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August 2022 Reading Round Up

August was a good month for books. I read more of The Venatrix Chronicles, swiftly, because the three books take place right after each other (it’s essentially three different sections of the same event). And I started The Ruby Red Trilogy; it was a recommendation from a friend who likes YA fantasy.

All books are works of fiction.

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Kerstin Gier: Ruby Red – For the last few centuries, certain people from Gwen’s family have been born with a time-travelling gene. This generation cousin Charlotte was set to be the traveller and had been preparing for it all her life but as it turns out, the traveller is Gwen. When she tells her mother about the minutes she’s been spending in the past for the last couple of days she’s swept into a society she never knew about and a secret that no one, not even the society, knows the details of. Great plot, otherwise problematic.

Kristin Harmel: The Forest Of Vanishing Stars – Yona was stolen from her parents by a mystic who believed the parents were bad people. Yona grows up in the forest and knows how to survive; when Jeruscha dies in the first years of WW2 and Yona comes across an injured child in the forest she has a choice to make – help survivors of the Nazi ghettos survive or stay away as she has always been taught? A brilliant novel in all ways.

Sylvia Mercedes: Dance Of Souls – The wedding is happening, they hope. Ayleth is commanded to attend the celebrations and it’s just as well because the Phantomwitch probably isn’t just going to let the sister of the woman she took marry the Prince either. A brilliant book for the series – the pacing is swift, the time covered is short and thus full of detail, and nothing lets up even for a minute.

Sylvia Mercedes: Tears Of Dust – Continuing the story of the events after the marriage. The pace continues to be swift.

Sylvia Mercedes: Queen Of Poisons – Continuing the story some more. The pace slows slightly but the story remains a page-turner.

The pacing of the Mercedes books is incredible; in book 3 it started to become quicker and the books listed here, 4-6, speed up even faster and do not let go on the pace at all. I’m expecting the final book will slow down a bit, at least for a time, but suffice to say I’m incredibly glad for Intisar Khanani’s tweeted recommendation of the series and will be looking to choose another series soon. Ruby Red was okay. It’s a book that I’d split into three sections for review: the plot is very good – enough that it keeps you going; the writing not at all good (though I believe the fault to lie equally across the original German, English translation, and American copy-editing of the translation); the main character switches between being believable for her 16 years and then behaving like a 10 year old. The Harmel I love and I’m currently trying to choose which book of hers to read next.

As well as more books by Mercedes and the second Gier book which I’ve started, I have E C Fremantle’s The Honey And The Sting to read in September, as well as Kate Glanville’s The Peacock House and a mystery, A Gilded High Note by Cecelia Tichi. I’m looking forward to all of them!

 
June and July 2022 Reading Round-Up

I read a fair amount in June and July, including some exceptional reads. It was an incredibly enjoyable two months for reading; every book had something particular about it that made things special.

All books are works of fiction.

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Chloe Timms: The Seawomen – On the isle of Eden, women are married off and must produce a child within a year if they are not to be cast into the sea. As Esta draws nearer to her own adulthood, she starts to question everything she’s been told about the evils of the sea and the mermaids therein, and when she runs away from a gang of young men and runs into the water to escape, she meets a man from the sea who offers her a different story to the one she’s always been told. An absolutely fantastic dystopian tale that has become one of my most favourite books.

Megan Nolan: Acts Of Desperation – Our unnamed young narrator is addicted to love and relationships and whilst everyone around her looks askance at her becoming the girlfriend of older Ciaran, our narrator doesn’t care. He’s perfect in his darkness, and it’s worth the hurt, the tears, the drunkenness and cigarettes. We hear from her looking back at the relationship a couple of years into the future from where she has the hindsight to assess the time with a more critical eye. This is a very focused book with a narrator that’s incredibly difficult to like and due to the focus it doesn’t really ‘go’ anywhere in terms of plot or location – this is one to read for it’s literary value and I say that because in that context it is fantastic. Just prepare for moodiness!

