life isn’t actually all just vodka and crappy TV at the moment. I’ve actually read a bunch of really great books over the last couple of months, which has led me to decide to write this: a gratuitous book recommendation post. Also sort of a form of productive procrastination. What can I say? It’s a quiet Sunday evening, I have a stomach happily full of pesto pasta (that Waitrose pesto sure is something), and I’m in the mood to talk about books. So here’s five books I recently read and why you should read them:
- SIX OF CROWS by Leigh Bardugo. Chances are, if you move in the same internet circles as me, then you’ve probably heard of this by now. In truth I’m telling a bit of a lie by having it on the list, because I actually just read the sequel (‘Crooked Kingdom’), and I read ‘Six of Crows’ over the summer, but you can’t really begin with a second book. So why did I like ‘Six of Crows’ so much? Well, I’m sort of a sucker for the idea of Young Adult fantasy novels, but so many of them are such proper crap that I hardly ever get to indulge — but with this book I did not have that issue! I’m told the series this book is a spinoff for (the ‘Grisha’ trilogy) is not worth the time reading, with far less interesting characters and a mumbly dull romance, but that is apparently where all the world building for ‘Six of Crows’ happens. That’s the one issue I’ve heard people raise for this book, that it takes a bit of time to get into if you haven’t read the ‘Grisha’ trilogy just because of the unfamiliar settings, but I honestly didn’t have too much of a problem. Yeah, maybe I had to keep checking the world map to get my head around the country names, but the story sucked me in and the premise was compelling but not particularly complicated. Essentially, it’s a heist story. A gang of unruly kids (whom I would die for) in a grungy fantasy city have to work together to break into an impenetrable fortress halfway across the world. Probably they’ll die, but if they succeed they’ll be filthy rich. Also there’s an undercurrent romance plot essentially between a witch and a witch hunter, with the bucketfuls of conflicted angst and angry attraction one might expect. READER, I WAS HOOKED. It’s all a little more precise than that, but I don’t want to get too bogged down into the details. Just know it was intensely gripping and darker in parts than you might expect, with incredible backstories a-plenty.
- DEATHLESS by Catherynne M. Valente. This book is definitely sharper and darker than ‘Six of Crows’ — it’s not a fun fantasy heist novel. It’s a compelling mix of traditional Russian folklore and the history of the Soviet Union in the early to mid 20th century, featuring in particular the acute starvation brought on by the Siege of Leningrad (1941-1944). Valente writes in beautiful prose reminiscent of the fairy tales she’s paying homage to, and it’s at times both thrilling and a little disturbing. As far as describing the plot I’m sort of at a loss — it’s not that things don’t happen, but more that I don’t know how to best explain them without trivialising or underselling the book. The very basic premise is that Marya Morevna is fated to marry Koschei, the Tsar of Life, to the backdrop of war and death and hunger. But it’s so much more than that. My only issue with the book was that I much preferred the first half, and although I still readily enjoyed and appreciated the second, I was definitely ready for it to end by the time it did. (Another minor factor about this book is that I really loved the way Valente describes food…it lowkey made me want to move to Eastern Europe and eat pickled beetroots and thick slabs of bread, dark as treacle and spread with cold butter.)
- STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel. This is a book primarily set twenty years after a flu pandemic wipes out most of the world’s population. It differs from other post-apocalyptic novels because it’s not about the bloodthirsty fight for survival the first few years after society crumbles — Mandel gives us glimpses of that enough to let us know what the characters of her world have been through, but the focus of the story is on the recovery of civilization. It centres on the Travelling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors who move around performing Shakespeare to the stuttering settlements that have cropped up in the remains of what was America. Throughout the book there are references to attempts to start up libraries and circulate newspapers, the crafting of museums, and a lot of detail is given to the beautifully illustrated comic that survives in Kirsten’s care, a remnant of another world. The narrative is interwoven with flashbacks centring on characters who lived before the flu broke out, in a way that leaves the reader both interested and also terribly aware of how meaningless their (and our) problems are, knowing what will happen. It’s quiet and dark and haunting, and painfully hopeful. It fundamentally draws on the Star Trek quote said to be painted on one of the Travelling Symphony’s caravans: survival is insufficient.
- ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr. This was another beautiful book. It was somehow both slow-moving in the best way and extremely quick. The vast majority of it focuses on one day: the 7th of August 1944, and the bombing of Saint-Malo by Allied forces, but interspersed with the separate stories of the two main characters: Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, a brilliant German orphan who ends up in the Hitler Youth, both trapped in the city in their own way. They only meet for the shortest amount of time within the book, but it’s strangely fulfilling. Each of their stories had its own charm: tiny, detailed models of cities and the odd fascination of mollusks; the tinkering of radios and the discovery of secret broadcasts murmuring science. The ending took me by definite surprise, but I’ve decided it fits the whole beautiful feel of the book far more than what I was gently expecting. You should definitely read it.
- THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE: A TALE OF THE LAKE DISTRICT by James Rebanks. This book created such a powerful longing in me for a life I’ve never known and never will. It’s an autobiography about growing up in rural Cumbria, the son of a shepherd who was the son of a shepherd, living in a landscape quite literally shaped by his ancestors. It’s a fascinating and incredible snapshot into a way of life so unlike my own London experiences, something I used to play at on Hampstead Heath but that has never been mine. Rebanks writes about living in a dazzlingly beautiful setting and having people from all over the country come to visit his home, acting as though they own it and never understanding what to him felt like the true purpose of those hills: to farm and raise sheep in a manner that has remained much the same for some hundreds of years. He writes that you could take a man from the 10th century and show him their farms, and that he would recognise exactly what they were doing. For me, it was the sharing of this quite humbling view on English landscape and farming that really made the book special, but as well as that it tells the impressive true story of how, despite having never really cared about school, he managed to end up at Oxford. It’s not a romanticised depiction of English countryside, made blind and silly by skin-deep love for aesthetic value, but rather a harsh true story of the difficulties of small-scale farming in modern England. It’s brutal and real, and defined by a fierce love for the Lake District and family heritage. I didn’t want it to end.