2017 in Books | My Top 5

Hi, it’s been a while! I meant to keep up with this blog every month throughout 2017 too, but my final year of university was coming to a chaotic end, so I couldn’t find the time until most of the year had passed.

HOWEVER, I hope to keep track of my 2018 books in a more efficient monthly fashion! In the meantime, I thought I would do a short post rounding up my favourite reads from this year. Here goes…

1. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

ozeki.jpgThis book blew me away! The premise itself is really close to the kinds of ideas I centre my artistic practice around, so I was captivated immediately. It begins with an author on an island in British Columbia finding a diary and other objects washed up on the beach in a ziploc bag. The diary is written by a Japanese teenager called Naoko, or Nao, who used to live in the United States, but returns to Japan. Her life back in Japan is bleak; her father is unemployed and depressed, she is bullied by her schoolmates, and misses her old life. However, the chapters written in Nao’s voice are both peppy and humorously cynical, and I felt myself really feeling for her. The other parts of the novel are told by Ruth, the author who finds the diary, and her feelings towards Nao and her serendipitous presence in her life, by way of the diary.

This book seemed to me like a musing on temporality. Time is a big feature of the narrative. Lost time; endings; presence on earth; connections to other humans. Using fiction or writing or documentation to reach forward or back through time. Leaving your mark on the world. I don’t know what I can say to do justice to the big themes and the masterful narrative Ozeki structures to construe them! I think it was a great portrayal of mental illnesses too, be these depression or dementia. I just thought it was beautiful.

“It’s like I’m reaching forward through time to touch you, and now that you’ve found it, you’re reaching back to touch me! . . . It’s like a message in a bottle, cast out into the ocean of space and time.”

2. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde

audre lorde 1.jpeg

WOW! I read this in January and was completely absorbed by it. Audre Lorde was, in her words, a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” and is prolific in her writing about race, intersectional feminism, and gay rights. Zami is a Carriacou name for women who work together as friends and lovers. Lorde calls this book a biomythography; it reads as an autobiography, but works history and myth into it too. It begins with her upbringing in Harlem, NY in the 30s and 40s, being first generation, experiencing racism, her relationship with her parents, and follows her through school, college, work, and her relationships with women.

What sets this autobiography apart is Lorde’s masterful, engaging and relatable storytelling; kudos to her for making it so identifiable despite me having a very different life to hers! Lorde critically examines what it means to be a queer black woman through all these different instances in her life; how different groups bounce off of her, how she moves through the world, how it affects her intimate relationships. Anyone interested in feminism or queer issues should definitely read this memoir.

3. Tove Jansson: Work & Love by Tuula Karjalainen

It’s no secret that I am a huge Tove Jansson fan. In fact, I read this autobiography whilst I was in Finland on a artistic research trip, learning about Jansson’s life and the places she lived! I love her art, her fiction, and of course the Moomin series which she is most famous for. Work & Love is thick and full of colour images of notebooks, sketches, art, and family photographs – it’s visually very appealing.tove.jpg

I had already read Life, Art, Words, another biography by Boel Westin, and whilst a lot of the information was largely the same, I think I enjoyed Work & Love more. Perhaps this was due to a greater focus on Tove’s romantic relationships and young adulthood. As the title implies, I felt like Work & Love really delved into how her career started, the multiplicity of artistic disciplines she stretched herself across, but also the relationships which changed her life. I am talking about Vivica Bandler, the woman Tove first fell in love with as a young woman, and later, her life partner, Tuulikki Pietila.

Work & Love didn’t erase or gloss over Tove Jansson’s relationships with women, nor does it sensationalise them, and I appreciate that. The secrecy surrounding her relationship with Vivica fed into her paintings and even her Moomin stories. Her and Tuulikki travelled the world together, built a cabin on a remote island together and lived there! These relationships and where they are situated in history are important; it’s important to remember them truthfully. I thought that Karjalainen’s biography provided a fascinating look at Tove’s life, and how jam-packed it was full of drama, joy, work, and love.


