Monthly Archives: March 2012

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

Fire and Hemlock - Diana Wynne JonesFire and Hemlock – Diana Wynne Jones
CollinsVoyager (Harper Collins), 2000

Kristin at We Be Reading hosted a Diana Wynne Jones reading month in March, and I felt this was the perfect time to pick up Fire and Hemlock by Jones. I once won a copy of this book on Ana’s blog, and knowing it was a particular favourite of hers I felt the book merited some particular attention while reading. I’m glad to say I did not need to remind myself of that once I started reading. Fire and Hemlock is simply magical and pulls you right in.

Fire and Hemlock is about a girl, Polly, who one day realises she has two sets of memories. A “regular” one, and another that feature strange and sometimes dangerous adventures with a man called Tom Lynn. Adventures that they would imagine together, but that would inevitably come true. Reliving her memories of that time, she comes to realise that she did something terrible one day, that made her forget about Tom and that other life. And through it all, she begins to realise the urgency of her recovering those memories, and determining a way of setting things right.

One of the truly astounding things about Fire and Hemlock is that it can be read on so many levels, and that all of them work.

On one level, Polly’s story is that of a girl growing up in a broken home, with a father and a mother who are both too caught up in their own drama to really give Polly the attention and love she deserves. As a child of 10, when she meets Tom Lynn, and in the subsequent years, the stories that Tom and Polly think up together could very well be read an escape from reality. Diana Wynne Jones handles realistic childhood and teenage stories well: friends growing apart, the feeling of losing grip, confusion about your place in the world, etcetera. Fire and Hemlock also heavily features reading and stories as ways of learning about the world and your role in it. Tom often sends Polly stories to read, and it is hard not to wish for a similar childhood friend who provides you with literature, when you are a voracious reader yourself. Furthermore, the stories Tom sends her provide clues towards the reader and Polly on what is happening to her and Tom, a remarkably clever way of using intertextuality.

Towards the end of the book, it becomes clear that the supernatural elements of the book cannot just be read as Polly telling herself stories (although the importance of stories remains). Slowly, faerie myth enters the story. And I have to say, Diana Wynne Jones does it beautifully. There is the whole element of the creepy and wonderful about it. Her world building is pitch perfect. With the faerie aspect, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell sometimes, because it has the same perfect blending of the real and imaginary world (though in a different manner). There was a rush to the second half of the story, even more so than the first half, that kept me in my chair and wouldn’t allow me to stop reading (except to tell twitter how much I loved this book) before I got to the end.

The ending of the book is slightly weird and confusing. It is not straightforward at all, and it can feel a little rushed. I think it might take some joy out of the story for some. However, after discussing the ending with Ana (which I would recommend to anyone), I feel that on top of being confusing, it also lends itself for a reading of the book that packs even more meaning into those 400 pages. Ana send me a link to a remarkably clever essay on Jones’ inspiration for Fire and Hemlock, with the remarks that it borrows elements from the Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer ballads, as well as the Odyssey and Cupid and Psyche. Now, don’t let all those names scare you off. I haven’t read any of them and the story still worked perfectly for me. But I think it might be interesting to return to the book and reread it once I know more about those other stories.  But more than my admiration of Diana Wynne Jones’ superb way of incorporating other texts into her own story, it was Ana’s reading of the book as portraying different forms of love (Polly’s mother’s controlling and obsessive love, her grandmother’s and Tom’s selfless love, Polly’s own love that undergoes several changes) that put this book firmly into the favourites list.

I loved this book. Diana Wynne Jones’ is a star in blending elements of the realistic and the supernatural, and doing it in such a way that every bit of story resonates with even more meaning. The ending might have been slightly over my head (there are parts I still do not understand: the horse, the car crushing the roses?), but nevertheless it was a spectacular read that I cannot wait to reread it. Or read more by Diana Wynne Jones, for that matter.

Other Opinions: Valentina’s Room, Jenny’s Books, A Striped Armchair, Necromancy Never Pays, Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog, Shelf Love, BookLust, Page247, Stella Matutina, Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf, Tales from the Reading Room, Dogear Diary, Tip of the Iceberg, We Be Reading, everyday reads, Rhinoa’s Ramblings.
Did I miss yours? Let me know and I will add your review to the list.

Orange Reading: The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

The Forgotten Waltz - Anne EnrightThe Forgotten Waltz – Anne Enright
Jonathan Cape, 2011
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository * 

“If love is a story we tell ourselves then I had the story wrong. Or maybe passion is just, and always, a wrong-headed thing.”

