Tag Archives: recommended reads

‘White Feathers’ is Launched!

Some events are just designed to be enjoyed. Weddings, Christenings, birthday parties – and book launches. I’ve been lucky enough to have attended a wedding and a Christening this year already (and hopefully a birthday party or two before the year is out), but yesterday evening I had the happy chance to attend a book launch, held in the lovely surrounds of Dubray Books on Grafton Street, in Dublin city. Book launches are huge fun – even, as often happened when I worked as a bookseller, you’re on the throwing end as opposed to the ‘standing around with a glass of wine’ end – and yesterday’s was no exception.

We were there to celebrate the book birthday of Susan Lanigan’s début novel, White Feathers



…which is, I’m sure you’ll agree, a gloriously beautiful thing.

(Clearly I haven’t read the book yet, as I only bought my copy yesterday, so I can’t expound about its brilliance at the moment. However, I’m sure it’s going to be wonderful).

The book was launched by Michael O’Brien, the publisher at O’Brien Press and its imprint Brandon Books, and the fearsomely accomplished crime writer Arlene Hunt, both of whom gave lovely speeches which introduced the book and Susan herself with warmth and welcome. Arlene was one of the judges of the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair when Susan put her book forward for consideration, and it was she who found she couldn’t forget it once she’d read the extract. She recounted how, late one night after finishing her initial read-through of Susan’s entry for the competition, which was the proto-version of what would become White Feathers, she realised she had to learn more about Eva Downey (the story’s protagonist) and find out how her tale ended. It’s every writer’s dream, of course, to have that sort of effect on any reader, particularly a reader with the power to pull your story out of a slush-pile full of other talented writers and declare that it’s a winner.

Susan herself, despite declaring she was rattling with nerves, gave a most impressive reading from her novel, doing the shrill, harridan voice of one of her characters with aplomb (and giving her audience huge enjoyment), and giving no indication that she was feeling anything less than at her total ease. She was full of praise for her publishers, her agent Svetlana Pironko, and the team at O’Brien Press who worked hard on the book, including its beautiful cover art, and her passion was clear from every word she spoke. She talked about violence, and how it can take shapes and forms we do not expect, and how any human life, crushed in any way, is an example of violence. She spoke of how the very act of presenting men with a white feather during the Great War – which is one of the primary themes of her novel – was in itself an act of violence, and she spoke movingly of her desire never to see a return to the dark days of war.

There was a lot of applause and mutterings of ‘hear, hear’ from those around her.

Susan, in mid-speech, a proud Arlene Hunt watching on.

Susan, in mid-speech, a proud Arlene Hunt watching on. Image: F. O’Hart

After the speeches, Susan began to sign copies of her book – I, of course, skidded right into the top of the queue. Turnout for the launch was huge, and it was brilliant to be part of such an enthusiastic, happy group of people, all of whom were there to support someone whose hard work and talent had led them to a place of success, and I wasn’t leaving without a personalised memento of my evening. Susan – whom I’ve ‘known’ for a while from Twitter and blogging, but whom I’d never met in person before yesterday evening – was kind enough to put a lovely message on my copy of her book, which reads:

To Sinéad: In writing fellowship. Where I am now, you will be soon, very soon.

I think that tells you all you need to know about the kind of person, and the kind of writer, Susan Lanigan is. I’m looking forward to reading her book (I’m fairly sure there’ll be a review of it knocking about these parts in a few weeks), and I wish her huge success both now and in the future.

Susan busily signing copies of her book. Image: F. O'Hart

Susan busily signing copies of her book. Image: F. O’Hart

And now – to read!

If you’re interested in learning more about Susan’s book, and how to purchase it, you can visit the O’Brien Press website here.


And So, the End is Near…

…of the year, that is. Not, like, of my existence or anything.

Hopefully, anyway.

Image: executiveresumeexpert.com

Image: executiveresumeexpert.com

Everyone who’s anyone in the blogosphere has started putting up their ‘best of’ lists for 2013 – their top 10 best books published in the last 12 months, top 13 best reads of 2013, that sort of thing. I, because I am chronically disorganised, have compiled a list – of sorts – of my favourite reads this year too, but where I differ from the others is that my list is made up of my favourite books read this year – but not necessarily published this year. I wish I was the type of reader who kept detailed start- and end-dates for my reading process, and filed the books away in a rational and ordered fashion on my shelves when they’ve been read, but I don’t think I’ll ever quite manage it. I’d also love to have the money to keep up with the flood of new books constantly being published – but sadly, that is another dream.

In any case, on with the show. Today’s post is going to look at books which I’ve slotted into the category of ‘General’ – i.e. not children’s books or YA books. I’m noticing a certain bent toward the SF end of the fiction spectrum, but heck. What can you do?