4. Pond Smelt by Jane Mai

pond smelt.jpgPond Smelt is a graphic novel by artist and cartoonist Jane Mai. I happened upon a digital version of this on twitter, and I’m really glad I stumbled across it.

pond smelt 2.jpg

 Pond Smelt is essentially about the game Animal Crossing – for those who don’t know, it’s a videogame where you move to a village inhabited by talking animals, and you’re the only human. It sounds absurd, but it was a staple of my 2006 childhood experience, has a great nostalgic game soundtrack, and the dialogue is irreverent and cute at the same time. Pond Smelt follows Janey, a lonely human in a strange town, who doesn’t know quite how to interact with the eccentric personalities of her neighbouring animals. It’s sparsely drawn, funny, but melancholy. Everyone seems like a drifter, and sighs existential thoughts now and then. It’s a beautiful look at the repetitive nature of existing in a virtual and slightly surreal environment. I really liked it, and not just because I’m a big fan of the Animal Crossing games. (But there are quite a few in-game in-jokes that Mai works in there which I appreciated.)

You can find Pond Smelt here.

5. Witch Light by Susan Fletcher

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Witch Light is a historical fiction novel, based on the massacre at Glencoe in February 1692. What makes it amazing is that it’s told from the point of view of drifter, healer, witch, and outcast Corrag. The daughter of a witch and sex worker in a small village on the border between England and Scotland, she is forced to flee when the village turn against their unconventional family. Corrag rides a horse to the Scottish highlands, where she makes a home for herself in the glen, slowly befriends some of the Campbell clan, and eventually bears witness to the bloodshed.

I enjoyed this because it was whimsical in it’s detail; Corrag finds beauty and magic in nature, but it is ultimately a story about her survival and means of supporting herself.

She gains trust and respect from her knowledge of herbs and healing. The dangers presented in the book are not fantastical; they are realistic. Corrag faces homelessness, physical and sexual violence, exposure and loneliness, and these issues are dealt with in a sensitive way.

Trigger warning – I should mention that this book has a graphic description of sexual assault in it.


Honorable mentions

I would be remissed if I didn’t mention these other great reads of 2017.

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Doll Hospital, edited by Bethany Rose Lamont

I was lucky to get a copy of issue 3 of Doll Hospital, an art & literature print journal on mental health. This also included a digital PDF of issue 4, which I can read on my phone on my commute! I reviewed issue 2 in my September 2016 blog post, and my feelings towards issues 3 and 4 are largely the same. It is simply an honest collection of people’s experiences and feelings regarding mental illness and trauma. Doll Hospital has helped educate me, and it has been there for me when I am struggling too. I think we are lucky to have a mental health journal which prioritises really marginalised voices and narratives.

Find and support Doll Hospital Journal here.

Stir Fry by Emma Donoghue

Stir Fry is a short lesbian novel set in 1990s Dublin. The set up is a little cheesy; a young student moves in with two gay women – but she doesn’t realise they’re gay! You can see where this is going. However, I found it a warm and comforting coming-of-age lesbian  book; it’s kind of slice-of-life actually. And I liked the 90s nostalgia – remember payphones?!

Flowering Harbour by Seiichi Hayashi

This graphic novel was gifted to me by my friend Holly for my birthday. It is beautifully drawn, in deep blue with rainy lines, and very melancholy. Super existential, super beautiful, the perfect graphic novel.

After Nothing Comes by Aidan Koch

Aidan Koch is one of my favourite artists; she makes drawings, comics, books and paintings. Her comics hint at a narrative, usually fragmented conversations and settings.

After Nothing Comes is a compilation of her finished and unfinished comics. My friend Sofie lent me this book, and it had a big influence on my own art practice. I like that Koch includes ‘imperfections’ in this – pencil smudges, torn or unevenly cut paper; it makes it real and less intimidating. Art can be small and human.

Find Aidan Koch’s work here.


2016 in Books | October

I only managed to finish one book in October. My final year of university is in full swing and it’s been hard to find time. According to Goodreads I am 70% of the way through my goal of 30 books at this point — I need to read 9 more before New Year to achieve it! Better get reading.


Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson ★★★★☆

Lighthousekeeping is about a young girl who becomes orphaned in a climbing accident, and goes to be an apprentice of the blind lighthouse keeper in her coastal village. But, in a typical Jeanette Winterson style, it also has a few more narratives woven into this, about ancestors and the history of the village.

loved the setting of this book – cliffs and a stormy lighthouse on the coast of Scotland is an ideal setting. This isn’t the first book I’ve read by Winterson and I always like the way she describes things like food and light. “We ate sausages and darkness” is one line about life in the lighthouse. Everything is considered and appreciated in her prose.

