Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 in review

I read 151 fiction books last year, plus 17 non-fiction. This year as my dissertation began, I started keeping track only of books read for fun, in one single list: fun nonfiction joined fiction, and the hundreds (I really think it's up in the hundreds by now) of dissertation-related books that I read (or skimmed) no longer count. I'm not disappointed that my reading total for this year has gone down, especially considering all my extra dissertation reading.

This year, I read 116 books for fun. I don't think I'll finish another one by tonight, although who knows? Part of the reason my total is lower is also because I was willing to branch out more. My fantasy and sci-fi totals are higher than ever in adulthood, and probably approaching those of my childhood and adolescence. This year, my reading was less carefully curated and more enthusiastically open. I tried books on bloggers' recommendations, according to bestseller lists and awards, and on whims. Some of these were successful. Some weren't. I abandoned an all-time high of 38 books this year, and oddly, I'm really proud of that. I don't regret the wasted hours. In some cases, I've had great conversations about why I abandoned such-and-such book. I'm proving myself to be a little more open-minded, a little more willing to try things I'm not sure about. And I'm living up to my reading philosophy: life's too short and there are too many good books to spend time reading something you're not really enjoying.

I'm still considering which of this year's reads will make a list of favorites (top ten? top eleven or twelve? top however many warrant the attention?). That post is coming. In the meantime, though, I want to revisit the bookish goals I set for myself at the beginning of the year.

  1. Finish Les Miserables. Nope. I didn't touch it all year, so my bookmark still stands at 478 pages out of 1463. I intend to come to it eventually, and I will definitely need to restart. Someday it will get off my nightstand where it waits!
  2. Finish Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. After my husband moved out to St. Louis to start his Ph.D program, I began reading a chapter or two before bed each night. For a while, I adored it. But as the semester picked up and I began having late nights of rehearsals or other obligations, I started realizing that the book is just too long. Whole twenty- or thirty-page chapters have only a single event in them, one that could easily have been relayed to us in a single paragraph or even sentence. The book was long, I was losing track of characters, and I was getting bored. So I finally gave myself permission to give it up. Oddly, though it's an abandoned book, I kept it - my husband thinks the introductory section about the magicians' society of "magicians" who only study magic without ever doing magic will be a useful pedagogy tool as he teaches theology.
  3. Read the long form of Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love. Well, I reread the short form, does that count? The mistake I made with this book was putting it not on my to-read shelf for fun books, but among the tangential-to-the-dissertation nonfiction, a shelf which largely got ignored all semester.
  4. Read Shirley or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for my winter break Bronte. This year it's Shirley, and I'm approaching 100 pages in. Not my favorite Bronte novel so far - it's not psychological enough. There's a large cast of characters (I'm having some trouble keeping track of all the names) and the narration isn't internal to any one of them for long enough. I don't feel connected to anybody yet. I am eager to see how the economic controversies work out, though. Oh, and also, I bought a copy of Tenant for next winter, so my collection of Bronte novels is complete.
  5. Begin reading my complete Sherlock Holmes for October. Check! I read A Study in Scarlet in a single sitting a few days before Halloween. It was great - very atmospheric. Also weird. I agree with everyone who told me that the digression about the Mormons is both offensive and unnecessary.
  6. Read another novel by Shusaku Endo. I did! This year I went back to the beginning and read an omnibus of two of his early novellas, White Man and Yellow Man. They were beautifully-written and packed an emotional punch, but I didn't love them in the way I've loved his longer and more developed novels.
  7. Read the Moomin series and The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh in conversation with each other. I read (adored) all the Moomin books I had, and the much more obscure The Moomins and the Great Flood is, I think, on its way to me as a Christmas present from my sister. I didn't get to Winnie the Pooh, in part because that hardcover book is too large to carry around easily. But I still think "Scandanavian Winnie the Pooh" is a good way to describe Jansson's wonderful characters.
  8. Get my TBR pile down from two and a half shelves to one. Hmm. No idea. Probably not. When Husband moved away, we moved out of the office to allow space for a roommate, which also meant consolidating my books (plus all the new dissertation books from the library needed a place to live). So my TBR pile is now literally a stack of piles on the two bottom shelves of my dissertation bookcase. I don't think I read very many of them this year. Then again, I haven't bought many new books this year either, so that's a win.
  9. Get my public library to-read list down from over a hundred to 75. Very briefly, for the last few weeks, it was down in the 80s! Now it's back up to 90. An overabundance of good books - it's a nice problem to have.
  10. Write my book. Well, this didn't happen either. I'm not unable to write; I wrote a 55-page dissertation chapter this semester. I'm just currently unable to write fiction, which depresses me, so I avoid thinking about it. The children's book I mean to write is one I've been planning to write since I was a very small child myself, and I'm terrified of getting it wrong. Thus I never start. Perhaps I ought to find a source for short fiction writing exercises to begin to stretch this muscle again.

Setting these goals was an experiment, and, it seems, one that wasn't very successful. Only two out of ten goals were completely accomplished, with another three partly done. I do best with goals regarding individual books tied to specific times of year. October means a mystery, so that reliably happens; winter break means a Bronte; the first snowfall of winter means Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child. But then, those aren't really goals so much as they are plans. I like reading plans. They fit my highly ritualized personality and routine lifestyle.

Was I unrealistic with this first attempt at reading goals? What sort of goals are you most successful with? How do you make sure to chip away at them throughout the year?

