May 19, 2015

First Quarter of 2015: Best Books I Didn't Blog About

First Quarter of 2015: Best Books I Didn't Blog About

As I was saying recently, I’m very happy with where my reading is taking me so far this year. However, between work, life, and general troubles and adventures, writing about said reading has kind of fallen by the wayside. With the first quarter of 2015 behind us (how?), I thought I’d give myself an amnesty: instead of making unrealistic plans to catch up, I’ll tell you, in approximately a hundred words per entry, about some of the most memorable books I read in the past four months. Here it goes:

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly:

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
Calpurnia Tate, an eleven-year-girl in 1899 Texas, shares her grandfather’s fascination with the natural world. She longs to be a scientist and rebels against the strict domestic role she’s pushed into due to gendered expectations. I loved getting to know Callie: her intellectual curiosity and her passion for science really come alive in these pages. Additionally, I loved Calpurnia’s relationship with her reclusive grandfather, as well as the fact that her more traditionally “girly” best friend Lula is neither demonised nor dismissed. Similarly, Kelly is sensitive in her handling of Callie’s mother and her concerns about her daughter’s non-traditional interests.

Deep Secret and The Merlin Conspiracy by Diana Wynne Jones:

Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones The Merlin Conspiracy by Diana Wynne Jones
Two companion novels about the Magid, a group of sorcerers and sorceresses who more or less oversee the use of magic across different worlds: Deep Secret is about Rupert, a Magid in search of a new trainee; potential candidate Maree; an intergalactic conspiracy; and a hilarious fantasy convention where anything can and does happen. The Merlin Conspiracy is partially set in an Arthurian world, and it’s told from the point of view of Maree’s cousin Nick and of a teenage girl named Roddy, who becomes aware of an alarming conspiracy at the King’s travelling court. These novels are smart, satisfyingly complex, deeply embedded in myth, and immensely fun to read. They were a reminder of why I should stop hoarding unread DWJs and just plunge in: life is too short to keep delaying gratification like this.

The Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle:

The Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle
Wren and Charlie fall in love the summer after they graduate high school: their story is about the vulnerability that comes with real intimacy, both sexual and emotional, and the difficult process of opening yourself up to it. However, I felt that the novel also reinforced dubious ideas about relationship balance being tied to traditional gender roles. Wren’s best friend says at one point that the trouble with modern feminism is that it doesn’t acknowledge women want to be women and men want to be men; while fictional characters often say things narratives as a whole don’t support, I saw no challenge of that idea here. In short, I loved this novel and it touched me deeply, but there’s plenty to it that needs examining.

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby:
Funny Girl by Nick Hornby
Hornby’s historical novel about the creative team behind a 1960s sitcom made me first very happy and then very sad. I loved heroine Sophie Straw and her determination to be taken seriously as a comic actress. I loved the smart ideas about pop culture and its meaningfulness — they’ll be familiar to readers of Hornby’s non-fiction, but they’re brought to life beautifully in this story. And I loved the writing too. However, I dearly wish Bill Gardiner had been allowed an ending that didn’t reinforce ideas about lgbtq lives being inherently tragic. It’s not, as I always say, each individual story that’s the issue, but the pattern is unmissable and it grates.

Anatomy of a Single Girl by Daria Snadowsky:

Anatomy of a Single Girl by Daria Snadowsky
The sequel of Anatomy of a Boyfriend does an even better job than Snadowsky’s first novel of validating teen girls’ right to experience and act on their desire. Dominique, newly single after a breakup with her first boyfriend, gets involved with a cute boy for the summer and learns about a different side of her sexuality. While her previous relationship was about emotional intimacy, this one is about discovering pleasure. The novel also emphasises safe sex, trust, consent and communication, and it puts Dominque’s decisions (including to say no and walk away) at the centre of the story.

The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones:

The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones
More DWJ wonderfulness: this one’s a dark novel about four sisters, a creepy doll cult, and a (maybe) ghost. I was unsure to begin with because I remembered how many attempts it took Jenny until she got into it properly, but I’m thrilled to report it worked for me. The plot, which is hazy at first, eventually falls into place, and the family dynamics and perceptive portrayal of childhood disempowerment grabbed me from the start. The book made me sad too, but not in a bad way — it’s mostly that, having read DWJ’s essays, I couldn’t help but think that there was plenty about the Melford sisters’ lives that was probably familiar to her.

March: Book Two by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell:

March: Book Two by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell
You’ll be unsurprised to hear I loved this for all the same reasons why I loved March: Book One. Lately I’ve been particularly interested in stories about the circumstances that allow people to get involved in transformative social movements, and John Lewis’ account of his activism examines the matter thoughtfully and perceptively. It also taught me a lot about the history of the Civil Rights movement, plenty of which I hadn’t come across before. It gave me context for these images, which I’m very grateful to have. I can’t wait for the third and final installment of this story.