Natalie Jenner: Bloomsbury Girls – 1950s London, and the years following the war have been difficult for women who’ve gone from being needed in the workplace to being pushed aside. Vivian definitely feels this as a member of staff at Bloomsbury Books (shop), and Grace in the back offices. But now there’s a new girl, Evie, starting in the rare books section upstairs and it gives Vivian in particular the push she needed to start making changes at the shop. Their days will include breaking the 51 rules the management has in place, sharing a table with some of the biggest literary stars of the day, and Evie’s secret plan to make up for her not receiving a job in academia she was the best candidate but wrong gender for. A lot of fun, Jenner’s inclusion of Daphne du Maurier as well as her inclusion of book auctions and little-known writers is a joy to behold.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan: Starling Days – Mina throws her shoe over the railings on the bridge but tells the ambulance staff the police she wasn’t looking to jump. Oscar is not convinced and when the opportunity arises for them to work on his father’s flats in England, the couple go there to have a break. Mina’s given up work for a break, and she takes it, but soon Oscar has to return to the US and Mina is left alone, with Oscar’s friend’s sister. It’s difficult to sum this book up but suffice to say it’s brilliant.

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Sally Page: The Keeper Of Stories – Janice ‘collects’ the stories of her clients, homeowners who she cleans for. She doesn’t have a story herself. Or does she? When she begins working for elderly Mrs B, Janice meets her match – another person who likes collecting stories and who doesn’t believe that Janice does not have her own. An excellent page turner with a wonderful slow build-up of character development, a great personified dog, and a very satisfying ending.

Sylvia Mercedes: Daughter Of Shades – Ayleth has been training to become a shade hunter for years (shades take mortal host bodies) and works with Hollis as a team in their local borough, but she wants more. When a call is put out for candidates to work in the most dangerous borough, Ayleth goes against Hollis to travel to the palace and pitch for herself, but of course she’s not the only one after the job and the others have a lot more experience. The first in a seven book series, this novel gives small hints as to the wider theme but concentrates on the basics of an introduction, to create a whole that is incredibly fun and full of promise in terms of concepts of fantastical religions.

Sylvia Mercedes: Visions Of Fate – Ayleth starts work with Terryn in her bid to become the next Evanderian in Wodechran Borough. Not quite as good as book one, but the promise is there for book three.

Sylvia Mercedes: Paths Of Malice – As Terryn and Ayleth continue to investigate the problems of the Witchwood and Terryn continues to avoid calling his shade by its name, the second attempt at a marriage for Prince Gerald begins with Fayline’s convent novice younger sister. Will a marriage happen this time or will Celine suffer a similar fate to her sister and be taken over by a witch? Much better than book two, this is where the series starts to get incredibly good and is, I can say with hindsight, the last book before the pace goes at a rate of knots.

The use of fantasy and religion in both the Timms and Venatrix books (the three Mercedes) was brilliant – they’re very different (Timms is literary fantasy, Mercedes genre). I also really liked the writing for the reader that Nolan does, a feeling of Charlotte Brontë in a book nothing like the classic author’s, whereas the Jenner was great for its look at literary auctions and past literary figures that aren’t often (if ever?) included in fiction. The Hisayo Buchanan was just great in general, better still than her first book. And Sally Page can write a page turner for commercial fiction as good if not better than any thriller.

It won’t surprise you that so far in August I’ve read more from Mercedes (at the point of posting here, I’ve one more book left to go of the seven). I’ve read Kristin Harmel’s The Forest Of Vanishing Stars for both pleasure and podcast (though on that first alliterative word it’s a difficult book to read due to its subject), and I’ve a Young Adult historical fantasy trilogy waiting on my shelves for a couple of days’ time – I need more fantasy fiction right now!

 
February, March, April, And May 2022 Reading Round Up

I got a fair amount of reading done this late winter and spring, all told. Some absolutely excellent books that kept me from other tasks quite regularly.

The Books
Non-Fiction

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John Bevis: An English Library Journal – Bevis sets out to get a library card from every library authority in England, and some from Wales and Northern Ireland where work-related travel permits. An interesting concept with a certain structure – where a repeat of each interaction would have become, well, repetitive, Bevis interweaves the more interesting anecdotes with slices of library history, both specific to the one he’s visiting and in general.

