Reading Mostly Women – Jan 2018

I’m spending 2018 reading mostly women. Only mostly, because I don’t want to be too restrictive about these things. If I read a book by someone who is not a woman I won’t have “failed”. I’m also trying to read books that are recommended to me, books by people I follow on Twitter, that kind of thing.

In January I read:

The end of The Gathering Storm by Kate Elliott, which is book 5 of the Crown of Stars series. It’s a big old epic fantasy, with multiple points of view and hundreds of named characters and covering years of time.

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg – as recommended by What Page Are You On? podcast. There are many very relatable insights on being an adult single woman, and not a neat ending, which I found oddly pleasing. Sample quote: A woman who was not newly single, and also not twenty-four, would know better than to hand this book to another single woman.

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny – This is a book partly about raising a child on the austistc spectrum, and partly about being married to someone very different to you. Someone is described as having the slightly sweaty, shaky look of someone who is hosting a party.

In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan – This was a lot of fun. It’s a fantasy book with a very practical protagonist who tries in an experimental way to take through various levels of technology to the magical world (mostly it melts or catches fire at the threshold, but biros and sharpies are transportable and are much easier to use than quills) and points out to those born on the magical side of the wall that where he comes from very few people die of violence, let alone go off to make war with trolls. Our main characters are 13 at the beginning and 17 or so at the end, so you could call it YA, but like most good YA it’s good to read as an adult.

Hagseed by Margaret Atwood – This is the second time I’ve read a book that is based on The Tempest without having actually seen or read The Tempest. I enjoyed the clearly well-thought-through plans for teaching drama to inmates. Less so the mooning after the idealised daughter. I picked this up from my local library, which besides being an architectural marvel is also very convenient and gives you books FOR FREE (as long as you promise to bring them back).

High Rising by Angela Thirkell – I was given this as a gift in the summer but it seemed only right to wait til winter to read it, given the lovely snowy landscape on the cover. Written in the 1930s, it has a cosy Diaries of a Provincial Lady vibe, but with a bit of a mystery to solve.

Last Chance Saloon by Marian Keyes, also from Peckham Library. I sometimes mention Marian Keyes when I am ranting about the label of “chick lit” – if men were going through the same things these women are going through, her books would be treated much more seriously. Don’t read this if you have an unhappy relationship with food, one of our characters’ struggles might be upsetting, but otherwise do read it. I feel strongly that there will be more Marian Keyes in later months. This book focuses on four friends in their early 30s and I felt so incredibly viscerally the feeling of no, your boyfriend is unkind to you and is dragging you down, don’t stay with him just because you are afraid of being single.

Exquisite by Sarah Stovell – a psychological thriller type thing about two women writers who meet at a writing workshop (one of them running it). Chapters come from both points of view, and we know from the beginning that one of them is now in prison. The description so far has almost a Sarah Waters feel to it, but it’s very firmly anchored in 2015, even though it could easily have been set any time in the past 60 or so years, or even in a vague no-particular-time. In fact it’s so clearly anchored that one recommends to the other the exact brand of mascara that I use, and I believe the price quoted is what it cost in 2015. This was another What Page Are You On?  recommendation, and my friends and I compared whether we had the things other people had that marked them out as grown-ups: knickers that matched my bras; my own transport; a living room rug. (the answer for me is a – some but not all, b – no I live in London, c – yes I love my rug dearly).


Bronte book challenge

Only a mini challenge this time. Unlike last time.

Samantha Ellis, author of How to be a Heroine and writer of a very funny 2-actor play called How to Date a Feminist, has a new book out. As far as I understand, it’s on why Anne Bronte is the best Bronte.

If you are a Bennet sister, everyone in the neighbourhood compares your looks. If you are a Bronte, they compare your writing. That’s probably better really.

I have no wish to be more intimately acquainted with Wuthering Heights than I already am. I consider it to be full of horrible people being horrible to one another, sometimes in an impenetrable accent.

I have read Jane Eyre, but not recently, so I will reread it. I will ease in gently by reading The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, which is sort of about Jane Eyre but not really.

I have not read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, or the other one, so I have no knowledge of Anne Bronte at all. I can’t even summon the name of the other one without looking, so I shall read both in order to fully appreciate the arguments in favour as Anne as “the best Bronte”.

The Light Years (The Cazalet Chronicles) – Elizabeth Jane Howard

One of my regular complaints when visiting historical sites is that I don’t get enough detail about everyday life. Yes, the tiles are beautiful, but what kind of furniture did people use? Yes, that’s the kitchen, but how did they cook, what did they eat, what time did they get up? Why are there not pictures of how this would look when it’s full of silk curtains and platters of dates?

Some of my curiosity about everyday life in the past is being sated by The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard.

The Cazalets are a large extended family who regularly get together in one place in sufficient numbers for me to forget which of the boys is the eldest, and which of the small children belongs to which brother.

In 1937, the generations span the times so that grandmother (the Duchy) is still suitably Victorian in her attitudes, while one granddaughter is starting to wear trousers. (shocking, I know) A woman facing an unwanted pregnancy reflects on how many married women have a few children, a large gap, and then one last baby. She can’t quite figure out who she could ask how to become unpregnant.

