Category Archives: Fiction

2016: First Quarter in Books

I cannot believe that the first quarter of 2016 is (almost) over. Since I have not been here much, I thought it would be nice to summarise my reading of the past few months.

216quarter

There has not been as much reading as might have been. But hey, I am still reading. And I am trying to get back into the habit of picking up a book before bedtime (though all too often I fall asleep after 3 pages or so). Here’s what I have read thus far this year:

Caddy’s World – Hilary McKay
We Were Liars – E. Lockhart
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up – Marie Kondo
Jem and the Holograms: Showtime – Kelly Thompson
The 10 PM Question – Kate de Goldi
A Company of Swans – Eva Ibbotson

Since I read all of these in January, I already (miracle!) wrote about them: here & here.

Pomfret Towers – Angela Thirkell
I really enjoy Thirkell’s fiction. I think I may need to buy more of her books for maternity leave. She offers the perfect blend of wittyness and calm surroundings to make a good comfort reads. Jenny recently wrote about this book, and pretty much sums up my feelings.

Isla and the Happily Ever After – Stephanie Perkins
Lola and the Boy Next Door – Stephanie Perkins
I read these close together, and in reverse order. I began with number 3 in the series because it generally receives better reviews than the second book. (I had already read Anna and the French Kiss). I found both books enjoyable, though the third one a little more so than the second. Perkins offers a nice blend of romance with YA issues and a healthy approach to sex (as in: no focus on virginity and “saving yourself”).

The Princess Bride – William Goldman
This book has been on my shelves forever. I know everyone seems to love this, or perhaps it is the movie? I found it difficult to get into. And while I did enjoy it in the end, I think its tone just might be a bit more of a “miss” than a “hit” for me.

The Misinterpretation of Tara Jupp – Eva Rice
Ah, Eva Rice. If we are going to talk about comfort reading. And the type of book that will tempt you into their world utterly and completely, so much so that you cannot shake the feeling of actually belonging there for days after you’ve finished the book… Another author I need to check out more from (in case there’s more than this and The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets) in preparation for maternity leave.

This is Where it Ends – Marieke Nijkamp
It is a strange thing to read a book by someone that grew up in the same village where you grew up, went to the same primary and high school, and who even took some classes in history at university during the same years you were there. I cannot claim to know Marieke Nijkamp and yet she’s been present in the same circles for many years of my life. And somehow.. that makes me feel more in awe at seeing what writing, and fiction, can accomplish. This is not out in Europe yet, but I was able to buy a copy through a local book store. And I am glad I sat down to read it. This is Where it Ends is the first book I finished in one go in a long time. And that is all I want to say really. Because it somehow feels unfair to write a review, because I might be biased? No, wait. There is one more thing. Marieke Nijkamp might be known to the blogosphere as one of the bloggers behind DiversifYA. And it was wonderful to see her incorporate such a diverse cast of characters in her books.

* * *

Aside from these books, I have been reading a ton of non-fiction. Books about gender and sexuality (for a tutorial I had to prepare and teach last minute in February and March) and books for my PhD thesis. Perhaps some day I will write some more about those. Because, uhum, this was supposed to be a general post about the last quarter, but instead I will cut it up and offer you an overview of the books I have read first, before moving on to an overview of other stuff later.

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 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).