Sep 28, 2014

Dragging My Heels into Autumn

pile of pumpkins at a market stall
Dragging My Heels into Autumn
For the second year in a row I find myself facing the end of summer with a sinking heart. It used to be that by September I was more than ready to welcome autumn, but moving somewhere more northerly has made a lot of difference. Now the end of the months of long and occasionally even sunny days really gets me down. I think a September holiday in a warm place was a mixed blessing in this regard — on the one hand I clung to thoughts of Greece to help me ignore the first turning leaves, but on the other hand when I came back the turning of the season felt all the more abrupt. It’s taking a lot of happy, apple-y and pumpkin-ish thoughts to counterbalance that.

A part of focusing on the pleasures of autumn is of course making a list of suitably dark and spooky novels to enjoy throughout October. Unlike last year, I’m going to stay away from overambitious plans, even if sometimes they’re their own reward. Instead I thought I’d just share a brief list of mostly recent library finds that seem to fit the bill. It’s only looking at them now that I realise most of the covers have a similar sort of feel, which I think is a good visual representation of what I’m in the mood for around this time of year.

  • Midnight is a Place by Joan Aiken: I adore Joan Aiken, and this has been on my TBR pile for far too long. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:
    Lucas is lonely. Orphaned and sent to live with his formidable guardian in a vast mansion, he longs for a friend. Then Anna-Marie arrives. She's spoilt and wilful - and practically half his age. Lucas feels more alone than ever. But one night something terrible happens. Lucas and Anna-Marie face a terrifying and treacherous ordeal, alone in the hostile city streets. Together, they must fight to survive...
  • The Quick by Lauren Owen: I was seduced by the comparisons to Wilkie Collins on the back cover. It could go either way, but if it’s as good as I hope I’ll be so happy. Blurb:
    You are about to discover the secrets of The Quick –

    But first, reader, you must travel to Victorian England, and there, in the wilds of Yorkshire, meet a brother and sister alone in the world, a pair bound by tragedy. You will, in time, enter the rooms of London’s mysterious Aegolius Club – a society of the richest, most powerful men in England. And at some point – we cannot say when – these worlds will collide.

    It is then, and only then, that a new world emerges, a world of romance, adventure and the most delicious of horrors – and the secrets of The Quick are revealed.
  • The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough: The beautiful cover art is entirely responsible for my interest in this one. It was in our General Fiction section, but the blurb certainly makes it sound dark:
    A woman sits at her father's bedside watching the clock tick away the last hours of his life. Her brothers and sisters - all traumatised in their own ways, their bonds fragile - have been there for the past week, but now she is alone.
    And that's always when it comes.
    As the clock ticks in the darkness, she can only wait for it to find her...
  • In the Woods by Tana French: Finally? This has been recommended to me hundreds of times over the years, and all the praise The Secret Place received this year as a reminder that I ought to make time for it.
    When he was twelve years old, Adam Ryan went playing in the woods with his two best friends. He never saw them again. Their bodies were never found, and Adam himself was discovered with his back pressed against an oak tree and his shoes filled with blood. He had no memory of what had happened.

    Twenty years on, Rob Ryan - the child who came back - is a detective in the Dublin police force. He's changed his name. No one knows about his past. Then a little girl's body is found at the site of the old tragedy and Rob is drawn back into the mystery. Knowing that he would be thrown off the case if his past were revealed, Rob takes a fateful decision to keep quiet but hope that he might also solve the twenty-year-old mystery of the woods.
  • Lastly, The Mysteries by Lisa Tuttle: Another cover that drew my eye.
    Ever since his father disappeared when he was nine years old, Ian Kennedy has had a penchant for stories about missing people - and a knack for finding them. Now he's a private investigator with an impressive track record. But when a woman enters his office and asks him to find her lost daughter, Ian faces a case he fears he cannot solve.

    Laura Lensky's stunning twenty-one-year-old daughter, Peri, has been missing for over two years - a lifetime, under the circumstances. But when Ian learns the details of her disappearance, he discovers eerie parallels to an obscure Celtic myth - and to the haunting case that launched his career, an early success he's never fully been able to explain...

