Reading Snapshot: January 19th

Rattle His Bones

It’s only Tuesday, and I’m utterly exhausted. This is shaping up to be a full week, and so I’m having to fit plenty of downtime in around my plans. Which means I’m in need of comfort reads! Fortunately, one of the books I grabbed on my latest library run was Rattle His Bones by Carola Dunn, part of her Daisy Dalrymple mystery series that first charmed me on audio. I began this one this afternoon and am now halfway through it; it’s exactly what I needed! Not only is Daisy her usual self, but as the cover implies, the murder takes place in London’s Natural History Museum, giving Dunn the opportunity for all kinds of fun details. It is just what I needed, and as soon as I’m done writing this post I’ll be running back to it. I feel so grateful to be a bookworm, and have access to a library, because books are one of the best coping mechanisms I’ve ever come across.

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Another marvelous book that I’d highly recommend is The Old Wives’ Fairy Tale Book edited by Angela Carter, who includes stories from global cultures, instead of just the usual European suspects (although the majority of the book is still European based). I chose it while browsing my library’s shelves in search of a book that would fit with the ‘wild and wise women’ winter theme of a Ravelry group I’m part of. The cover is unprepossessing at best, which made it all the more excited to begin reading and discover beautiful woodcut illustrations (by Corinna Sargood) throughout. The stories included vary, but Carter made sure all of them are about women, and the collection is just a delight to read with chapter headings like “Good Girls and Where it Gets Them” and “Sillies.” Some of my favourites included “Kate Crackernuts,” which is a bit like “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” but with the genders reversed, “Vasilisa the Priest’s Daughter” which explores  how determined society is to find out someone’s gender,and “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon,” which I was pleasantly surprised to discover is similar to “Psyche and Cupid,” one of my favourite Greek myths, but with a more wintry setting and even a nod to fiber arts.  I shall definitely be exploring it more in future! The various Eskimo (as this 1990 book attributes them) stories were by far the most surprising, since they often seemed to involve women who not only took on culturally masculine attributes but completed the process by creating the appropriate ‘downstairs bits’ (I’m being coy due to search engines) using bone and sealskin. I loved this enough that I’m going to try to get a used copy for my own shelves, although hopefully one with a cover that features the woodcuttings instead of the bright primary colours of the edition that I read. It has also reminded me that I need to reread The Bloody Chamber sooner rather than later; I wasn’t terribly impressed by it when I read it back in 2008, but I’ve changed a lot since then, so I suspect I’ll love it now.

The audiobook I finished this morning also took me pleasantly by surprise: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. I’d somehow gathered from the various awards and praise I’d seen that she was a bleak author, and I don’t have a very high tolerance for bleakness, so I’ve only read her nonfiction book. But then I read this article and decided to give it a try. At six and a half hours (unabridged; I checked), this is a fairly short book, but it packs so much richness and life into the pages that I can imagine rereading it over and over and always finding something new. While there is definitely an elegiac tone to Robinson’s writing,  I found the sorrow to be tempered with a love for people and life and the little things that create our lives, so that I will definitely be reading the rest of her books sooner rather than later. Her tone reminds me a bit of Neil Gaiman; not cheerful but not cynical either, with a deep and abiding love for the power of words and stories on our lives. Except in Housekeeping, almost all of the important characters are girls and women. I never declare an author a favourite until I’ve read at least three of their books, but I’m pretty sure I’m about to fall head over heels in love with Robinson.

I do so love being bookish.

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Reading Snapshot: January 12th

Since I arrived home last week, I’m pleased to report that my bookworm tendencies are in full swing! In addition to dipping in and out of The Morville Hours (one of the joys of rereading), I’ve read two novels and just enjoyed a graphic short story collection this morning. Oh and two audiobooks. This is still not at the level of reading I used to do in Texas, but now that I live in independently, I seem to have less time on my hands. 😉 Hopefully the major re-entry sorting is done and I’ll have even more hours to spend with books in the upcoming months.

