The Man who Rained – Ali Shaw

The cover of this set the tone nicely – is a nice “chick lit” with a fable woven beneath it. Elsa is taking the normal “running away” approach to life, and settles  in a small town. But of course it is not an ordinary small town, and it takes a few chapters before we discover how unusual it is.

This is hardly deep literature, but covers both the bright and dark sides of the human spirit. We see displays of love and of jealousy, of loyalty and a brutal mob.  The human side alone is powerful. Then the magic is imaginative, running with the idea of spirits (mischievous or otherwise) which have local powers.

I loved how Shaw drew all the threads together for the ending, giving very satisfying conclusions to all the parallel subplots running through the novel.

Dangerous Women Part III – Edited by George R. R. Martin & Gardner Dozois

Dangerous Women is a collection of fast-paced stories centred around women. They vary in style and quality, and although one (by Melinda Snodgrass) I abandoned, it has also led me to reserve the first of the Desden Files novels to read. The Butcher story was typical, of the collection, a women who against the odds manages to use her wits and femininity to escape from dangerous enemies and end up ahead by the end of the story.

The editors don’t make an entry into this collection, outside a short introduction by Dozois, which I would imagine anyone picking this up for the George R. R. Martin name on the front would find a disappointment. However anyone who remains disappointed as the short stores unpack would be missing in taste. By the end I was only sorry that there were only seven stories, and I’m fairly likely to pick up the other parts of the Dangerous Women series.

Fludd – Hilary Mantel (Audiobook)

Hilary Mantel is one of those authors whose work I keep feeling like I should read, but then being too overwhelmed by the degree of seriousness to start. So I went for the audiobook solution, listening as I commuted for a fortnight.

Fludd is set in 1950s Lancashire, up in the Pennines. For those who don’t live in this area, it might be surprising that these are several villages and small towns that are very much Catholic, here in the cradle of methodism and in a country that has been officially protestant since the turn of the 17th Century. So the idea of this insular community, with an equal distrust of Yorkshiremen and Protestants seems very lifelike to me. Then we have the named characters, from a priest who has lost his faith, a nun who isn’t quite sure what she is doing and a bishop who wan’t to modernise this parish.

This novel is about the changing of times, faith and human nature. As a new arrival, Fludd challenges the existing community, sowing new thoughts and ideas. And then there are the small miracles that occur in his presence.

However despite all this, I couldn’t enjoy the climax the book finished at. It could so easily have gone somewhere else in those last couple of chapters, and made a larger point. Of course it is possible that the whole point was the individuality of the divine, and that deeper meaning needs another reading to solidify.

The Sleeper and the Spindle – Neil Gaiman – Audiobook

This was a treasure found on the library’s eAudiobook collection: a full cast recording of a Gaiman short story. I hadn’t read this before, and it is a good twist on the Sleeping Beauty fairy story.

We don’t have a Prince Charming, and there are a couple more twists that make this particularly delicious. I also appreciated the decision to make the spell into a “plague” that spreads throughout a kingdom, turning the sleeping spell into something much more menacing. This combines with Gaiman’s usually dark imaginings as the story develops to create a compelling story which had me clinging to every word.

The cast did a good job, I always knew who was speaking and they set the tone well as we journeyed.

The Sleeper and the Spindle

Stone Mattress – Margaret Atwood

In an intesting twist on the usual coming-of-age transition, in this collection Atwood tackles reaching widowhood, and other key stages as life comes to an end.

This leads elegantly to anti-heroines, to the righting of wrongs and the acceptance of change. A couple of the stories are intertwined, offering different viewpoints on the same past, and allowing a view of each party’s view, and building up of the detail. Mostly however these are good stand-alone short stories. We are given just enough to tell the tale, in a well-structured satisfying manner.

My favourite was “The Dead Hand Loves You” – about an author who had spent his adult life in the shadow of a cult horror book he’d written as a student. It reflects on decisions taken, and allows closure on lifelong relationships.

I’ve been a bit of an Atwood fan ever since I was recommended A Handmaidens Tale at uni, and also love short stories which can be swallowed in one long gulp, so this collection was definitely one to read.

Breaking the Code – Hugh Whitemore

After seeing Breaking the Code at the Manchester Royal Exchange, there were a few monologues that I wanted to read at leisure. Unfortunately the script was printed in 1987, so copies of it are hard to come by and expensive. Thankfully though, Lancashire Libraries have a good collection of published scripts, so I requested it and it came from the reserve stock (not on the shelf anywhere in the county).