The continuous narrative of existence is a lie. There is no continuous narrative, there are lit-up moments, and the rest is dark.

Lighthousekeeping is also very much about storytelling, the connectedness of everything in the world, and the intersections of all the stories. The importance of writing down or telling aloud stories, otherwise they are lost to the void. When you share a story, you give it life, because it now exists in another person.

Nothing can be forgotten. Nothing can be lost. The universe itself is one vast memory system. Look back and you will find the beginnings of the world.

One thing I lament is that the cover of this book had so much potential, and the version I have is so wrong for it. I don’t see how it correlates with the plot or themes in any way – it makes it look like generic ‘chick-lit’ when really it is beautiful and highly original prose?! It could have been a dark and moody picture of the lighthouse, maybe a linocut print, or of the cliffs, Pew in his boat, or visual interpretation of all the stories woven together. Anything! But not that rosy neo-impressionist boring cover! Maybe this should be my task before the end of the year – design a new cover for Lighthousekeeping.


2016 in Books | July & August

I’m putting my books for July and August together this month because I was on holiday in South Korea at the end of July! I finished The Encyclopedia of Doris before I went away, and in between sightseeing reread The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, and devoured a Japanese crime fiction novel on the plane: Out by Natsuo Kirino.

The Encyclopedia of Doris by Cindy Crabb ★★★★☆

This is the second anthology of Doris, a biannual perzine written by anarcho-feminist Cindy Gretchen Ovenrack Crabb. I discovered an extract from Doris in another zine anthology – A Girl’s Guide to Taking Over the World – and immediately tried to seek out more Doris. To my delight, TWO whole anthologies spanning two decades exist!

dorisFirstly you might be wondering: what is a ‘perzine’? Or even, what is a ‘zine’? Zines are handmade, low budget magazines, usually on a specific topic such as certain bands, feminism, travel, or personal experiences. They are usually made with the help of a photocopier and some staples or thread. A perzine is a category of zine which often reads like a diary, with the author writing about their life, thoughts and feelings.

I think that Doris is the ultimate perzine – Cindy writes so tenderly about her friends, family, personal history, political views, struggles etc. Cindy’s writing is often anecdotal and introspective, but universal at the same time. Her message is hopeful, and strives towards personal healing; her brand of anarchism/feminism is one that believes kindness to other human beings is the route towards revolution. I had never really read much about anarchism before and was surprised by how tender and community-driven her political theory was. Anarchy doesn’t mean chaos and destruction; it can mean growth and change. I really can’t stress glad I am that I discovered Doris.

This anthology is a little more political, I feel, than Doris: An Anthology (a collection of zines written between 1991 – 2001). Cindy tackles issues like abuse, addiction, and grief, which makes for heavier reading, but it is definitely important. I gave this book four stars because I think I enjoyed the first book a little more, but that is just because of my slight preference for perzines over more political zines.

You can purchase Cindy Crabb’s zines and books at her website here, and read an interview with her here.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin ★★★★★

This is my second time reading the book that got me hooked on Ursula K. Le Guin. This is where it all started! And I think The Dispossessed was even better the second time around. I could appreciate the ideas Le Guin sets up about utopias, their fragility and strategies for preserving them, and the forces of anarchy and capitalism and things like that. I like how she splits the storytelling into chapters set on the two planets in the past and present, too.

I would definitely recommend The Dispossessed to anyone into sci-fi and/or feminism. It’s a great ‘gateway’ to Ursula Le Guin. The Dispossessed, in a nutshell, is about a physicist developing a mode of instant communication between planets. He is from a barren anarchist/socialist colonised planet called Anarres, and is invited down to the more bountiful and capitalist planet Urras in order to develop and share his theories with other scientists. The planets are each others’ moons, and many ideas are called into question about social norms, learned behaviours, politics and morality when he visits this (literally) alien world. It’s a classic of science-fiction.