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I’ll tell you about the disappointing book first: Deadly Slipper by Michelle Wang, the first in a mystery series. I was browsing my library’s shelves when I came across this one, and I was extra excited because finding diverse genre fiction is even more of a challenge than literary fiction. I was also intrigued by its southern French setting and pleased to discover that both of the protagonists were in their forties. Wang brought the setting to life wonderfully; both the scenery and food are described in loving detail, but in a way that feels organic to the book. This is definitely her strongest writing point. The characters were so-so; I liked some of them but others made me roll my eyes and I occasionally was baffled by the strange motivations of the two primary protagonists; there isn’t a lot of personality depth in the book. But that would have been fine, because it was decent enough for a relaxing read and the setting was so rich, if the plot had held together. I mean, it’s a mystery; I’m perfectly happy to read novels with no real plot (why hello Virginia!) but they’re pretty essential to this genre. Unfortunately, the killer was embarrassingly obvious halfway through due to far too many clues, which made the following hundred and fifty pages of contorted red herrings an exercise in readerly crankiness. And suddenly it went from looking like a traditional puzzle mystery to something more gothic; I love both styles but the transition was clumsy. Ultimately, I won’t be reading her other books. However, if you are less particular than me about plot and in the mood for a light book that sweeps you away to the Dordoge, this might just work for you. There were certainly elements I found very enjoyable, and it’s a shame that my annoyance with the mystery itself ended up winning out over the charming bits. If she wrote a book set in the region that wasn’t a mystery, I would give it a try.

This morning, I woke up in a lot of pain, so after I’d brewed my pot of tea, I decided The Book of Ballads, a graphic short story anthology based on traditional ballads generously gifted to me by Debi, would be a pleasant start to the day. I adored the introduction by Terri Windling, and it’s made me want to go a hunt through the library stacks to learn more about folk ballads and the scholarly pursuit of them, and then I moved on to the stories themselves. While each story has a different author, Charles Vess provides all of the artwork, which does a lot of the heavy lifting; I enjoy his style (done in black and white) although I’ll note that he makes no attempt to break out of traditional white-centric patriarchal visions of beauty and ugliness (on one cringe-inducing page, he portrays the rich & unloved ‘brown girl’ in a setting reminiscent of Disney’s Aladdin). That observation made, I very much enjoyed seeing such a variety of approaches to the folk traditions & have a little list of new authors to look into. I’m pretty sure everything Terri Windling touches is gold, and I would love to be her when I grow up. She has a blog that is full of folk and bookish magic.

And now we come to the cream of the post: To Lie With Lions by Dorothy Dunnett. This is the sixth book in her Niccolo Rising series, which is set in the fifteenth century and follows one of the ‘ancestors’ (I think he’s three generations removed) of Francis Crawford, hero of her first series The Lymond Chronicles. I have read Lymond twice and both times ended up living and breathing with the characters involved; on my rereading of the last book I still stayed up late to finish it, just in case the ending had changed. However, I’ve found it a bit difficult to get into the Niccolo books; while I adore her setting as much as ever, I am frequently annoyed by how the characters all behave. Too often, their actions seem more plot-motivated than legitimately based on their personalities. I also found it difficult to forgive them for not being my favourite Lymond characters. And then I thought she was headed in an exciting new direction in the fourth book, and when that direction failed to materialise I took it hard. All of this is preface (and reflects my reading prejudices, not Dunnett’s superb writing!) for me to tell you that I finally fell head over heels in love with the series in this book. Oh my goodness, it’s so so marvelous, and I held my breath convinced that something would happen to make me angry again, but the ending was just superb, and I cannot wait to read the final two books. Luckily for me, I received them for Christmas! If you haven’t heard of Dorothy Dunnett, she writes beautifully detailed, articulate, clever historical fiction that explore the flawed hero trope on the most elaborate stages you can imagine. I would call her the Dorothy Sayers of historical fiction; if you love books that make you think and long to learn more but also catch your breath in sympathy with a beloved character, you should give her a try. I warn you that she is rarely kind to her characters, and unfortunately suffers from a case of Orientalism, but I love her anyway and know that she has many other fans.

As I debated which book to read next, I realised I was really in the mood for a travelogue. So I popped over to my library’s website and added two of the National Geographic Directions line to my ereader. I’ve begun with Francine Prose’s Sicilian Odyssey and will report back next week. But I realised it’s been so long since I’ve read a travelogue that I don’t have many go-tos anymore. Care to share any favourites of the travel genre? Especially ones that are feminist, post-colonialist, etc. I think I sort of gave up because I tried several books in a row that followed the ‘white US/UK/French/other colonial power author arrives, objectifies locals in picturesque way, has a couple adventures, and ends the book with condescending lessons learned’ style that just annoys me.

Reading Snapshot: November 20th

Oh my goodness, I spent most of today thinking it was Wednesday! In an attempt to get back into regular book discussions, but without a lot of pressure, I’ll be aiming to do at least one reading snapshot a week. We’ll see how that goes. 😉 Usually I imagine this as a midweek type of post, but clearly this one is going up on Friday.