The Forgotten Waltz is about Gina, “the other woman”, and her relationship with Séan. Both Séan and Gina are married, and Séan has a child, Evie, who plays a key role in the story. The book tells the story of Gina and Séan’s affair through remembrances of Gina, while she waits out a snow blizzard in her family home in Terenure, Ireland, in 2009.

Anne Enright provides an interesting setting to reflect on a number of themes. The Forgotten Waltz starts at the height of the real estate “bubble”, at the time that almost everyone bought houses, or second houses, and had complete faith in being able to sell them at a high profit years later. At the end of the book, none of the houses sell, prizes drop, leaving Gina and Séan unable to move forward as a couple since they are unable to leave their former economic lives behind.

But it is not just the economy that keeps Gina and Séan from moving on, not really. The whole books is about how desire often leads to a slip away from reality and every day life. Gina, certainly, does seem to want to escape her expected “safe” future through her affair with Séan. And Séan wants to escape his overprotective wife and the health problems of his daughter, even though his daughter is very much the centre of his universe. Throughout the book, Gina seems more preoccupied with telling herself that Séan is the love of her life, instead of portraying that she actually feels that way. It is as if she’s retelling the story of their love, in order to convince herself of it. And in the middle of this all, Evie is what keeps them grounded, is what makes them real. This is portrayed through the first scene of the book, in which Evie witnesses Séan and Gina kissing. The first time this scene appears in the book it is told as a joyful occasion, in which Evie seems to condone their relationship. Later on in the novel, the kiss is revisited, and by then it lacks proper feeling, it is part of Gina and Séan’s game, more than their love. Gina’s story is about her telling herself the story of “the love of her life”, but also the story of her realisation that it is Evie that makes their love real, in a sense:

“The fact that a child was mixed up in it all made us feel that there was no going back; that it mattered. The fact that a child was affected meant we had to face ourselves properly, we had to follow through.”

Ironically, it is also Evie who guarantees that Séan can never fully commit to her and let go of his former life.

Writing about The Forgotten Waltz, I am starting to appreciate the story for its cleverness, and the way in which Gina, as the narrator of her own love story, becomes interesting exactly because she is unreliable. Thinking about it now, after reading, I can see the appeal of the book. However, while reading it, I wasn’t all that enthusiastic. Reading felt more like a chore than a joy, and it was not until I checked Teresa’s review of the book when I was stuck around page 75 that I began to see its potential.

I still cannot tell you that I enjoyed reading The Forgotten Waltz, or liked it even. Part of my problem with it stems from my personal aversion to stories about affairs, especially those told from the viewpoint of the “other woman” and asking for my sympathy of her. Perhaps it is an age thing, perhaps I’d like to continue living in a bubble.. The thing is, my biggest fear in any relationship might be adultery, I try not to imagine how much it must hurt, and so I find it difficult to deal with the fact that so many stories revolve around it, especially those who portray the lost-ness and flaws and feelings of the people partaking in the affair. I do get it, I do see how everyone has flaws, I do see how it might just happen, but I feel uncomfortable reading about it, every single time. Add to this that I am currently also reading True, another story that focuses heavily on an affair, and I think it may just have been too much at this moment, clouding my judgement of the merit of this book.

The bottom line: The Forgotten Waltz was not for me. Adultery and Enright’s portrayal of it, just couldn’t capture my interest. I felt more resistance than enjoyment while reading, more bleakness than appreciation of Enright’s style. But I can see why the novel is praised, and why her writing style might be moving, and how her language is effective in its switch from meandering to detailed, to direct, to observational. But, personally, I think it may be a while yet before I pick up another Enright novel.

Other opinions: Reading Matters, Shelf Love, Farm Lane Books, The Asylum, A Book Sanctuary, Book Atlas, Everyday I Write the Book, Books Under Skin, Book Chase, Read Around the World, Lakeside Musing, Lindy Reads and Reviews.
Did I miss yours? Let me know and I will add your review to the list.

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Sunday Salon: “Preaching” and Practising Diversity in Reading

This week, I participated in a discussion over at Jillian’s blog, A Room of Ones Own, on the Western Canon. Now, the more I consider this topic, the more the canon becomes flawed. The dominant discourse of what is worthy of recognition as a classic and the privileged white male selection mechanism is a well-known argument, but reading through the comments it became a lot more visible how this line of thinking still influences much of how we view “quality” and “literature” unconsciously. The more I think about it, the more I want to reject the canon and establish counter-readings of literature that “could just as well have been canon”. Except that to do so I think the word canon is insufficient anyway. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I enjoy reading “classics”, I like looking through lists such as the 1001 books you must read before you die list, but browsing them it is hard to ignore what has been so consciously omitted. Why so little women? Why so little literature outside of Northern America and Europe? Why so much general fiction? Why so little fantasy? These are questions that need to be asked, I think. It is important to be aware of them.

