Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 book list

It's been a good year in reading, even though I haven't been doing so much blogging. As always, this is the list of books I've read all the way through for the first time this year. I don't include rereads, but then again I don't think there have been many... Links to books I've mentioned on the blog, * for my top picks, and a summary post coming later for those of you who don't like reading through lists. There are a lot I haven't mentioned on the blog, but for many of those I've added some short notes.

Some themes from the year's reading:

War- from WWI (A Very Long Engagement) to child soldiers in Nigeria (Song for Night) and the experience of everyday life in war-torn Iran (Persepolis), war dogged my reading this year. While it was diverse, reading this year (and planning for next year's reading) has really brought home how big the influence of the world wars has been on Western literature. Oh, and I dislike war more than ever. 

Fairy-tales- I talked about this earlier this year, but I sought out a lot of fairy-tales this year, inspired by reading The Bloody Chamber, which I followed up with some originals in the form of The Grimm Reader. Mostly retellings, with a short focus on the Twelve Dancing Princesses thanks to Wildwood Dancing, I also bought a few new fairy-tale collections (not represented on the list). Probably the most unusual fairy-tale retelling was Deathless, set in WWII Russia and based on Koschei the Deathless.

Steampunk?- I also sought out fantasy set in the 19th century, after reading Cold Magic and A Matter of Magic (collecting Mairelon the Magician and The Magician's Ward) close together. Not sure if what I was looking for was steampunk exactly, but it's hard to describe. Maybe a fantasy-of-manners? Something that picks up the social structures of the 19th century rather than the technology. That said, Cold Magic is not exactly that either... So maybe I'll settle for saying quasi-Victorian fantasy settings.

Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins
Mockingjay - Suzanne Collins The sequels to The Hunger Games, which I wrote about back in 2010- fast paced and addictive reads
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand - Helen Simonson A nice read about an life in an English village and a late-in-life romance
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark Strangely sinister coming-of-age story set in a girls' school around a charismatic teacher
Goodbye to Berlin - Christopher Isherwood Set in the underworld of 1930s Berlin, the basis for Cabaret
We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson American Gothic tale of a family living in their crumbling house on the outskirts of an unsympathetic village. Classic unreliable narrator
Saraswati Park - Anjali Joseph The quiet lives of a middle-aged couple living in Bombay and the coming-of-age of the nephew who comes to live with them
House of Many Ways - Diana Wynne Jones Fun sequel from one of my favourite fantasy writers, even if it doesn't quite live up its predecessors, Howl's Moving Castle and Castle in the Air
Fingersmith - Sarah Waters Dickensian tale of love between orphans girls in Victorian England, full of twists and turns
On Beauty - Zadie Smith I love Zadie Smith's stories of class and race in the contemporary world, this one is set in American Academia
The Tattooed Potato and other clues - Ellen Raskin 
The Good Master - Kate Seredy Tales from Kate Seredy's childhood in pre-WWI Hungary, told for children. Like a Hungarian version of the Little House books (with fewer pioneers) 
Fire and Hemlock - Diana Wynne Jones A retelling of Tam Lin by Dianna Wynne Jones, sounds fantastic! And is good, although a little incoherent towards the end
The Road Home - Rose Tremain Enjoyed this book about immigration in the UK, until one incident which made me less sure of it
* Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons I had a lot of fun with this book about a 'modern woman' setting out to modernise her cousins and their ancient farm, the no-nonsense heroine is great 
Chiggers - Hope Larsson
The Neon Court - Kate Griffin Really enjoy Kate Griffin's fast paced urban fantasy
Memory- Margaret Mahy
The Ghost of Thomas Kempe - Penelope Lively
* White Cat - Holly Black Fascinated by the set-up of a family of criminal magicians, I was still wary of this book, but the smart con-man hero, the world and the plot were all so engaging, I loved this
Lord Edgeware Dies - Agatha Christie
Sorcery and Cecilia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot - Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermere All these Patricia Wrede books are enchanting, this one is written as a letter game, with two writers exchanging letters to build this epistolary novel set in a magical 19th century
Rivers of London - Ben Aaronovitch Flawed but mostly fun crime/fantasy books with a sometimes funny, sometimes irritatingly slow magician's apprentice/policeman hero
Moon over Soho - Ben Aaronovitch
A Red Herring Without Mustard - Alan Bradley 
The Murders at the Rue Morgue - Edgar Allan Poe Billed as the first detective story and a predecessor of Sherlock Homes, but of more historical than readerly interest
Willful Creatures - Aimee Bender Fantastical, strange, but somewhat cold short stories
Notwithstanding - Louis de Bernieres A nostalgic look at the English countryside and English eccentrics
Soulless - Gail Carriger Picked this up looking for a fantasy-of-manners, turned out to be more steampunk-paranormal-romance
The Door in the Hedge - Robin McKinley Short story retellings of fairy tales, as well as new fairy tales
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake - Aimee Bender 
The Likeness - Tana French A sequel I liked even better than its predecessor, Into the Woods, Tana French always keeps me on the edge of my seat, scared but intrigued 
Deathless - Catherynne M. Valente Started off a bit disturbed, but this book won me round, it is a fairly dark fairy-tale retelling set in WWII Russia. Still not quite sure what to think of it
After Dark - Haruki Murakami Bearing a lot of similarities to number9dream, but shorter (and written first, I should point out), really enjoyable novel of Tokyo night-life along with a touch of the supernatural/uncanny
Liar - Justine Larbalestier
A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman - Margaret Drabble A collection of short stories from Margaret Drabbles writing career, focusing on different women
The Good Thief - Hannah Tinti A rollicking great Western with orphans, con-men/thieves, vengeance and sordid pasts. Recommended.
Red Glove - Holly Black The sequel to White Cat follows in the same vein, throwing up more questions and even more problems for the hero to navigate
I Shall Wear Midnight - Terry Pratchett
10 Short Stories You Must Read in 2011 - Various Writers It was free!
Two Doors Down - Annie M. McCartney 
Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi Graphic novel (or rather, graphic memoir) of the author's childhood in Iran- really interesting look at Iranian history and what it's like growing up in turbulent times
Cold Fire - Kate Elliott Sequel to Cold Magic, with much high tension and joy for me
Necropolis - Catharine Arnold Interesting, if bitsy, history of burial and burial grounds in London
Skim - Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki Coming-of-age story set in a girl's school in Canada (graphic novel). Found the hints of student-teacher relationship a little off-putting
The Floating Admiral - Various Brings together G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie and other Golden Age detective writers to write one story, a chapter each. What's not to like?
Murder is Easy - Agatha Christie
Fever Pitch - Nick Hornby
Full Dark House - Christopher Fowler I heard these were more Crime/Fantasy books- but they're not exactly fantasy, although they're certainly not realistic. They are quite fun, not to be taken seriously
Seventy-Seven Clocks - Christopher Fowler
The Water Room - Christopher Fowler
Claudine in Paris - Collette Could not like this, felt somewhat seedy and didn't really like the narrator, but I know that other people think they're fun- I think part of it is that I just really dislike father-figure romances. 
The Easter Parade - Richard Yates Known for his depressing stories, this is a depressing story of two sisters who choose different paths in life but both end up miserable. I know that sounds dismissive, but really it is good and takes in the changing choices available to women in the middle of the 20th century
The Pastor's Wife - Elizabeth von Arnim So funny and yet so sad at the same time, this made me incredibly glad to be alive today rather than 100 years ago. Liked the first half best, the POV of the main character just seemed less believable towards the end, too naive
The Girls of Slender Means - Muriel Spark
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day - Winifred Watson Would have been a lovely book if not for the racism. Still manages to be quite fun and zesty as a portrayal of friendship between women and second chances, at least in parts
Goodbye To All That - Robert Graves
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children - Ransom Riggs Incorporating found photographs, this didn't start off as I was expecting, but was quite sinister and strange, before moving toward a more familiar fantasy narrative. But sinister in all the right ways. Hard to put down.
The Sense of an Ending - Julian Barnes Thought this was about the unreliability of memory, but after reading it I think it's more about the unreliability of the narratives we create about the past and ourselves. If that's so different. 
ETA Hark! A Vagrant - Kate Beaton Almost left this out- a Christmas book of comics from Hark! A Vagrant, a webcomic I always enjoy (literature! history! pop culture! laughs!)

Monday, December 19, 2011

reading around the world round up

Another end of year post as promised! Albeit a little late. I am officially declaring my reading round the world challenge done! Although I did end up cheating a bit... Reviews of earlier books here. Here's what I read (with brief reviews of books I haven't mentioned earlier):

AfricaSong for Night by Chris Abani (Nigeria). I thought this was cheating, so added The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif (Egypt) (also kind of cheating, since it is set in Egypt but written in English).

