[...] How long do any of us really have before the body begins to break down and empty its mysteries into the air? Oh honey, I said—for once without a trace of irony or blush of shame— the touch of my own hand on my chest like that of a stranger, oddly comforting in spite of the facts.
I’ve been involved with the LGBTQ+ Research Group Wales for a while. I’m very pleased to report that the group now has a website, created in collaboration with Swansea University, which will provide a platform for sharing information about LGBTQ+ history in relation to Wales.
Jacklight by Louise Erdrich is a collection of very fine poems divided into four sequences, ‘Runaways’, ‘Hunters’, ‘The Butcher’s Wife’, and ‘Myths’, each of which delves into different aspects of experience. As the blurb notes, the poems ‘bring to life what it is to be a woman, a Midwesterner, and a Native American’.
There were two things that struck me particularly about these poems. First, the sense of something intangible, numinous even, emerging from the ordinary realities of life. For instance, in ‘The Lady in the Pink Mustang’, a woman driving a pink mustang car becomes something like a goddess. The effect is often quite uncanny. Secondly, the characters who appear in these poems are just so incredibly vivid, such as Hilda in ‘The Slow Sting of her Company’ which perfectly captures the way some people just get under your skin.
The poems in this collection are elusive, unsettling and haunting. Some of my other favourites were, ‘Painting of a White Gate and Sky’ (see below), ‘The Woods’ and ‘I was sleeping where the black oaks move‘.
I haven’t read any of Louise Erdrich’s novels yet and possibly it would have been wise to have read at least Love Medicine before attempting the poetry. I suspect her fiction provides more context for the poems and I may return to them again after reading some of the novels.
Simon Jimenez’s debut novel, The Vanished Birds (2020), is the first new voice in science fiction to get me excited since Becky Chambers published The Long Way to the Small Angry Planet. I’m not even sure how to describe this book, but I found it quite astonishing, as well as very accomplished and ambitious for a first novel. It wears its influences on its sleeve, but is also entirely its own thing. A great story, but also an allegory about capitalism, colonialism and, most powerfully I thought, about healing childhood trauma. There is an exploration of the price, in human suffering, of new technologies which feels like a response to Le Guin’s famous story, ‘The ones who walk away from Olemas’. It’s not perfect. It feels a little unwieldy and a touch self-indulgent in places, but what an imagination and wonderfully vivid characters. His next book, The Spear Cuts Through Water (2022), is epic fantasy, which is not at all my thing, but based on The Vanished Birds, I’ll be giving it a go because I really want to see what Jimenez will do next.
The one that I finally got around to reading
I’m always a bit wary of books that have been overhyped, but in the case of The Martian (2014), I was not at all disappointed. I found it a delight. Hilariously funny, emotionally engaging, exciting and interesting too. The narrative shifts between Mark Watney on Mars, Nasa and the perspective of his crewmates on the ship, do feel a little clunky, but who cares when you’re having this much fun. I can see The Martian becoming a comfort book to return to on rainy days when I’m feeling a little under the weather. And I enjoyed the film adaptation too.
The favourite series
I re-read the entire Murderbot series three times during lockdown. The sixth instalment, Fugitive Telemetry (2021) is a prequel to the previous novel and a little murder mystery. It’s not one of the best in the series, but I enjoyed it.
The favourite author
Three books by Becky Chambers! The Galaxy and the Ground Within (2021) is the last (hmm we’ll see) in the beloved Wayfarers series. If you liked the others, you should enjoy this one too. If you don’t like Becky Chambers, it will not persuade you otherwise. It’s a lovely story about a group of strangers who are thrown together by circumstances. Her novella, To be Taught if Fortunate (2019), is something completely different. This is a much harder, darker story about space exploration. It’s the first book by Chambers to really upset me in places and the ending is ambiguous. It’s very good, though, and the themes reminded me a little of the movie, Interstellar, only it’s much better. A Psalm for the Wild Built (2020) is the absolute opposite of ‘To be Taught’, a gentle parable about a monk and a robot. This is the first book by Chambers that hasn’t chimed with me. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s thoughtful and comforting, but somehow didn’t engage me and I probably won’t read the rest of this particular series. But it’s good to see Chambers trying different things.
The one that pleasantly surprised me
I think I bought this because it was cheap on Kobo. I didn’t expect much, but ended up enjoying Gareth Powell’s Embers of War (2018) quite a lot. I do like a sentient warship and this is just an entertaining, fast-paced space opera.
