Thoughts: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

So, given all the Covid-19 that’s going around, it’s probably a good time to catch up on reading, yes? I have a bit of a (totally normal) cold right now, so I’m feeling particularly sympathetic to the quarantiners.

And happy coincidence, Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a good choice for comfort reading. It is just lovely. Spoilers will follow so if you haven’t read it yet, save it up for when you might need it and don’t read this.

Continue reading

Thoughts: The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles

I mean I’m going to open with this: if you want to read the thoughts of people much more interesting and intelligent than me, read the (wonderful) Guardian reading group’s posts on it, and the comments. My thoughts are not going to be this informed or thoughtful.

Continue reading

Thoughts: Non-Stop, by Brian Aldiss

When I was a wee bairn, I was nosing around the stalls at my primary school’s summer fayre with a few pound my parents had given me to amuse myself and raise whatever funds those fayres were for (they were spelt that way, I don’t know why, I don’t make the rules), and I stopped at the secondhand books stall, because it is the best stall. One of the books waiting for new homes ticked a lot of my boxes – it was thick (good), sci fi (good) with an exciting front cover including weird flying snakes (awesome), so I duly parted with my money and took my new baby home.

That book was not Non-Stop. It was Helliconia Spring, also by Brian Aldiss, and it blew my little mind. I can’t remember how old I was when I read it, either old primary school or new secondary school (I had a string of relatives at that primary school after me so I frequented the summer fayres for years after I’d left) but I’d never read anything even vaguely like Helliconia Spring. For years I kept my eye out for the others in the trilogy, Helliconia Summer and Helliconia Winter, until I eventually gave up believing that our little North Eastern town would ever have something so weird and cool and old in it. When you grew up in Teesside in the 90s and early 00s, you sometimes just had to put these dreams on hold. Finishing old sci fi trilogies was something for other people, not for you. We had one indie bookshop (since closed when the owner retired) and a Waterstones had opened in Middlesbrough, which was dedicated to the new and/or popular (still there), a pair of small libraries (consolidated into one affordable monthly library now, though they did sometimes turn up absolute gold) and a host of charity shops (thriving). And yes, I could have asked our indie bookshop to order in the others, but I was young and didn’t know this was a thing.

Anyway, not long before I moved to Germany, I finally got my hands on the SF Masterworks edition of the Helliconia trilogy (a gift from a fabulous friend). I finally got to finish the story, and my mind was blown once again.

When Brian Aldiss died in 2017, I put Non-Stop on my TBR list. It was an arbitrary choice, because Brian Aldiss has written a hell of a lot of stories, and I didn’t know anything about any of them, so I chose his first novel because why not start at the beginning?

Probably spoilers ahead! If you want to read the book, I’d recommend just diving in not knowing much about it.

Continue reading

Thoughts: The Power, by Naomi Alderman

I enjoyed this more than I thought I would! Not because I was thinking ugh I will hate this book, better read it, because I uh definitely never do that (let me kick Thomas Wolfe under this carpet here), but I guess when I heard the premise (women evolve an electrical organ they can use to stun/incapacitate/kill) and (forgive me) that Margaret Atwood had mentored the author* I had a certain image in my head.

Anyway let’s dive in. Spoiler warning.

Continue reading

Thoughts: Findings, by Kathleen Jamie

This is going to be a short one, partly because I’m implausibly still full of cold and partly because I just couldn’t think of a lot to say about this one – but not in a bad way.

Continue reading

Thoughts: Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

Pachinko is in a genre of book that I tend not to gravitate towards but pretty much always enjoy when it finds its way into my hands – long, sprawling family saga. I don’t know why exactly I don’t seek them out myself – maybe I just don’t know enough about them to feel like I can make a good choice, or maybe there are just too many books in the world that remain impolitely unread by me.

The upside of this is I am surrounded by people with good taste in literature, so when a long, sprawling family saga does find its way into my hands, I can be assured I’m going to enjoy myself.

Pachinko follows a Korean family from a hardscrabble life under Japanese rule in Korea to immigration to Japan, living through the war, the hard postwar years and up to Japan’s economic boom in the 80s, and all the while navigating the brutal structural oppression built into Japanese society.

Continue reading

Thoughts: Wagner the Werewolf, by George W. M. Reynolds

I’ve been meaning to get back around to writing my book thoughts for a while (let’s not talk about how long) but reading Wagner the Werewolf has been an irresistible lure to let myself get dragged back into it.

In short, Wagner the Werewolf is a classic penny dreadful, written by a man who appears to have been fiercely progressive for his time but so personally unpleasant that nobody wanted to work with him. This man outsold Dickens in his time. Remember that all the way through this journey.