I'm counting The Map of Love because I felt like I ended up learning a lot about Egypt by the end. The book is split between the turn of the century and the present day (when the book was written in the late 90's), following two parallel love stories which bridge the East/West divide and are linked by family history. It also deals with Egyptian politics and identity, and the relationship between Egypt and the West. The first love story was a bit idealised, but I still found it compelling and moving. Their story is told through diary entries, uncovered by their ancestors Isabel and Amal, who then piece them together to retell it. Amal's brother and Isabel make up the current day love story. I found their love story less compelling for a number of reasons, mainly because I didn't really feel it was given much room, and since the narrative centres on Amal rather than Isabel it felt a bit like a sideshow. But the main point of the book is not the love story, but the politics and the history of Egypt.

Reading about Egypt struggling for independence against a military (British) force, and the competing forces within it striving to define its identity, felt incredibly timely in the year of Tahrir Square. Reading about America's involvement in the Middle East and its reactions towards terrorism felt very relevant on the 10 year anniversary of 9/11. While I tend to find books that are focussed on politics hard to get through, the grand sweep of this story and the context it gave to current affairs really made this a great read for me. And while I say this with some trepidation, given that it is a work of fiction, but I felt like I learnt a lot and gained a better understanding of world events afterwards (though is an area I don't know much about, so I was starting from a low base)! At the end, most of all I was left wondering: have things moved forward since this book was written? Or does it demonstrate that we are stuck repeating the same historical cycle? I think we will have to wait and see...

AsiaThe Pillow Book by Sei Shongagon (Japan). 

Some others: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Iran)
After Dark by Haruki Murakami (Japan)

AustralasiaTruth by Peter Temple (Australia). 
Some others: Memory by Margaret Mahy (New Zealand) 

EuropeA Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot (France).

Some others: Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (UK)
Claudine in Paris by Colette

North AmericaFreedom by Jonathan Franzen (US). 

Some others: Easter Parade by Richard Yates (US)
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (US)

South AmericaThe Captain's Verses by Pablo Neruda (Chile). Feeling like this was cheating, I also read Who Killed Palomino Molero? by Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru).

Who Killed Palomino Molero? follows two police officers investigating the murder of a young Peruvian man nearby an army base. With the wealthy white army officers falling under suspicion, all sorts of racial and class tensions come into play. This book sets up its premise and then starts to undercut your expectations, so that your doubt increases more and more towards the end. There are clearly a number of forces in play, powerful men that are trying to protect themselves, as well as prejudices. But these take a number of forms, and this book plays with your ideas by the end.

It's hard to say much more, because I don't want to talk about the ending and I don't know that I can offer any great insights. But if you've read this, please mention it in the comments! Would love to hear what you thought.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

blogging in december

Ah, December. The month of end-of-year lists, wrap ups and frantic Christmas shopping. And of course looking forward to next year. So in the end-of-year spirit I am looking to post several year wrap-ups, including a final post on my reading round the world challenge and my yearly booklist post. But to start off, plans for next year! Which is perhaps a back-to-front way of doing things...

This year my blog has been sorely languishing, and while I can't guarantee that I will be more diligent in posting next year, I do have some plans to pep it up a bit. Over the holidays I am hoping to do a bit of a template re-jig, weed out some of my older posts and just generally make things a bit more presentable. So changes ahoy!

My other plan for next year is to take part in Simon at Stuck-in-a-Books A Century of Books challenge.
The original challenge calls for reading a book from every year of the 20th century, but since I know that I get through far fewer than 100 books in a year, and I want to allow myself a lot of freedom in my reading choices, I will just be reading a book from each decade of the 20th Century. The plan is to read, and blog about, a book from a decade each month, starting in the 1900s. Hopefully there will be more blog posts than that, but I'm hoping this will get me writing. Plus it sounds like a lot of fun! Now to decide which 1900s book to read... Suggestions welcome!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

line link love

Since I wrote my blog post about first lines, I seem to notice people talking about them everywhere. So have some links that celebrate the first line!

Firstly: The Guardian's short editorial piece in praise of first lines and its slightly longer discussion of favourite first lines.

Secondly, Kit Whitfield's blog (thanks for the link, Ronni!) has a series deconstructing the first lines of novels, and what they say about the novel as a whole. Really good for some longer discussion of opening lines.

So, another first line: from the book I just finished reading, The Pastor's Wife  by Elizabeth von Arnim

"On that April afternoon all the wallflowers of the world seemed to her released body to have been piled up at the top of Regent Stree so that she should walk in fragrance."

Sunday, October 30, 2011

one book, two book, three book four... and five

I'm doing this meme again, along with Stuck-in-a-Book. A quick reading round up...

The book I'm currently reading...