So that’s my last six months in science fiction, apart from re-reads of The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin, which I’ll write about separately.
I’ve got some slightly older stuff on the go at the moment, Downbelow Station (1981) by CJ Cherryh (this one is serious business!) and two books from 2005, the second in Julie E Czerneda’s ‘Species Imperative‘ series and the first in Jody Lynn Nye’s ‘Wolfe pack‘ comedy military SF series.
I read Underland by Robert Macfarlane last year. At the time, it certainly tested my poor lockdown-addled, zoom-fatigued brain. But it was well worth the effort and is definitely in the running for the best book I read in 2021, which is why I want to mention it here several months after I finished reading it.
Underland isn’t an easy read and I’m not even going to attempt to write about it at any length – there are numerous excellent reviews out there if you’re interested.
It’s a dense book that demands close attention. A guided tour of deep, underground places on Earth, it’s a book about the past, the present, and the journey we are on as we move further into the Anthropocene, the first period on Earth when human activity will be the dominant influence on the climate and environment.
Awesome, sublime and in places, quite frightening. This is a book to save for the autumn and winter, I think. Light some candles, curl up under a blanket and enter the dark places.
I’m looking forward to more journeys with Macfarlane. The Old Ways is next on my list.
This ground-breaking volume makes visible a long and diverse tradition of queer writing from Wales. Spanning genres from ghost stories and science fiction to industrial literature and surrealist modernism, these are stories of love, loss and transformation.
In these stories gender refuses to be fixed: a dashing travelling companion is not quite who he seems in the intimate darkness of a mail coach, a girl on the cusp of adulthood gamely takes her father’s place as head of the house, and an actor and patron are caught up in dangerous game-playing. In the more fantastical tales there are talking rats, flirtations with fascism, and escape from a post-virus ‘utopia’. These are stories of sexual awakening, coming out and redefining one’s place in the world.
Mark your calendar for 2026. That’s when the first and only authorized biography of the late Portland literary legend Ursula K. Le Guin is scheduled to be published by Virago, a British publisher that focuses on women writers.
We also went to the Troutmark bookshop, where I got a couple of mystery/thrillers. I read Bluebird Bluebird by Attica Locke last year and thought it was excellent, so picked up another one her her books. I LOVE Ruth Ware and grabbed this copy of The Death of Mrs Westaway.
Finally, we paid a visit to the Oxfam bookshop, where I was pleased to find a copy of C+nto& Othered Poems by Joelle Taylor which won the T.S Eliot Prize in 2021.
I also couldn’t resist this copy of Cranks Recipe Book, originally published in 1982 (reissued in 2013). I love old vegetarian recipe books. They are full of recipes for things like ‘savoury carrot layer’, ‘apple and peanut butter soup’ and ‘carob blancmange’. Not sure how much use I’ll get out of it really, but it takes me back to the vegetarian food of my teenage years and that’s comforting somehow.
I read this book last year and loved it. The bit at the beginning of the podcast, where they talk about their recent reading does go on a little too long I feel, but after that, there’s a really interesting conversation about the novel, so stick with it.
The first two weeks of January were cold and wet. Miserable weather, plus the ongoing COVID situation and general state of the world, really brought down my mood. A few issues with our flat also triggered my depression about being a middle-aged private renter. And then something else happened that set off even more difficult emotions.
No, this is not, by any stretch, the worst January I’ve ever had, but it’s been a mean one nonetheless.
I did a lot of cooking, burned through a lot of scented candles, read and huddled under blankets with hot water bottles. I managed to keep up my daily walks, but not much else.
The weather began to improve mid-month. We made it out to the park for a walk. At the cafe, I ate a slice of ginger and apple cake which was the best cake I’ve had in a very long time. Heavy, moist, generous, not stinting me on anything.
The birds re-appeared. Song thrushes and robins have started to sing from the trees. Blue tits, great tits, long-tailed tits, blackbirds are all getting busy. Other birdwatchers have spotted a group of black redstarts in the area, but they continue to evade me, no matter how often I walk around the places where they’ve been seen.
Last week, I noticed that I was outside in the light after 4pm for the first time since November. January has been emotionally gruelling, but it’s good to see the light returning at last.