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I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump again, and I realised part of the problem is that the new medication I’m on has brought back all of my vivid dreams and, more often, vivid nightmares. To try to avoid these, I’ve been afraid to read anything but comfort books in the evening, and sadly almost all of my comfort authors are white women from the US & UK, even after years of reading a fairly balanced ratio of POC/white writers. The cause of that is a topic for another time, as it’s too big to squish into this post, but today I realised there was a blindingly obvious solution: instead of reading just one novel at a time, read one during the day and one during the evening.

Accordingly, I’m in the middle of two novels! My bedtime book is The Bones of Bard Plain by Patricia McKillip, who has been a favourite author since I discovered her back in 2012. I’ve loved every single book of hers that I’ve read, and this one is proving no exception. I’m especially intrigued by its split-time story; while it’s set in a ‘typical’ fantasy world of royalty and magic and vaguely European trappings, one of the storylines involves a princess who drives a steam-powered car and works as an archaelogist. I’m really pleased by this, because when I read her short story collection Wonders of the Invisible World and then a bit later the novel Solstice Wood, I discovered how wonderful McKillip is at bringing a fantasy element to a more contemporary, everyday-type world. Most of her novels tend towards high fantasy or fairy tale retellings, which I love for their own sakes, but I’ve been itching to read more of her blended fantasy books. I can’t wait to continue this one, and I had to force myself to close it at my usual bedtime last night.

Then this morning I began A Passing Season by Azucena Grajo Uranza, which I found while randomly browsing my library shelves. Uranza is Filipina, and this is a historical novel set in fin de siecle Manila, when the Philippines were a Spanish colony on the cusp of two wars. This is a more old-school type of historical novel, in which Uranza does plenty of telling as well as showing, but since I’m a fan of authors like Victor Hugo, this doesn’t really phase me. She’s doing a wonderful job so far of bringing her setting to life, and she’s created a broad cast of characters that I’m sure will have wildly varying fates. I’m very pleased to have found this, as it has just the type of tone I so enjoy in nineteenth century narrators but carries postcolonial sensibilities.

Finally, I almost always have an audiobook going these days (and would certainly appreciate more recommendations, since I’ve run through most of my favourite authors and thus flail around whenever I finish one and want to begin another). Right now I’m in the middle of The Maid and The Queen, a biography of Joan of Arc and Yolande of Aragon, the queen of the title, as well as a general history of France during that time. It’s by Nancy Goldstone, and this is the third of her medieval (royal) women-centric biographies I’ve read and enjoyed, so I had high expectations that are certainly met so far (I’m about halfway in). I’m quite interested in medieval history in general, but not the type that focuses on how nasty, brutish, and short lives were then; Goldstone does a good job of evoking the times without a post-Enlightenment prejudice. And of course, I’m always especially interested in women throughout history, so Goldstone’s frank feminism (for instance, observing that Yolande’s current obscurity is likely due to her gender) and focus on ‘the ladies’ makes for a relaxing, informative read. I’d say this is actually my favourite of the three I’ve read so far, and I was delighted to encounter the “Melusine” story in the narrative! Bookish coincidences are the best kind.

Well, I promised myself I could write a post in half an hour, and it is now four o clock, so I’m off to the woods. Early sunsets require timely walks, and although I miss the ease of summer’s long days, I wouldn’t trade them for the crispiness of autumn or the long, cosy November evenings. As I’ve been in a bit of a reading drought, I thought I’d close this with a request for some general recommendations: what are your very favourite, kindred spirit, life-enhancing books? Any genre, any author, I’m just in need of a bit of fresh inspiration these days!

On Reading While Growing Up

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At twenty-nine, I seem to have passed a threshold, and suddenly find myself regularly reading about grown-up protagonists who are in fact younger than me. This is disconcerting; as a life long bookworm, many of my role models are fictional and books, both novels and nonfiction, have helped shape my very character. What to do when all of these potential role models are suddenly younger than yourself? After all, every year I get older, while the books around me stay static.

I remember turning twenty-two, realising I was now older than both Emma and Lizzie, who I met for the first time when I was thirteen, and feeling such despair. They’d managed to sort their lives out by now, whereas I seemed to be getting older and feeling more muddled than ever. Fortunately, these days I have a more relaxed view, having let go of my teenage self’s plans for my twenties, and when I turned twenty-eight and became officially older than all of Jane Austen’s heroines, I took it in stride. And yet, lately I’ve been noticing, so many of the heroes and heroines of fiction, looking to find themselves, seem to have their crises finished and endings achieved before their thirtieth birthday. I’m not sure how I feel about this; when I was fifteen, sure, thirty sounded old. At the time, I imagined I’d have everything essentially sorted by then, and simply be working to improve it; to switch to metaphor, I was sure I’d have all of the clay assembled and basic shape roughed out and spend my thirties adding the fine details and embellishments to the vase of my life. This is certainly not the case, and I suspect when I find myself on the threshold of my forties and fifties and sixties, I will still not be quite formed, not yet ready to place in the kiln.