And the food! Louise learns how to make Bath buns and is rather good at them. Marie biscuits are kept by bedsides. Someone (Polly perhaps?) doesn’t really like milk chocolate but can’t tell her father because he meant it as a kind gesture. Two children on a rotating basis are allowed to eat dinner at the big table, rather than having supper in the nursery.

The Light Years was published in 1990, but the author has lived through these years (her ages approximately matches that of the elder grandchildren) so it combines the authenticity of a contemporary book with a slightly more modern style of writing, and the ability to look back.

If you like this sort of thing, you should read these books. The closest comparison I can think of is Diary of a Provincial Lady, which can either function as a recommendation for this (if you liked that, you might like this) or an additional recommendation,



2015 Book Challenge – #18 – The Versions of Us

First post of the 2015 book challenge is here

The Versions of Us, by Laura Barnett, was recommended by a friend who actually knows the author. This is her first book, and my friend’s excitement was quite infectious. I was excited too when I saw an advert on the tube.

If I were pitching this, I would say this is part Sliding Doors, part One Day, and part Life After Life. The lives of two people (and many of their friends and family) and how they progress over 60-odd years, through three variations on one starting point.

I liked: seeing how experience changes people, poignant descriptions of relationships, that there is no “good version” of the world (each had positives and negatives), the Cambridge references in the early years.

I disliked: characters thinking “I feel like I should know you” – as far as I’m concerned that’s not how multiple universe work, no more books to read by this author (yet!).


2015 Book Challenge – #17 – Station Eleven

First post of the 2015 book challenge is here

Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel, was recommended on Twitter. Actually it wasn’t even directly recommended, I just overhead a conversation and had to join in.

How could I resist?

How could I resist?

Station Eleven is not set on a station of any kind. It’s set slightly before, and 20 years after, a flu epidemic has killed 99% of the world’s population. The station of the title is one in a science fiction comic that we see coming in to being, passing from hand to hand, and linking some of our characters in unintended ways.

I love a bit of post-apocalypse, and I like it when we know how the apocalypse came about – or at least that we try to find out about it. If the story is set after-the-end in our world I always feel a little disappointed if we don’t get a glimpse of how it happened.

The links between the people we know “now” and the people we see “then” start off tenuous and then become more entwined.

I don’t want to say any more other than that if you like this sort of thing even a bit, you should read it. If you know anyone who likes this sort of thing, and they are aged 12 or over, they should read it. (in terms of suitability it’s less violent or sexual than the Gone series by Michael Grant, which is definitely deliberately aimed at kids).

2015 Book Challenge – 11 – Whose Body?

First post of the 2015 book challenge is here

This book is interesting in being recommended not by the internet, not by a person I know in real life, but by another fictional character. In To Say Nothing Of The Dog (which I highly recommend) a man time-travelling to the late Victorian era models his behaviour on this series’ protagonist, to reasonably good effect.

Whose Body? by Dorothy L Sayers is the first in a series of books about Lord Peter Wimsey, a gentleman detective. And there is plenty of whimsy.

This is, in essence, a good old Agatha Christie sort of thing, with dead bodies and clues and riddles and butlers and  mispaced pince-nez and a handy this is how I did it at the end to round everything off.

The most interesting part to my mind came at the end. After the denouement, the book had an extra piece that seemed to have been added on in the manner of “a note from the author on reissuing an edited/amended version”. However in this case the note was not from the author, but from the main character’s (fictional, of course) uncle, noting that Miss Sayers had corrected some errors and giving us some back story that was sorely missing from the main part of the book. It feels rather as if this was not intended to be 1 of a series, so little effort was made in telling us precisely why Peter suffers from “shell-shock” – or perhaps at the time this was no so unusual as to require explanation. After a number of books were written, perhaps the author decided that a deper introduction to his past and character was required.

If you like this sort of thing, you’ll like it. If you do not, this will not convince you. Will I read some more? Maybe, if I am feeling in the mood.

2015 book challenge – #7 – Suite Francaise

(not a challenge to read 2015 books – explanation here)

#7 in the challenge is Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky.

Yes, I copied and pasted to get the accents right.

This was recommended by a friend who has lived in France, and with the emphasis on “read it before the film comes out”. The film has been reviewed unfavourably everywhere I’ve seen it, and described as a prettied-up romance.

I felt that this book was more like a piece of music than a story. It was beautifully written and there were wonderfully expressed emotions and feelings and atmospheres. The tension of the exodus from Paris was palpable. The conflicted feelings about “the enemy” who were also young men far from home reminded me a bit of some of the “nature of personhood” issues that crop up in science fiction.

Sadly I didn’t feel engaged with the characters, and I can see why a film adaptation would want to focus on a characater-led story rather than an atmosphere-led piece.

It was also VERY FRENCH. I was reading in English and the translator had clearly done a brilliant job in keeping the Frenchness. Even the nighttime activities of a cat were expressed in a dramatic and indulgent way, as if the cat were an old luvvie (one who pronounces it ac-TOR) narrating his everyday life as if it were a grand tragedy.