First things first, I thoroughly loved this book. I had an absolutely fantastic time from beginning to end, and gleefully shared various excerpts on my Twitter. There are about fifty different plots going on, the language is not so much purple as ultraviolet, and the only thing missing is the werewolf action. Wagner only changes about three times, and though he does kill people (and snakes, and swans) every time, it’s mostly from running into them really fast. Spoilers galore will occur below, you have been warned.

Continue reading

Thoughts: The Fall of Gondolin, by JRR Tolkien

So. Been a while. Moving on.

After frying my brain with Nnedi Okorafor in German, I tret myself to some pure comfort reading, going back to the start of my love affair with the speculative literary genres. When I was seven my dad gave me his copy of The Hobbit and that was that. When I was eleven I borrowed his satisfyingly fat copy of The Lord of the Rings and my mind was blown. That was it. I taught myself (incompetently) the elvish script in which to write all my secrets, and discovered The Silmarillion and invented fanfiction. I wrote terrible epic poetry and filled in gaps and spent altogether too much time thinking about Feanor’s sons (Maedhros 4 lyf, don’t @ me).

It’s probably important to point out that I’m the worst kind of reader – I loved every song in The Lord of the Rings. I would sit and memorise whole stretches from the Lays of Beleriand, which I found in our local library, now sadly gone. I could genuinely recite the whole bit where Sauron and Finrod have their rap battle, right up to And Finrod fell before the throne, which still gives me chills, and about which I could probably talk for hours.

I’m not much of a nerd compared to some, but I am exactly the kind of fantasy reader other fantasy readers think gives them a bad name. Sorry guys. It’s just who I am.

The Fall of Gondolin is a gorgeous illustrated hardback dealing with the end of the city of Gondolin throughout Tolkien’s work. It gathers the different versions of the event in various unfinished poems, putting together the fragments of a full story that was never quite told. The whole history of the writing down of these stories is almost as interesting as the stories themselves, how they were picked up and put down and fought for, and how Tolkien needed to fight against the world as well, the paper shortages after the war that remind us that stories and art aren’t only abstract things. They exist in the world, and to an extent have to abide by its rules.

It’s a book for people who are interested in the deep dive, in nosing around all the nuts and bolts and reading different versions of the same story, in which the most detailed and polished one is frustratingly incomplete. As an amateur writer I love reading drafts anyway, and seeing how someone’s ideas change with time, so if this is you, you might enjoy it. Some knowledge of Middle Earth is necessary, though Christopher Tolkien does a pretty excellent job of keeping it all straight and explaining name changes etc.

All in all I loved The Fall of Gondolin (sorry Gondolin), and I was aware all the time I was reading it that I was enjoying it. There were worthier and more challenging books I could have been reading, but I was too busy indulging that young me, feeding her love of fantasy and worldbuilding, inspiring her to keep fighting that long defeat because it’s all we can do. And maybe teaching my present self a thing or two about striving for excellence in my own writing and stories.


They dug up another bomb in Frankfurt today.
The flowing clouds never blinked nor paused
and neither do we.
We pack our bags like we’re heading off on an adventure,
not scared in the slightest,
but I back up my work just in case
and carry it with me in my pocket.
I wake up in a strange bed and listen for a bang.

I sit in the exam room with the Integrationskurs Teilnehmerinnen,
a private fly on a public wall.
It feels offensive to recognise the achievements of someone
who couldn’t read or write her native language this time last year,
but who nevertheless fills in her Geburtsort in a laborious foreign script.
Damascus. Kabul. Samarra.
Not caricatures or ciphers but women
in headscarves and jeans and heavy black dresses.
Who fill this room and
wait until the exam is over so they can pick up their children,
knowing they’ve jumped over one more hurdle
to their Niederlassungserlaubnis in a city
where all the bombs are already safely in the ground.

“Is this the last one?” we ask.
I make fun, but one day it will be
and we’ll never know.
There’ll be no parade, no public holiday,
no Peter Feldmann posed gamely by
the last ever one: Good work, everyone.
Will the earth become kinder?
Will the flowers bloom lighter-headed?
Will we have replaced them by then with something else?

The Egret

On the day she died
an egret flew low over our heads,
each feather sharply shadowed
on its snow-carved wings.

There are pieces of her in me.
The one-sided heat of a gas fire
and the patina on her teaspoons.

The particular cold of a greenhouse in winter.

A small fortune of copper coins
slyly pointed out on the ground,
a hundred lucky days.

The secret places in a church,
and the weight of altar cloths.

Jagged pieces, too, mine now to name
and keep. No longer borrowed, but given.
A sullen silence and words unmeant.
An unsustainable balance. A hedgehog wall.

But if, on the day I die,
someone can mistake my soul for an egret,
I will have lived a good life.