Category Archives: Books

Long-Awaited Reads Month Update #1

Reading wise, January is off to a great start for me. I have not read this much in ages. Really, this past year I was lucky to make it through two books a month. But in January, the counter is now at six, including one which I started back in 2015. Even luckier, I have thoroughly enjoyed the books I have picked up thus far, even though not all of them have been as stunning as I had anticipated. Long-Awaited Reads Month, indeed:

Caddy's World Hilary McKayCaddy’s World by HIlary McKay

The Casson Family series deserves its own post really, but I know what I am usually like in these cases: I plan to write the post and then procrastinate endlessle. So instead, let me tell you why I love these books, this last book (because I do think this should be read last, though it is a prequel) included: the sense of family and comradeship despite difficulties, the acknowledgement of strains in family relationships but in a friendly manner, the book’s ability to acknowledge the good and bad in all people without judgement, the slight quirkiness of the whole Casson family, the utterly lovely characters which you grow to love throughout the series, and particularly Rose and Indigo, the attention paid to the different manners in which people engage with music and art as important forms of self-expression, and the general readability of course.

This one follows oldest-sister Caddy and her group of friends as they navigate confusing times in their lives. The focus is, of course, on Caddy who is trying to come to terms with the addition of Rose to the family. It is interesting to see how Caddy navigates the conflicted feelings about not wanting another baby in the house, but also being desparate for Rose to survive the complications stemming from her early birth. And this, of course, in the midst of her friends’ problems as well as the rearrangement of family dynamics at home. McKay does this wonderfully well, as always.

We Were LiarsWe Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars is the latest book by E. Lockhart, the author who gave us the likes of the amazing  The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks and the  lovely Ruby Oliver books. In it, we follow the recent years of Cady Sinclair and her family, and particularly the times directly before and after ‘the accident’. As we follow Cady puzzling together the truth of what happened during one of her family’s summer stays in Martha’s Vineyard, we are introduced to the world of the Sinclairs, a rich white family, and ‘the liars’, a group of four cousins and friends of which Cady is one.

We Were Liarsranked high on many of my favourite bloggers best-of list a few years ago, and so I could not wait to read it myself. But perhaps it was the hype.. because even though I enjoyed the book and definitely found it engaging, it failed to convince me that it was stellar. Perhaps it was that I saw most of the twist coming about half-way through, but generally that does not bother me so much. Or perhaps it was that the characters felt rather flat at times, which meant that instead of allowing room for the reader’s deconstruction of the character’s circumstances and behaviours, the book felt more focussed on plot-progress. This is not to say that you should not read the book. It is still a very good book, and I definitely felt lots of feelings while reading. Perhaps it is just that I had expected more? Sometimes these kinds of books hold up better when you read them at the time of their release and the initial enthousiasm about them, than they do a year or so later.

Jem and the HologramsJem and the Holograms: Showtime by Kelly Thompson and Sophie Campbell

A graphic novel series about a girl band in the 80s, the protagonist of which is too shy to perform in front of an audience, so instead they use hologram “Jem” to be able to perform. While this story provides a lovely mix of music, friendship, love, and true human relationships between women instead of hollow stereotypical versions of it, plus “girly-girl” imagery mixed with serious issues without one undermining the other -and as such offers lots to love- I also did not feel as special a connection to it as I had anticipated. Perhaps it is the comic format? I notice that with both this one and Lumberjanes (which I personally enjoyed much more) I really love the story, the underlying ideas and messages, but I just cannot quite become as absorbed in them as I would in a regular fiction book? I don’t know.. this is a question I will have to puzzle out over time..