Favourite Books Read this Year (General)

The best book I read this year, I think, in the General category was Jung Chang’s Wild Swans. I’ve had this book for years, waiting for its moment in the spotlight, and I eventually managed to make time to read it a few months back. It’s been around for a long time, so chances are you’ve read it already, but if you haven’t – well. I can’t say I recommend it, as such, because it’s almost as challenging a read as Mao’s Great Famine (Frank Dikotter), and it is full of descriptions and testimony which will leave you literally unable to think or speak, but it (along with the Dikotter book) is a book that everyone should read. If it does nothing else but reinforce your desire to see that the events described never, ever take place again on the face of the earth, then it’s done its job.

Image: en.wikipedia.com

Image: en.wikipedia.com

I also read (and loved) Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog, which is a masterclass in writing about time-travel – but also so much more than that. It’s 2057, and we’re introduced to Ned Henry, a professional time-traveller, and a wealthy woman named Lady Schrapnell (who would have been right at home in an Oscar Wilde play.) Lady Schrapnell is sinking millions into the exact reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed in the Blitz, and is causing a major headache for historians, academics and time-travellers alike with her painstaking and dictatorial manner. Everything is in place for the grand reopening – except, that is, for one mysterious object called the Bishop’s Bird Stump, which cannot be found. Ned is suffering from time-lag as a result of jumping back and forth between the 1940s and his own time searching for the Stump, but when another time-traveller appears to have broken the rules of the Continuum by bringing something forward through time from the Victorian period, he is the only time-traveller available to bring it back. Confused and addled, his adventures in the Victorian period begin… This book is huge, and though the plot is insanely complex, the reader never once loses track of where they are or what’s happening, because of the skill of Willis’ writing. It’s absolutely hilarious, as well as brilliantly plotted, executed and described. It’s not a new book, but it was one of my 2013 highlights for sure.

I also read Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, another title that had been lurking on my ‘to read’ list for many years. It’s a rich and rewarding story filled with meditations on humanity, ethics and the rights of patients, the treatment of the disabled, societal distaste for anything which is ‘different,’ prejudice against those who are seen as ‘lesser beings’, and the morality of tampering with a person’s brain without their full understanding of what will happen to them. Charlie Gordon, our narrator, is a kind, hard-working and gentle young man who is considered to have sub-par intelligence. The book takes us through the experiments conducted upon him and a laboratory mouse (the titular ‘Algernon’) with a view to increasing their IQ, and we learn about the effects of the treatments upon Charlie first-hand, in his own voice. Chilling and moving in equal measure, it’s a book that will stay with me.

Image: sffmasterworks.blogspot.com

Image: sffmasterworks.blogspot.com

One of the very lovely gifts my husband gave me during the year was a book titled When God Was a Rabbit, by Sarah Winman. It wasn’t the kind of book I’d have picked up for myself, which is what made it such a great present, and it’s about a girl and her brother, and the relationship between them as they grow to adulthood. It doesn’t sound like much – but it is. This is a book filled with eccentrics and oddballs, touches of magic realism, the maddening, infuriating and ultimately precious links between family members and – most importantly – explorations of love, in all the forms love can take. I found the relationship between Elly and Joe (the sister and brother) extremely moving to read, perhaps because I only have one brother, and we are very close. This fictional sibling relationship reminded me, on some levels, of my own real-life one. It’s a strange book, and parts of it stretch the ‘magic’ of ‘magic realism’ a little too far (I’m thinking of a scene where one of the most odd of the oddball characters gets his sight back when he is hit on the head by a flying coconut), but overall it was one of this year’s memorable reads for me.

I’m trying to steer clear of books I’ve already reviewed, which means Cloud Atlas can’t be mentioned here. Oh – whoops! Look what I just did.

I find it really difficult to narrow books down to a ‘best of’ list; usually, there’s something worth liking in everything I read. Perhaps if I was to draw up this list again tomorrow an entirely different selection of books would present itself, but that’s your lot for today.

Later in the week: my top children’s/YA reads for this year… Get your breaths bated in plenty of time for that.

Image: thenakedscientists.com

Image: thenakedscientists.com

Recommended Books: Vol. 2


It’s been a morning of happy surprises for me so far. First among these is: we woke up with electricity this morning, which was a cause for delight. Last night – luckily just as Masterchef, my current obsession, was finishing – our power went. Cue house alarms going off all over the place, gentle candlelight appearing in windows all over our street, and stars popping out of the sky. It was, in some ways, rather lovely.

But all I could think of was: ‘How am I going to blog tomorrow morning sans electricity?’

As ever, my panic was unfounded. Power is restored, all is good with the world.

The other happy surprise is this: I have been published again! My short story ‘Skin’ appears in Issue 14 of the wonderful ‘wordlegs’ magazine – here’s a link – and I am very proud. It’s a proper short story this time, not a flash fiction piece. If you manage to have a read, please let me know what you think!

