Feb 10, 2013

Regency Romance, Shakespeare Retold, and a Social History of Jewellery (among other things)

Did any of you happen to notice that I changed by blog’s subtitle to “a reading journal” sort of recently? I’d actually been meaning to for quite a long while, only I’d misplaced the original text-less header image I’d used. Anyway, the new subtitle is part of my resolution to embrace the personal in my writing to a greater extent than I have so far. I really enjoy writing essays about books, and doing so will always be the bread and butter of this blog; but at the same time, I want to give myself permission to be a bit more conversational; to experiment with form more often; to do whatever feels right from moment to moment. For example, lately I’ve been really enjoying Eva’s Field Notes and can easily imagine my blog evolving in a similar direction in the future. What has kept me excited about blogging for the past six years was having the opportunity to engage with ideas through my reading and writing, and lately I’ve been thinking that I’d like to do that through a more narrative format – one that gave me room to explore the links between my reading and my life in a more explicit way.

Having said that, this will actually be a fairly traditional post: there were several January books I never got around to sharing with you, and I’d like to do that before I go away for a little while (more on that tomorrow). I read a lot of comics last month, so I’ll start by telling you about those:

Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse

Alison Bechdel, who wrote the introduction to Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby, called it a graphic novel with “ambitious historical sweep”, “rich characters”, and an “unflinching look at sex, race, violence, hate and love”. Stuck Rubber Baby is set in a Southern college town in the 1960s, and it tells the story of Toland Polk, a young man who becomes involved with the Civil Rights movement while coming to terms with his own homosexuality. What I liked the most about it was its messiness: this is a story that acknowledges people’s contradictions, their capacity to do harm even with the best of intentions, and the fact that social progress isn’t always linear or straightforward. The characterisation is simultaneously unflinching and generous, and the historical backdrop made me want to particularly recommend it to Jill and Aarti.

Stitches by David Small

I’m late to the party when it comes to Stitches by David Small, since so many people sang its praises back in 2010. Stitches is a graphic memoir of the author’s difficult childhood, and if you’re thinking you could do without another “misery memoir”, hear me out: Stitches is a heartbreaking story, but it’s also one that’s told generously and compassionately. The book won me over for good when, in the last few pages, Small humanises his parents and acknowledges that although this is not their story, they were real people who carried around entire worlds of secret, private miseries of their own. None of this excuses the mistreatment he suffered at their hands, but it gives the reader more than a child’s vision of all-powerful villains by mixing it with an adult’s understand that parents also flawed human beings.

Besides, the emotional range of Small’s artwork is really impressive. This is a book you can read in under an hour, but I’d recommend taking time over each page – most of its nuances are in the art rather than in the text.

Kill Shakespeare by Anthony Del Col, Conor McCreery and Andy Belanger is a comic series in the vein of Fables, Jack of Fables or The Unwritten, which is to say: it’s a story about stories and it’s not one bit apologetic about it. The premise is the following: the heroes and the villains of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays come together in a world where the Bard himself is a reclusive wizard whose pen holds more power than they can imagine. I find this a really exciting premise, for reasons best expressed in Isabella’s excellent reviews of the series:
I'm all for using popular culture as a vehicle to the classics. There's nothing so sacred about Shakespeare that a divide should be drawn to keep him unsullied. Let his blood mingle with the rest of our entertainments — let him be popular culture.
Or, as Nick Hornby so well puts it, nothing kills classics faster than the idea that they should be put behind a glass case instead of being allowed to exist in the same world as us. One of the reasons why remixes are exciting is that they do a great job of challenging the idea that certain stories should be put in a pedestal.

But enough abut the premise – how good is the execution, you ask? Well, I enjoyed Kill Shakespeare, but I suspect I’d have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t read other series that do more or less the same thing, only better – especially when it comes to using stories to shed light on our fascination with narrative. Oh, The Unwritten — you have spoiled me for everything else. I should add, though, that I’m not the most Shakespeare literate person around, so it’s quite likely that there were a hundred subtle details and cool subversions and in-jokes that I simply didn’t get. I’m guessing that the more you know about Shakespeare, the more you’ll get out of this series.


In for a Penny by Rose Lerner was my first real romance novel. Actually, I should probably amend that and say it was my first romance novel that openly markets itself as such, because I’ve read plenty of things that aren’t “really” romance in the same way Margaret Atwood or Kazuo Ishiguro aren’t “really” science fiction. Anyway, In for a Penny is a delightful regency romance that subverts the usual “marriage to a pure woman reforms a lovable rogue” storyline. There’s a lot of emphasis on communicating honestly, on slowly developing intimacy and building a relationship, and on contextualising marriage as one of many relationships that are important in the characters’ lives.