Out by Natsuo Kirino ★★★★☆

OUT.jpgWow. I read this entire book on the plane back from Japan, which to be fair was two long-haul flights, but it’s quite a thick book and I stormed through it. Out is a Japanese crime novel which begins with a frustrated and beaten-down housewife strangling her husband to death, and then employing the help of her coworkers at a factory to dispose of the body and evidence. It is tense and intense. Like, The Killing tense. Or Se7en tense. Interestingly, it’s told from the perspective of the murderer and accomplices, but you’re totally rooting for them, and the guilt and threat of being caught makes you even more on edge.

I really can’t tell if this is a feminist book or not! I think it is feminist in its characterisation of the women. The four main female characters differ radically from each other, have their own motives, independence (or lack of) and abject flaws. There is no tokenism or stereotyping here; Kirino does well in creating a female group dynamic which defies conventions. However, the ending of the book was confusing and difficult to read…I’m not sure if I ‘got’ it. I won’t spoil it, but comment what you thought if you have read it! I was hoping for a blaze of glory type ending. Perhaps it was, but in a different way to usual.

2016 in Books | June

I’m now halfway through my 2016 reading challenge – I’ve read 15 of 30 books, yay! I only managed to read one book in June, but I’m really making my way through the sci-fi classics this year – it was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which inspired Blade Runner.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick ★★★★☆

7082I have been meaning to read Androids since doing a module on dystopian fiction in high school, but for some reason didn’t get round to it. I watched Blade Runner a few months ago which gave me a push to finally read it.

Firstly I want to get all book-film comparisons out of the way and just say that the book does differ quite radically in tone and plot from Blade Runner. The most notable difference for me when reading was…what the heck is with the characters’ obsessions with animals?!

Of course, the answer is obvious – the humans cling to their connection and ability to care for pets as a symbol of their humanity. Androids can’t look after pets, they simply don’t have the motivation or capacity. So having an animal (even one as obscure as the titular sheep, or emu) proves you’re not an android, basically. I found it pretty comical though; I think it’s because Rick Deckard is ultra-masculine, detached, unfeeling, yet pines after ownership of owls and other quite twee pets? Maybe this is because I code love of animals as childish or feminine – and to be honest that’s not very feminist of me. It just seemed bizarrely amusing when reading.

On the subject of Deckard and feminism – wow. He does not act kindly to the significant women in his life. However, I was glad to see a distinction in the book with the sex scene with Rachael – in the film it’s very uncomfortable and I viewed it as basically a rape scene. However, in the book both parties consent, and Deckard is kind of played and outsmarted by Rachael later on. Hell yeah.

(Going back to the point about Deckard and animals – he doesn’t seem to actually want to care for the pet, he just wants it as a status symbol – I think this lends itself to the ambiguous Is Deckard a Replicant conspiracy! I’m going to read up about that, because theoretically it’s quite possible… I like that Dick keeps it open though.)

Generally I really enjoyed Androids; the characterisation was good and so was the plot and pacing. I would read more of Dick’s work. I think he is great at immersing the reader in the very classic science-fiction-y world he sculpts, and in this book he did what good sci-fi needs: called up the bigger questions; about humanity, kindness, and intelligence.


2016 in Books | May

May was a busy month, and I only managed to read two books; I finished off Art in Nature by Tove Jansson, and a new graphic novel find, Paper Girls.

Art in Nature by Tove Jansson ★★★☆☆

art in natureArt in Nature is a collection of many short stories. In this respect it is quite similar to A Winter Book, which I read earlier this year; however, A Winter Book drew more on the author’s childhood and family experiences, whereas Art in Nature perhaps explores the role of the artist/writer/illustrator/cartoonist, depending on each story. In this way I think it reflects the anxieties or problems each medium of art brings; maybe fiction was a way for Jansson to exorcise this.

The story about a cartoonist taking over the work of a colleague who has suffered a nervous breakdown had a darkness underlying it; also, I had no idea before this that cartoonists are replaced by new artists, but pull the wool over the eyes of the public, keeping the ‘changeover’ very subtle and fooling everyone into thinking it has been the same person drawing it the whole time! This was one of the best stories I think, it called into question identity, pressure and mystery in a subtle way.