Hopefully, reading my story won't leave you looking like this... Image: goodmojopetcare.com

Hopefully, reading my story won’t leave you looking like this…
Image: goodmojopetcare.com

Alors! On with the blog.

I’m sure anyone who likes to read will have heard of Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke. These men were legends in the field of SF writing, and deservedly so. I want to recommend (pretty much) everything either of them wrote – I have a few reservations when it comes to Clarke – but today, I’d like to mention two books in particular. Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, and Childhood’s End by Clarke. Man in the High Castle is an amazing re-think of European and world history, assuming the Allies lost WW2, and Childhood’s End takes us through an invasion of Earth by an apparently benign alien force – but are they as good as they seem? Both books are amazing.

I also love Ernest Cline‘s book Ready Player One. Perhaps this is because I was a young person during the 1980s, because the book makes mention of the culture, movies, video games and fashions of that time, and couples them with a mind-blowingly amazing view of the future. It’s… just… I can’t… Look. Just read it, okay? Good.

I can’t believe I wrote Vol. 1 of this post without mentioning Sir Terry Pratchett. There is no author who has had a larger effect on my reading and writing life. I’ve been collecting his books since the age of 7, and even though I didn’t understand them at that age, I knew there was something worth sticking with. I was right. My favourite Discworld novel (and there are loads) is Lords and Ladies, though I have a feeling this might be because I no longer own my copy of this book. I ‘lent’ it to my doctoral supervisor, many years ago, telling him he’d enjoy it because of the echoes of a medieval story named Sir Orfeo which appear within it. Did I ever see it again? Did I what. The person concerned has since retired, and the last time I asked him for it back, he said something like: ‘No. I don’t want to give it back. Won’t you make me a present of it instead?’ He then proceeded to give me an eyelash-fluttering look, which melted me completely. So, anyway, he now has it. I hope he’s enjoying it.

I also recommend Sir Terry’s series of books for younger readers, known as the Tiffany Aching books, after their heroine. A-Ma-Zing.

Dave Eggers is an author some people have a problem with. I’m not sure why, because I think he’s fantastic. I read his A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius many years ago, purely because the title made me laugh, but his You Shall Know Our Velocity! is also a brilliant piece of work. Also, read Zeitoun, a study of America in the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina.

Everyone in the world needs to read A Little History of the World, by Sir Ernst Gombrich. I’ve lost count of the amount of people to whom I’ve recommended this book (in real life, I mean), and everyone, so far, has loved it and gone on to recommend it to others. Beautiful, poignant, educational (without even trying), and utterly wonderfully written, I cherish this book.

I have many collections of fairy tales. Unsurprising, you might think. But the most beautiful, and my favourite, is Perrault’s Complete Fairy Tales, translated by Christopher Betts, illustrated by Gustave Doré, published by Oxford University Press. Sublime.

I also recommend The Virago Book of Fairy Tales, edited by the marvellous Angela Carter. Angela Carter is a bit like Jeanette Winterson, for me – I can’t pick one book to recommend over the others, because I love them all so very much. My top five would be, in no particular order: The Passion of New Eve, The Magic Toyshop, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, Shadowdance, and the majestic collection of short stories known as The Bloody Chamber.

Also, everyone needs to read William Goldman‘s utterly bonkers and brilliant The Princess Bride. Particularly if you’ve seen the movie, and you didn’t know it was a book first. Get to it!

I love Douglas Coupland‘s books. Most people have heard of his big hitters, like Generation X, but my favourite of his books is actually The Gum Thief (JPod would be a close second) for its minute, and moving, dissection of modern life.

Catherine Fisher is one of the finest children’s authors ever. Full stop. I recommend anything and everything, but especially Corbenic and Darkhenge. When I grow up, I want to be Catherine Fisher.

If I can’t be Catherine Fisher when I grow up, then I’ll be Frances Hardinge instead. Is there a better wordsmith writing for children today? If there is, I haven’t read them yet. I’m currently reading Hardinge’s most recent book, A Face Like Glass, and there are times I literally have to put it down and go ‘Wow. Just… wow.’

Why not try Manda Scott‘s series of books about Boudicca, and Celtic-era Britain? Go on. They’re brilliant.

As y’all know, I used to be an academic. I wrote a thesis. It had a 40 page bibliography. I’ll let you do the maths with regard to how many books can fit into a bibliography that long, but let’s just say, it was loads. Two of the most interesting books on that list are Caroline Walker Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women and E. Roger Ekirch‘s At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime. If  you like stories about crazy medieval nuns and things that go bump in the night, you can’t go wrong with these.

And, after all that heavy stuff, try Jim Butcher‘s extremely fun series about a Chicago wizard, The Dresden Files.

Phew. I need a lie-down after all that. Have a lovely Thursday. Get reading!