I also loved that the heroine’s sexual inexperience is never essentialised, but firmly tied to her upbringing and to expectations surrounding “proper” ladies instead. Add an interesting historical backdrop of class inequality, riots, and the Peterloo massacre, and my first foray into regency romance couldn’t have been a greater success. I look forward to continuing to explore the genre – my romance source, Ana, lent me Revealed by Kate Noble to read next, but if you have any other suggestions I’m all ears.

Victoria Finlay’s Buried Treasure (also published under the title Jewels: A Secret History) is many things: a micro-history of jewellery, a book that combines sociology, science, economics, travel writing and cultural analysis, and above all an excellent read. The chapters are divided according to Mohs’ scale of hardness: Finlay starts with amber and moves up through jet, pearl, opal, peridot, emerald, sapphire and ruby, until she finally reaches diamonds.

I don’t particularly care about jewellery (please don’t take that as an excepto girl statement, though, because it absolutely isn’t), but the reason why I couldn’t put this book down is best expressed by something Finlay says in the postscript: “the desire for, and sometimes veneration of, pretty stones is a matter of human storytelling, complex as that has been”. In Buried Treasure, Finlay explores the stories we tell ourselves about each particular “pretty stone”, how these stories attribute value to something that would otherwise be irrelevant for human life, and the effects changing narratives can have on a region’s economy, on the environment, and on the lives of real human beings. It’s possible that I’m not making this book sound as riveting as it is, but trust me when I say that I’d read Victoria Finlay’s take on absolutely anything. Like the best writers, she makes you care about topics you didn’t previously know you were interested in. Don’t believe me? Here’s Fyrefly’s review, which first put Finlay on my radar (thank you!).


Lastly, I’ve been reading a lot of picture books lately, mostly for professional development reasons. I’ve found that I’m not the best at evaluating picture books, possibly because I didn’t read that many as a child and because I haven’t really had the chance to watch children react to them until now. But as with most things, I expect this is something that practice and knowledge will fix. Lately I’ve fallen in love with Emily Gravett, who I first heard about at Valentina’s blog many years ago. Gravett’s art is stunning, but the main things that draw me to her books are the quirky humour, the very slight hints of darkness, and the implicit trust that what children want from a story is not necessarily what they’re expected to want. Here’s Liz Burns on Wolves, which is my favourite so far, and here’s some of the art:

Do you have a favourite picture book author? What do you love about them?

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. I like the "reading journal" tag. That was what I thought my blog would be ... oh well.

    Love this overview and it reminds me in particular to get back to The Unwritten.

  2. Your first romance! I've actually meant to read In for a Penny for a while, after I saw Ana post about it, but it's out of print and not in my library. Kate Noble is a great next choice - I read one of her books and I actually have Revealed on my shelves. So I hope you like it!

    I like the more personal style reviews, but I also love the way you talk about books as you do now. I'm looking forward to seeing how you evolve your blog. :)

  3. I loves Stitches when I read it but I don't think I'll ever grow tired of memoirs.

  4. I haven't read Kill Shakespeare for the precise reason that I feel it won't live up to The Unwritten. And also that I love Shakespeare with a very high degree of protective love, and I don't want people plotting to kill him. :p

    I've been reading romance novels lately because it turns out there are some that have SCHEMES in them. I love schemes. I love schemes so much. I always want to read about schemes. I quite liked Meljean Brook's Riveted, which is steampunky, and Courtney Milan tends to be pretty goodish, although sometimes a smidge overwrought. Those are my discoveries so far. Updates as warranted.

  5. aw I love that you're going to bring a more personal side to your reviews! What was your subtitle before? A Book Blog?

  6. I like the new subtitles, and I love the idea of going back and forth between essays and conversational posts. You have me wanting to read Stuck Rubber Baby and Stitches. I'm adding them to my list.

  7. Yay for blog evolution! I'm excited to see where you take yours - maybe I'll take mine to the same place :-)

    Stuck Rubber Baby sounds AMAZING and I'm so glad it made you think of me - it definitely looks like one I would be really interested in. Very cool that the author sheds light on the fact that the Civil Rights movement for homosexuals was so separate from that for Blacks. Similar to how the women's rights movement completely ignored civil rights for Blacks, too.

    And yay for Regency romance!

