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January 2021 Reading Round Up

January wasn’t bad; aside from the books below I’ve two on the go and turned my way through a further small chunk of pages of A Shepherd’s Life.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Elizabeth Baines: Used To Be – A short story collection with the theme of different roads in life. Very, very good.

Katy Yocom: Three Ways To Disappear – Quinn and Sarah lost their sibling, Sarah’s twin, in childhood; now adults, Quinn tries to get back into her art whilst being a mother to her own set of twins, one with a chronic illness, and Sarah leaves her job as a reporter in dangerous locations to work in tiger conservation in India. Much better than my brief summary can do, this is a super book that explores trauma, conservation, and in the conservation all of the social affects conservation has on humans.

Susmita Bhattacharya: Table Manners – A collection of stories about human relationships and connections, linked by the theme of food, whether the food is an item, an idea, or a construct. Awesome.

It may not have produced the numbers, but the reading was wonderful. Everything I read was fab, and the books I have started recently – Catherine Cho’s Inferno and Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant, the latter one of those books I took off my list when I didn’t make headway last year (I’m now further along) are great. Cho’s in particular is just incredible; Inferno is her memoir about her time with Post-Partum Psychosis; it’s a brave book, written – and structured – spectacularly well and I can’t but believe it only narrowly missed out on winning the Young Writer of the Year Award in December (won by Jay Bernard for their poetry collection, Surge).

That’s what I’m looking forward to in February, the Cho and the Li. Absolutely, completely.

 
Katy Yocom – Three Ways To Disappear

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In which the hope is that a tyger tyger does indeed burn bright.

Publisher: Ashland Creek Press
Pages: 316
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-618-22083-7
First Published: 16th July 2019
Date Reviewed: 1st February 2021
Rating: 4.5/5

Sisters Quinn and Sarah are still haunted by the death of Sarah’s twin, Marcus, in childhood, and the family’s subsequent move back to the US from India; mother and daughters left, leaving dad, the reason they were in India, behind. Now, many years later, Quinn has a young family and finds herself always worrying about her son’s asthma (he’s also half of a set of twins), and Sarah’s so far spent her career reporting on dangerous situations. When Sarah leaves her career to go back to India and join a tiger conservation, it brings things back to the fore for both sisters as well as their mother. And amidst this is the plight of the tigers and the villages that live next to the reserves, two species vying for the same resources that too often results in disaster.

Three Ways To Disappear is a very well written and carefully handled novel about trauma such as that stated above, and conservation when there is little literal space between animals and humans.

There is a special individuality to Yocom’s book. You have the two narratives that, whilst connected, are very different and enable the story as a whole to have a very diverse atmosphere to it – and I’m not talking about the different cultures and locations here. The sisters are very different, their working backgrounds and choices in regards to family are different, and whilst at heart their thoughts and, often, problems, are informed by the same events, the resulting actions are dissimilar enough that it can be easy to forget that they are indeed forged by the same thing.

The choice of family, or life in general, is where this is most apparent, particularly when it comes to Quinn. Quinn’s story is pretty mundane and quiet compared to Sarah’s life covering war zones and further violence; it can come as a surprise that Quinn’s story can have more of an affect on your reading experience and what you take away than Sarah’s does.

Let’s look at the two stories. Sarah’s is where the tiger conservation comes in and, as the cover might suggest, this is a major part of the book. Yocom’s research shines through each section, from the expected conservation, to life in the locations in India where the needs of human survival come into conflict with animal survival. Yocom details the circumstances that create this conflict – lack of land, the need to conserve whilst also acknowledging the fact that more tigers equals less space and resources for humans. She looks at communities that are obviously based in reality in both an emphatic and studious way – this book is certainly fiction, but the truths that run throughout it, and the very real issues, are laid out very well. Where Sarah herself is concerned – Sarah serves as both a fully-fledged character driving the narrative herself and a vehicle to allow the reality to show – we have the appreciation that this is a white western person looking from the outside in; however much Sarah spent her formative years in India and remembers the language local to her, she is still an outsider and makes poor choices, the choices themselves another aspect of the book that Yocom has handled with care. So, too, the use of religion and mythology, which I’ll leave there.

Away from the conservation, Sarah’s story starts with relief – along with the background we get to begin with, our picture of her is of her past career and the choice to change it for something that – if still overseas from home – is completely different. Her passion drives her – she sees something to work for and she goes for it, and this pervades throughout the book whether it’s the tigers, or the women who need an income, or a possible romance.