Monday, December 28, 2015

Winter break

I've been away from this blog for a while now. This semester got especially busy. November in particular was full of traveling to research and to sing. My free reading even fell off this fall, which doesn't normally happen. But once the semester ended - I got my students' work turned in to my boss professor and passed another voice jury - things settled into a really wonderful holiday. My husband came home from his own semester (I may have neglected to mention on this blog that he's now attending school in another state to begin his own PhD program). I've baked a lot and held both Thanksgiving and Christmas tea parties. I've sung three rounds of Lessons and Carols, plus an Evensong and a Christmas Eve choral prelude. Husband and I have been watching all 8 seasons of The Big Bang Theory, and we've now begun a Star Wars rewatch so we can go see the new movie. I've gotten back to reading in earnest (including on my new Kindle, Christmas gift from my mother after my old one died). I'm currently in the middle of Nancy Mitford's Christmas Pudding, Lois McMaster Bujold's Curse of Chalion, Sage Blackwood's Jinx, and Charlotte Bronte's Shirley. And perhaps most excitingly, I completed and submitted my first dissertation chapter draft. It's been a really stellar winter break, and with two more weeks to go, I look forward to much more reading (both fiction and dissertation books), tea and pastries, and cuddling with my husband over sci-fi. If only the weather would cooperate and be properly wintery!

This is my new Kindle. I've named it Bodley, after the guy responsible for Oxford's Bodleian Library. Also, showcasing my new red hair, Christmas present to myself!

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Martian

When Andy Weir's The Martian came to my attention, it was via fans of sci-fi books rather than because of the upcoming film...but because of the upcoming film, it took a tremendously long time on my library's hold list before my Kindle copy came in. Based on reviews, I thought it would be a cheerful MacGyver in space - and that's exactly what it was! It was an even better book to take to the gym than I'd hoped, and about three-quarters of the way through, I was so hooked that I took my Kindle to school with me one day as my regular free-reading book.

Stranded on Mars when his teammates are forced to leave him behind for dead, Mark Watney is a cheerful MacGyver in space, with believable problems to solve and remarkably easy-to-understand solutions. This book excels at explaining science for the masses. I never felt lost and I never felt patronized. Most of the book functions as Mark's diary, and his refusal to give up and creativity in finding clever new ways not to let Mars (or his own occasional stupidity) kill him are fantastically inspiring. However, where the informal voice works well for the diary entries, Weir's own inexperience as a novelist shines through in the other sections. Narratives of the NASA folks working 'round-the-clock to help Watney are stilted, their dialogue often comically awkward, and occasional brief histories of the making of certain parts in alternatim with Mark's diary entries are jarring in their shift from first- to third-person and their jump from optimistic informality to just plain bad writing.

Problems aside, I see why The Martian has become such a phenomenon, and I look forward to encouraging Husband to read it, and perhaps we'll even go see the movie together.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Natural History of Dragons

Oh, Marie Brennan's book was so, so close to making my list of the best of the year. Victorian gentlewoman goes off adventuring for scientific study of dragons? Fabulous. Made even better by its form as a memoir, written by Isabella in her old age, so she can reflect back on her earlier actions (often with a shake of the head and a rueful, "the tender age of nineteen..."). The narrative voice is what totally makes this novel; I couldn't put it down. And that glorious cover!

But. Oh, how I wish there weren't a but! Though nominally a fantasy world, with different names for countries and religions, it's basically Victorian England, which means it's basically the British Empire, which means imperialism. And while I give books of their time a pass for being of their time, a contemporary author writing for modern readers ought to acknowledge problematic aspects like colonialism rather than glorifying imperialist views of those poor ugly peasants who don't even make good servants.

I'm definitely going to read the next two in the series, and hopefully they get a bit better. Hopefully Isabella learns a bit about privilege and oppression, but I don't hold out much hope, because if she were going to, the older-self narrator would have already absorbed these important lessons.

So close!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Tales from Moominvalley

I don't normally like short stories, but I loved this collection because it fit so perfectly into the entire collection of stories about the Moomins and their friends. Many of these tales gave us a closer look at some of the minor characters - the Fillyjonk, a Hemulen, the woodies, the Hattifatteners - but we were also introduced to some new ones, and I was delighted when Sniff made a reappearance (after his absence from the last couple of books, I'd been afraid he was gone for good). The focus on understanding and accommodating introversion remains, and care for others is demonstrated to be equally as important as self-care. Moomin stories always seem to navigate the tension between the two in a way that I find complex, nuanced, and truly beautiful.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Did not finish: A College of Magics

After struggling through Lev Grossman's The Magicians, I've pretty much had it with magical boarding school tales where the focus isn't actually on the mechanics of the school and its magic system, and where apathy substitutes for character development. I'm not really interested in a bunch of bored teenagers not doing their homework. Caroline Stevermer's A College of Magics isn't quite this bad, but Greenlaw College frustrated me in many of the same ways as Grossman's Brakebills College, and I'm not really willing to push through another three hundred pages (especially because the book moves away from the magic school) when all I wanted was Hogwarts for adults.

Why can't anybody properly write a Hogwarts for adults? Why does "adulthood" have to mean "ennui"?