However, after reading about the topic on Jillian’s blog, while posting comments and etcetera, I started to contemplate if I practise what I preach. And I came to some startling (or not so startling) conclusions.

Overall, I read, and write about, more books written by women than by men. It is not so much a conscious decision (on some level it is, but that would be a whole different post), but I do consciously not care to make the numbers more equal. Why? Because there is an overload of male authors being reviewed over female authors, so I think I could justify writing more about women (not that I think my small blog has any effect, it’s just that, as I said before, I want to be conscious about what I’m doing).

There’s one exception though. And that is Dutch Lit Month. If there was one chunk of reading that skewed the male-female ratio more towards equal it was my dedicated month of reading Dutch literature last year. I reviewed a grand total of two Dutch women authors. Two! One of which was a DNF. This, of course, needs to change. So I have been looking into some details, trying to find a way to make my reading more equal this year. To this purpose, I took out this book from the library:

Women's Writing from the Low Countries 1880-2010, edited by Jacqueline Bel and Thomas Vaessens // Amsterdam/Manchester University Press, 2010

It contains small informative summaries of the lives and works of numerous Dutch women authors. Disappointingly, there is no list of translated works included, even if the book itself is written in English. And here the other problem I have in trying to write about more Dutch women authors comes into play: the issue of translation. Let me illustrate that.

This is a row of twenty books my parents received as a present when they subscribed to a national newspaper recently. They are a specially issued series of “the best Dutch debut novels”:

75% of the novels pictured above are written by men. Only five out of 20 were written by women. Only two of those have been translated to English (most of them were translated to German).

So here’s the thing: How do I keep the number of Dutch female authors reviewed during Dutch Lit Month equal to the number of men, without reviewing books of which I can only hope that they will one day be translated to English? I’m not saying I’m not going to try, I’m browsing the library and books at the family like crazy, and I’m sure I’ll figure something out this year. But in the long run, there’s the fact that if I want to continue Dutch Lit Month with a focus on books that are available to English readers, how do I keep from a skewed gender balance?

Apart from a gender imbalance in books read and written about for Dutch Lit Month, there is also the factor of ethnicity, race, country in my general reading.. My focus is heavily on European and North American lit. I sometimes read a few books from Australia, Africa, Asia (never yet from South America, I think?), but it simply is not enough. And here, I cannot blame translations or availability so much. I can only blame myself. For not taking a more conscious effort to remedy this. To be lazy enough to read books I bought, and get books from the library, that are so undeniably “Western” in their focus and authorship. So, I think I see a project coming on, or something, anything, to do better on this score. And to turn awareness into actually doing something about it in my personal reading. Knowing myself, I will find this incredibly difficult. I already feel myself thinking in terms of problems and what I have to “deny” myself in reading plans, instead of in terms of opportunities.

I am not sure if I will be able to change this overnight. I am pretty sure I cannot. But the least I can do is write it down, and acknowledge it publicly to myself, right? In the hope that I will make more of an effort. In the hope that some of you might help make me accountable to myself.

Goddess Interrupted by Aimee Carter

Goddess Interrupted - Aimee CarterGoddess Interrupted – Aimee Carter
HarlequinTeen, March 2012
Review Copy through Netgalley
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository * 

[spoilers for the first book in the series: The Goddess Test]

At the end of The Goddess Test, Kate marries Henry and accepts her role as Queen of the Underworld next to him. Goddess Interrupted picks up after Kate has spent the summer in Greece. Now, she returns to be crowned. But the ceremony is interrupted by Chronos, the King of the Titans, the only being strong enough to defeat the gods. When Henry is abducted together with some of the other Gods, Kate tries to rescue them, but she only has a chance of doing so by visiting Henry’s first wife, Persephone, in the Underworld.