Quinn’s passion is different, quieter, like her life. The affects of Marcus’ death have led to her being an anxious mother, particularly as she grew up to have twins herself. Quinn’s strength as a character are in her thoughts on family, on how the present relates to today, where her family – nuclear and extended – come into it. Her twins have some growing to do, but so does she, in the way she deals with others, the advantage she gives them over her. Quinn’s narrative, whilst, as said, not the exciting one, and pretty restricted in locale, is perhaps the stronger one, which is an interesting point in itself. I’d go so far as to say that it serves as a reminder of how important every person is, regardless of how ‘average’ their life.

The book walks an interesting line between the predictable and not so – if you strip the book down to its bare basics, you will see where some of it is headed (some, not all) but with the entirety of its contents together, a lot of aspects are far more foggy to work out. It’s well done. Will you expect a romance? You might, you might not. There may or may not be one. Will you expect the ending? The same applies.

The ending is incredibly poignant, and asks you to consider the whole, starting from the beginning of what you’ve read to the final pages; it also asks you questions about specifics.

This, the winning nature of the ending, is due to the characters’ thought processes and the use of the concept of the three ways to disappear. You may count many sets of three ways, and each will bring you new understanding, opening the novel a bit further every time in a way that I can only call interactive. It’s based in the way each character copes, it’s based in the past, present, and future, and the various ways of living that are presented in the book.

Three Ways To Disappear is great. It does so much in a relatively short time, takes you to locations beyond the geographical, and it presents constant beginnings and ways forward, regardless of endings.

 
Second Half Of 2020 Film Round Up + Podcast

…Otherwise known as the extreme Christmas round up. I didn’t watch too many films until November when I figured I’d so something about the fact Christmas was going to be quieter and make it festive in other ways.

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Bringing Up Baby (USA, 1938) – A paleontologist, trying to get on with his work and prepare for his marriage, meets an all-over-the-place woman who pushes him to help her with her leopard. Obviously unrealistic and over-the-top but nevertheless absolutely hilarious.

Brief Encounter (UK, 1945) – Two strangers meet in a railway station café and begin a short affair. Definitely best in the context of the era.

Christmas Ever After (USA, 2020) – A writer goes on her annual Christmas holiday to a winter lodge and meets a man who looks exactly the same as the man in the artwork that graces her book covers; the predictable ensues. This is a bog-standard made-for-TV movie but the reason I’ve not included it in my Christmas list below is because this is a movie that has broken ground that’s taken forever to break. Whilst the story itself may be run-of-the-mill, the cast is good, and, most importantly, there is diversity. The lead uses a wheelchair. There is zero mention of her disability, zero questions on it, zero mockery, indeed the only time such a thing comes anywhere close is when she simply mentions that shes ‘going for a push’. It’s about freaking time this happened, and full props to Lifetime for doing this, the film gets a 5 from me just for that though the fact the cast are decent definitely makes it a lot better – and an actual disabled person/person with a disability playing the role! In addition to this, the as-I’ve-started-to-understand usual non-white best friend role (if there are non-white actors they have almost always been a sidekick of sorts) is an independent woman who is there for guidance and otherwise gets on with her own life; there is also a woman who likes the hero but isn’t in anyway nasty, which makes a change too. All around fabulous, grammar rules be damned.

Frozen II (USA, 2019) – Elsa and co. go in search of the spirits that have the power to bring peace. Definitely an exercise in ‘how do we make more money from this?’ but there are some very good moments.

Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (Keep Dancing) (India, 2007) – When a man approaches a woman at Waterloo Station she pretends to be engaged to put him off chatting her up, and he follows suit, making up his own fiancée; the fictionised stories of the two relationships are told as they spend more time with each other. Another film that’s difficult to summarise without spoilers; one of the best Bollywood films I’ve seen to date. Absolutely top-notch comedy, good references to older films and the actors’ real-life connections to each other, and just all-round fun.

Moana (USA, 2016) – A young woman in centuries-past Polynesia secretly takes on the task of finding the god that took away with him an essential ingredient to the community’s island’s peace. Pretty fun in parts but the limited scope in terms of location – in other words, most of the film taking place on a tiny boat – has a big affect on the over all product.

Muppets Most Wanted (USA, 2014) – During rehearsals for a stage show, Kermit is kidnapped and replaced by a Russian criminal who is also a frog. Some of the humour is good but I personally felt this went a bit too far with the stereotypes.