I also spied that there were two same-sex couples implied in two of the stories; it wasn’t explicitly said, but there seemed to be male partners and female partners cohabitating (and arguing, as couples do.) Jansson had a female life partner so it was nice to see some quiet representation that is of the times she lived in (Art in Nature was first published in 1978, so explicit descriptions of gay partnerships wouldn’t have been received well then.)

Jansson’s writing is concise and light but always philosophical and poignant. However, I’m giving it three stars just because I didn’t feel it lived up to her other work.

Paper Girls, Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan ★★★☆☆

Aesthetically, this graphic novel is a dream. The story begins at dawn, and focuses on four girls doing their paper round (hence the title there) and so the colour palette is all lilacs and deep dreamy blues.paper girls

The narrative, for me, did not match up to how beautiful the design was. I quite like the premise; it’s all about apocalyptic happenings and people travelling from the future, but everything was quite muddled and got surreal very fast; it feels like they’re doing their paper round and arguing and then a gigantic pterodactyl is suddenly bearing down upon them. Maybe this was the point. But I think it leaves the reader confused in a “where did that come from” kind of way rather than a “wow this is really meta and bizarre” kind of way.

Don’t get me wrong though; I would read the next volume. (Not least because they left it on a cliffhanger!) I just think the book’s pacing and clarity could have done with a bit more work. However, points for the tough female gang, and racial diversity. And the wonderful 1980s outfits.


2016 in Books | April

In April I read three books: two were pretty dark (a historical Scandinavian murder mystery, and a Japanese novella about pain and pleasure and a strange older man!!) and the other was a depressing but fairly relatable lesbian graphic novel. These were Wolf Winter, Hotel Iris, and Blue is the Warmest Colour, respectively.


Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck ★★★★★

Dark Scandinavian historical fiction? Plus murder, plus magic, plus a plucky female protagonist that defies 18th century stereotypes? YES PLEASE.

Wolf Winter is written extremely well. Once I got into it I couldn’t stop reading; you feel like everyone in the small community has secrets or an ulterior motive that they’re hiding, and like Maija the protagonist, you want to unearth them. Everything comes to a head at the end of the book; there are a lot of dark elements floating around, but Ekbäck reiterates that the real evil comes from humans, not magic or sinister mountains.

This book has been compared to Hannah Kent’s Burial Ritesand I don’t disagree with this comparison. Both books are set in harsh Scandinavian landscapes (actually, Iceland technically isn’t Scandinavia is it? Oops) hundreds of years ago, have a misunderstood but strong central female character, and murder is the trigger which sets each narrative in motion. They are both skilfully paced and gripping. If you liked Burial Rites, read Wolf Winter, and vice versa! If you haven’t read either: get on it.

Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa ★★★★★

Another train-ride-read; Hotel Iris is quite short, and I finished it on the train to Birmingham and back. HOWEVER, I was unaware of how sexually explicit this book is when I took it with me, and would like to take this chance to say it is NOT the best book to read on public transport when sitting next to a stranger! (Thankfully I think the man next to me didn’t notice.)

Hotel-Iris1I’ve read two other books by Ogawa, The Diving Pool and Revenge, and I think she is an amazing writer. Her stories are dark — and I mean dark — they seem to tap into subconscious desires and fears and everything twisted and spiteful and morbid about being human. Hotel Iris is set in a seasonal seaside town, where a 17 year old girl lives and works with her oppressive mother in their hotel. She is treated like a child and given no free time to socialise with other people her own age. The story begins with an incident at the hotel; an altercation between an older man and a sex-worker. The girl is drawn to the older man and his dominating manner, and enters into a strange relationship on the island off the coast where he lives, where she finds pleasure being hurt, degraded and humiliated.

I don’t think Hotel Iris is just a novella about BDSM, though. It is definitely more than problematic erotica (cough, Fifty Shades) because the narrative and mounting tension and intrigue around the older man (who is never actually named, only called the translator; his profession) and his dead wife, and why the protagonist Mari desires him and the extreme sexual relationship they have together, raise so many questions. As a feminist, I found some parts hard to read because the border of consent seems blurred or ambiguous. It’s written in the first person, so Mari would describe the harsh punishment of the translator and extreme discomfort he puts her through, but then say she wanted nothing more. Also the age gap (17 – mid 60s?) seems fraught with problems. Power seems to be a major theme…not just sexual power, but the more subtle forms of manipulation that lie outside of this. I can’t decide what I thought of the ending, and whether Mari won or lost in the grand scheme of things…very ambiguous, and very dark.