Night Waking by Sarah Moss
Erm, so I saw a review of this on Stuck-in-a-Book as well, and it intrigued me so I picked this up from the library. A historian is staying on the small Hebridean island her husband owns with her husband and two small children for the summer, when she finds the bones of a child buried on the property. Incorporates children's/19th C. history along with musings on good parenting and relationships. I enjoyed it (I just finished it... but it still counts, right?), speculating on the narrators state of mind and following her attempts to uncover local history. It did wrap up perhaps a bit too smoothly though.

The last book I finished...

Besides Night Waking that is!
Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
I've been keen on Angela Carter since my friend Georgia lent me The Bloody Chamber, so I was interested to read this to follow up on the circus theme I started with The Night Circus. Also to follow along on the theme of books with 'night' in the title, it seems. It's pretty hard to sum up what I thought of this book, which follows the aerialiste Fevvers, a tall cockney performer who may or may not have real wings. It's kind of grotesque, and also puts a bunch of Marxist/Feminist language in the mouths of the main characters, which has a kind of tongue-in-cheek feel that somehow adds to the surrealism. Overall it's a good read, even if I do not always get along with the grotesque, and deserves more than a paragraph of discussion!

The next book I want to read...

Maus by Art Spiegelman
I really enjoy autobiographies/memoirs in comic book style, and this book in which a holocaust survivor tells his son his story is meant to be hugely influential in this genre, and possibly the first of its kind, so I have been vaguely meaning to read it for a while. I'm going to look it up in the library, but you never know, I might end up reading something by Christopher Fowler (writer of Fantasy/Crime novels!) instead, or something from my fairy tales collection, or...

The last book I bought...

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
I bought this after reading a highly persuasive review in The Guardian (who incidentally also pubished an article on Maus the other day) and seeing it promoted in my favourite local bookshop... Too easily swayed. I've written a review of it here, suffice to say that it is a book that creates a magical circus for its readers, in a 19th century world of magic and performers and nights.

The last book I was given...

Ragnorak by A.S. Byatt

I'd really been looking forward to this book, so I was pretty excited when my friend Angi offered to give me her copy. I love both A.S. Byatt and Norse mythology, but I'm still not sure that I'm sold on this book. Maybe it's the difference in religious outlook- I'm a Christian and this book is about a child realising that they don't believe in God, or maybe it's because the Norse myths in this book seem quite static, without much of a narrative sense pulling them forward. There is some beautiful writing in this very short book which combines the story of a young girl growing up in WWII and reading Norse myths, said to be semi-autobiographical, with a retelling (sort of from the girl's perspective) of the myths themselves.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


After much anticipation, I finally read Marilynne Robinson's Gilead earlier this year. I've been doing companion reviews of Gilead and Home with Sam (you can read his review of Gilead here), so before starting to write my review I reread his post. It's amazing what different reactions we had to this book! But while I read through his post thinking "I guess I'll just chalk it up to different tastes", I was struck by one comment which I wanted to dispute, which seems to say that the character of John Ames, the main character of the novel, is lost in the writing, with the reader instead looking through the eyes of his son. Which is interesting, because for me this novel is so grounded in the character of the narrator, his voice comes through so clearly and we get to know him so well throughout the course of the book, that I found it hard to understand this point of view. So maybe we can argue about this point in the comments?

But I am getting ahead of myself. Gilead is written from the point of view of the aging pastor, Reverend John Ames, ostensibly as a letter to his young son. In it he talks about his family history, wrapped up with the history of the small town of Gilead in which he still lives, his faith, and about his life. Eventually his account is interrupted by the return of the prodigal son of his best friend, his namesake Jack Ames Boughton. The narrative runs parallel to the story of Home, set in the Boughton household, and though Gilead was written first there is no clear order to the books. I read Home first, and I wonder how it would change the experience to read them the other way round? A lot of the revelations are shared in the books, so something that was a surprise to discover in one becomes background knowledge when you read the other. But there are still surprises in store in each, and in fact the lightness of plot means that not much is lost by knowing some of the twists beforehand. This is a book where language and character take centre stage. I think one of the things that I noticed about reading Gilead second is that it ends the pair on a more uplifting note, I found Home more bittersweet and I think it would create an entirely different flavour to read them the other way around.