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12 Days Of Giving (USA, 2017) – A man wins $50,000 dollars and decides to donate it to various people he meets day-to-day to the upset of his fiancⅇ one of the people is a child who wants to play ice hockey and lives with his single mother… yep, it’s predictable. But also fairly good, a nice enough watch.

Broadcasting Christmas (USA, 2016) – Two presenters, past lovers, compete to gain the role of co-host on a popular morning show. Standard plot with above average actors; that one of them is Melissa Joan Hart makes it much better.

Christmas At Graceland (USA, 2018) – A business executive travels to her hometown to work on a takeover deal but finds the idea of a big corporation taking over a caring family company difficult, meanwhile she meets an old flame who she used to sing with. The film would be okay if the real-life country star who plays the lead could also act.

Christmas Cookies (USA, 2016) – A business… yeah, okay, this film has the exact same set up as the previous one, just with a cookie company instead of finance. It even has the same male lead, however as he can act and as the female lead of this one can, too, it works.

Christmas In Homestead (USA, 2016) – A filmstar visits a cute Christmas-loving town for her latest film and starts to fall for the owner of the hotel and his young daughter. Nice enough; bog standard.

A Christmas Love Story (USA, 2019) – When her choir rehearsals are joined by a new kid, the teacher has to work out a way to convince his father that he should be allowed to stay – and the father turns out to be the nice man she shared a taxi with. There is a lot more going for this film than a spoiler-free premise would suggest; for all the predictability it’s actually a very decent film.

The Christmas Train (USA, 2017) – Two journalists who used to be together happen to take the same sleeper train just before Christmas; one of them is there with her boss, a director whose film she is writing. This film has an interesting concept, a different concept, but it’s far too sickly sweet, the green-screening is too obvious, and the surprise ending that really didn’t need to be there wrecks everything that came before.

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A Dream Of Christmas (USA, 2016) – A woman who wonders ‘what if’ is transported to a version of her life where she took the job offer and didn’t meet her husband. Nice enough.

A Godwink Christmas (USA, 2018) – A woman who’s unsure about her relationship goes to stay with her aunt but gets stuck in a cute town when her car breaks down and starts to fall for the owner of the hotel she ends up spending the night in. This would have been okay if there had been an ounce of chemistry between the leads.

Love You Like Christmas (USA, 2016) – A woman who works in advertising breaks down halfway through her journey and has to stay in the Christmasy village she comes to. Average plot – samey plot, in fact – above average actors; it turns out that a plot that’s been done to death can still have a breakthrough if the script is done right and is at least somewhat believeable.

Marry Me At Christmas (USA, 2017) – A bridal shop owner helps the sister of a filmstar plan her wedding and falls for the filmstar. Average.

Mistletoe & Menorahs (USA, 2019) – A woman who needs to learn about Hannukah to impress clients meets up with a Jewish guy who needs to learn about Christmas to impress his partner’s family. This film had a lot of potential – it’s a different premise, the actors are great, and so on – but it does miss the mark where the Christmas being taught is simply decorations and the Hannukah taught is how to light the menorah and make one item of food. Had there had been… more, this would’ve been a really good one.

The Mistletoe Promise (USA, 2016) – Two strangers who hate Christmas agree to pretend to be in a relationship to further their careers. Predictable premise well saved by decent actors and a good script.

A Rose For Christmas (USA, 2017) – A businessman is assigned to help create the festival float that will represent his company and the float company owner is a woman he’s going to fall for. Unrealistic and not a great story – the float’s also incredibly naff given it’s to promote a fair sized company.

Why do I watch these Christmas films? It’s certainly a good question when so many aren’t great – the ones that are good are pretty awesome, and therein lies the conundrum. I did do better this year; whilst still choosing premises that sounded okay, any that weren’t working for me within about 20 minutes were turned off in favour of the next. There were a ton and I only watched ones early on; I saw as the weeks went on that films added often had black actors in the main roles which was good to see; it seems this year’s productions have favoured more diversity in general and I’m looking forward to catching up on those next time.


This week’s podcast episode is with Katy Yocom. Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Katy Yocom (Three Ways To Disappear) discuss tiger conservation in India and balancing numbers alongside human requirements for life, the importance of being diligent when writing about a culture that is not your own, and what the three ways to disappear are.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here.