10 PM Question De GoldiThe 10 P.M. Question by Kate De Goldi

The 10 P.M. Question tells the story of 12-year-old Frankie and the monumentous changes brought to his life when he befriends the new girl at school, Sydney. While this book also explores a quircky family in which different persons have to address daily difficulties and strains, it’s tone is more serious than Hilary McKay’s. However, the books share the respectful tone at which personal and familial problems are addressed, nowhere reducing a problem or a person’s ability or inability to deal with it to a caricature. This, as well as its engaging characterisation and style, is what made De Goldi’s novel so particularly strong, for the subjects with which she deals are not small, eg. mental illness. And yet, the manner in which she addresses Frankie’s anxiety’s and his mom’s inability to leave the house, as well as the issues faced by other characters, simultaneously draw them out of the corner of mental illness which places it apart, but instead normalises it to a very realistic extinct. Additionally, there is something refreshing about reading a book about a boy’s self-doubt, when it is unfortunately so often only girl characters who are portrayed in this manner. I would definitely, then, recommend The 10 P.M. Question. It is utterly readable, enjoyable, and fun. To this is added the a humane and gentle understanding that is utterly admirable.

A Company of Swans IbbotsonA Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson

This is typical Eva Ibbotson romance, but as always, it is good. Telling the story of Harriet Morton, who is raised by her father and aunt in a very protective, strict, and sober environment, but when given the chance runs away to follow her dream of performing in a ballet company while they tour the Amazon. While there are questions to pose about romantic interest Henry and his friendly colonial entrepeneurship versus that of his rivals, Ibbotson’s usual black-white portrayal of good vs. bad parents and innocent children, and the romantic imagery about the Amazon, I nonetheless enjoyed A Company of Swans immensely. Somehow, there is something about Ibbotson’s rose-coloured glasses that makes her books quite irresistable. Perhaps she leaves just enough room for realism and criticism to get away with it? I wonder.. Or perhaps it is simply that enjoying a work of fiction does not mean unapologetically condoning all of its portrayals? And yet, writing about Ibbotson’s romance novels always makes me wonder if she has a quality that allows us to jump a little too easily to the “oh, it was just lovely!” description instead of posing the more difficult questions, and if there is a danger in that. For it is true, I did wonder about some of the representations here, but mostly, I was too caught up in the fairytale to care.

I also, of course, read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, but since I have already written about that here, I won’t repeat my thoughts.

Meanwhile, I have begun to read Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell. This one is another that falls into the “comfort reads” category for me, having so much enjoyed her High Rising in 2014. Reading it seems to be taking a little more time than the rush I felt in the previous 2 weeks. But who knows, maybe I will get to pick out another book before January is over.

What have you been reading in January thus far? Any books that stood out to you in particular?

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Look, I know you all already know what this book is about:

Kondo states that we people have too much clutter. We would be happier in a more minimalist and tidier home. Kondo introduces us to her decluttering KonMari method, which basically means: only keeping those items that you love, or that, in her words “spark joy”; to go through all of your items category by category to cull them; after which you you need to find a new allocated place for them. This, according to Kondo, will take you around 6 months. But after this process you will never need to declutter again.

There are tons of reviews out there, most of which will go into more detail about her method. In this post, I would simply like to discuss my reasons for reading, my plans, and my doubts.

I read the Dutch translation "Opgeruimd!" of Marie Kondo's book.

I read the Dutch translation “Opgeruimd!” of Marie Kondo’s book.

There were practical and emotional reasons for picking this book up. They combine into the feeling that yes, I own a lot of unnecessary stuff. And with the arrival of Pim, and the expected appearance of another little one in May, I often feel that the household is out of control and that if only I could have a better overview of everything we have, I might stand a better chance of keeping things in order. To me, contemplating the KonMari method is as much an exercise in wanting to regain a sense of control that I am sure any of us lose after the chaos of having young children, as it is about actually wanting to sort through my stuff, declutter, and clean.

Without reading Kondo’s book I went through my clothes during the summer. I made lots of progress  (as in, all of them fit into one cabinet of drawers aside from my dresses, underwear, and dressy clothes), but right now this part of the project is on a halt since a pregnant belly messes with my ability to judge which clothes I love or do not love enough to keep them. I am scared that would I sort through my clothes now, I would basically end up with 3 pieces of everything which means I would have to do lots of buying after my pregnancy and I just don’t want to risk that now. Also, I have no clue what size I will turn out after this pregnancy and I just want to have clothes on hand since I know that shopping time is limited in those first few months.