There is so much that I loved about this book, it is a book that I want to read through again and savour more slowly. If anything I feel that I was maybe in a slightly too impatient mood to read through it the first time, and there was a little bit of theology that I may have skimmed through. But I think that was my fault rather than the book's. I thought John Ames was a great character, I loved reading the delight he took in his existence, his joy and his resignation, his wisdom and his vulnerabilities. I also loved the language. Something that I noted in my review of Housekeeping by Marilynne Gilead was the language of water and light- something which I didn't notice in Home but was certainly present in Gilead. Water is often associated with baptism here, and the Ames thoughts on baptism and communion, the way he seems to see them as so personal, were so refreshing to me. But light is really everywhere the quality of light seems to evoke the beauty Ames sees in his surroundings, as well as a kind of nostalgia often:

                          But it has all been one day, that first day. Light is constant, we just turn over in it. So every day is in fact the selfsame evening and morning.

or a moment that has remained significant in Ames' memory of his father:

                        Then I realized that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great skeins of light suspended between them. I wanted my father to see it, but I knew I'd have to startle him out of his prayer, and I wanted to do it the best way, so I took his hand and kissed it.

It seems as though the light that Ames sees suffuses the book and his character. Though it's clear that he has seen some dark times the presence of his wife and son see him content with life. 

The other thing that I wanted to mention in this post was the treatment of race in the book. It's so important in the history of the town, in the histories of the characters (or at least of Jack), and yet it is not overtly present. There are no black people in Gilead, though it came into being as part of the underground railroad, because their church burnt down. There is so much that is unspoken here and yet it makes itself felt- the way that people don't see it and yet it is still there. This novel is, after all, set in the 1950s, when America was still segregated. I think this novel does a good job of showing how that segregation affected everyone, even a small town in the mid-West with only white folks in it.  

I think there is more in this book than I can possibly cover, I will have to read it again and if you do want more reviews, there are some lovely ones at Stuck-in-a-Book, Book Snob, and Evening All Afternoon's discussion of Home and Gilead, as well as Sam's aforementioned companion review

Monday, October 10, 2011


'The Night Circus' by Erin Morgenstern has been reviewed all over the place, and a lot of those reviews have said very similar things- basically that the plot and characters were not stunning, but the setting was amazing. I love an amazing setting, so I went out and read it straight away. The basic premise is not particularly new: two ageless magicians set up a contest between their protege's, the rules are not defined and the participants have no choice in the matter (or knowledge of the other's identity). The setting, which becomes the contest itself, is a circus which involves not just the duelling magicians but a host of other performers, including a contortionist, living statues, acrobats, a fortune teller, and lion tamers. 

The circus is indeed enchanting, but I think the critics are a little harsh on the plot- for the first half at least it unfolds in a similar way to the circus itself, following different tracks without revealing its secrets. It reminded me a little of 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell', with its 19th century setting, duelling magicians and sense of secrets lying just out of view. It does get a little hazy toward the end, and I'm not sure that all the loose ends add up, but I cared enough about the characters and the circus to get there. I think the circus had the most charm at the beginning as well, but it remains a brilliant creation. The night circus, as its name suggests, opens only at night. It is entirely black and white, tents, costumes and decorations, smells of popcorn and caramel and contains a myriad of different attractions, both real and magical. This is how it opens:

"First, there is a popping sound. It is barely audible over the wind and conversation. A soft noise like a kettle about to boil for tea. Then comes the light.

All over the tents, small lights begin to flicker, as though the entirety of the circus is covered in particularly bright fireflies. The waiting crowd quiets as it watches this display of illumination. Someone near you gasps. A small child claps his hands with glee at the sight.

When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears."

I love a good literary circus, here are some of my favourites:

The Carnival from The Last Unicorn, sinister and slightly sad, with its enchanted menagerie:

"There were nine wagons, each draped in black, each drawn by a lean black horse, and each baring barred sides like teeth when the wind blew through the black hangings. The lead wagon was driven by a squat old woman, and it bore signs on its shrouded sides that said in big letters; MOMMY FORTUNA'S MIDNIGHT CARNIVAL. And below, in smaller print: Creatures of night, brought to light."

Margaret Mahy short stories: Margaret Mahy has the most amazing fantasy worlds, and her short stories  really capture that. 'The Door in the Air' and 'The Green Fair' are among them.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

dancing princesses

I've always liked the story of the twelve dancing princesses. It's such a pretty story, with dances and dancing slippers and gold and silver trees, and it also has a sense of mystery to it. The story raises a lot of unresolved questions, like where is this place the princesses are dancing? Who are the princes and is there a romantic interest there? How do the princesses live half in one world and half in another where they dance every night? How do they feel about the resolution to the story and their separation from the princes? What happens to the youngest sister who comes closest to noticing the soldier but doesn't marry him in the end? So I was happy to hear of Wildwood Dancing, which is based on the story, and intrigued to see what answers Juliet Marillier would bring.