Song of the month – Ron Sexsmith’s beautiful cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Heart with no Companion’
This collection brings together all fifty one of the Poirot short stories in chronological order of publication, plus one story ‘not seen for over 70 years’.
My third January book is one that I’ve been reading for a long time. At least a year. Possibly more! I’ve been keeping it on the go as a bedtime book for ages, often just reading a few pages on my e-reader before nodding off. There always seemed to be ‘four hours left’, until suddenly, there was only 30 minutes left, so I made a big effort and finally finished it.
There isn’t much to say. If you like Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot, you will enjoy this collection. The stories are a bit variable in quality. Some are forgettable and were clearly written quickly for magazines. Others are classics. A few of my favourites are ‘The Chocolate Box’, ‘The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb’, ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’ and ‘Triangle at Rhodes’.
But the stories I enjoyed most were from The Labours of Hercules, originally published in 1947. These twelve interlinked cases, which show Poirot at the end of his career, are weirder, more grotesque and gothic, than the earlier stories. They feel more fully realised and complex somehow. These stories felt fresher because, aside from ‘The Erymanthian Boar’, they were not used in the TV series and were new to me. Rather a shame, I think, because some are excellent and could have made good adaptations.
‘The Nemean Lion’ is a delightful tale involving a pekingese dog. ‘The Arcadian Deer’ is a strange love story. ‘The Erymanthian Boar’ is an atmospheric mystery set in a remote swiss hotel. My two favourite stories, ‘The Stymphalean Birds’ and ‘The Cretan Bull’ contain elements of gothic and horror fiction: a civil servant finds himself embroiled in a sinister situation whilst on holiday, and a young woman recruits Poirot to help discover why her fiance believes that he is going mad. ‘The Capture of Cerberus’ features Poirot’s old friend/antagonist Countess Vera Rossakoff and doesn’t show Poirot in a very flattering light. Definitely one where Christie’s dislike of her own character peeps through.
Now I’ll have to find something else to read at bedtime.
I’m hoping to read more nonfiction this year and Kindred, by Rebecca Wragg Sykes, feels like an excellent start towards that goal.
I’ve always been interested in Neanderthals, and palaeoanthropology more generally, so I was pretty much guaranteed to enjoy this book. Kindred aims to summarise and explain the current evidence and research about Neanderthals and make it accessible to the general reader. It’s a huge, complex field, so this is quite a feat and clearly also a labour of love for the author.
From the discovery of the first fossils one hundred and sixty years ago, Kindred delves into what we know about their bodies, the tools they created, the world they lived in, what they ate (a lot!), their homes and use of fire, to their aesthetics, love lives, death rituals and, of course, the question that most fascinates us now, their interbreeding with homo sapiens.
The book finishes with a discussion of how western ideology has shaped the way evidence of the Neanderthals has been interpreted and the journey from otherisation to accepting them, as different, but closely related, people.
A fascinating and tender book about the other humans that didn’t survive except in our DNA.
In Cornwall in 1972, three keepers disappear from their lighthouse. When the relief boat arrives on New Year’s Eve, the door is found locked, the clocks are stopped and the table is laid for a meal. The Principle Keeper, Arthur Black, Assistant Keeper, Bill Walker, and their junior, Vincent Bourne, have all vanished. Arthur Black’s weather log describes a terrible storm which is not recorded anywhere else …
Twenty years later, a writer sets out to interview the women who were left behind: Arthur’s wife, Helen, Bill’s wife, Jenny, and Michelle, Vincent’s girlfriend. Three women whose lives are still constantly haunted by this unsolved mystery.
As the narrative moves back and forth between the experiences of the lighthouse keepers and the stories of the women who loved them, layers of truth slowly unravel. What drove Helen and Jenny apart? Who is the writer who wants to interview them and what is his agenda? What role was played by the rather sinister company, Trident House, that runs the lighthouse network? And, of course, what really happened to the men on the lighthouse during that last Christmas?
The Lamplighters crosses genres. It can be read as a mystery, a ghost story, and a psychological thriller. I did find the resolution slightly disappointing, but I’m not going to complain when the book is so compelling and beautifully written. In the end, it’s a story about love and grief and the difficulty in ever truly knowing another person.
With its ambiguities and genre blurring, I do think this is the kind of book that people will either love or hate, but give it a try if you enjoy the likes of Shirley Jackson, Hilary Mantel, Emily St John Mandel and Tana French.