 
Elizabeth Baines – Astral Travel

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Looking backwards in order to go further forwards.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 397
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63219-9
First Published: 15th November 2020
Date Reviewed: 10th December 2020
Rating: 5/5

Now a grown-up in her own right, Josephine is composing a novel about her father who passed away a few years before. In doing this she hopes to better understand him; Josephine’s childhood was marked by a lot of parental abuse and neglect, physical and emotional, and as she tries to work through the trauma herself and to see past the blocks her mind had created to protect her, she learns more about the reasons her father and mother were as they were, why Josephine and her sister were scapegoats, and why their father changed his thoughts on his youngest child.

Astral Travel is a very careful novel that examines the effects of childhood abuse on people as they grow up. Due to its careful handling it is a difficult book to read but, in particular, readers who can relate to some amount of the text may find it cathartic.

The novel takes a few chapters to get going, owing to the question that will quickly arise – is this a book in a book, and, if it is, is it going to be a mashup of literary and magical realism fiction or something a bit different? The answer is that it is mostly not a book in a book due to the requirements of Josephine’s journey, however a more abstract interpretation of the ‘genre’ would be that it still is a book in a book, just not the one Josephine is writing. It is her research, the background she needs to find in order to write her book that we see here.

Most of the characters are unlikeable. Many will be unrelatable, but unlike that persistent idea that a book without relatable characters isn’t good (I digress, but it should be no surprise that this reviewer doesn’t subscribe to that) Astral Travel would not be what it is if you could relate. And frankly you don’t want to relate, not here, not this time.

With the book itself, Josephine’s first person narrative, set in the present day, the majority of the content looks back to the decades of the 20th century – bit from the late thirties, a few moments from earlier than that, and the decades of Josephine’s childhood and early adulthood (the 50s and beyond). This lends the book an interesting aspect – a backdrop of a less busy time foregrounded by concepts that are no longer acceptable, of which there are many and they are varied.

Josephine’s learned behaviour stops her from seeing a more normal family as the support they could be. Whilst her later in-laws have many of their own issues, their relative normality compared to the Jacksons is visible to the reader but never to Josephine. One of the unfortunate aspects of Josephine’s personal journey is that, whilst it simply may be beyond the scope of the book (which is a fair number of pages already), she does not get far enough in her exploration and self-therapy to see where people who are not like her family are okay to trust. This is likewise with Josephine’s mother – whilst her mother isn’t technically abusive, she is nevertheless somewhat complicit in the abuse and places the responsibility for not rocking the boat on her children rather than on her husband where it rightly belongs. And whilst she, the mother, has been physically abused herself, so you see the trauma there too, you can’t help but hope that part of Josephine’s further journey includes an understanding of the role her mother played, if just to make further sense of it.

The good thing is that the reader can see it all – this is why it could be cathartic for some, readers who may be further along their own paths.

To the writing itself, it’s strong and the general structure is very well thought out. Baines’ choice not to reveal ‘basic’ details such as Josephine’s name and gender, as well as a dedication to a writing style that keeps personal details hidden unless explicitly stated (barring subtext) means that you focus on the elements the author wants you to, when she wants you to. The use of white space in terms of presentation – sections are divided by blank pages – is practically a device in itself, a device more often used in poetry employed here in a way that provides literal breathing space for you to recover before you move on.

That’s one thing that ought to be pointed out, given I’ve noted that Astral Travel is difficult to read – the attention to structure and the presentation of the content (we’re back to the ‘careful handling’ here) means that whilst you might want to set it aside for a moment or two you’ll always be okay to return to it. You can’t help but root for Josephine.

I received this book for review.

 
2020 Year Of Reading Round Up

In 2020 I read 57 books, not my lowest number but definitely less than I’d considered it might be at the beginning of the year! I had a number of books unfinished by the year’s end, most of which I’d begun in the early spring, and, due to not having got very far with them, I decided to leave them off my reading lists completely until such time as I can contemplate starting them again, properly. The only one I kept was James Rebanks’ A Shepherd’s Life; I had read a good chunk of it and it was different to the other books in that whereas I read those outside and in the day in general, Rebanks’ book was saved for bedtime reading – time carved out without other books to distract me kept me going. All this to say that there are two books I carried over into 2021: the ever-present Vanity Fair (perhaps I need a readalong) and A Shepherd’s Life. The latter is in fact my father’s book – I bought it for him upon request when it was first published, and later he lent it to me to read – and so I was originally planning to finish it quickly. Having not seen Dad since last, last, Christmas and not knowing exactly when the next time would be, I admit to taking my time with the book. Got to find those small upshots where they are!

