It has been a glorious Spring day here, a brilliant start to the long Easter weekend, with blue skies from dawn until dusk and a piercing sparkling light. For the first time in six months I didn't wear wellies, hat and gloves to walk Juno; I even took my coat off in the sunshine. The ground along the field edge and the lane was wondrously blessedly dry. It has been nothing but mud and dirty puddles since October and I had forgotten what it was like to walk on firm ground. What a relief. It would have been a crime to stay indoors afterwards, so we got busy in the garden: mowing the lawn, picking up the million sticks that fall out of our trees, putting all the gravel that migrates off the driveway back on to it again. Now I have that pleasant buzz of activity and fresh air on my skin and am in desperate anticipation of summer. Best to have enjoyed it while it lasted, since tomorrow the rain and stormy winds are back. Sign, moan, groan.
Ah well, bad weather means more time for reading and (no surprise) I'm keen to get back to my books after a day of exertion. Ayelet Gundar-Goshen's Waking Lions is my current Kindle read and has my keen attention. I really wasn't sure about it at first. The claustrophobic interiority of the writing, the focus on the less than salubrious thoughts of less than likable characters, made it feel narrow. Some of the overt racism directed against the novel's Eritrean characters is distinctly uncomfortable, as is the sexism against women generally. But it has grown on me, page by page, as I've given myself over to the psychology of the Israeli desert and the intensity of the moral dilemma at its heart. I've also just put my bookmark in Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss, the final book in her historical trilogy following the life and career of Alethea Moberley, one of the first women to qualify as a doctor in London in the 1870s. It follows on from Bodies of Light, which I first read back in 2014 and just finished re-reading in anticipation of the sequel (on which, more below). Two things have bumped it up my TBR pile: it's been shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize (as was Bodies of Light before it) and an ARC of Moss' next novel The Tidal Zone (out in July) just dropped through my letterbox from Granta. The new book is a stand alone, but I've read Moss in order from the beginning and I don't want to give up my perfect reading streak.
I'm reading faster this year than I have since 2007; by the end of March I will have read more books in three months than I did in the whole of 2014 (which was, admittedly, a dire year). Which means that I have a few more things to quickly recap in order to stick to my 'write about everything I read' resolution.
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (HarperCollins, 2015, borrowed from the library)
First up is this delightful graphic novel, which first appeared as a web comic between 2012-2014 and has taken the world by storm since then. It's eponymous heroine is a headstrong and fearless shapeshifter, whose magical ability to transform herself into any living creature from a mouse to a dragon to your grandmother leads her to seek a job as sidekick to Lord Ballister Blackheart. After losing his right arm in a joust at hero school Blackheart has made it his business to be an all-round Bad Guy and wreak havoc on the Institution for Law Enforcement and Heroics. The Institution's hero-in-chief is Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin (yes, really), Blackheart's former best friend and the man who wounded him all those years ago. There are giggles, quirks and quotables from the first strip of the comic to the last, mostly fuelled by Nimona's never-ending enthusiasm for causing havoc. The will-they-won't-they kill each other / get it on tension between Blackheart and Goldenloin is sweet as anything. But the tone changes markedly after the mid-point: the early larks about evil master-plans give way to a the central plot about the Institution's sinister abuses of power. The origin and implication of Nimona's power is brought to the fore, as is the real world danger of her recklessness. You can clearly see how Stevenson grew as both an artist and a storyteller over the two years she worked on the comic. I can't help but think it would be better if I'd experienced it that way too, gradually and episodically rather than gulping it down.
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho (Macmillan, 2015, borrowed from the library)
I haven't seen or heard a bad word about this book from any quarter and on paper it sounded 100% my kind of thing. A Regency setting in an alternate magical England that borders the land of Faery (ala Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell) where a former slave has just been made Sorcerer Royal against the wishes of practically everyone? A smart, feisty mixed-heritage girl with more power in her little finger than half the magicians in England, in spite of the fact that Ladies Don't Do Magic? A dastardly plot to rob the nation of it's flow of magical energy? I couldn't order it from the library fast enough. Which is why I feel a bit deflated when I admit that I didn't love it. I liked it, but I didn't love it like I hoped I would. It's charming and desperately well written - Cho maintains the early nineteenth century idiom without skipping a beat - and it has energy and action and witty repartee in spades. It handles the racial and gender prejudices that both it's hero and heroine face with sensitivity and aplomb. Still I found it hard to warm to either Zacharias or Prunella, the former being too reserved and proper and the latter being too forthright and improper. At times the pastiche of the dialogue turned them into caricatures. Prunella had a kind of unstoppable certainty in herself that turned me off, while Zacharias effaced himself into statuary. The plot was full of moments where people turn up at just the right time - one character in particular, the witch Mak Genggang, always seemed to be breaking through windows in order to move the plot forwards. I thought some elements of the denouement, and especially the romance subplot, felt thoroughly unearned. Very clever, very accomplished, very neat but flat in my opinion.
Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss (Granta, 2014, audio download from the library and my own hardback copy)
I spotted this on Overdrive, the e-book and audio book app for my library, and jumped on it with a squeal. I was facing a long tedious spring clean of the kitchen and had been looking for something to keep me company. Signs for Lost Children had just been shortlisted for the Wellcome and I'd been reminded of how very much I admired Bodies of Light. This was a perfect opportunity to re-read it. The book is the second in a series about women and medicine and parenthood that connects Alethea Moberley in the nineteenth century to a writer and mother on a remote Scottish island in the twenty-first century. The first book - Night Waking - focuses primarily on the present-day, interweaving the story of Alethea's younger sister May. Bodies of Light shifts the action to Manchester in the 1860s and 1870s where Ally and May are growing up in the care of vastly different parents. Their father, Alfred, is an interior designer in the Pre-Raphaelite tradition, with a taste for fine things and earthly delights. Their mother, Elizabeth, is a campaigner for women's rights, a reformer of public health and a harsh task-master. Ally and May are caught between their competing ways of living in the world, at the mercy of their mother's discipline and their father's whims. Ally in particular suffers physical and psychological abuse, pressured to embody Elizabeth's ideal of useful and unimpeachable womanhood. Her schooling and then her doctor's training are as much about the cause of women as they are about her own interests and desires. Moss's writing is gorgeously textured, with an impeccable attention to the detail of material culture and historical setting. She dwells intensely on the physical experiences of her characters as bodies in time and space, with a focus on sensation - everything is touched, tasted, smelt in technicolour. I thought this book was good the first time round but this time, listening to it at an indulgent pace, I thought it was absolutely impeccable.
What have you been reading and what are planning to curl up with this Easter?
(Oh, I forgot to say: bear with me, I'm fussing about with the design of the blog and have settled on this new format as an interim design. I suddenly wanted a change to the old column layout but I'm so rubbish as changing it that I'm having to tackle it in stages. I hope you don't mind it this way for a little while.)