Category Archives: Books

The Short and the Sweet (1), or, Catching up on Reviews for 2015

While I have not read many books this year, I cannot say I have encountered any that have disappointed me thus far. So instead of focusing on the negative, let me hold on to that thought. While all of these books thus deserve proper posts, I think it is best to catch up before hopefully moving on to full posts somewhere in the future. So, below: the short and sweet of four titles read in 2015.

The short and sweet 1

Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim
I read two books by Von Arnim this year, one of my go-to ereader authors providing contented leisurely reading at night. Vera, however, is a lot darker than the previous works I have read by Von Arnim. I have experienced before how Von Arnim is a master in playing with my expectations, my fervent hopes for happy endings, and sometimes letting them down by sticking closer to the everyday reality for women. In case of Vera, which revolves around a controlling and abusive husband, this quality of Von Arnim makes for a haunting read. Gripping, emotional, and therefore very very worthwhile, but definitely dark.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
was the book I opened on my ereader after finishing Vera. It took me quite a while to finish this reread, because of lots of stuff in my life that left very little time for reading. However, finally rereading this book at a much quieter pace than last time left me able to appreciate it much better. Conclusion: I’d loved to have been there with these four ladies on their holiday, made their acquaintance, and learn a little from their ability to refocus on what life has to offer us. I am thinking I should make The Enchanted April one of those books I reread every few years.

Miss Buncle Married by D.E. Stevenson
The same goes for the Miss Buncle books, really. These are my perfect comfort reads. Miss Buncle is the kind of character you’d wish was your friend. The humor provided by Stevenson lifts me up and the general atmosphere of the book just breezes coziness. Honestly, sometimes I wish I could stay in Miss Buncle’s world forever. There were tiny moments when the book gave me pause, as it seems very quick to assert conventional gender roles and conceptions of manliness and womanhood in places. But then Miss Buncle, through her observations, tone, and personal style, distracted me from it. Or perhaps it is that she is never victimised per se, and asserts her own happiness within this framework which was of course the daily reality for most people for a very long time. I am not saying it is a comforting thought, and there are political implications to the dreamy comfort-read quality of books that reassert gender patterns in a gentle manner, but I enjoyed the book all the same. Does that make sense? I hope it does.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
Even though I haven’t read enough of these types of books, I think I can conclude that historical fiction with fantasy elements are my cup of tea. Particularly when they explore women’s position both through this historical context and the fantasy elements. Shades of Milk and Honey certainly fits that bill, although it is hardly as strong as for example Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw. Jane Austenesque elements feature heavily in this story, which was something I appreciated. However, I did feel that the characterisation was sometimes a little flat, and the ending a little too fast to my taste. A very enjoyable read that was nevertheless not perfect, and I haven’t quite decided whether I want to continue with the series.

Persephone’s “A Book a Month”

Persephones!

At the beginning of this year I treated myself to a 12-month subscription to Persephone Books. Two weeks later I had forgotten which books I had picked out to be delivered to my doorstep. And so, once a month I am surprised but happy to find a new Persephone in the mail.

Pictured at the front are the books I have received thus far. Have I read each of them as they came in, which is what I pictured when I bought the subscription? If you know about my current reading habits (which you do not, since I fail to write about them so spectacularly) you know the answer is a resounding no. I have read 14 books in 2015, including quite a few small picture books, where I usually would have read 30+ by now. But does it matter really? Persephones are pretty on your shelf and you know that once you pick them up, you are in for a treat.

And so, since this week I have been reading the very first book that came through the mailbox this year: Miss Buncle Married. And I was right: it is a treat. Miss Buncle is lovely as ever. This is the perfect book to pick up once Pim is in bed (and he seems to have decent bedtimes now, let us keep our fingers crossed that this sticks), after a long day of writing and more writing on my thesis.