    A stack containing the books listed above

    How about you? Any October reading plans? And any strategies to stay cheerful during the cold, dark months?
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    Sep 26, 2014

    P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia

    P.S. Be Eleven by Rita-Williams Garcia

    P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia
    Today I’m over at Lady Business with my second contribution to the excellent A More Diverse Universe: a discussion of Rita Williams-Garcia’s P.S. Be Eleven with Jodie. For once our post is not a spoilers fest, even if this book is a sequel to One Crazy Summer — mainly because these are not very spoilable novels. So feel free to head over and read all about why Williams-Garcia is such a smart, nuanced writer, and why we were both in awe of how she approaches the Civil Rights era and questions of race and gender that remain relevant to this day.

    A More Diverse Universe 2014 logo

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    Sep 23, 2014

    A Visit to the Dodecanese, part two: Symi

    As promised, I’m following up my Rhodes post with a virtual tour of the island of Symi, which is easily one of the prettiest places I’ve visited so far. The harbour area is a bit like an Alpine mountain town, except by the Mediterranean rather than by snowy peaks. We didn’t plan to go initially because to be honest we didn’t known about it — I'm so glad we discovered it in time and made the effort to go in the end.

    I shall let the pictures speak for themselves:

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    Sep 22, 2014

    A Visit to the Dodecanese, part one: Rhodes

    Time for another let’s-pretend-this-is-a-travel-blog post (sorry!): last week I was on holiday in the Greek islands of Rhodes and Symi, where I had the most wonderful time. The only literary connection I can make here is that I was raised on a heavy diet of Greek mythology, and the Ancient World looms very large on my imagination — I always like to see where stories I care about come from, and it’s more exciting than I can say to visit places whose names I’ve known for so long. However, I know next to nothing about contemporary Greek literature, and the trip sprung up on me before I had the chance to investigate. Suggestions, anyone?

    Rhodes was an excellent match for my interests: it combines beautiful beaches with lots of opportunities for historical sightseeing. As much as I love the sea, my ideal holiday is one where I get to spend half my time lounging and reading on the beach and the other half exploring — and here I had the chance to do just that. The Old Town of Rhodes is a World Heritage Site and the oldest continually inhabited medieval town in Europe; plus the island is full of monuments from different historical periods: Ancient, Byzantine, Knights of Saint John, and Ottoman.

    Also, there were a lot of cats — so many that I went from delighted to see them to worried about them (well, I never stopped being delighted, but you know). Some obviously belonged to the houses on those doorsteps they were sleeping; others not so. I wanted to bring half of them home.
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    Sep 15, 2014

    Reading Notes: One Crazy Summer, 19 Varieties of Gazelle, Inside Out and Back Again

    One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, 19 Varieties of Gazelle by Naomi Shihab Nye, Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

    A More Diverse Universe 2014 logo
    Today I bring you a special A More Diverse Universe edition of Reading Notes: the following are all excellent books by women of colour that I’d like to draw your attention to. Coincidently, two of them are also Newbery Honor Books, and all three are National Book Award finalists or winners — a reminder that these are awards I should probably keep an eye on.

    One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
    One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia: This wonderful historical novel is set in 1968, a key year in the Civil Rights Movement, and it tells the story of three sisters — Delphine, Vonetta and Fern — who travel to Oakland to spend time with their estranged mother. Their mother, Cecile, left Brooklyn when the youngest of the three sisters was a baby, and became an artist and Black Panther activist in California. There are many reasons why One Crazy Summer is brilliant, but the main one is that it acknowledges both the validity of Cecile’s choices and the legitimacy of Delphine’s feelings of abandonment, thus allowing a complicated and multifaceted truth to emerge. This is pretty much my favourite thing for fiction to do, so chances I wasn’t going to love it were slim.