Monday, August 17, 2015

High Rising

Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire series is supposed to be fantastically light-hearted, solidly middlebrow English domestic fiction, and it's spoken of very highly by a number of book bloggers who, like me, really enjoy this sort of thing. Virago has even been reprinting the series a book or two at a time (with really gorgeous covers). With all this to recommend it, I didn't hesitate when I was secondhand book-shopping in Boston three summers ago. I found a beautiful hardcover version of High Rising, the first in the series, which has turned out to be part of a set of the first Borzoi editions of 1951. (Mine is like the one on the right; I was looking around to see if there was a copy of the matching Wild Strawberries to be had.) It was so pretty, in fact, and I was so sure I'd love it, that I was willing to spend rather more than I usually am for a secondhand book.

Alas! I've been having some bad luck this summer with books I was certain to like. High Rising isn't awful, but it's not the sort of book I would have made sure to purchase after the first read. Enterprising career women, gossiping servants, romances that end exactly as they's all pretty standard fare, but here these comfortable tropes are matched by some absolutely horrible classism, which I can't in this case simply excuse as an accurate reflection of its time, because we readers are asked to align ourselves with it in a most uncomfortable fashion. I rather enjoyed Laura Morland's son Tony, a schoolboy with a singular obsession with trains and an inability to talk about anything else, but I couldn't get behind the vilification of the secretary Miss Grey ("the Incubus"). I like my frothy fiction to be free of oppression and prejudice, wherever possible, so this one just didn't cut it.

Now what to do with the book, which, as a physical object, is indeed very pleasing?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

An artsy middlebrow novel

Like The Weird Sisters, which I read over Holy Week two years ago, Meg Howrey's The Cranes Dance felt like it was trying too hard to be artsy and literary. I'm glad it did, I suppose, because if it didn't I wouldn't like it: it'd just be a middlebrow novel about family relationships without even any magic to make things interesting. A beach read (although I say that loosely because I don't think I've ever actually brought a book to the beach). On the other hand, I can sense The Cranes Dance trying so hard. It's not a perfect novel, but like The Weird Sisters, I couldn't put it down, and I genuinely enjoyed it, especially the Shakespeare bits. So it does rank a bold entry in my list of books for the year, and might make it onto my favorites list.

In The Cranes Dance, Kate Crane struggles to finish out a season of dance with a prominent New York City ballet company after her sister Gwen - younger, but more talented, and of higher position in the company - has a psychotic break and returns home. While dealing with a breakup, a neck injury and subsequent drug abuse, and a preteen dancer who idolizes her, Kate tries to understand her codependent relationship with Gwen as she is assigned Gwen's role of Titania, the lead in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

What I liked most about the novel was Kate's voice, which was often extraordinarily funny even as she muses on the tragedy and suffering of life. Her acerbic and often litotic (is that a word? using the literary technique of litotes, deliberate and ironic understatement) descriptions of ballet culture, daily routine, and show plots felt just like we academics griping about the nagging details of our own chosen profession. So while I know very little about ballet - I was a baby doll in a Nutcracker when I was very small, but that was it - Kate's voice still felt very familiar in her summaries and complaints.

Sunday, August 9, 2015


A sociologist studying the origin of fads. A scientist who studies chaos theory, whose funding for his macaque research has fallen through. A trendy but completely incompetent mail clerk who stirs up chaos, especially in her anti-smoking activism. Add in the complete works of Robert Browning, a joint experiment with really stupid sheep, and some now hopelessly dated discussion of 1990s coffeeshops, plus the fascinating histories of a number of historical fads. Connie Willis's Bellwether was tremendous fun, an expose of the daily frustrations of academic research. (Though it would have helped my reading experience if I'd known what a bellwether was when I started out.)

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Harry, A History

Melissa Anelli, webmistress of Harry Potter fan site the Leaky Cauldron, wrote a book about the Harry Potter phenomenon and fandom. Part memoir, part social history, I couldn't not read it once I heard about it, and picked it up from the library before the summer was done so that I could pass it along to husband when I finished and before he moves away for his PhD.

Harry, A History is not a perfect book, and a lot of that has to do with its pacing. She rockets back and forth between memoir and social history, and the two are so different in tone that I don't imagine many readers love both equally. For me, the memoir portions didn't interest me much. On the plus side, reading about someone else's first read of one of the new HP books brought back such fond memories of my own first times. On the other hand, I was made deeply uncomfortable by Anelli's gloating stories of lying to her boss in order to skip work for her Harry Potter hobby. The social history sections were really informative and also spanned a huge range of topics: the ins and outs of the publishing industry, the importance of the internet in creating the huge fandom, legal battles, legal battles, spoilers, Christian fundamentalists' attempts to ban the books, and even wizard rock. Not everyone would be as into the facts and figures, but I loved the data and the way that Anelli used it to tell this story about a book series that impacted so many lives. Like so many others, I literally grew up with the Harry Potter books - the last one came out just after my high school graduation, and I read it while in the throes of worries about moving away to college and starting my adult life.

So I'm left yet again lamenting the fact that there are no more Harry Potter books to be had. And interestingly, I'm also sad about the fact that the Harry Potter books were the only novels I ever looked forward to with so much eagerness and burning desire to uncover their secrets. I don't read a lot of contemporary fiction, and I don't ever get to count down the days until a book is released anymore. I suppose I did so with the third season of Sherlock (but then, I was ultimately disappointed). I miss Harry Potter, I miss the first experience of reading each book, but I also miss that anticipation for a book, any book.