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman

Unlike many others, I did not see the promotional picture of two girls kissing for the release of The Sleeper and the Spindle. Instead, being so out of the loop with blogging and new books, I saw this title appear in the top 20 sold books on Bookdepository one day, and decided to buy it. “New Neil Gaiman and a fairy tale at that,” I thought, “I will probably like this”. Not having seen the promo, I was probably saved a lot of disappointment. Instead, I got what I expected: a fairy tale Neil Gaiman-style, with twists that I did not expect, and lovely illustrations by Chris Riddell to boot.

The Sleeper and the Spindle - Neil Gaiman // Illustrated by Chris Riddell // Bloomsbury, 2014

The Sleeper and the Spindle – Neil Gaiman // Illustrated by Chris Riddell // Bloomsbury, 2014

But sometimes, getting what you expected may not feel like enough. And I realise this sounds spoiled. And let’s be honest: it is. But for the first half of the book, it was a thought that flashed through my mind. We’ve come to expect great tales from Gaiman. And upon seeing that cover (WOW!) the idea of wonderful images might be taken for granted.

And so it took a while to realise exactly what joys The Sleeper and the Spindle provides.

Take this quote at the beginning, which plays with gender expectations and “the happily ever after” right there (before playing with it some more throughout the book):

It seemed both unlikely and extremely final. She wondered how she would feel to be a married woman. It would be the end of her life, she decided, if life was a time of choices. In a week from now, she would have no choices. She would reign over her people. She would have children. Perhaps she would die in childbirth, perhaps she would die as an old woman, or in battle. But the path to her death, heartbeat by heartbeat, would be inevitable.

And then there’s the moment when realisation first hit (and yes, I am sloooow), that this were fairytales intertwined, with a lead that is Snow White an her dwarfs, mixed up in the tale of Sleeping Beauty. And I started to love the book a little more.

As we near the end I first realise that here’s a wonderful girl protagonist, who is allowed the possibility of a death in battle (see the quote above), and moreover, to make her own choices (there’s quite some gender role reversal when she tells the prince she will leave on a mission), and take such a large part in the action.

And then there is the very end. With a twist on traditional fairy tale expectations about beauty and age that I loooooved. And by then I cannot help but conclude that yes, I was spoiled to even think that getting what one expects of an author may not be enough.

I ended up really enjoying The Sleeper and the Spindle. But I do understand some of the disappointment out there. For this is not a LGTB take on a fairytale. The kiss itself is beautifully pictured but of very little importance in the story as a whole.

Reading Next: The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz (and still reading Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim).

Finding Violet Park by Jenny Valentine

I began my journey into the world of 1001 Children’s Books by selecting the very last title listed. Finding Violet Park had been lingering on my shelves for a few years, bought at a this-bookshop-is-bankrupt sale years before. I never quite knew whether I should read it or discard it, until I saw it listed here. Yay for persuading me to pick up a long-forgotten book from my TBR shelves.

Dutch version of Finding Violet Park by Jenny Valentine // Published in English by Harper Collins in 2007 (Also published as "Me, the Missing, and the Dead")

Dutch version of Finding Violet Park by Jenny Valentine // Published in English by Harper Collins in 2007 (Also published as “Me, the Missing, and the Dead”)

In Finding Violet Park Lucas Swain goes on a journey of self-discovery in which he comes to terms with his broken family and learns to face the imperfect nature of his missing father, after finding the abandoned urn of concert pianist Violet Park at a taxi stand.

I did not think Finding Violet Park was extraordinary. But it was a lovely read nonetheless. Lucas Swain is entirely realistic and easy to relate to. The style of the book is humorous. The short chapters ensured that I rushed through the book without feeling hurried or inattentive. There is a bit of suspension of disbelief required for the many coincidental relations between events and characters, but at the same time this might be explained by Lucas’ conviction that Violet Park wanted him to find her urn for a reason.

In short: I really enjoyed Finding Violet Park, and I am glad I did not toss the book out when I moved. At the same time, I find I have very little to say about it. (Hah, and here I thought I was going to get back to blogging full-swing).

Finding Violet Park counts towards the Children’s Books Project. It also counts as first book down (1/37) for my personal 2015 TBR challenge.