My first completed read of 2022 is The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier (1969). I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It reminded me that I really should read more of Du Maurier’s work.
The narrator, Dick Young, finds himself between jobs and borrows his friend Magnus’s ancient house in Cornwall, Kilmarth, while he decides what to do next. In the meantime, Magnus, who is a scientist, persuades Dick to act as a test subject for a drug he is developing which, he claims, allows the user to experience the distant past. Dick takes the drug and does indeed find himself transported back to the fourteenth century where he is able to witness, but not interact with, people who lived in the area at the time. This ‘time travel’ only occurs in the mind of the subject, so while on a trip, Dick is actually wandering around his physical environment, unaware of what’s happening in the present. This is clearly dangerous, but he quickly becomes obsessed with the drama unfolding in the lives of the people he follows in the past and feels compelled to keep on taking the drug. His addiction soon starts to cause problems when his american wife, Vita, and his two stepsons arrive back from the States earlier than expected. The situation esclates, as you might expect; there is a shocking death, violence, and everything eventually culminates in a suitably ambiguous ending.
The House on the Strand has all the elements that I’ve enjoyed in the other stories by Du Maurier. There is the unreliable narrator. There are elements of the gothic and science fiction. There are strong queer undertones: Magnus is gay and Dick’s relationship with him is far closer than with his bewildered wife. There is a narrative that can be read in at least two completely different ways. Is Dick really time-travelling, or is it all a drug-induced hallucination, a ruse practised on the suggestible mind of a man in denial about his life? There is the unresolved ending, which leaves Dick’s fate up to the reader.
The story can be read as an allegory about addiction and/or repressed sexuality, but I finished The House on the Strand with a feeling that it’s also about being a writer of fiction. Dick’s predicament represents the sense of conflict that being a writer can create between reality and the world of the imagination, where the writer would perhaps prefer to dwell, without finding themselves constantly being pulled back to the demands of ordinary, daily life.
An enjoyable start to my reading year. I think The Scapegoat is next on my du Maurier list. It sounds right up my street.
The book that inspired the episode, A Gothic Cookbook by Ella Buchan and Alessandra Pino, is forthcoming from Unbound and looks gorgeous.
Unbound is a crowdfunding publisher so, if you’re interested, you can go and back the project. Since it’s on two of my favourite subjects (Gothic literature & cooking), this is something I’ll definitely be doing.
This January, I’m joining in #CookJan on twitter. Started by Alice Slater in 2017 as an antidote to the diet/detox/wellness stuff that’s so prevalent at this time of year, #CookJan is an ‘opportunity to reconnect with your kitchen’, to ‘crack open the cookbooks we were lovingly given for Christmas’ and ‘spend January learning to nourish ourselves with all the thought, warmth, love and care that we deserve’.
I think we need it more than ever this year.
I’ve decided to focus on cooking recipes from One Pot, Plan, Planet by Anna Jones, a book that I’ve owned for a couple of years, but haven’t really explored. It’s full of the kind of hearty, vegetable-based meals that I like to eat at this time of year. Lots of stews, casseroles, soups and traybakes.
I kicked off my #CookJan with the ‘Crispy caper & slow-roasted tomato pappardelle’.
I scaled it down a bit for two (recipe serves six) and used taglatelle instead of parppardalle because that’s what they had at Tesco Express. Perfect for a grey, damp January day.
My current comfort read is A Cook’s Book by Nigel Slater. A present to myself, it’s just a big warm hug of a book. This is really a ‘best of’ Nigel Slater, featuring many favourite recipes from his life in the kitchen. I have started to put it to practical use and made the spicy red lentil soup, which was delicious.
A book that a lot of us enthusiastic home cooks have been anticipating with excitement. My pre-ordered copy of Ruby Tandoh’s new book ‘Cook As You Are‘ (Recipes for Real Life, Hungry Cooks and Messy Kitchens) arrived on publication day. Thanks Bookshop.org.
So many creative and delicious-sounding recipes. Can’t wait to try the ‘Carrot, lemon and tahini soup’, ‘Crisp brown butter beans with garlic yoghurt’, ‘Tomato and fennel risotto’, ‘Gnocci with harissa butter and broccoli’ … I could go on.
My recipe book shelf is straining at the seams, but I don’t think I’ll regret squeezing this one in.