Books I Read in March 2022

This is a bit late, since I’m about to publish my ‘What I Read in April’, but I didn’t want my March books to miss out!

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I stood looking over my damaged home and tried to forget the sweetness of life on Earth.

I thought this book was perfect – by far my favourite recent read (despite having read a lot I’ve enjoyed recently). I mean, it included both Shakespeare and Star Trek… it could have been written with my readership in mind! 

Station Eleven is a dystopian novel, with a story pivoting around a disastrous pandemic that wipes out 99% of Earth’s population. What I loved about it is that unlike a lot of post apocalyptic stories, where the sheer volume of death is so great it becomes a mere statistic, this story kept death close and personal. It sweeps across several viewpoints, so we see the disaster from many angles, and Mandel has a way of detailing the ends of unnamed strangers that keeps them feeling all too real (like the family found passed away all in different beds, a child’s towel with one of those folded corners hanging in the bathroom). 

There was a sweetness playing counterpoint to the ugliness of the book’s premise. Much of the story centres around a traveling orchestral and theatrical group which performs music and Shakespeare in the post apocalyptic wasteland, simply because – as Seven of Nine says in Star Trek Voyager – ‘survival is insufficient’. The narrative covers decades, both before and after the disaster, darting elegantly through time in a way that reminded me of the structure of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, (another favourite of mine). Its lyrical writing winds skilfully around both beauty and disaster, an elegy to the wonders of the modern world, as well as a lament for its failures.

Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman

When it comes to actually putting the story across, the best storytellers are the tactful ones, those who don’t burden the audience with their own self-consciousness, whether it’s just plain nervousness at speaking in public or a complex intellectual post modernist angst about the unreliability of signifiers and the slippery nature of the relationship between text and utterance. Whatever it is, we should put all that aside and try to say what happened, and who did what, and what happened next. 

This book is a compilation of essays, articles and talks by Philip Pullman on the subject of writing and storycraft. It’s a chunky volume but built for dipping into rather than reading from cover to cover, and I did just that, reading about half of it for now, with good motivation to return later. 

I really enjoyed Pullman’s way of looking at writing. Some of the imagery he uses is fantastic. Like the story being the path through the wood, with all the other possible events that could be included off in the undergrowth on either side – the ‘phase space’ of the story. Or the task of the writer being to decide, in each scene, where to put the camera. I enjoyed his defence of the omniscient narrator, and his articulation of how poetry can be spoilt through overly rigid and insensitive study. This is a really great compilation for anyone interested in writing, it made me think about my own from new angles.

Julia and the Shark by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (author) and Tom de Freston (illustrator)

I’m getting tangled. That’s the problem with words, and it’s the same as the best thing about them. They can mean so many things, and each word has so many branches, so many roots, if you’re not sure of the route you can get lost like Little Red Riding Hood in the wood. 

This is a beautiful middle grade story which I read in a single sitting. It follows a family staying in a remote lighthouse, and a quest to find the great Greenland shark. It touches on the environment, bullying, mental illness, obsession, family. A lot of what made it special for me were the beautiful black, white and yellow illustrations by Tom de Freston, which are made from the ashes of the fire that destroyed his studio. They weave in and around and through the words making the whole thing a seamless piece of art. 

Under the Whispering Door by T. J. Klune

The first time you share tea, you are a stranger. The second time you share tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share tea, you become family.

I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as The House in the Cerulean Sea by the same author (pictured to the right as a plug because it is just great…). but this imaginative story of afterlife, love and redemption still kept me turning the pages. It has a hint of It’s a Wonderful Life to it, following work-obsessed Wallace as he uncovers empathy, kindness, bravery and a love for life… after his death. It’s a nice concept and a pleasing story. I’d have enjoyed a bit more time spent on the actual change in Wallace’s character and more exploration of why he was the way he was, because I actually really enjoyed the ‘unlikeable’ Wallace at the beginning – he cracked me up – and felt he evaporated a bit quickly within the redemption mechanic. But overall I did very much enjoy reading.

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