At least I can always go back and re-read this beloved series!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Clockwork Heart

I nearly gave up on Dru Pagliassotti's Clockwork Heart just a few pages in, because it dumped you straight into a foreign sci-fi world with no guidance as to the vocabulary terms or place names, but then I remembered that Anne Bishop's Black Jewels Trilogy did the same thing, and that there, I adored the process of figuring everything out. So I decided to give Clockwork Heart the standard "ten percent or fifty pages" before abandonment, and by thirty pages or so I was hooked. This novel is full of steampunk goodness, and it reminded me very much of the classic sci-fi film Metropolis (which I studied in one of my musicology classes - how great is my field?). Clockwork machinery (the "Great Engine") runs the city of Ondinium, and any problem with this manual computer represents a huge threat to the well-being of all of the people. The book gives us a lighter-than-air mineral ("ondium"), and fabulous metal wings, with their construction and use vividly described for us over the course of the book. These wings are worn by icarii, the messengers of Ondinium who stand outside the rigid class system and are able to traverse the entire city and interact with all castes. At that thirty page mark, I was figuring out how it all worked, and I was so excited to continue learning more about Taya's job as an icarus.

Unfortunately, the book didn't live up to its strong beginning for me, because it devolved into a pair of terrorist plots (one of which I figured out several hundred pages early, and the other of which seemed like a pointless add-on after the main conflict was resolved but the book still had eighty pages left to go) and a love triangle between the charming blonde brother and the acerbic dark brother (The Vampire Diaries, anyone?). Since the caste system and the icarus's role in it were by far the most interesting parts of the book for me, I was actually disappointed when the book moved beyond world-building into plot.

Still, it was an impressive debut novel and it made me realize that as much as I like the steampunk aesthetic, I really haven't read much in the genre! Perhaps I should remedy that - what are the best or most important steampunk books?

Friday, July 24, 2015

Shadows on the Moon

Zoe Marriott's Shadows on the Moon isn't just Cinderella set in Japan, but Cinderella as you've never seen her before. I could say the same thing about Malinda Lo's Ash, and actually, they end in a similar fashion (though Ash's ending is more subversive). It's not the ending, though, that sets Marriott's retelling apart; it's Cinderella's agency.

This Cinderella saw her father and her cousin murdered in front of her. This Cinderella doesn't have a wicked stepmother and a neglectful father, but a mother and a stepfather who are both viciously abusive in very different ways. This Cinderella cuts herself as a means of relieving her emotional pain. This Cinderella doesn't need a fairy godmother because she has magic of her own. This Cinderella takes on more different identities than just "dutiful daughter" and "humiliated servant". Most importantly, this one doesn't attend the ball to win the prince's heart because she needs to be rescued from her family. Suzume/Rinn/Yue has already rescued herself, and become one of the most sought-after courtesans in the city. Her motivations for attending - and enacting a careful plan to seduce the prince - are much darker.

And did I mention the trans woman who becomes like family to Suzume, and is one of the most important secondary characters - and who has an identity beyond just being trans? Or the interracial romance that didn't include a white person? This book had fantastic diversity.

So it's going on my list as a reasonably good fairy-tale retelling (and in the end, I did like it quite a lot more than Ash).

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Greenglass House

It begins in the grand old mystery vein. An isolated inn at the top of a mountain, difficult to reach, and not scheduled to have any visitors this Christmas vacation. And yet, unexpectedly, guest after guest arrives: Mr. Vinge, Clem, Georgie, Mrs. Hereward, Dr. Gowervine. They all hold secrets, and each of them is here for something to do with the inn itself, the gorgeous old Greenglass House. And to solve it, the innkeepers' son Milo and his new friend Meddy decide to play a thinly-veiled, real-life version of Dungeons and Dragons. Maybe by taking on the character of a blackjack (rogue), Milo can start solving the mysteries and thefts. And more importantly, maybe by becoming Negret - only for a little while, and only for the game - Milo can work through some of his anxieties and guilt over his feeling of difference. An adopted Chinese boy who looks visibly different than his parents, Milo finds a way in the midst of all the shenanigans at Christmas to realize that wondering about his birth family isn't a betrayal of his family.

I absolutely loved Kate Milford's Greenglass House. The mysteries were engrossing - I didn't figure out any of the secrets in advance - but more importantly, this book has so much heart. I read it at the gym on my Kindle, and for those three days, I did much longer workouts than usual! I highly recommend it, especially in winter when all the evocative imagery of ice and snow, hot chocolate and cakes, candles and Christmas tree lights really resonates.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The City in the Lake

Hmm, another book that somehow, for me, couldn't live up to the hype. Rachel Neumeier's The City in the Lake was supposed to be beautiful and lyrical with fantastic world-building, but I just found it super weird and somewhat estranging. I felt distanced from the characters, and when I tried to give a short summary of the book to my husband, all I managed was a very confused jumble of vague descriptions. There's a plot, I'm sure of it. I did quite like the depictions of the deep forest; it reminded me of Tolkien's Mirkwood Forest and the Dead Marshes both (and reminds me how much I want to have a LOTR film marathon).

Monday, July 20, 2015

High expectations for The Thief

Perhaps this was a case of over-high expectations. Many of the book bloggers I follow have raved about Megan Whalen Turner's Queen's Thief series - Ana spoke of subtlety, romance, and political intrigue; Jenny wrote of subtext, character development, and plot twists; and Maureen has countless posts reinforcing her love for these books. It can be a very good thing to go into a book with high anticipations - there's a different sort of satisfaction when you expect to love it versus being surprised by it. But when a book falls short, it can be extremely disappointing.