Of course, books have to end somewhere, and the traditional story arc is so terribly satisfying for a reason. But where are the stories of the thirty-something year olds? We’re too young for midlife crises but too old for young adult ‘leaving the nest’ type plots. Am I just not reading the correct books? I can already find myself undergoing a bit of a transformation, reminding myself that I can certainly find role models who are younger than me. And yet…I’ve always found it more natural to have role models older than myself. I’m sure such books exist; I’ll just have to start drawing up lists. I seem to mention Bujold in every post lately, but I will just say that one of the aspects of the Vorkosigan Saga I love best is that it covers 12+ years in the main characters’ lives and really shows them growing from eighteen-year-olds to forty-year-olds. The Miles from the early books is not like the Miles from the later books, and the transformation feels utterly organic, and deeply comforting, since this is a transformation we all undergo. All of my life, books have lead the way, and I don’t want to lose that now.

Has anyone else noticed this? Have any thoughts you care to share? Or books to recommend of course! Luckily for me, Niccolo, the protagonist of Dorothy Dunnett’s second historical series, just turned thirty in The Unicorn Hunt, which means I have at least three books to watch someone older than myself try to navigate life. Although luckily, mine has far fewer challenges, and my friends and family support me instead of secretly worrying I’m evil. Poor Nicholas.

Serial Reading Habits

For many years, if I fell in love with a book that was the first of a series, unless it was a Lord of the Rings type pseudo-series, I would continue the series at a leisurely pace. One, perhaps two a year, even if I adored them, because I wanted to make the pleasure last for as long as possible. After all, what if I never found another series I wanted to read again? And then I was all out of new books to read? For the rest of my life?

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Lately, though, I’ve become a gobbler. I blame Lois McMaster Bujold; I came across her via her Sharing Knife quartet, which I read back-to-back (they’re not quite a LOTR pseudo-series but do each pick up where the other leaves off). Then I proceeded to read her four other fantasy books, all within a month or two. And finally I moved on to her gigantic science fiction series named The Vorkosigan Saga (and much much more loveable than that name implies, at least to my sci-fi skeptical self); even though I made a conscious attempt to draw them out I managed to finish sixteen or so books well before my first ‘anniversary’ of Bujold discovery. And I loved it.

Of course, Bujold doesn’t share all of the blame. My library’s excellent electronic branch, promising me both Nook-compatible books and audiobooks at any time of the day, with a simple click, has made it easier than ever to give in to my cravings. No longer must I wait until my next library visit; as long as no other patron has the book checked out, I can be reading the next one minutes after finishing an earlier book. It turns out my will power is weak in the face of such instant gratification.

To be honest, though, I’m happy in my newfound guzzling approach. I know instantly where I am in the story and easily remember details about the world and character development, picking up on any little tidbits an author might throw out. It also brings me back to my childhood bookworm self, who stayed up the night after Christmas one year to read the entire Narnia series before dawn. There is such pleasure in beginning a book when you’re simply in a fever of impatience to find out what might happen next in a character’s life, or in getting to spend another three hundred pages or more in a beloved fictional world. When I read a series more quickly, I’m reading for the sheer love of story, without any external considerations. This shift in my reading habits has occurred at the same time that I’ve incorporated more rereading into my life, which I’m sure has calmed my subconscious fears of somehow running out of magical books that speak to my soul.

It seems silly to write this post without discussing at least one of the specific series that’s entranced me! Let me tell you about Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, which are set in an alternative England-centered world during the Napoleonic wars, ones in which there are dragons. As the series progresses, we visit various other countries, and Novik expands how the existence of dragons would have changed the face of colonialism, since a fighting dragon makes the musket quite a puny weapon. The world building is delicious, and sure to satisfy any feminist, post-colonialist reader, but in a way that also feels authentic to that period. But the real reason I keep reading them is that I’ve fallen utterly in love with Temeraire, a dragon who loves to read and wear fine jewels and protect his friends, and his captain Will Laurence, whose entire world view changes when he finds himself thrust from the Navy to the (Dragon) Air Corps and who struggles to match his strong internal sense of honour and patriotism with the shades of grey contained in a newly widened world. I read the first one, His Majesty’s Dragon, six weeks ago and am now impatiently waiting for the sixth one to become available.