I gave it five stars because I haven’t read anything like it before and I think Ogawa is a fantastic and skilled storyteller, and her prose is beautiful, even when describing debased things. She manages to incorporate the extraordinary and disturbing into realism, and the result is unsettling.

Blue is the Warmest Colour by Julie Maroh ★★★☆☆


I’ve been meaning to read this for ages, having seen the film a few years ago and liking it, despite the very-obviously-directed-by-a-man, over-the-top porn-y sex scene. I was intrigued to see how the original graphic novel, written by a lesbian, compared.

I think the book is a lot more tragic in terms of both plot (Emma is reading Clementine’s diaries posthumously from the beginning) and in atmosphere – the colour palette is grey with spots of blue… although I guess this reiterates the title that blue is indeed the warmest colour in the book, ha ha. But, it did make me feel quite down. It’s hopeful in places, but really is just a doomed story of lesbian love, and that has become so much of a trope lately that queer women have started speaking out about it.

I didn’t really like Maroh’s drawing style, so that is why BITWC only gets three stars. I thought it was sketchy in a way that wasn’t my taste, and the facial expressions were often too exaggerated. However, I did think it was a poignant read and an accurate coming-out story. I just wish it was a bit less sorrowful and with less death.

The ending to the film version of BITWC, which is a lot more hopeful, and less tragic.

I am also currently reading The Encyclopedia of Doris by Cindy Crabb, and Art In Nature by Tove Jansson, which I’ll hopefully finish next month!

2016 in Books | March

I read three books this month: incidentally, two lesbian novels: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, and Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown (sapphically suggestive titles all round…) as well as a science-fiction classic, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters ★★★★☆

Still from the BBC miniseries, which I need to watch!

This is a long-un but it’s a good-un. It’s a drawn out, twisted lesbian novel set in the 19th century, the story focusing around two 17 year old girls, one who becomes the other’s maid under false pretences, as part of a larger plot to steal the other’s fortune. The beginning is
slightly slow, and all a bit Oliver Twist, which isn’t really my taste. However, it slowly builds up to the end of part one where there is a shocking twist – and I mean shocking. From that point on it becomes darker and more complicated, and I couldn’t stop reading. It’s all about betrayal, trust, unreliable narratives and second guessing your original thoughts. The narrative is not realistic…but if you’re looking for escapism I think Waters sets the tone and paces the book really well. Persevere through part one, it is worth it!

If you’re looking for a classic lesbian romance, this might not be the book for you; it doesn’t really focus on the characters’ identities, and their relationship is mostly overshadowed by the wider narrative arch. However, I liked it and made me want to read more of Sarah Waters – I have put Tipping the Velvet on my to-read list.

Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown ★★★★★

165395I loved this book! I read it in two sittings, on the train to and from Newcastle to London. Really easy to read. The protagonist and narrator is Molly, and we follow her from tomboy childhood to early adulthood, and her adventures on the East Coast of the USA. I thought it was an accurate and relatable depiction of queer female sexuality, the growth of it, and how it is tied up with identity. I actually found it pretty empowering. A lesbian book where the lesbian is not a victim! Or dies at the end! She is self-sufficient and happy! There is an uplifting ending!

It is definitely a coming-of-age novel, and I like that. It’s funnily written, and I would totally recommend it to any lesbian, bi, or pan women. Actually, any women I think would enjoy it – it’s really accessible fiction about queer sexuality, friendship, and growing up.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem ★★★★☆

Wow. This was intense. I actually felt quite unsettled a lot of the time while reading this. I knew about the premise of the book before reading it; a man travels to a space station orbiting an ocean planet called Solaris, only to find that flesh-and-blood replicas of his dead wife keep reappearing. The protagonist, Kelvin, is a psychologist, sent to the station to analyse the other members of the team, who are suffering from the same affliction, which he initially assumes to be hallucinations. After proving to himself that he is in fact not in a dream nor hallucination through complex calculations, he and the other members of the crew have to work out what to do about the figures from their respective pasts who have appeared on the ship.