All this is a lead-up to my saying, regretfully, that I didn't really like The Thief. I read it in a single evening, but would have been even quicker if I didn't constantly have to re-read sentences or even whole paragraphs. I'm not sure what it is about her writing style, but it didn't seem very clear to me (nor was it poetic, which in cases like Margo Lanagan or Franny Billingsley forgives any initial unclarity). In this case, I either couldn't figure out what was going on or just didn't absorb it at all and had to go back as if I'd never read the passage. The twist wasn't that spectacular - I actually thought Jennifer A. Nielsen's The False Prince did it better - and while the thievery in the temple was quite an interesting puzzle, I don't tend to be interested in a party adventuring through the wilderness, which encompassed nearly half the book. I did quite enjoy the mythological tales, though.

Normally, with such a "meh" reaction, I wouldn't bother reading any more. Too many books in the world to waste time on ones I don't love! But with so many rave reviews, I think I'm willing to give this series another go. I'll try one more book, The Queen of Attolia, and hope that in the next one, Whalen Turner really finds her footing.

If you've read The Queen's Thief series and loved it, what have I missed? Is the first book just not the greatest? How should I manage my expectations as I head into the next one?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Among Others, and habits of SF/F reading

I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy as if it were the air I breathed. It all came from my dad, of course, who not only read them, but played them, getting me into role-playing and tabletop gaming too. Of course, it helped that the epic, fantastically lush Lord of the Rings movies came out in my impressionable junior high school years. My dad and his friends insisted that I couldn't see them until I read them, so I struggled through (especially the second part of The Two Towers, which is oddly now one of my favorite sections). LOTR wasn't quite my normal diet of SF/F. I didn't read many of the classics, the greats, the hard science; I tended instead to read much more recent fare. R. A. Salvatore's Drizzt books, and others from the Forgotten Realms universe. Ender's Game and sequels. His Dark Materials. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Rhiannon Lassiter's Hex trilogy. I also tended to re-read, incessantly. I had a full personal bookshelf, stacked two rows deep, and by the time I hit junior high school, wasn't frequenting the library much. (The first time I tried to check out books from my junior high school library, and was crossly told I was only allowed to check out one at a time was quite a traumatic event, but that's another story...)

Anyway, it meant that, like most other readers of Jo Walton's Among Others, I approached her book as an insider, a fellow lover of SF/F, who recalled exactly what it was like to turn to this genre for delight, for learning, as an escape from the tricky teenage years, and out of the sheer joy of discovery. And as someone who almost - and sometimes did - believe in the true magic of the world around her. The difference was merely that my reading habits were different. Mori was far more voracious, far more eager to read everything and anything. She didn't re-read much (and complained about it when she had to) and instead constantly consumed the new. It was kind of amazing, actually, how well she was able to find those new-to-her books considering the lack of internet in the 1970s. I should have had a much easier time learning about new authors and titles, but I didn't take advantage (can you believe it took years for me to learn that there were any sequels to Ender's Game?). I got through about fifty pages of constantly stopping to write down authors' names and book titles before my loving husband looked up a complete list (thanks again, internet!). My library to-read list is already terribly long, but I'm really excited to add some new entries. For one thing, it's appalling that I have never read Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, or Dick, and apparently I also ought to try out Zelazny, Tiptree, and Silverberg too.

Often described as a love letter to science fiction, this book would be pretty inaccessible to anyone else but is sheer joy for us. It's not a perfect novel, but the exclamations it produced anytime a book I did know intimately was mentioned (or better, critiqued in just the same way I do), made it an instant favorite. Jo Walton was able to capture just what it was like.

Favorite quotes:
It doesn't matter. I have books, new books, and I can bear anything as long as there are books. (25)
Interlibrary loans are the wonder of the world and a glory of civilization. Libraries really are wonderful. They're better than bookshops, even. I mean bookshops make a profit on selling you books, but libraries just sit there lending you books quietly out of the goodness of their hearts. (59)

Friday, July 17, 2015

Zahrah the Windseeker

Recommended by the Book Smugglers, I put Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu's Zahrah the Windseeker on my to-read list as part of my growing effort to read diversely. I read a lot of women authors - sometimes mostly women authors - but I confess that I haven't put in an equivalent effort to read people of color. White European narratives are comfortable for me. They engage fantasy and sci-fi tropes I'm familiar with, or deal with moments in history that feel like a part of my own past. But I cannot ignore those tropes and moments that aren't as familiar to me, otherwise how will I ever learn? So much of my own and my husband's academic work focuses on listening to voices within communities, especially those voices that haven't often been heard. While I'm by no means good at reading diversely, I'm trying to make a start (and goodness, how I loved my introduction this year to Octavia Butler and N. K. Jemisin).

As a result, Zahrah the Windseeker posed me with a bit of a dilemma within the first few chapters. I couldn't really connect with it, but was that because of the unfamiliar customs, which I understood as probably giving me a taste of African (African-American?) culture, or because of the narrative voice, which was middle-grade in a way that started to annoy me (too many perky sentences ending in exclamation marks). I had a chat with my husband, in which I tried to parse out whether or not to abandon the novel, and finally decided that since the narration didn't bother me too much, it was worth reading this novel precisely because I couldn't really engage with it - introductions to unfamiliar customs are always bound to feel a little disorienting, but those introductions are necessary if you're ever going to really listen.