    My second contribution to Diversiverse will hopefully be a discussion of this novel’s sequel, PS: Be Eleven, and I’ll get into what makes William-Garcia’s writing so great in more detail then. Suffice to say for now that both One Crazy Summer and PS: Be Eleven were reminders of why I have so little patience for “children’s literature is simplistic” type arguments. These novels are historically rich, but in a way that never weighs down the narrative; they’re politically engaged in subtle but effective ways; they’re consistently nuanced; they challenge simplistic narratives about the everyday reality of fighting for racial and gender equality; and they’re immensely fun to read.

    A bit I especially liked:
    It wasn’t at all the way television showed militants—that’s what they called the Black Panthers. Militants, who from the newspapers were angry first wavers with their mouths wide open and their riffles ready for shooting. They never showed anyone like Sister Mukumbu or Sister Pat, passing out toast and teaching in classrooms.
    For more on this novel, read Jodie’s excellent review at Lady Business.

    19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East by Naomi Shihab Nye
    19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East by Naomi Shihab Nye: Unlike Inside Out and Back Again, which I discuss below, 19 Varieties of Gazelle is not a novel in verse — but all the same there’s a clear narrative thread to these poems. Put together they tell a story of everyday life in Palestine, and humanise people we’re trained to think of as a faceless collective. I love what Shihab Nye says in her introduction:
    Poetry slows us down, cherishes small details. A large disaster erases those details. We need poetry for nourishing and for noticing, for the way language and imagery reach comfortably into experience, holding and connecting it more successfully than any news channel we could name.
    The details are what makes 19 Varieties of Gazelle such a vivid and moving collection. Take, for example, these lines from “The Palestinians Have Given Up Parties”:
    The bombs break everyone’s
    sentences in half.
    Who made them? Do you know anyone
    who makes them?
    The ancient taxi driver
    shakes his head back and forth
    from Jerusalem to Jericho.
    They will not see, he says slowly,
    the story behind the story,
    they are always looking for the story after the story
    which means they will never understand the story.

    Which means it will go on and on.
    ...Or the short poem “The Tray”:
    Even on a sorrowing day
    the little white cups without handles
    would appear
    filled with steaming hot tea
    in a circle on the tray,
    and whatever we were able
    to say or not say,
    the tray would be passed,
    we would sip in silence,
    it was another way
    lips could be speaking together,
    opening on the hot rim,
    swallowing in unison.
    As I said back when I got this book, I had high expectations due to Shihab Nye’s poem “Gate A-4”. I’m happy to report I wasn’t in the least let down.

    Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
    Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai: Lastly, we have a historical novel in verse about ten-year-old Hà, who moves from Vietnam to Alabama in the 1970s, during the Vietnam War. The novel is divided into four sections: the first focuses on Hà’s life before the fall of Saigon; the second on her family’s long boat journey to America; the third on their lives in Alabama, where Hà faces racist bullying at school, struggles to adjust to her new environment, and slow begins to feel at home in her new life; and the fourth and final one looks towards the future.

    Inside Out and Back Again is a quick read, but Lai manages to make Hà’s world feel fully realised. Through a series of key scenes and small but meaningful details, we get to know the emotional reality behind Hà’s experiences: her feelings about the home she leaves behind, her adjustment to the loss of her father, her struggles with the English language, what it feels like to go from the brightest student in her class to someone who’s routinely condescended to, etc. Lai combines humour and sadness to tell the story of a young girl’s transition to a new life.

    I liked the following scene, where for the first time Hà tells an adult (her neighbour Miss Washington) about the bullying she’s had to endure at school. By then she’s had reasons to begin to suspect that well-meaning adults are not necessarily infinitely powerful, but there’s still relief in knowing she doesn’t have to face this alone.
    How can I explain
    dragonflies do summersaults
    in my stomach
    whenever I think of
    the noisy room
    full of mouths
    chewing and laughing?

    I’m still translating
    when her eyes get red.

    I’ll pack you a lunch
    and you can eat at your desk.

    No eat in class.

    I’ll fix that.
    Things will get better
    just you wait.

    I don’t believe her
    but it feels good
    that someone knows.
    (Have you read any of these books? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

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