Natasha Miller (ed.) Jamie Blaine: Relentless – Miller’s teenage years were marked by abuse, and when she gains emancipation early, she starts to chart a course that will lead her to a fantastic career in music and wonderful position as founder of a huge events company. Incredibly compelling and inspiring, a true life story to root for.

Fiction

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Amanda Geard: The Midnight House – After a break-up and problems with her career, Ellie moves back home from Dublin to Kerry; one of the secondhand books she receives from her mum’s friend has an old letter in it that seems related to the mystery of the woman who appeared to have died in the lake at the big house. Great story – a good use of narrative, a good use of the concept of predictability (and unpredictability) and clues, and a hugely satisfying epilogue.

Elizabeth Von Arnim: Elizabeth And Her German Garden – A woman spends as much time as possible in the garden she has created (if not often planted herself, given the time period) and recounts various tales of those she is compelled to socialise with (because it’s apparent she won’t socialise if she could help it, it takes time away from the garden). A book that could easily be mistaken for a memoir, this is an okay book, ‘okay’ mainly due to the main character who could stand to be a little kinder, but there isn’t much going on, nor is there any sort of plot. This is one for a fan of Von Arnim.

Frances Burney: Evelina – A young woman enters society, with some good people and some not so, to various effects, suitors, and lessons. Okay, and better than some books of the same time period (Emmeline, with its similarities) but definitely a first novel.

Grace D Li: Portrait Of A Thief – When Will witnesses the theft of Chinese art from the Sackler Museum, he can’t tell the police much, but what he does leave out is that the thieves slipped him a business card. Do Will and his friends want $10 million in return for 5 heists? The art taken during the looting of the Summer Palace is wanted back and unsuspected students may be the answer. A great story questioning the ownership of looted work, Chinese American identity, which is frankly very fun and completely worth suspending a bit of belief for.

Jennifer Saint: Elektra – So as not to ruin the author’s retelling, I will say that this is Saint’s story of the Trojan War and Elektra’s decisions from the perspective of Elektra, Clytemnestra, and Cassandra. Helen features a fair amount too. Very, very, good – Saint has created a compelling tale whilst sticking to the over all concept of the original myths, keeping all the tragedies and so on.

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Melissa Fu: Peach Blossom Spring – When Changsha is hit during the Second Sino-Japanese War, by friend or foe (it’s not known), Meilin takes her son with the family to safety; this will entail fleeing and becoming refugees in a different land, and we follow Meilin, then Renshu, and then, in turn, daughter Lily. A fantastic if often difficult story, written beautifully, epic in nature.

Oliver Goldsmith: The Vicar Of Wakefield – A well-enough-off vicar’s money is lost and he must take his family to a poorer parish and home resulting in mishaps and, before long, rather Dickensian silly situations well before Dickens’ time. I think there’s a reason it did well in its day. There’s also a reason it’s not so well known now.

Susanna Kearsley – The Winter Sea – Author Carrie travels to Scotland for inspiration and research for her latest book, and once at her destination begins to receive memories of sorts from the Jacobite ancestors she wanted to write about, in particular a young woman whose fate Carrie must find out. A character-driven book with a simple plot in two narratives, the reading ‘journey’ is absolutely wonderful and Kearsley’s writing of the narratives well-balanced – both narratives are just as good.

Yvonne Bailey-Smith: The Day I Fell Off My Island – Erna lives with her grandparents and siblings in Jamaica; one day her siblings are taken by their father to England and Erna will follow in due course. This is giving a fair amount of the book away – half is set in Jamaica, half in England – but it’s necessary to give you an idea of what happens; it’s set in the 1960s.