Whereas I enjoyed reading The Goddess Test, though I admit I didn’t particularly love it, this follow-up felt a little messy. The first half of the book we follow Kate’s journey through the Underworld together with Ava, James, and Persephone. I felt there was something lacking in the descriptions of the Underworld. Carter introduces a contrast between people who live in a fairytale landscape (mostly lots of flowers and sunshine – whatever makes them happy) and dark and painful landscapes for those who believe they deserve punishment. This could have been interesting, and I was left with a couple of questions (i.e.  What is Kate and Henry’s role as King and Queen of the Underworld? Who decides if someone rightfully believes they should be punished for their worldly wrongs in their afterlife, the person himself?), but the descriptions lacked imagination and depth at times. In contrast with the most recent book I read about the Underworld, Graveminder, Carter’s exploration of this world felt a little flat.

Basically, throughout the first half of the book I turned the pages but I did not really connect with the story. I persevered believing that it would have to get better, especially having seen lots of enthusiasm about the book from other readers who told me there would be a killer cliffhanger. I admit, the latter half of the book does become more interesting, there’s more action and there’s simply more to care about. But, here another problem I had with the story enters, and that is Kate and Henry’s relationship. While I could just about deal with Henry’s distance and overprotectiveness in The Goddess Test, I believe it is taken a step too far in Goddess Interrupted. I can perhaps understand the artistic choice to want to make the relationship more realistic, and not make Henry’s thousands-of-years-long love for Persephone an easy obstacle to do away with, but it results in reducing Kate to an insecure and co-dependant girl. There are examples of Kate standing up for herself, or at least almost doing so, and deciding to make her own life the best she can, but most of the time we watch her tiptoeing around Henry, afraid to hurt him, waiting for him to show some affection, hurting but believing that she should stick around because the possibility of hurting him is much worse, etcetera. While reading, I kept wondering if this was supposed to be an example of “a mysterious boy who becomes just that more intriguing by his behaviour” or if we’re supposed to understand the relationship for the dysfunctional thing that it is.

This may sound strange, but the relationship between Henry and Kate, and Kate’s insecurities, were exactly the things that made me care a little about the book, albeit not in a good way. Reading Kate’s contemplations about taking charge of her own life, and her insecurities, and her doubts if she should stay with Henry because she might hurt him by leaving, reduced me to a blubbering mess. I think anyone who has been in that kind of relationship in their teens will be hard pressed not to identify with some of the hurt and insecurity going on in the book. And yes, perhaps, to some extent, it does make Kate’s feelings realistic to any teenager who reads about them. But the thing is, I would be afraid of any teenager taking away the wrong message, being that boys who hurt you and withdraw from you, and do not show you their feelings, are ultimately just shy and very much in love with you and you should persevere and stay around.

I don’t know. As much as I believe the end of the book did get better, and as much as I enjoyed reading about Kate’s change of mind about condemning Ava and Persephone for their sexual behaviour, I could not get over the painfulness of reading about Henry and Kate. I really wish I could, or would want to, understand Kate’s love for Henry, but at this point, I really don’t think I do. I may want to read the follow-up to this story, because I am curious as to how it will end, but I may need to adjust my expectations of Henry and Kate before I do.

Other opinions: Miss Remmers’ Review, YA Reads, My Overstuffed Bookshelf, All About {n}, Bewitched Bookworms, Minding Spot, Never Gonna Grow Up!, Books With Bite, Radiant Shadows.
Did I miss yours? Let me know and I will add your review to the list.

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Thursday Tea: Spring!

The Books: This sunny day finds me still reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I am at page 700. It’s unbelievable to think that I am nearing the end, but that I also still have 300 pages left. I’m glad this is such a long book. I don’t think it would have worked if it was any shorter. I just found out Norrell’s name is Gilbert. Heehee.
Next to JS&MN I recently picked up There but for the by Ali Smith and State of Wonder by Ann Patchett from the library as Orange reads. I’m about to start There but for the, though I have to admit that the last few days haven’t been reading days really, so I’m not sure how soon I’ll finish these two books.
I’m dreading a few reviews I still need to write (I’m up to 15 unwritten ones at the moment). I’m not looking forward to writing about Goddess Interrupted in particular, since I had problems with the story and most people seem to love it. So I don’t know. I guess I had better get it out of the way soon.

The tea: I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I am not drinking any tea at the moment. I’ve had tons of tea the past few days, because I’ve been in bed with a cold. But right now, with the sun shining outside, I think I may just stick to water.

Other News: I read Mockingjay this week and loved it. I also got to see The Hunger Games movie yesterday and I loved it. It’s great to see a YA novel tackled in an appropriate way and having them use effects that capture the emotions/feel of the setting and characters well (*ahem* Twilight *ahem*). Very much recommend you go and see it. I certainly will be watching it again soon.

Thursday Tea is a weekly meme organised by Anastasia of Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog.