Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland – Sarah Moss

I enjoy non-fiction about lives in other countries, and find it especially accessible if written from the perspective of a Brit expat. This of course is a slightly limiting frame of reference, and Moss herself acknowledges that there are things about Iceland that she entirely misses for my of her time living there. But it also ensures that the obvious contrasts are generously highlighted and parallels appreciated.

This book is a wonderful exploration by a family who know they only have a limited time, but still have enough time to make friends and build some kind of a life. Not only that, but it is set in a very specific time, just after the Icesave crash. The country has suddenly lost of lot of wealth, and import ability, and is left to rebuild.

Life in Iceland is therefore hard financially, especially in a culture that expects family support, and there are parts of it that Moss simply can’t grasp (such as where the toddlers are in winter), but she discusses how they manage with the weather and tough financial constraints.

There is light though, in friendships struck up and discoveries made. I enjoyed her relating of oral history and links to mythology through ghosts and elves and back to modern Iceland in a seamless fashion to produce a narrative. The “anything is possible” atmosphere mixes pleasingly with a rational English academic narrator who knows that elves aren’t real.

Then there are specific gems that can’t easily be picked up about how she finds opportunities, like the open air museum that opens in Advent, or how Icelandic women (and sometimes men) still knit at every opportunity with wool from Icelandic sheep. She even discusses meeting Ragga, a knitting pattern designer who left her job to start a knitting business in the bottom of the financial crisis.

These details open up a new country for deeper investigation, and in parallel let in a little window on the author’s life.

Have you discovered a new land through travel fiction recently?

The Will of the Empress – Tamora Pierce

I love this out of all the post-Circle Opens books (I refuse to try and claim the three belong together).

The four are back together and have grown up and apart. So now its time to face a new foe and work out what family means now they are adults. Daja and Tris are hurt and feeling like they don’t have a home, Briar seems to have PTSD and Sandry is heartbroken that they are no longer one.

But of course its time for a crisis, where they all travel together to meet a new challenge and explore yet another new country (spoilers below the cut).

Continue reading “The Will of the Empress – Tamora Pierce”

Phantom of the Opera

Turn your face away from the garish light of day

Turn your thoughts away from cold unfeeling light

And help me make the music of the niight

We saw the magnificent production of Phantom at Her Majesty’s Theatre in on the West End last night. The sets are fantastically luxurious, with the odd scene that was strongly reminiscent of 1980s music videos.

John Owen-Jones made a splendid Phantom, seductive with an edge of creepiness that gradually crept up to a murderous rage.

He contrasted well with Celinde Schoenmaker as Christine, who plausibly fell under his control, even as she fought him at every possible moment. She sang beautifully, with a convincing transformation from sweet-but-shy chorus girl to lead, and spellbinding performances as the story underwent transitions.

The Establishment – Owen Jones

Jones looks at where the power has collected in modern Britain. Who has influence, how they got it and how they are connected to each other.

This ‘bulldog spirit’, however, was summoned to defend the interests of the City; these interests were conflated with the interests of the nation as a whole.

Jones on Cameron

Most importantly, he looks at a world where the majority of actors believe they are doing the “right thing”, but because of how systems and social assumptions are set up this may not be the same as what the wider population would like. There is then the contradiction between population views and votes cast, in that for a lot of social policies polled views are to the left of what even the Labour party considers to be an acceptable policy, or one that falls into the Overton Window.

It is clear that this book is Jones’ effort to provide his own nudge to the Overton window, that if enough people talk about his sort of democratic ideas then over time they will seem less radical and more capable of being implemented.

And of course in a supposedly democratic system, the potential for change is the real power.

Rouges – George R. R. Martin & Gardner Dozois

I hesitate to call this a short story collection as at 21 stories across over 900 pages, the average length of these stories is over 40 pages. Rather it’s a collection of novellas, shuffled together from different worlds.

