The dark history of Ireland’s treatment of women runs through Sarah Maria Griffin’s Other Words for Smoke like a faultline, threatening to collapse it at any moment. The story concerns a pair of twins, Mae and Rossa, who are sent to stay with their Aunt Rita and her ward Bevan over the course of two summers. Mae quickly discovers that Aunt Rita is a witch, and is eager to learn more. She also falls in love with Bevan, but she doesn’t know that Bevan has contact with a dark, magical force called Sweet James.
Among Stephen King’s many titles, The Colorado Kid is something of a Marmite book. It’s only rated 3.39 on Goodreads, and in all the ranked lists of his work that I could find, it’s in the bottom half. At the time it was released, it was very popular, leading to a TV adaptation (Haven), but since then it’s not gained the reputation that others of his have. It’s not hard to see why, but at the same time it feels unfair, and I think it deserves a lot better.
On the 20th February 1974, science fiction author Philip K. Dick had an experience that would come to define the rest of his life. He was at his home, recovering from a wisdom tooth removal, when a young woman knocked on the door, delivering his medication. She wore a necklace with a fish-shaped design, and when he asked her what it was, she said ‘This is a sign used by the early Christians’. At that point, he saw a ‘pink beam’ that shone into his eyes, mesmerising him. After more hallucinations that lasted weeks, he came to believe he was receiving transmissions from a ‘transcendentally rational mind’, referring to it later as God, Zebra, and VALIS.
An acronym for ‘Vast Active Living Intelligence System’, VALIS was the title Dick gave to his 1981 novel, a fictionalised account of these experiences. He wrote it in part to help him understand what had happened to him, an effort which he continued in all his writings until his death in 1982.
One of my favourite films of all time is A.I. Artificial Intelligence, released in 2001 and directed by Stephen Spielberg. It’s about a robot boy named David, who is adopted by a couple wanting a child. He is programmed to love, and for a while he does, but when circumstances change he is forced to leave and fend for himself. Believing in the story of Pinocchio, he sets out to find the Blue Fairy, who he is convinced will make everything alright again.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s wonderful book Klara and the Sun reminded me a lot of this film. In the book, Klara is an Artificial Friend (or AF) who lives in a shop waiting to be picked by a child. She forms a connection with a girl named Josie, who takes her home to live with her. However, Josie is very ill, and Klara (who is solar-powered) believes that she can convince the Sun to heal her.
Lindsay Ellis is a YouTuber known for her meticulously researched videos on film criticism. I’ve kept up with her work for a long time, from her early days as part of Channel Awesome, to her breaking away and making videos for herself. Her videos are consistently informative and entertaining, in part due to her natural affability and wry sense of humour, and also because of her background in academic film studies and her tendency to dig deep into interesting topics.
Axiom’s End is her first novel. The story focuses on Cora Sabino, a college dropout in her twenties. Her father, Nils Ortega, abandoned her and the rest of their family to be a conspiracy theorist whistleblower. Before the start of the novel, he has released evidence of a cover-up that goes back decades: the government has been in contact with aliens that have landed on Earth. When a meteor crash-lands, she is targeted by the FBI and runs away, by a chance encounter becoming the spokesperson for one of the aliens, Ampersand, who arrived via another meteor some time ago.
Colombia is a country that lives in two worlds. Host to vast deserts, labyrinth rainforests, Caribbean beaches and awe-inspiring mountains, it’s one of the most biodiverse nations in the world. It’s hard to travel more than a few hours without the landscape completely changing, and its people are as open and as flourishing as the land around them. However, its history is dogged by a bloody violence, decades of unrest that still claws at the country’s back as it tries to move forward. When Escobar was killed in ’93, it didn’t instantly heal the wounds he had made. Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s fascinating novel The Sound of Things Falling pries open those wounds, and provides a case study of national trauma as chilling as it is beautiful.
Richard Ayoade is an actor, comedian, TV presenter, director, and writer. He is most well-known for playing Moss in The IT Crowd, directing the films Submarine and The Double, and being notoriously difficult to interview. In 2014, he wrote his first book, Ayoade on Ayoade: a Cinematic Odyssey, in which he actually interviews himself. In the book, a fictional version of Ayoade (a film obsessive) interviews another fictional version of Ayoade (an ‘auteur’ director). It’s a parody of film books that overanalyse their subjects, and it’s extremely funny.
The Grip of Film, his second book, was published in 2017. Instead of interviewing himself again, Ayoade this time hands the reins to a fictional alter-ego: Gordy LaSure. Gordy LaSure is a devotee of 80s and 90s action films, and treats them as high art, while dismissing classics such as Citizen Kane and The Godfather. He delusionally believes himself to be a film expert, and the book is a glossary of terms that in his view are vital to good film-making. It’s a parody of film books that give hackneyed and unhelpful advice on storytelling, and it’s also extremely funny.
Dmitri Shostakovich was a composer born in St. Petersburg on the 25th September 1906. He wrote his first piece at the age of 12, and at 19 achieved success with his First Symphony. 1934 saw the debut of his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk. Though it was initially well received, a performance was attended by Joseph Stalin, who was less than impressed. The next day an anonymous article entitled ‘Muddle Instead of Music’ appeared in the country’s leading magazine, denouncing Shostakovich and his music. This marked the start of a long period of conflict between him and the government of the Soviet Union.
The Noise of Time begins in the aftermath of this denunciation. Shostakovich is awaiting his arrest, due to be taken to the Big House, where those deemed enemies of the people were taken and shot. He thinks on his past, sifting through his memories, not knowing when the moment will arrive when his fate is decided.
The concept of multiple marriages is still one that shocks and causes derision and judgement from wider society. However, I like to view it as a strength of somebody’s determination to not accept anything less than what they deserve. An unwavering faith in the quest for love. That is why I chose Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo as my pick for the book club I have with four feminist friends.
We adored it.
I often find that my favourite reading experiences come from when I’m taken by surprise, and The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly was definitely one of those times. I picked it up mostly because it was short and I was in the mood for something wholesome, and with the promise of a story about a plucky mother hen it seemed to fit the bill. It certainly delivered on that front, but I was not expecting it to become one of my favourite reads so far this year.