The book itself was vibrant with color and movement - much of it is a young girl's solo trek through a dangerous but vivid and spectacular jungle - but there were moments that were poorly written, mostly in regards to hitting certain plot points. I loved its theme of coming to accept your own self, but the climax (she literally learns to fly) felt far too obvious. Its secondary theme in celebration of knowledge (especially scientific) and in condemnation of avoiding the unfamiliar could have hit exactly the right note for me, except that I'm a scholar of early music publishing, and so, I couldn't get behind the idea that this one particular book was necessarily and automatically "the real truth" (all publications have an agenda). A final, open-ended section about the existence of the mythical "Earth" felt annoyingly like setup for a sequel. However, the sheer delight in color, the electrifying solo adventure story of a very capable young girl, made me willing to overlook these faults. I imagine a younger reader would like it quite a lot.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A Strange and Beautiful letdown

I don’t typically like multi-generational stories. In fact, I’m not sure I can name a single one I actually enjoyed. But only a few chapters into Leslye Walton’s The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, I was already confident I’d like this one. Part of it was the delicate prose, the fairy-tale elements. It’s not a fairy-tale retelling, a popular genre at the moment and one I sometimes (though not always) enjoy, but it has the feel of a fairy-tale in much the same way that Franny Billingsley’s writing feels folkloric without actually replicating particular stories. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows is told with a delicate hand that helps mask the underlying violence of its magical realism. One spurned lover turns herself into a canary; an unwed mother carves out her own heart after her child is born; an autistic child receives supernatural warnings from ancestral ghosts. It’s a dark and haunting novel that nonetheless has a deftness and lightness of hand.

Secondly, I think the reason this multi-generational story was working for me is because the novel is not told strictly chronologically. So many multi-generational books are told in order, giving us the tale of one person or family before moving on to their children, and then their children. Usually, the point at which the author thinks any one person’s story is done is just when I’m fully invested in them, so moving on to their offspring feels tremendously disappointing. Why should I care about this new person? Here, in The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows, it is Ava herself narrating the stories of her parents and grandparents as a prelude to sharing her own. This framing device really works for me. I know why to care about these different generations of people because I’m already aware, as I read their stories, that some of the purpose for telling them is to begin to piece together their impact on Ava’s life and the family’s tragic relationship with romantic love.

Also, this book has perhaps my new favorite literary bakery. I wanted to eat everything described – I wanted to bake it all! The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows was on track to be one of my favorites for the year.

And then. And then the climax of the novel was a horrifically violent and, I think, thematically unnecessary rape scene. I’m really disappointed, and I won’t be able to recommend it to any of my friends. With such a strong start - and even a strong middle - I felt really let down by the ending, which could have been handled in such a better way.

Monday, March 9, 2015

A pair of YA book reviews: critiques of misogyny and of publishing

Bennett Madison's September Girls promised mermaids and commentary on misogyny and contemporary sexual ethics: a run-down beachfront island resort populated in part by Girls, unnaturally alluring teenage girls who are really mermaids exiled from the sea by their father. They can only break the curse by sleeping with a teenage virgin. The protagonist Sam, one of those coveted curse-breakers, is kind of a jerk, objectifying women left and right, and his older brother and best friend are even worse - while the Girls are given voice only in the plural, with short interludes between chapters explaining their collective situation. When Sam and his brother each fall in love with one of the Girls, they are both forced to confront their own past actions and desires towards women.

I see what Madison was trying to do, writing a book with characters, thoughts, and actions so offensive that they themselves critique a society that says that women exist for men's pleasure, and that their only power comes from crafting the most desired form so that they can manipulate men. However, I had a really hard time stomaching most of the book. I'm not one who thinks an exaggerated anti-feminist message is all that helpful for feminist concerns, and I do worry that many teenage readers, less sophisticated in their analysis, might simply take the messages of this book at face value. Unsurprisingly, the book itself has garnered highly polarized reviews, some appalled and others loving its subversiveness.

Scott Westerfeld's Afterworlds also got on my to-read list through recommendations by other book bloggers. While almost as unlike September Girls as can be, it too engaged in critique: a meta-commentary on the YA publishing world. After high school senior Darcy Patel (a queer woman of color as protagonist!) wrote a YA paranormal romance for NaNoWriMo, she was astonished when it got picked up by a major publishing house, which contracted her for a sequel and paid enough money for the pair of books for her to defer college by a year, move to NYC, and try her hand at being a professional writer. We readers are treated to chapters of the novel itself, Afterworlds, in alternation with Darcy's story. This book-within-a-book features a "YA hottie" based on the death god from Hindu mythology who guides protagonist Lizzie as she struggles with her new calling as a psychopomp or soul guide. It's fascinating to realize that what we're reading is the revised and edited version - we see Darcy incorporating edits and ideas from her new world in the NYC YA publishing scene.

Darcy's Afterworlds itself is derivative and meandering, but I think that's precisely the point that Westerfeld was trying to make about debut novels and the current craze for paranormal romances. Far more interesting for me were Darcy's chapters, as this immature, unorganized, and sheltered high school graduate struggles with budget woes, revisions of Afterworlds (her publisher demands a happy ending!) and a first draft of the sequel, currently named Untitled Patel, and a budding first romance with another debut YA author.