Then there’s Seanan Maguire’s October Daye series, which are a noir crime and urban fantasy mash up that feels like what would happen if Veronica Mars had grown up as a half-Fae outsider in both the Faerie and human worlds of San Francisco and had ended up as a Faery knight/human private investigator who keeps being thrown into terrifying situations in which she must fight against all of the odds to save her known world. The books hover right on the edge of being too gritty for me, but Toby’s (don’t you dare call her October) sense of honour and grudging affection for the Faeries who just won’t leave her alone have convinced me to read the first five books since August. It’s one of those series that just gets better and better; Toby changes so much over the course of the books but in an utterly organic and true way. The Fae world is complex and fascinating, and I love spending more time there, even if I know I’ll cry at least once during each book. Maguire always seems to play fair, though, in my opinion and she throws in plenty of amusing asides and a couple sexy men to the bargain; I can’t wait to read the next in the series. They begin with Rosemary and Rue, in case you’re interested as well. On an amusing side note, I actually thought Maguire was a man until just last week, when Debi casually referred to her as a ‘she,’ and I scurried off to Google. I had been admiring how wonderfully ‘he’ wrote female characters and the feminism at the bedrock of ‘his’ writing, only to suddenly have all of that verisimilitude make much more sense.

Well, my soup has simmered long enough to fill the entire apartment with its flavours, and my stomach is informing me that I can write about more series another day.

I’m curious; do you ‘save’ series for later, the way that I have for years, or plunge happily in and read them all fairly quickly? And do you have any particular favourites that you think I should begin devouring?

Bookish Video: Library Sale Treasures

My chronic illnesses have  precluded me from much typing, or indeed thinking, this past week or so, hence my silence. However, I’ve been pondering using videos as well as written posts, so I thought I’d begin now with a bookish one!

150918_untitled_11Yesterday I was lucky enough to go to a marvelous library used book sale (for those who don’t know, libraries here in the US accept donations of books year-round, and once a year have a big sale of both those donated books and any books that will no longer be in circulation, run by volunteers) with Debi and Rich. We had great fun, and I ended up bringing home thirty-one books! They make satisfying stacks, as you can see in the photo.

I talk about them a bit more in the video below:

And here are two close ups of each stack, so that if any of the books caught your attention in the video, you can get the title and author to investigate further. I’ve kept them as large files, so you can click to enlarge. My apologies for not being able to type out a list for you; if for some reason you can’t view the photo, just leave a comment and I’ll reply with the specifics.

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Let me know if you’d enjoy watching videos in which I talk more in-depth (but still spoiler free or including warnings) about books I’ve been reading lately; it’s much easier for me to simply talk to my computer than type, so I’d be able to discuss more books using this format. Next week I plan to record a knitting-focused video, but the week after that I’ll be back to bookish content. I can either mainly discuss library books, like I used to do, or try out more ‘review style’ videos, depending on what interests you more.

The Tenth Annual R(est) I(n) P(eace) Reading Challenge

Back when blogging about books was a new idea, Carl created two marvelous challenges, that have become part of the internal calendar of many readers, including myself. The fall one is named the R.I.P. Challenge and is devoted to reading darker books, as you might have gathered.

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Participants spend September and October reading books (or now watching television or movies…essentially any story medium!) that fall into the mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, gothic, horror, or supernatural genres. Since I happen to love these types of books anyway, I always look forward to joining in the fun.

This year, I’m a bit tardy in signing up, but I have in fact already read the four books required for the Peril the First challenge. What can I say? I got carried away in my enthusiasm! Here they are:

I have no plans to stop at just these four however! The Estella Society (this year’s hosts) is running a read along of Lauren Owen’s The Quick, so I began that last night.  I’ve now realised I’ve begun a week early, but this way I’ll have it finished and can read others participants’ thoughts without worrying about spoilers.

I also thought it’d be interesting to do a mini-theme within the larger challenge and have gathered together four books about Salem; three about the eighteenth century witch trials (two nonfiction, one novel) and one set in contemporary Salem, written by a current resident, and featuring an unreliable narrator with a gift for seeing the future.

I might also throw in a Nathaniel Hawthorne reread for good measure.

I do have hazy thoughts about more books I’ll be reading over the next two months, but as they’re not yet specific, and as my hands are sore today, this will do as a beginning. Tell me: what are you favourite books that would apply to this challenge? I always love adding to my reading wishlist. Knowing how many marvelous new books and authors are out there, waiting patiently for me to stumble across them, gives me a little thrill of pleasure.