Currently reading: Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim.
Next up in the Children’s Books Challenge: The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf.

How To Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman

How To Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman was one of the gifts I received at my babyshower. The idea was to help me through those last few weeks of pregnancy without getting bored. However, since I had just moved house and had lots of stuff to organise before Pim’s arrival (we literally fixed the central heating 2 days before labour — which was a good thing because I had an unexpected home delivery), I never got around to any of these gifts. With just a few weeks of maternity leave left (and as I am writing this, only 3 more days *sniff*), I decided to finally read Goodman’s book.

How To Be a Victorian – Ruth Goodman // Penguin Books, 2014

In How To Be a Victorian Ruth Goodman describes the lives of people living during the Victorian era, for both rich and poor, man and woman, for those born in 1837 as well as 1901. She does so by progressing through what a day would have looked like, beginning with the moment people got out of bed and touched the cold bedroom floor with their feet, until the end of the day where she provides a glimpse of what happened “behind the bedroom door” — as the last chapter is called.

 Goodman’s book was the perfect read to hail the end of my maternity leave with. From the very outset, she reminded me what it is that I love about studying history, and what it is I wish I could accomplish:

I want to explore a more intimate, personal and physical sort of history, a history from the inside out: one that celebrates the ordinary an charts the lives of the common man, woman and child as they interact with the practicalities of their world. I want to look into the minds of our ancestors and witness their hopes, fears and assumptions, no matter how apparently minor. In short, I am in search of a history of those things that make up the day-to-day reality of life. What was it really like to be alive in a different time and place? [*]

She does so by paying particular, but not exclusive, attention to material history, discussing the objects and clothes people used in detail. Because Goodman has made, worn, and used many of these objects she can reflect on things that would not have crossed my mind in first instance. For example, I never realised to what extent the heaviness of clothing, the different skirts or corsets, etcetera, affected every movement.

I enjoyed How To Be a Victorian for two reasons. First, because it provides such a readable and accessible history of the Victorian period. I liked the approach of looking at the Victorian era by going through the motions of a typical day for various groups of people living during Victoria’s reign. Goodman does a good job of providing in-depth detail while still engaging the reader’s interest. Of course there were subjects that I personally found more interesting than others, but I was never bored. And like Tea by the Nursery Fire, I wanted to remain in Goodman’s world to learn more about the things she explored in her volume.

Second, I enjoyed it from a more professional standpoint, as Goodman made me contemplate the various angles historians can take, and particularly what approaches I might want to use (if I had the time) in my own research.

There are, however, two points of criticism I also want to raise here. There is the minor fact that I would have liked to see footnotes from time to time, as I like to explore “further reading” through things that pique my interest in a current book. Or, if not footnotes, I would have liked a “further reading” section at the end of the book. Recommendations by authors you enjoy in non-fiction is something I always appreciate.

As for topics covered in the book, I found How To Be a Victorian lacked an in-depth reflection on Empire. As I am beginning to understand more and more from my reading on missions and Empire, colonial rule was not invisible in daily life, particularly in the Victorian era. I think Goodman mentions it once, but the topic remains on the sidelines. You could say her focus is definitely on the United Kingdom and not its colonies, and we cannot blame her for that, however, I would have appreciated a little more acknowledgement of the extensive entanglement of some of the things she discusses. And there were at least a few opportunities for her to do so. At the same time I admit this experienced gap might be due to my own particular interest in this subject. Goodman does manage to combine “macro history” with the “micro history” of every day life for a number of subjects extremely well, but it does remain contained to what happened in the British isles.

Despite these drawbacks, I definitely recommend How To Be a Victorian, and I am extremely pleased that I received it as a gift and that I managed to read it before work-related craziness takes over again.

After reading How To Be a Victorian, I am going to raise the same question as I did upon finishing Tea By the Nursery Fire: What books about this subject (being the Victorian era and/or daily life in historical settings) would you recommend?

[*] of course Goodman is aware of the fact that we can only ever try to approach “what is was really like” and that sources are selective.