I was ultimately disappointed by Darcy's novel (fully half the book!) and by my own mistaken expectations. I went into this novel thinking - hoping - that a large part of its plot might be focused on the actual writing of a NaNoWriMo novel, a process I find fascinating. Instead, the book begins after that first draft is already written. However, I enjoyed the insider's look at YA publishing and the frank and unfinished discussion about writerly appropriation of other cultures and religions,

Friday, February 20, 2015

Watership Down and the prize-winning re-readability of children's books

I've fought (and conquered!) a cold this week. Conveniently, it's the snowpocalypse and on top of a straight-up snow day, various additional classes and events have been canceled, so I've had plenty of time to lay in bed with a never-ending supply of hot tea. Some of my reading has been student papers to grade or books for dissertation research, but on one of the early days of the cold when I simply couldn't think coherently, I read an old childhood favorite.

I honestly don't remember how I discovered Watership Down. Probably my parents got it for me - I imagine them looking up similar books about animals for their Redwall-loving daughter. (How did they find it? Did they already know the book? Did they ask around? How did people ever find similar things without the internet and its countless "if you loved x, try y" lists?) My copy of Richard Adam's most famous novel is a well-worn paperback with the bottom half of most of its pages pulling away from the spine. I've read it countless times and yet it never ceases to delight.

As I've grown older, I've come to see more and more in it. As a child, I loved the fact that I could tackle an adult book (is it? Or is it officially categorized as a children's novel?). Certainly it was one of the longest books I'd ever read, the first time I read it. I ignored the literary quotes introducing each chapter and just fell in love with Hazel and Fiver and their friends, encouraging them along their journey and cheering the cleverness of their tricks. As I got older, say, high school, I began to see it as political commentary, its four very different forms of government making a clear statement about the ideal of a democratic republic and the perils both of anarchy and despotism. This time through, I actually read all of the literary quotes for the first time ever, and enjoyed the explicit recognition of the Odyssean quest narrative through quotes from Greek dramas, and the later ties to American and British popular cultures through the quotation of ballads and folk song lyrics. And despite my hrair (thousand) re-reads and the fact that I know this book so well I can read its four hundred pages in a single day, it has lost none of its charm.

This is a beloved book. It's one that for me, perfectly exemplifies this recent article in The Guardian, which argues that children's books should be considered for more major literary awards because a children's book is designed with re-reading in mind. As the article writes, "re-reading is a given for children's authors. It's one reason why we try to write books that have many layers and work on different levels, rewarding re-reading by growing richer each time." Thus a good children's book has already succeeded at what adult fiction strives for. A literary prize "asks of books something they're not really designed for: to be read three times in a row by people probing for weakness. Most books just crumble under that kind of pressure: only the most rich, the most layered, continue to dazzle and reveal ever more."

Watership Down, The Dark is Rising, and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, all named in the article as favorite re-reads by prominent authors and literary critics, are favorites for me too. They live in my bedroom fiction bookcase and get pulled down periodically. Chosen each time because of the joy they bring me, every time they reveal something new. Not officially prize-winners, perhaps, but with a re-readability that puts them on the shortlist of my most beloved books.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

State of the TBR

One of my goals for the year is to reduce my TBR (to be read) pile from two and a half shelves down to one. This bookcase is now supposed to house all of the dissertation books that don't live in my office, and space is already getting cramped - and I'm only one month into the project!

Here's the pile, in all its glory. Plus the spot where my Kindle, my Gameboy Color, and my computer game live (not that the games have gotten much use lately). The shelf labels are rather out-of-date: originally the TBR was just the top shelf; when I expanded onto the second, I labeled it "TBR overflow"; and with the advent of the third shelf I didn't even bother.

The top shelf has nonfiction on the left (which I may move to my other nonfiction shelf for days when I read something non-dissertation-related). The top shelf also has my classics by male authors, including a few by Trollope and Flaubert, and my Russian novels, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Crime and Punishment. Also interesting are Jostein Gaarder's The Solitaire Mystery (a Portuguese friend's favorite novel) and a lovely hardbound copy of A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad (the only book I own that comes in a box!).

The middle shelf is the heart of my collection: Viragos (both green and black) and other literary fiction by women authors. Many of these came from the twice-annual public library book sale, but I've acquired others from secondhand bookshops from all across the country (and even England). The Oxford/Penguin pile is mostly my set of Gaskells and Eliots - at this point I own just about their entire output and ought to start seriously reading them and not just collecting.

The third and last shelf isn't full, and I hope to read enough TBR books in the near future to soon eliminate this shelf space altogether. However, it was just increased in size thanks to the recent arrival of the three Holtby novels! The Garth Nix series came courtesy of the free table at the divinity school - considering my enthusiasm for fantasy, it's hard to believe that I've never read them before. And finally, my Moomin books, which I'll definitely read this year per another one of my 2015 reading goals.

Do you keep your TBR organized, and if so, how? Do you separate male and female authors as I've largely done? Do you sort by genres? Do you alphabetize anything?

And as I try to tackle my own TBR, do you have any recommendations? For example, I've only read George Eliot's Silas Marner; which of her other novels should I do next? If you have several Viragos by the same author, do you prefer to read them together or space them out? Are the Russian novels as intimidating as I've been led to think?

Best of luck to anyone else also trying to reduce the number of books waiting patiently to be read!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Christmas books - a very Holtby holiday!

A day or two after Christmas, I lamented that no one had bought me books as Christmas gifts. When I was a child, I usually received a book - and more often several - but as an adult with somewhat specific and eclectic tastes, no one seems to like buying me books anymore. I can't blame them; as husband reminds me, I curate my collection very carefully and people are unlikely to know just what I want.