In some ways, Juilet Marillier does not answer my questions. Wildwood Dancing is not an exact retelling of the fairy tale (and is the better for it I think), so there are only five sisters and the plot does not follow very closely the plot of the fairy tale. On the other hand, it offers a very satisfying portrayal of the place where the sisters go to dance and the people they meet there, here known as the 'Other Kingdom'. This book fills in what was so lacking from the fairy tale, it shows the 'princesses' (they are not in fact princesses in the book) perspective. The sisters approach their full moon dancing nights with a mix of wonder and caution as well as a kind of familiarity, since this is something they do often. The people in the other world are their friends, they know how things work there. I love a well evoked other world, and there are a few here. Firstly, the 'other kingdom', and secondly the real world, which is Transylvania in, I would guess the 18th or 19th century? It's hard to say exactly. In her epilogue, Juliet Marillier says she tried to avoid a lot of the Transylvanian stereotypes, and I don't know Transylvania or its folklore well enough to say how well she's done at capturing it but certainly it generally does avoid Dracularizing the place, while still having some moments of familiarity. And yes, vampires make an appearance. But vampires are not the main event.

The main drift of the story follows the five sisters, who live in the Transylvanian countryside, fending for themselves for the winter as their merchant father travels to warmer weather for his health. More specifically, it follows the second oldest sister, Jena, who is in charge of the family business while their father is away, with support from her uncle's family who live nearby. Unfortunately, her cousin's idea of help is to take control of the household of girls, and to pursue his goal of clearing the woods to take revenge on its supernatural inhabitants for the death of his older brother when they were kids. This threatens the household and their trips to the other kingdom to dance every full moon, as well as their independence and hopes for the future. The book feels increasingly suffocating as the the smart, practical and independent Jena and her sisters find themselves increasingly controlled, and face how little power they have as women in their time period. These are the books that made me cry as a kid, the infuriating and senseless injustice of someone abusing their power over others. It makes for a similar reaction as an adult, the same helpless feeling of suffocation. Jena battles with her cousin and works to look after her sisters as events in the both worlds lead to a crisis, with the help of her frog. Did I mention there's a love story?

There's a lot going on, and its a great fairy tale, coming-of-age story. Some parts of the plot and exposition felt a bit rushed toward the end, and the characters had a couple of moments of not noticing the obvious, but overall really enjoyed this book. I liked the love story, and I liked the relationship between the sisters. Though some the sisters were in danger of seeming two-dimensional at times- the smart one, the flighty one, the baby- for the most part this was avoided due to the clearly strong relationship they had, which allowed them to be fleshed out, and this relationship is sketched in well, the sisterly love, tensions and all. But the focus is on Jena, not her sisters, and they are not given as much development.

Really the strength of this book is on creating a sense of enchantment, and a satisfying fairy-tale reimagining. I feel like fairy-tales have featured strongly in my reading this year, so it seems appropriate to share this fairy tale site I found, SurLaLune Fairy Tales, which features a collection of fairy tales, fairy tale annotations, histories and interpretations.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

reading around the world (update)

As I wrote back in January, one of my challenges to myself this year was to read a book from every continent (author's nationality + setting of book + language originally published in must all be from the same country in that continent, although I will read them in English). Since we're now almost halfway through the year, it seems like a good time to report on my progress. I'm actually quite pleased with my progress, but not quite finished with this challenge yet. Here's what I've read so far:

Africa: Song for Night by Chris Abani (Nigeria). On the recommendation of my friend Duncan. While all the reviews for this say it's set in 'an unknown country in Africa', the tribes mentioned in the book are both from around Nigeria, as is the author... so I'm calling this Nigeria. Not entirely happy with this one as a representation of Africa though. I do feel this is perhaps written for Western audiences... which wasn't really the point of this challenge. So I might try to read something else from Africa as well. Apart from that, this was a good book. I thought the story of a child soldier might be overwhelmingly depressing but it's not, very sad, certainly, but more haunting than anything.

Asia: The Pillow Book by Sei Shongagon (Japan). I've already reviewed this one but I will say it again, I liked this one! It's such a personal tour through the world of the Japanese court at the end of the last millennium, and a beautiful book.

Australasia: Truth by Peter Temple (Australia). This was a Christmas present, and the only Australian book I've read all year... Which is a bit sad really. It's a detective story set in Melbourne, the sequel to a book I haven't read, and that and the fact that it's a hardboiled-ish Crime novel (not my favourite subgenre) meant that I didn't like it all that much. Not a writer I will feel compelled to follow more.