It’s been a time of variety, which may have been the key. There has been much to love, in fact the only book I took a long time to finish, in relative terms at least, was the Goldsmith. There is some hilarity but there’s also so much everything-and-everyone-is-here and coincidence and so on; if we’re talking comedy, I definitely prefer Horace Walpole. In terms of books I was able to savour (because the ones for podcasts had to be read swiftly!) I loved the Kearsley and the Burney; Evelina was my first Burney, and I’ve moved on to Cecilia though I may need to restart it as I’ve left some months in between readings. I enjoyed Evelina a good amount though I dare say at the moment I do prefer the writer Burney inspired, Austen. One of the books, I think it’s Cecilia, threw me with some random antisemitism – at least for a present-day reader it’s random, I expect at the time of publication it would have been one of those known societal things. I’m generally of the mind that we should view offensive phrases and thoughts in their context but I’m struggling with this one as it is literally ‘person + Jewish = bad’. It’s something historical I want to find out more about.

I have already finished two books in June – Sylvia Mercedes’ Daughter Of Shades, a YA fantasy that was recommended by Intisar Khanani on Twitter (I raced through it and am onto book 2) and Chloe Timms’ The Seawomen which I devoured in two days because I couldn’t do anything else – it is an exceptional novel and out on 14th June. So it’ll be Sylvia Mercedes going forward this month and hopefully another podcast read or two.

What have you been reading?

 
On ‘My Darling from the Lions’, The Title Of Rachel Long’s Poetry Collection

A photograph of Rachel Long's My Darling from the Lions laying on a lawn

I wanted to take a brief moment to appreciate the title of Rachel Long’s collection – her first – that has been on at least five award shortlists1.

When I first saw it, when I got the book, I thought it was… different. Unusual. I had no context in which to critique or consider it. I realise now, having started the book properly and reading it slowly, that I had accidentally ‘seen’, as such, a comma: ‘My Darling, from the Lions’. For whatever reason at the time of acquisition, probably due to the length and uniqueness of the title – a new thing for me where poetry is concerned – and also that fact it was my first encounter with the book in any form, I had read it more like the opening of a letter.

As a letter it makes strange, fantastical sense. It may also work in context, nay, it essentially does give the same basic idea as the ‘true’ one, but it’s less easy to decifer.

In its true form then, without the addition of my rogue comma, we have five words in a single sentence clause. The ‘Darling’ is a part of the group of Lions. The stylisation, though it may fit with normal English language styling anyway, helps us focus on the subjects My, Darling, Lions. And even without the ‘from the’, the title still suggests a similar idea, just that it’s more in the form of a group, ‘My Darling Lions’.

(On a related note, the ‘design’ of the title, in terms of where and how it’s printed on the cover, itself suggests this. It’s only the title page that puts it all on one line.)

To roll back from my pedantry and look at the text itself, the first few poems, which I’ll focus on because the first poems in a collection tend to subtly explain the title and are the ones that tend to stay with me – is that something everyone feels, a sort of ever-so-slight fatigue for close reading once you get past the first few poems in a collection? – the poems of the first section, which is called ‘Open’, suggests different interpretations. (Obviously?)

The section is ‘Open’, then the first poem, a single verse, is called ‘Open’. This is followed by ‘Hotel Art, Barcelona’, and ‘Night Vigil’.

‘Open’ suggests lions by its ‘I sleep with my mouth open’2. Not easy to miss, though the implication, if we see a narrator and see them as Long herself, is that Long is the Lion.

The other two poems say otherwise. ‘Hotel Art, Barcelona’ suggests that the lion is the romantic partner in the situation3, and ‘Night Vigil’ points to the Lion being a priest who shouldn’t be around children – two very different circumstances, but regardless accounting for the plural of Lions. (I’ll note that the idea of ‘MY darling’ works in the context of other poems, too, a darling straight from Long herself.)

I’m sure there is much that could be said about ‘from’, the possibility of possession or travel, the past, changes, but I’ll leave my pedantry to the subject words. I’m really rather into poetry now, having not really ‘got’ it for most of my life – modern poetry has helped a lot – and it continues to thrill me. But Rachel Long’s collection is the first time that thrill has been immediate and before I’ve even opened the book.

Please do share any literary pedantry or close reading you’ve done recently!