This is of course a script, with light stage directions from the 1986 Guilford production. As a stand-alone read it isn’t much, but it just added that ability to reflect on specific sections of the play that I had enjoyed, such as this  tiny segment of one of Turing’s monologues:

Hilbert took the whole thing a stage further. I don’t suppose his name means m-m-much to you – if anything – but there we are, that’s the way of the world; people never seem to hear much of the really great mathematicians. Hilbert looked at the problem from a completely different angle, and he said, if we are going to have any fundamental system for mathematics – like the one Russel was trying to work out – it must satisfy three basic requirements: consistency, completeness and decidability.

How often do concise explanations of the fundamentals of mathematics like this make their way into any cultural piece of work, much less a play that fills the house?

The Walker’s Anthology – Further Tales

This anthology is a selection of extracts covering much of what has been written in the English language on the subject of walking. This covers everything from the obvious of Bill Bryson discussing his favourite walks, to the advantages in the marriage market of walking for a young lady walking from Jane Austen.

The presence of the latter, and the quantity of countryside poetry gradually moved this collection from interesting to tedious however, and I ultimately gave up on it about one third of the way through. Tried dipping into it a few times, but there was nothing to interest me. Back to the library for this.

Two Brothers – Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon

Two Brothers is a graphic novel by the same artists as those who illustrated How To Talk To Girls At Parties. I’d enjoyed their artwork enough that I looked up something else that they had both worked on. There is also the appealing symmetry in reading a story about two twin brothers, illustrated by two twin brothers. The artwork was again very good, crisp pictures and distinctive figures carrying us through the story.

This was fundamentally a story of family dynamics, passions,  mistakes made and resentments and family ties carried through a lifetime. How imperfect parenting causes a divide that runs deep, and how adult choices lead to very different lives. But it is set against a wider background of political uprising and violence as Brazil goes through a period of change.

There is then the minor mystery of our narrator, A young boy growing up in this household, working out how he fits and who he can rely upon.

Overall, a strong story with good artwork.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami, read by Ray Porter

I am a casual runner, doing only 5km a couple of times a week. But I enjoy reading about running, especially thoughtful pieces where people challenge their own motivations and consider what motivates them, as well as just diet and training regime.

Murakami is a wonderful balance of introspective and motivated. He delves deeply into his past as he racks up the miles and plans for the impending marathon. He struggles occasionally, and remembers times when his running motivation abandoned him entirely. More than that, he reflecst on what running brings to his life, an an everyday and a long term basis.

It did however seem wrong to me to be listening to this in a noticable American accent. Even though Murakami spends nearly all his time in English-speaking countries in America, the accent made it harder for me to picture the narrator. The narrating was clear though, and well-executed, so I can’t really complain!

Letters from Iceland – W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice

If I had a fortnight to spend myself I should go to the North-West, as I think it both the most beautiful and the least visited part of Iceland. You come to Isafjördur [sic] by the Icelandic boats from Reykjavik, and move about either by horses or motor-boat. Anyone who does this of going there should get in touch with the British Vice-consul at Isafjördur, My. Joachimsson, who is extremely kind and efficient.

We have been to Iceland twice in the last year, once in the depths of winter, with only 3 hours of full daylight and roads that were covered in snow and ice. The second trip was a hostelling tour, driving on roads which we now could see were gravel. Auden and MacNeice’s tour was much more like the latter, except in 1936 the roads had not yet been developed above farm tracks, and everywhere they went they were obliged to stop in farms and able to hire the farm horses. We also went to Ísafjörður, but these days it is (just about) possible to drive there, and new, single track with passing places, tunnels connect from one fjord to the next, such that cars can connect places.

After hearing this book mentioned in a few different places, I put in a reservation at the library as the county only had 2 copies. Within a fortnight I had a pristine copy waiting for me in the town library.

It is a slightly strange, artistic collection of long poems and letters, reflecting on their experiences in Iceland, and thoughts they have developed there. This includes reflections on the Nazi presence, as during the rise of Nazi Germany, Iceland’s pure history was held up as a good example. Then of course their is Iceland’s geography, which is well worth poetry:

Watched the sulphur basins boil,
Loops of steam uncoil and coil,
While the valley fades away
To a sketch of Judgement Day.