Europe: A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot (France). The book the movie (which I haven't seen) was based on. It's a WWI story, and I am constantly amazed that despite all the books and movies made about the World Wars they still have the power to be so moving. This one certainly was. It's the story about Mathilde, a young girl in a wheelchair whose fiance declared dead, in the trenches. She hears from another soldier that the circumstances surrounding her fiance's death are murky, and spends years following leads to try to find out the truth. A very bittersweet ending, this was definitely a bit of a tearjerker. It's not all romance, there is a lot about the horrors of war and I guess the expendability of soldiers... Anyway, recommended.

North America: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (US). This seems a very fitting book to read for the US, it's by one of the current 'Great American Writers' crop and it is about America in the 2000s, it's even called 'freedom'. Like many people, I loved Corrections, and I think that it's very hard for other books to measure up. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this book, the story of the Berglund family from middle-class middle America. There's a lot to write about in this book, it's too hard to fit in a mini-review (and hard to sum up my thoughts, which were, like the Berglunds, in the middle). Suffice to say it talks about liberals and conservatives, particularly in the wake of the September 11th attacks, and has some pretty scathing things to say about both. In the figure of Walter Berglund we have the well-meaning liberal who has lost his way somewhere along the line, and his son shows a fairly self-interested and uninformed young conservative, looking for profit and self-preservation. I love, though, how I came to feel affection for all the characters, no matter how misguided or self-seeking, by the end. That's why I read Franzen.

South America: The Captain's Verses by Pablo Neruda (Chile). I am not planning on counting this one. This collection of poems was written, in exile in Europe, mostly for his lover, who was with him in exile. Therefore it doesn't really fulfill the criteria of being set in South America. But the poet's love for Chile is a major theme running through his poetry, and his yearning for a better society in his country, as much as the love for his mistress/lover/later wife. A beautiful set of poems.

So there you go- just halfway through the year and mostly done! Maybe I was too easy on myself... I would definitely like to read another book from South America, probably another book from Africa and I feel like I should read some more from Australia. I might add some more to the other continents too. Suggestions for further reading welcome!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

reading block

I finished up the semester of uni a couple of weeks ago, and, as is often the way, completely lost motivation for everything else. I was getting so excited about reading books that are harder going when uni's on, I borrowed two non-fiction books from the library (one on Old English literature and society, and one on fairytales) and I haven't opened them. Instead I have been reading fashion  blogs, considering starting a fashion blog, my last blog post was about food, I even painted a picture the other night, despite my lack of anything resembling artistic talent. By contrast, while uni was on and I was getting more and more stressed and feeling so short on time, I read like crazy, found myself enjoying books more than I have for a while- you know, when you read late into the night and don't want to put the book down. Don't ask me why this is, all I can think is that it's a break, a time for something different.

Speaking of fashion blogs, here are a couple that are a little different, if you feel like reading about clothes. Leila Audrey is my friend Bec's blog. She works in a museum and has an interesting perspective on fashion and history. Marieke Hardy has been promoting her friend's blog Dress, Memory on twitter, it's a personal history in clothes- more memoir than anything.

Other than that, I am spending my uni holidays on work placement in Fisher library, which has been pretty great so far. I'm based in the Uni press, so it's kind of a mix of librarianship and publishing. But of course, all about books! (and yes, all the other materials the library has to offer). I'm planning on doing a half-yearly post on my reading around the world challenge soon, I'm currently looking for a book from South America- preferably by an author I haven't read before (because this challenge is all about reading new things!). Hopefully will find some inspiring reading to write about soon, in any case I am enjoying my holiday!

Monday, June 13, 2011

brunching in sydney

Seeing as it's a long weekend, it seems like an appropriate time to talk about brunch. Brunch would have to be one of my favourite meals, because it goes very well with a sleep in and basically you can eat whatever you feel like at the time. Today I ate a croissant and muesli at 2pm. Why not? Alternately, you could have a burger at 11. It's brunch after all, and anything goes. The one downside is the prevalence of eggs in brunch foods, I just don't like 'em, and some menus have little else. But many do, and here are some of my favourite brunching places in Sydney...

Vargabar, Newtown

This is my regular, and it's great for having a wide range of options (vegetarian, meat, breakfasty, lunchy, eggs or not). It also does good coffee. Of all the things they have here my favourite is the pumpkin chili hotcakes. They're a savoury twist on pancakes and just delicious. I love the way the dishes here keep changing, nothing seems to be presented the same way twice, but it's always good. The hotcakes come with kumera rosti, kumera chips, avocado and relish and all manner of good things- a veritable feast! Andrew also loves their eggs benedict with salmon, it's served on brioche which apparently makes it stand out from the eggs benedict crowd. They also do some amazing cold drinks.