Yet, we do need to declutter the house for baby number 2, since she will require the room that we currently use for storage of books, music, Bas’ guitar, etcetera, which will all need to move to the storage space and room in the attic. And so, books are next on my list, as is all the small memorabilia stuff that we store in the attic but that I do not even want to think of sorting through yet because it will be so much work.

And so… books.

Can I just say that Kondo’s approach to book cannot be my own completely. She seems to think owning 100 books is a lot. I do not think my number will ever dwindle to somewhere near below 100. Part of me wishes I could more stringently adopt her overall approach to books, but things like (no exact quotes since I read the Dutch version) “if you have not read it yet, you will probably never read it” just cannot be put into action by me. It is true that I probably won’t read many of my unread books for some time yet, and yet, I cannot get rid of all of them. The thing is: I bought them for a reason, and if that reason still holds, and if the thought of that reasoning still brings me joy, I am keeping it. Though I admit that for now I am probably still hanging on to some overtly “maybe someday” books. And I am pretty sure I will have another round of book sorting before May.

My culling is compounded by the fact that Kondo’s philosophy seems to be that if you got rid of something you later on regret, you can always buy it anew. But this seems to presume easy access to everything. And that is not always the case for some of my “maybe” books still on the shelves. For example, I am keeping quite a chunk of books written by POC authors, because I know they are not all as readily accessible through the library system, or even bookstores, here.

And perhaps this tiny detail hints at some of the ponderings that have preoccupied me since back when I first began hearing about KonMari last year, particularly since her books seems to be part of a larger trend in which minimalism seems to winning ground on consumerism.

Because I have thoughts.. Though I admit they are not all that developed or organised yet.

You see, I am all for trying to live with fewer stuff. And being aware that we need not buy all and everything to be happy. This is the part of this trend that I really like and relate to. But there’s some voice that keeps nagging me about the luxury of being able to contemplate a more minimalist lifestyle at all. It is caught in Kondo’s assurance that we can always buy something anew if we really miss it after throwing it out, because what does it say that it is presented as a given that we can? But it is also caught in this idea of throwing away garbage bags of stuff. I do not want to do that unless I know that it will find a proper new home. So if I go through with this, I want to make sure I donate or recycle, make sure I don’t get rid of stuff for the getting-rid-of-it but instead learn to do with less as a rule (which I know Kondo articulates, but she nowhere acknowledges that maybe some people do not have the means to adopt her methods at all), and I want to make sure that I will make conscious choices about what I do buy in the future, hopefully sustainable choices as well.

Because I imagine there are drawbacks in the KonMari method on both a micro and a macro level. At the micro scale, and this is a very selfish one, I am going back and forth between wanting to declutter and wanting to live more frugal. The one does not disqualify the other, per se, but at times I wonder if there is not something to be said for holding on to those “maybe someday” items, if I might really have a use for it in a few years? The other one, the macro level one, relates to a more ideological level, and also the level of activism that part of me desperately craves. For what I am missing in Marie Kondo’s book, although I am not saying I blame her for it because it is not part of what she set out to do, is relating this trend of minimalism to larger issues in the world. For how, really, can we discuss a craving for decluttering and owning less stuff without discussing the system of consumerism, the worldwide inequality it creates, and the environmental impact it has? I know these might seem like random big words thrown out there, but to me they are intrinsically related, and someday I hope to find a book that will cast this all into this larger perspective.

That is not to say that I do not believe in Kondo’s assurance that decluttering can make you feel lighter, can create the space you need to get to those other things in your life that you really want to pay attention to, and that perhaps -perhaps- we need this stage to get to a place where we might address those larger issues, in our own way, if we want to. But I know that I want to.

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).