The list of contributing authors alone was enough for me to pick this up, it reads as a list of the best current sci-fi and fantasy authors. Of course it includes a new tale from Westeros, but also something from London Below, a a whole set of stories from worlds that only exist inside this book. From a world where thieves have their souls trapped in statues as a warning to others, to a mystery set in a  multiplex cinema  through a club in the roaring twenties where possibly not everyone is human.

It is impossible to pick a favourite from this set, but the contribution from George R. R. Martin was a definite disappointment. Dry, dull and only explained that there had been a whole heap of infighting and grudges in the past. So don’t get it for that story, but it was just a bit of a damp squid at the end of a generally fabulous collection.

Living with Books – Dominique Dupuich / Roland Beaufre

I am working on designs to turn our back bedroom into a little library, with cozy seating and lighting to read by (especially as it faces north). Until then I’m browsing photos of such rooms, and picking up books that suggest ideas. Somehow I suspect the two-story high room with ladders won’t quite work in our house, but the snug rooms with shelves built around sofas look like a fantastic idea.

Living With Books

There are a few odd ideas, like books behind cages, or decorative shelves that hold hardly any books, but there are still mountains of ideas that will feed into the eventual project.

A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String – Joanne Harris

I have only read one of Harris’ short stories before, in Stories a few years ago. I hadn’t even noticed she had a collection out until I stumbled across this in the library.

A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String is definitely the sort of book one should stumble across. A miscellanea of tales, from ones where magic is true, or Gods walk the earth, to a duo of elderly ladies who are determined to outwit the staff at their nursing home showing us that magical events happen without true magic. It is the sort of selection that needs reading in front of a fire over Christmastime.

The only one that didn’t ring true was the Twitter ghost, and only then because I have a suspicion that most of that could be programmed maliciously into various social media services now, so I was waiting for the other boot to drop in terms of the realisation that was what it was.

All in, a good selection and one I may be giving as a Christmas present this year.

The Embassy of Cambodia – Zadie Smith

It was not for the first time that Fatou had wondered if she herself was a slave, but this story, brief as it was, confirmed in her own mind that she was not

The Embassy of Cambodia is not a story about an Embassy or Cambodia, but the embassy as it unexpectedly exists within normal London suburban life is a metaphor for Fatou’s life in Willesden.

This standalone short story paints a realistic picture of a life where the little things are appreciated whilst underneath things aren’t quite right. There are neat little details that give Fatou depth, and a strength of character that is simultaneously jarring and reassuring as the badminton shuttlecock soaring above the fence of the embassy.

The Hotel Years – Joseph Roth (translated by Michael Hofmann)

Roth was a prolific writer and columnist, with a Jewish heritage, who spent the years after the Great War travelling around Europe and writing about his experiences in various newspaper columns.The Hotel Years

In The Hotel Years, Hofmann has chosen a selection of these columns to illustrate Roth’s experiences and writing style. Each column sketches a detail of his life, from details of the hotel itself to his experiences during the rise of antisemitism.

We also learn how his experiences in the Great War had shaped him, with his jaded view of the futility of armed forces. This is again reflected in cynical views of the rise of violence in Germany during the 1930s, and an understanding of where all this is likely to lead.

But then the mix includes the difficulty in interacting with a beautiful woman in his railway compartment. He also reflections on how life has continued even in Sarajevo, the point where the trigger for the War was fired.

The Fractal Prince – Hannu Rajaniemi

I’d forgotten what a colourful romp The Quantum Thief was until I spotted The Fractal Prince in a bookshop and remembered I’d planned to look out for the sequel.

This is the sequel Quantum Thief deserves. Fast-paced, complex and laden with future tech. It did require a careful reread of both together to understand what was going on and catch up with the contexts again. There are all the twists and setups that can be expected, with characters delighting in their own cleverness.

In addition a new race (or species?) is introduced with their own history, culture and practices to preserve themselves. This adds new intricacies to the dance for power, and a refreshing narrative to weave throughout this book.