Arsenic for Tea by Robin Stevens:

Arsenic for Tea by Robin Stevens
Just as good as the first Wells & Wong mystery, Murder Most Unladylike. This time, Daisy and Hazel investigate a murder mystery at Fallingford, Daisy’s family’s manor house, rather than at school; but there’s just as much period detail, friendship and tension, intrigue, danger, and devious plotting to uncover. There’s also a group of children trying to make sense of the unspoken rules of adult behaviour and of all the scary, upsetting things even adults close to them might be up to: this layer of emotional resonance and perceptiveness is what makes Stevens’ writing stand out for me.

Black Dove White Raven by Elizabeth Wein:

White Raven Black Dove by Elizabeth Wein
What Maureen said. I greatly enjoyed Black Dove, White Raven, a novel about the 1935 invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini’s regime, but I need to acknowledge that I read it from a position of privilege. Wein’s characterisation was excellent as always, the writing was incredible, and the ties between her characters were vivid and moving. I fell for siblings Theo and Emilia, and also for their mothers, pilots Delia and Rhoda. Additionally, the novel brought a previously unexplored pocked of history to life for me. Yet the fact remains that I’m a white reader reading a novel about African history by a white writer: as much as Wein’s research may seem careful and respectful to me, there’s plenty of context that I lack.

Infandous by Elana K. Arnold:

Infandous by Elana K. Arnold
This one is for fans of books like Poisoned Apples, Bone Gap or All Our Pretty Songs. Infandous has a plot that reads a bit like a Greek myth; additionally, the main storyline, about teenage artist Sephora Golding, is interweaved with brief retellings of myths and fairy tales centred around violence against women. This novel examines the chilling consequences of an unthinking act of carelessness which is deeply steeped in male privilege and unequal gendered power dynamics. I’m not easily shaken, but the revelation at the heart of this novel did it. It’s dark and difficult, but beautifully written and (for me) well worth reading.

Limbo Lodge by Joan Aiken:

Limbo Lodge by Joan Aiken
This book is part of Aiken’s delightful alternate history Wolves chronicles, and it proved one of my favourites so far. Whenever I read Aiken, I’m reminded of why I should do so more often: there’s something about her bold and playful use of language that fills me with pure readerly glee. The same goes for resourceful heroine Dido Twite, and for the twists and turns of Aiken’s plots. I especially enjoyed that Limbo Lodge is set on a colonised island and clearly sides with women and native peoples against the patriarchal and imperialist Angrians. This isn’t to say it’s flawless in terms of representation, but its sensibility spoke to me all the same.

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Have you read any of these? What did you think?

9 comments:

  1. Well, I've read all the DWJs of course, and I'm so glad you loved them. I don't think I made it to Limbo Lodge in the Wolves chronicles--I dropped off at some point. I agree that Joan Aiken is wonderful though. Calpurnia Tate is a name that keeps coming up, must give her a chance.

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    1. It's taken me years to get this far in the Wolves chronicles, but every time I pick another one up I suddenly have the urge to race through them all. They're such a delight.

      I think you might be hearing more about Jacqueline Kelly because there's a sequel to this novel coming out soon. Calpurnia is such a great character - I'm sure you'll enjoy meeting her!

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    2. I feel an Aiken reread coming on. Heading to the library to see what they have on hand...I'll look for Calpurnia too.

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  2. Deep Secret! That's another one that I didn't love on the first go, and now it's one of my favorites. I think it worked better for me when I got a bit older and understood more of the jokes, and also I suppose more of Maree's life experiences. Cons seem like such a wonderful setting for novels, I don't understand how I've only ever read two books set at them (this and Elizabeth Peters's marvelous Die for Love, which is set at a romance novels convention and is THE MOST wonderful send-up of the rapey romance novels of the 1980s).

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    1. Now I want to look for the Elizabeth Peters (and for more of her novels in general, really, as I never made it past the first two Amelia Peabody mysteries).

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  3. I adore Deep Secret! My one complaint about The Merlin Conspiracy is that there's no mention of Rupert & Maree. I really just wanted a tiny cameo. But I in general really like the Magid books--I feel like DWJ let herself go a bit deeper in terms of complexity & implications than she sometimes does.

    BDWR: I hear you. I really want to find an Ethiopian or Eritrean reviewer to see their perspective but I haven't turned up any so far.

    And I just finished and LOVED the first Wells & Wong book. Might have to do Book Depository rather than waiting a year for it to come out over here.

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    1. I know! I kept hoping for a glimpse of Rupert and Maree too.

      If you ever find a review from an Ethiopian or Eritrean, please send it my way!

      And yay, Wells & Wong! The third one is coming out here in just a few months and I'm really excited to read it. Also, Robin Stevens has come to my library to speak to my kidlets and she's just the nicest and the best <3

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  4. What a great list of books! Yet again, I'm adding to my wish list from your blog. I think I should have a whole separate Ana List.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.