One of my many birthday presents - it was a bonanza turning 30, I tell ya - was some national book tokens. I love getting book vouchers. There is just something nice about going into your local bookshop and actually walking away with something to show for it.
As opposed to leaving empty handed after browsing aimlessly for hours, listening to every CD on the rack, reading unpurchased mags on the sly and drinking bottomless cups of coffee. Which is enjoyable enough on its own, but means you have nothing to read on the bus home.
So, the books I bought (and have enjoyed to varying degrees since) were:
1. Born on a Blue Day: A Memoir of Aspergers and an Extraordinary Mind by Daniel Tammet;
2. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters; and
3. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See.
All laid out for your viewing pleasure above. I am a graphic designer; I can't help judging a book by it's cover.
My favourite by a mile was The Night Watch. It is a beautifully written book that plunges you into 1940's London - right in amongst the blackouts, bombings, and night wardens. Every little detail, including the language that the characters use, adds to the evocation of that very different era.
The book is also made more interesting for being played out in three parts, moving backwards in time. The first part of the book is set in 1949; the second in 1944; and the final section in 1941. As you move through the book, the back-story to the characters lives and relationships is slowly revealed to you, and you piece together what events have taken place in the intervening years.
I think I have always had a bit of "lez chick-lit" snobbery about Sarah Waters, which I now see was completely unfounded. The fact that some of her characters are gay is almost irrelevant to the main themes, apart from adding a layer of intrigue in those less-tolerant times. However, the main focus is on the complexity of their relationships and their individual characteristics and situations. As with Brokeback Mountain, you get so involved in the humanity of the story, you forget any awkwardness you may have had about watching two men hug.
Speaking of men hugging, Born on a Blue Day was a fascinating memoir by a high functioning autistic savant. He can make massive calculations instantly in his head, has memorised Pi to the 22,514th decimal place, and constructed his own language. Slightly intimidating, I imagine, to talk to. What originally caught my interest was his description of seeing numbers as colours, shapes and textures which built a kind of landscape in his mind's eye. It seemed a lovely cross-over of the world of pure mathematics (completely alien to me), and the artistic world. Also, most autistic savants are emotionally restricted, but David has managed to build strong relationships with the people around him and comes across as rather lovely and gentle-natured - which could be down to his upbringing (his parents loved children and he was the first of eight).
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was a little disappointing. I guess I was expecting another Memoirs of a Geisha or Sky Burial, you know: the sweeping epic and the intricate details of a completely foreign culture and time, with all the romance and wonder that entails. It was interesting enough, with the descriptions of foot-binding and other cultural practices, but the story didn't really grab me. It was presented as a study of the intimate relationship between a Chinese bride and her "old same", a special life-long female friend chosen by her family - a relationship which is in some ways more intimate than that she has with her own husband. It felt a little like a folk story, complete with unexplained gaps and moral overtones. I couldn't help feeling that, in the hands of a better author, it could have been a much more compelling read.
For now, it's back to the library. But not before I add some Sarah Winter to my (ever-expanding) Amazon wish list.