Notes

1 The Rathbones Folio Prize, the Costa Poetry Award, the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, the Jhalak Prize, and the Young Writer of the Year Award.
2 Interestingly, understandably, after three uses of the word ‘open’ so far, that one instance is enough for the verse. It’s repeated twice more for the next two instances of an ‘Open’ verse, after which we see changes for the last two.
3 This is an incredibly surface-level comment on the poem, which in fact has a ton of layers and has bowled me over.

 
January 2022 Reading Round Up (And Accounting For August To December 2021)

January saw me read four books, which is better than I could have hoped. They were all for podcasts which wasn’t what I’d planned but what needed to happen; February has been more varied in terms of purpose. I have also accidentally ‘cheated’ my system: I read only the very last chapter of The Reading List in January rather than any substantial amount, so technically it was also/really a December read. It was an enjoyable reading month.

All books are works of fiction.

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Imogen Clark: Impossible To Forget – After Angie’s death, four of her closest friends are brought together to find out her written request that they each pitch in to help her daughter as she becomes a young adult; it’s an odd idea, but they agree to do it, it’s just no one really knows why Hope, a younger friend, is there with them. An easy read of the best sort – quick, short chapters, with a story and characters that keep you reading and wanting it to continue.

Kaia Alderson: Sisters In Arms – Americans Eliza and Grace sign up to the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps during WW2; as black women it will be a difficult road to travel but together with their unit they show how important they are and achieve results no other units had been able to. Based on the real life all-black women 6888th postal battalion, this is a compelling story of triumph in the face of many adversities.

Kate Quinn: The Rose Code – A socialite (whose boyfriend is Prince Philip), a shop girl, and a young woman abused by her parents end up sharing their lives when they join the teams at Bletchley Park to help decode the messages from the Enigma machine. A part factual, part fictional, tale about the code-breaking efforts as well as the war lives of three different women and the Park in general.

Sara Nisha Adams: The Reading List – When Naina dies, Mukesh finds her library copy of The Time Traveller’s Wife, reads it, and starts to wonder if he can improve his relationship with his bookish granddaughter through his new interest in books; meanwhile Aleisha, who Mukesh meets at the library, is struggling at home with a brother who is often out and a mother with a mental illness; the two form an unlikely friendship through the discovery and usage of a reading list no one knows the author of. Perfect book about books, this story uses as its structure the list of books, moving the plot forward as characters and reader alike continue through it.

As said, this was an enjoyable month for books. Alderson’s story introduced me to a slice of history I was unaware of and led to me finding out about the employment of black people in the British army in the same years as well as the general differences (and similarities) between attitudes. I can recommend doing this if you don’t know about it already – both the American and British histories are compelling. (And might, maybe, nowadays be included in school WW2 lessons?…) Quinn’s book taught me more details and introduced the fact that the Queen’s husband had been in a serious relationship prior to their own which led to the palace inviting the former girlfriend, Osla Benning, to meet the later Queen for tea. Quinn changed the timeline a bit but regardless it’s a bonkers and fascinating story to read about. Clark’s book was just pure delight; a great page turner whose author is very aware of what the reader is wondering (and delivers). And Adams’ story is simply the perfect book about books, with libraries, wonderful characters, different ages and cultures brought together… just wonderful.

I’ve been thinking of how to include August to December round ups for last year having not done so at the time. It makes most sense to keep it short as I did account for the books themselves fully in my year round up and there is little point at this stage belaboring things. So here they are:

August: Claire North’s Notes From The Burning Age; Tyler Keevil’s Your Still Beating Heart
September: Hazel Gaynor’s The Bird In The Bamboo Cage; Jennifer Robson’s Our Darkest Night; Rosie Travers’ The Theatre Of Dreams; Wendy Holden’s The Duchess
October: Rebecca F John’s The Haunting Of Henry Twist; Samantha Sotto’s The Beginning Of Always
November: Janie Chang’s The Library Of Legends; Noelle Adams’ Married For Christmas; Patrick Gale’s Take Nothing With You
December: Edward Carey’s B: A Year In Plagues And Pencils

My current reads are mostly classics/older books, and I’m loving it. More on that in the February round up!

 

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