So I lamented, but it seems my theatrical disappointment was a bit premature, because a few days later, my mother-in-law sent me the critically-acclaimed Girl Reading, which has been on my to-read list for a while now. Evidently the author began with a number of real-life portraits of women reading throughout the ages, and imagined what their stories might be. I'm excited to read it, and what a gorgeous cover! I'll have to find images of the paintings to have at hand as I read it.

My husband then found me a Winifred Holtby novel on paperbackswap, something I'd put on my wish list a few years ago. Because he's awesome, husband checked to see if the person was giving away any other books I might want - and she was! So he ordered me both Holtby's Poor Caroline and The Land of Green Ginger, and I've been eagerly anticipating their arrival for about a week now.

The first and thus far only Holtby novel I've read is her last one and masterpiece, South Riding. I knew practically as soon as I started it that I'd want to own my own copy, but I sometimes get picky with cover art and this book was one of those of which I wanted a very specific version. The new Virago edition is absolutely lovely, its cover apparently a vintage railway poster. I've searched for it in various online secondhand book shops, but could never be sure I'd get the exact cover I wanted so I never ordered it - but I thought it unlikely that I'd ever find it in an American used bookstore either.

So imagine my surprise and delight when I opened the battered yellow mailing envelope to find not two, but three Holtby books! A very sweet little note from the sender offered South Riding as an extra gift - and in the amazing new edition! I owe the sender a tremendous thank you. She couldn't have known how much I loved the book nor how much I adore this particular cover. I'm so excited to revisit the politics of the South Riding community and encounter these other two novels for the first time. Thank you, mysterious paperbackswap member, for your kind generosity. You've totally made my Christmas holiday.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Bookish goals for 2015

Last year, I set myself ten reading goals, the first time I'd ever planned my reading in such an organized fashion. I failed two outright, never quite getting around to Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers or finishing Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, but I had a fairly successful realization of (or at least attempt at) my other goals, and thanks especially to my desire to read more contemporary fiction (published in the last five years), I found myself getting back into fantasy and science fiction, my first great love.

The experiment went so well, in fact, that I've put together ten more bookish goals for this year:

  1. Finish Les Miserables. I'll probably have to start this one over, since it's been about a year and a half since I last visited it. My bookmark still sits at 478 pages out of 1463.
  2. Finish Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Another brick of a book that I started and then allowed to languish on my bedside table. You'd think as an academic, I'd love the footnotes, but somehow at least in the introductory section they make the book feel like work. I genuinely love my work, but I like my fiction to not feel like work, if that makes sense. However, various folks have assured me that the book picks up soon, so I'm willing to revisit it.
  3. Read the long form of Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. I read the short form last year; it was exquisite and deeply moving. I'm still extraordinarily disappointed not to have made it to my patron saint's church when I visited England last summer.
  4. Read Shirley or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for my winter break Bronte. Only two Bronte novels left before I've read their entire oeuvre and have to loop back to the beginning!
  5. Begin reading my complete Sherlock Holmes for October. I tried reading Wilkie Collins's Armadale last year for my annual Wilkie Collins October, but it wasn't nearly as engrossing as his Woman in White or The Moonstone. I still love the idea of reading something mysterious or suspenseful around Halloween, so I think I will open up this annual tradition to other authors. I bought the complete Sherlock Holmes well before I fell in love with BBC's Sherlock, but still haven't taken the time to read it (although for a little while when we were dating, husband read a few of the short stories aloud to me, which was lovely).
  6. Read another novel by Shusaku Endo. In the last three years I've read Silence, Deep River, and Volcano, each more inscrutable than the last. I thought I was reaching the limits of his novels that had been translated into English, but it turns out that my university library has an entire shelf of them - so my next ten years at least are covered!
  7. Read the Moomin series and The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh in conversation with each other. I often describe the Moomins to curious Americans as a sort of Scandanavian Winnie the Pooh, and I figure I should follow up this intuition with some comparative reading. I own almost the complete Moomin series, all except the newer and rarer The Moomins and the Great Flood. I've read two of them so far, and am eager to encounter the others.
  8. Get my TBR pile down from two and a half shelves to one. Especially since they live on the bookcase newly designated for my dissertation work, and which is quickly filling up! This goal should also help minimize new book purchases, because anything I buy would add to the TBR pile. A lot of my TBR books are Viragos, which will be fun - for a while I was alternating YA fiction with Viragos for a really nice contrast in themes and intended audience. To help reduce the TBR pile further, I'm considering moving the nonfiction to the separate nonfiction stack earmarked for "Tangential Tuesday," in which I read something not dissertation-related in order to keep my mind thinking about things other than the English Reformation.
  9. Get my public library to-read list (mostly fantasy and sci-fi) down from over a hundred to 75. This may be tricky because every time I get it down below a hundred, one of the blogs I follow posts a few excellent review that brings it back up again.
  10. Write my book. Since I was about five years old, I had a children's book planned out, and I've been meaning to write it ever since. This will be a deeply emotional process, because it represents deep loves and, in a way, abandoned dreams...but dreams that I can pick up again by writing the book. I know that sounds cryptic - sorry - and I hope one day to write about it here.
How about you? What are your goals for the year? Are you participating in any challenges or setting yourself a book-buying ban? Or do you perhaps have a non-bookish New Year's resolution you'd like to share?