What I didn’t know was how Lem creates this concept of the alien which I’d never considered; the oceanic surface is in fact some kind of life form, and humanity attempts to ‘make contact’ with it over a number of years. However, its responses seem unreliable, and its true nature remains elusive. Is it conscious, sentient, intelligent? Is it similar to a gigantic amoeba, or is it more like a multi-celled fluid creature? Is it a god? The difference between the ocean and any form of life we recognise on Earth is vast; Lem made me reconsider the commonly assumed idea of an alien being some variation of plant or animal.

Solaris definitely doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test; the only female character who speaks is Rheya, the reincarnation of Kelvin’s deceased wife. For the most part, she is vulnerable, confused and dependent. However, from a male author in the 1960s, it could be worse. Lem is no Ursula Le Guin when it comes to progressive attitudes to gender, but I didn’t have a massive problem with the book. Overall I found it an intense and compelling read, very original and a great work of sci-fi.

Some book covers from the 60s which I really like – much cooler than my George Clooney film edition!

2016 in Books | February


This month I didn’t manage to read as much as I’d liked, due to a looming dissertation deadline (I am writing this a bit late, and have since finished — hooray!) I did manage to get through two Tove Jansson books though, using them as lovely Finnish escapism from the pressures of academia.

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson ★★★☆☆

Reading Tove Jansson’s writing makes me want to be a writer. When I read her prose I can tell how much her childhood, being around her artist parents, and adventures on the Finnish archipelago affected her. This book is a lot of beautiful and simple short stories. My favourite was The Squirrel, towards the end of the book. It features a writer living temporarily on an island by herself, and her peace (?) is disturbed when a squirrel drifts onto the island and seeks shelter there. I thought Jansson conveyed the anxieties of isolation and the rituals it produced really well. The protagonist of this story reminded me of the neurotic Fillyjonk character from the Moomin tales!

Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson ★★★★☆

This Moomin book surprised me! This year I am aiming to read all the Moomin books I
haven’t read yet, and this was first up on my list. I expected it to be lighthearted, like Moominsummer Madness, but it definitely had a deeper, darker tumblr_m3xajufmhl1qib250o1_500tone,
which reflected on themes of (again) isolation – both physical and emotional. Tove really likes writing about lonely islands! It was interesting reading about how the different characters’ neuroses affect them as their time on the island wears on – Moominpappa becomes absorbed in his work, Moominmamma uses painting and gardening as escapism and longing for home, and Moomin tries to make a nest in the undergrowth of the island. Jansson’s stories, even though they are written for children, often have a melancholy undertone.

Moominpappa at Sea also features The Groke, a gigantic creature who has been described as the “personification of Nordic gloom”. I really like her though – everybody is afraid of her because she freezes everything she touches, but she isn’t malicious; she just wants to be warm. At one point she does a dance for Moomintroll which I found really amusing, and the part near the beginning where she “flies” across the sea by freezing it was a really beautiful and strange idea.

2016 in Books | January

One of my favourites this month (typical art student, kanken in the background…)

In January I read 4 books! They were a mix of contemporary Japanese fiction, fun non-fiction essays, and a graphic novel.

Kinshu: Autumn Brocade by Teru Miyamoto ★★★☆☆

This book was okay. It was recommended on Goodreads because I had read quite a lot of Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto, and Yoko Ogawa, but aside from being set in contemporary Japan it didn’t have much in common with any of these authors’ writing. It was in epistolary form of letters between ex-husband and wife, which I quite liked. However, I think this book fell into the trap of the characters writing a lot of background information in the letters, obviously intended to inform the reader, which seems a bit unbelievable and forced sometimes. But I guess it’s difficult to get around that! I found the ex-husband to be unpleasant in a really exaggerated way, so much so that his character was a bit unbelievable. It was a fairly enjoyable read overall.

Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland ★★★★

Every art student should read this book! It is quite short but packed with revolutionary ideas about art-making, creative blocks and crises, how to persist and what being an artist means. It’s kind of like a self-help book aimed very specifically at artists and art students and I really loved it. It was like having a tutorial or crit where you come out with a new perspective, feeling like everything is going to be okay.

What veteran artists share in common is that they have learned how to get on with their work. Simply put, artists learn how to proceed, or they don’t.