For the first time, I’m not going to do personal favourites. As you’ll see from the ratings, there was little not to like.

Best Of The Best

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Elizabeth Baines: Astral Travel (2020) – Following her father’s death, Josephine looks to make sense of his abusive behaviour through writing about him, and there is a lot more to uncover than her family will allow into the book. Probably the best book about childhood abuse I’ve read – this is an incredibly difficult book to read but the study and further exploration is exquisitely done.

Intisar Khanani: Thorn (2012) – When Princess Alyrra is betrothed to Prince Kestrin, she’s not comfortable with the idea of travelling to his kingdom with Valka, who dislikes her, and the sudden appearance of a mage followed by a fae-like lady the night before has her more so; as Valka betrays her and the two womens’ bodies are switched Alyrra starts a different journey, one that will involve learning all manner of things about herself in order to turn back the changes, and all manner of things about her new kingdom that royalty are never privvy to. A superb fairytale retelling and adaptation, Khanani expanding on the ideas in the original Goose Girl to incredible effect.

Isla Morley: Come Sunday (2009) – The young daughter of Abbe, a woman who is struggling with her general situation, dies in an accident and Abbe has to wade through the repercussions of this whilst learning to live with her grief. An exceptional look at extreme grief and bad circumstances and the process towards acceptance and hope.

Joanna Hickson: First Of The Tudors (2016) – A fictionised story of Jasper Tudor, son of Catherine de Valois and her second husband Owen Tudor, as well as Jane, mother of his illegitimate children, taking us from Jasper’s early years to the initial first campaigns to bring Jasper’s nephew, the future Henry VII, to the throne. A fantastic story, immersive, detailed, and just simply a very good book in general.

Laura Pearson: I Wanted You To Know (2019) – A young mother is diagnosed with cancer and as she struggles through the changes to her world and future she writes letters to her daughter for the girl to read after she is gone, making preparations and healing relationships beforehand. An incredibly emotional read; difficult but important.

Peter Ho Davies: The Fortunes (2016) – Four stories connected by Chinese American history, racism, passing, and that rubbish idea that all Asians look the same: we follow 1800s Ling as he works for a Chinese American laundryman and white American railway construction company owner; Hollywood star Anna May Wong discusses her career progression which is marred by racism; a fictionised friend of Vincent Chin discusses the night of his death and what followed; and John travels to China with his wife to adopt a baby, already having lots to think about on the subject of being Asian American now and throughout history, and finding even more now as he goes through the last stages of the handover. An utterly fantastic book – the handling of the subjects, and the writing and language in general is superb.

Sofie Laguna: The Eye Of The Sheep (2014) – Jimmy sees things differently to other people though he doesn’t quite know it, but he does know about the tentacles in his mother’s chest that cause her problems, sees his dad struggle, and often can’t help himself from running around for ages; the family situation as it is is not sustainable and we see the changes through Jimmy’s eyes. A fantastic book about a child who defies a label, and his very normal, everyday family, living in the 70s and 80s.

Tracy Rees: Florence Grace (2016) – A young girl living in relative poverty in the Victorian period is employed for an evening as a servant for a party, and she meets a boy with the surname Grace – who isn’t going to be her husband. I don’t want to spoil the story so I’ll leave it there; this is as enjoyable as Amy Snow but pretty different and more Dickensian and Emily Brontë than Amy Snow’s Austen and Charlotte Brontë.

5

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4.5

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4

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3.5

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3

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My reading list unsurprisingly reflects my podcast. There are no classics (Oliver Goldsmith was a casualty of the ‘not having got very far’) and nothing before 2007. There are also few review copies which I didn’t always get to in good time; I’m likely to lessen the number of those this new year. Podcast reading also means there are a number of re-reads here. I have changed a couple of ratings to reflect my updated thoughts on them; this accounts for discrepancies between ratings on this page and ratings and words in the linked reviews. I’ve excluded re-reads from my ‘best of the best’ list because it didn’t seem right to include them, especially as many were already on the ‘best of’ list for the year I first read them. The list also follows the one per author rule of previous years and due to that being strict enough, I’ve allowed for a higher number of best reads this time around.

Whilst compiling this post I made a note of various statistics which I later realised would be best included in a different post. I’ll be putting them together with my goals in the next few days. I’ve also a bumper film round up to get to.

What did you most enjoy reading last year?

 

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