  8. I like that your blog is a "reading journal." I never gave my blog a purpose, even though it is mostly a reading journaly blog. It is a fluid thing. Sometimes, like now, I have a lot to say about the books I'm reading. Other times I have nothing to say about them, but a lot to say about other things in my life. I also love Eva's Field Notes :)

    Stuck Rubber Baby sounds really great, especially since I just finished a comic about Civil Rights called The Silence of Our Friends, which I think was good, but not a perfect representation of the time. It was too neat. You say one of the best things about Stuck Rubber Baby is the fact that it exposed the messiness and people's contradictions, but I felt like The Silence of Our Friends tried to do that, but failed on a certain level.

  9. I decided to shift to a more "reading journal" style when I came back to blogging. I felt like the pressure to write "finished" reviews was stifling me, and I'd rather just talk about the books when I had something to say. So far, it feels very freeing. I hope you'll enjoy your new format!

  10. I will have to look into Kill Shakespeare; it sounds really fun.

  11. I've just run out and bought Stiches based on your review of it! (Have you read Craig Thompson's 'Blankets'?)

  12. ARGH! Should have looked up your review archives before I asked! So delighted to see that you've enjoyed Blankets already!

  13. Yay for the personal!
    I love picture books by William Joyce. My favorites are Santa Calls and The Leaf Men, which I just realized (when I looked up the titles to make sure I had the author's name right) each correspond to the year one of my children was born.

  14. I already loved your blog with a passion that I sort of can't contain...seriously, ask Rich. :) But I'm pretty much ecstatic at that idea of you making it even more about your personal reactions and your experiences reading. I think you're pretty much a pure genius at writing that way, so I'll be squeeeeing my pants off to see even more of it! :D

  15. Hurrah for graphic novels and picture books! You've reminded me about The Unwritten and introduced me to Howard Cruse. Thank you, Ana. HAve a wonderful week.

  16. I love the narrative/conversational way your thinking of heading towards…though I think you do that more than you realize :) I can always see "you" in all of your blog posts. It's of course what I love so much about reading your blog.

    I'm so glad you read Stuck Rubber Baby!! I had completely forgotten about that book until I saw it hear and I just had a flood of memories pop back when I read your review of it. What a powerful book that was. And I still haven't read Stitches…just put that on my list!

    Have you ever read Harold and the Purple Crayon? It was my absolute favorite picture book growing up. My copy of it was so worn and tattered…wish I still had it :(

  17. So many wonderful titles. I really must read The Unwritten although Kill Shakespeare looks fabulous too. And Buried Treasure as I love gems and come from a country where so many gems are found. And I'm a big fan of Gravett too. Her illustrations are a wonderful mix of beauty and the sinister. Have you tried Oliver Jeffers?

  18. Glad to hear about your plan of being more personal with your blogs and reading blogs in a more personal perspective.

  19. Hooray! Have you read Finlay's Colors as well? (I can't remember.) If not, I definitely, definitely recommend it; I liked it even more than Jewels.

    I remember enjoying Kill Shakespeare well enough, but I am a big Shakespeare fan. It's been a while since I read the first volume, though, and the story definitely hasn't stuck with me as well as, say, The Unwritten.

    Also, the graphic novel I reviewed today, Smoke and Mirrors, is one I think you'd really enjoy. I can think of a lot of people who'd like it, but your name was the first that sprung to mind.

  20. Wow. Never worry about your blog being boring!!! Somehow I missed your first post on The Unwritten way back then, so I went to take a look and it's right on my to-get list. I've added the Finlay books to my library list, to be requested in April once I can read 'new' books again! lol And I've even added the Regency one to try. So please keep talking about books in any way you want, Ana!

    I will have to check out the wolf book next, too :-)

    Love this post, Ana, and it's so good to see you reading and enjoying books again.

  21. I really enjoyed the art of Kill Shakespeare... It was pretty. :)

  22. Awww, thanks Ana! I've always loved your blogging style so I look forward to seeing where you take it. I've actually been both trying to weave in the personal/bigger picture stuff (with Field Notes) AND more political/intellectual stuff in how I'm writing my individual 'review' ish posts, the latter definitely inspired by you. hehe

    The only romance author I've read is Susanna Kearsley (wait! and Georgette Heyer!), but thanks for the link to that blog! In For a Penny sounds wonderful.

    Isn't Finlay an incredible writer?! I thought her book on colours was even better. And now I've requested a few of Gravett's books for my niece. Her current two favourite authors are probably Mo Willems and Jackie French.

  23. Ahh picture books! I miss them. i don't have any excuse to read them or buy them anymore, but I'm so glad you're getting into them. Especially Emily Gravett's stuff. She's a bit of a genius.


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