Book Kitchen, Surry Hills

This is not one of my regulars, but I had to include it because when I went there they had the most amazing bircher muesli. Honestly, it tasted like Christmas cake mix, it was so delicious. It's also very, very close to the amazing Bourke Street Bakery. But on its on merits Book Kitchen has tasty food and a good selection of cookbooks, even if it is a bit pricey...

Deus ex Machina, Camperdown

It is pretty much impossible to park near this place, but they do do good food. I think their dinner menu is perhaps better, but we haven't really tested the whole brunch menu, so maybe a return trip is in order. The one time we managed to go there for brunch, I had strawberry crepes (very tasty). Andrew had, of course, eggs benedict with salmon.

The Gallery Cafe, Annandale
The portion sizes here are pretty amazing, so a good place to come if you're feeling hungry. This is a cheerful and fairly large cafe with a good range of options for the fussy bruncher (i.e. me). Plus they stock baked goods from the famous Adriano Zumbo, for instance the croissant you see below. And a bunch of jams and other goods. 

So many more cafes to explore, so many weekends to explore cafes in...

Sunday, June 05, 2011

extracts from my notebook part 4

A full bottle of wine next to the public phone - Pitt St

Bree and Adam
Locked 2gether in hatred as it's the closest to love- we're forever
- sad toilet graffiti at The Annandale

"When the dog that you tattoo on your arse turns into a shark"
- Overheard on a train

Though contrived, this little story might as well exemplify the mischief that involves us all who take on the job of turning real life into words.
Always the essential thing gets lost. That's one rule holds true of every inspiration.
- 'The Moon', Jorge Luis Borges

"His dad's a novelist"
"What, writes books and stuff?"
- Overheard

Graffiti on a train seen on the morning commute:
"Be not a man of success, but a man of value"- Einstein

"I just want to go live in Europe... I want to do everything and I want to do it now."
(other person says something)
"But when? What's the plan? How will it all fit in?"
- Overheard on the train

and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars
- Madame Bovary

"Lies and deceit..."
"But that's all part of the job, isn't it?"
- Overheard on a train

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

one book, two book, three book four... and five

I wanted to write this post ages ago, in responses to the post over on Stuck-in-a-book post, but blogger has been playing up and uni assignments have been calling... so some of these books are out of date, and some have been changed, but here we go...

The book I'm currently reading...

I loved Patricia C. Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles SO MUCH when I was younger, but I haven't read anything else by her (or even the whole set of the Chronicles, for that matter). This is living up to my expectations, it's a regency/fantasy book and it's so much fun! The main character is a street urchin in London who dresses as a boy to stay out of trouble and takes a job breaking into Mairelon the magician's caravan and is then taken on as an assistant. Adventures ensue.

The last book I finished...

I am reading quite a bit of fantasy at the moment I feel, and this is also set in a quasi-regency period, but with the added complication of an alternate history and a spirit world. I'm also reading a lot of books I really enjoy, I loved this one. Kate Elliot has impressed me in the past with her attention to historical detail in worlds not quite like our own (in her Crown of Stars series, which I nonetheless never finished for reasons of timing), and I've been meaning to read some of her other books for a while. Unfortunately, as with the Crown of Stars, the series hasn't been finished yet, but when I finished this book I was dying to read the next one. I guess I'll just have to wait...

The next book I want to read...

This book intrigued me, from the title to the premise (a nine year old girl finds she can taste the feelings of the person who made the food in all the food she eats). Actually I have started reading it in digital form, but I want to get my hands on it and finish it and figure it out. This is a strange one...

The last book I bought...

Latest in a series! Can't resist. I'm always amazed at how Kate Griffin manages to start each one of these books right in the middle of a crisis, but it is definitely a way to get the reader's attention. I like her portrayal of London through magic, I do sometimes feel the lack of secondary characters. Mind you, I wouldn't want to be a secondary character in this series, they don't usually last for long...

The last book I was given...

This is a tricky one, since I tend to be given books in lumps. In fact I guess The Neon Court would count as the last book I was given, since I bought it with a book voucher. But I think the last time I was given an actual book was Christmas, and there were a few: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, The City and The City by China Mieville, The Grimm Reader by Maria Tatar, The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman and Truth by Peter Temple are the ones that spring to mind. Not a big fan of Truth, but really enjoyed The City and the City and The Grimm Reader, also Freedom but it suffered a bit from not being The Corrections.