Bayles and Orland pitched radical yet simple ideas to me that I had never considered. I liked their argument that “art is made by ordinary people”, and that calling someone creative is redundant because all humans have the capacity for creativity – what matters is how and if you utilise it! The only criticism I have of this book is that 99% of examples they used were male artists and musicians. And they were mostly white and Western too! Where’s the diversity?

Lost At Sea by Bryan Lee O’Malley ★★☆☆☆

I don’t have much to say about this book, other than I expected better. I am a big fan of O’Malley’s graphic novels; I love Scott Pilgrim and have read the whole series, and read Seconds last year and quite enjoyed that…he normally writes narrative really well, but this book didn’t seem to go anywhere. Maybe it is something more suited to when I was a teenager and had more angst than 21 year old me, but I did feel this story was just lacking, and nothing was really explained to a satisfactory extent. Sad, because I really liked the premise! I think it just fell short of my expectations.

Reading The L Word: Outing Contemporary Television by a number of writers ★★★★★

I really enjoyed this. It is a compilation of essays, interviews and think-pieces on the TV show The L Word, which if you are not aware was a seminal TV series about a group of lesbian and bisexual women living in LA. The L Word was the first of its kind, so it had a lot to live up to in terms of showing realistic portrayals of queer women, and conveying the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community.

Something I found really interesting which cropped up a few times in this book was the balance The L Word had to strive for to receive good ratings – attract the attention of straight people as well as queer women – whilst also remaining true to real life, but not so much as to alienate the majority of viewers. Representation is a difficult thing when you have to pander to ordinary media standards in order to keep your vision going.

The Planet (The L Word)

Also, it was just really fun to read critical analysis or more fan-based pieces on the TV show that I watch ALL the time! Because it was so groundbreaking, and lesbian and bisexual representation is sparse on the ground, everyone has something to say about it, and it was fascinating to read the diversity in opinion. I think The L Word can be harshly criticised for its, at times, very problematic elements, but we can also acknowledge these, and praise it for what it did achieve. I am glad the book took up issues of race, trans representation, and bisexual erasure though, because these need to be addressed. It’s good that these conversations are happening in response to something we love to watch, but not unconditionally. (It should also be noted for anyone that wants to read it that the book was published at the end of Season 2, so the pieces in the book only consider the show up till this point.)

Next on my list for February are Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, and A Winter Book by Tove Jansson.

Banana Yoshimoto | Three Reviews

Goodbye Tsugumi

I’m glad I read this, coincidentally, as summer was ending and turning into autumn, as the whole book seems to be about the finite nature of summer. Endings, time. I love the way Yoshimoto describes situations you could never articulate yourself. I think she is a master of plucking vague feelings and atmospheres and weaving them into narratives so the reader has that moment of empathy or nostalgia with the characters.

This book is really calming to read. The setting is insular and the characters each sprout in radically different ways from each other which sets up great dialogue.

Really I would give this 4.5 stars, it’s another Yoshimoto favourite, almost on par with Kitchen.

Read September 2015.


I think Banana Yoshimoto’s writing is like a pool; light and peaceful on the surface but deep and dark and full underneath. This is the third book I have read by her, having read Kitchen and N.P. It seems a step away from the lightness of Kitchen and more similar to the tale juxtaposed with it: Moonlight Shadow. Yoshimoto conveys the infinite sadness and isolation of existing in the world superbly; the bleakness of depression resonates fully in her writing. I think her prose is simple and beautiful. She transports you to a world in-between – where you are awake when everyone else is dead to the world, the feeling of the night.

Love Song plays with the idea of relationship dynamics. I thought the chemistry and analysis of the two women as rivals (and latently friends) was really interesting. Strange relationships are always great reads. The last story, Asleep is quite similar to some Murakami stories (Haruki, that is, not Ryu!) There is an underlying supernatural element amongst the hazy realism. Yoshimoto conveys the feeling of lost time and fatigue brilliantly. The way the narrative switches back to the narrator’s memories of Shiori – it is like being inside her head. Death and life and the relationships that permeate both of these spheres are touched upon in a peaceful manner. This book will stay with you after you have read it.

Read February 2015.


One of the most beautiful and sad and uplifting things I have ever read. Wow. I welled up at Moonlight Shadow, it conveyed grief and depression so well.

Read June 2014.