Archive for ‘Books read in 2014’

April 3, 2014

March Reading


Arthur Ransome, Missee Lee, The Picts and the Martyrs, Great Northern?: These were the Ransome books I hadn’t read, apart from a quick skim of Missee Lee some years ago. A thing I’ve been discovering over the past couple of months is how little serious Ransome criticism there is; and that little is generally more interested in the early Lake District books. But there’s something about these three later books, and I feel like I may end up as the lone voice in the wilderness championing Great Northern? in particular. I spoke last month about how impressed I am by this series, and that sense has only intensified.

Joanne Harris, The Gospel of Loki: I had hopes for this, brought on by that amazing cover (seriously, illustrating this post with that cover even though these reading round-up posts are never illustrated, because pretty), by the fact that I admire Harris’s writing (and approve of her being a Mervyn Peake fan) and by the narrative possibilities of a revisionist retelling with Loki as narrator. Plus, at a signing/talk by Harris she said that she imagined her Loki being played by someone like Paul Bettany. So it’s a pity the book itself felt so thoroughly unambitious. I’m reviewing it, and a longer piece about it will be on this blog at some point.

L.M. Montgomery, [all the Anne books]: Except the one about the Blythes that was published only quite recently. I needed to reread the first book for a discussion at university, and fell into the series as a result. A piece on Rilla of Ingleside, here.

Angela Thirkell, High Rising: I wrote about this here.

Katherine Hull and Pamela Whitlock, The Far Distant Oxus: Apparently Hull and Whitlock were friends in school who decided to write a novel in alternating chapters, sent it to Arthur Ransome, and he loved it. It’s great– it does for its landscape what the Ransome books do for the Lake District, it’s a lot rougher around the edges in terms of plot and style; it’s tempting to think of it as really compelling fanfiction, and yet. The characters come across far more strongly as people, and there’s an undercurrent of sexual attraction that runs through it that makes it somehow nothing like Ransome’s work.

Gladys Mitchell, Tom Brown’s Body: Boarding school story murder mysteries are a genre that feels like it was made for me, so I was always going too enjoy this one. One of the things you see quite a lot of in school stories of this time is Asian and African upper-class students attending the same boarding schools as upper-class Europeans (as of course did happen quite frequently)–think of Hurree Jamset Ram Singh in the Billy Bunter stories, for example. The school in Mitchell’s book has an ‘African prince’ named Takhobali (helpfully named “tar baby” by his peers, because there’s a pleasant phrase to read). It was interesting to read this at the same time as Missee Lee, because Miss Lee is another wealthy colonial child sent to English boarding school for her education. And both characters embrace English boarding school life and the assumption that this is great culture; Miss Lee plays hockey and lacrosse, learns Latin, has fixed opinions about marmalade*, but being Chinese (hilarious!) she cannot pronounce her “r”s. Takhobali eats fish pie even when it makes him sick and learns to play rugby but (hilarious!) cannot overcome his barbaric roots and bites people when he’s tackling them. Neither of these things are in fact hilarious.

Ytasha L. Womack, Afrofuturism: Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how genre histories are constructed and reinforced and what they exclude, and of the necessity of alternate canons and alternate histories, a result of both my own reading and some of Jonathan McCalmont’s Future Interrupted columns. Afrofuturism is engaged in a similar project, I think. I don’t think Womack is trying to create a definitive text on the subject, I’m sure (knowing nothing at all about the subject) that there’s a lot left out that I’ve missed, and I’d have loved to see a deeper analysis of certain particular examples of Afrofuturism that she chooses–but to ask that this collection be both wider and deeper is to ask for more than a single book could do. But what a single book can’t do a wider intellectual tradition can, and Womack’s book both gestures towards the conversation that already exists and consolidates enough of it to make for an entry point. Sofia Samatar describes it as a “primer” to the field; I think that’s exactly what makes it most valuable. I really enjoyed this, and nominated it for a “Best Related” Hugo award. I hope it makes it to the shortlist, at least.

Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones: The Islands of Chaldea: I’ll be writing about this elsewhere. Enjoyable, and solid, and a satisfying end to DWJ’s career, but not great. Which is probably for the best, in some ways.

Athena Andreadis (ed), The Other Half of the Sky: A big part of my reading this month was dictated by things I wanted to read and think about before the Hugo Awards nomination deadline. I’d been wanting to get around to this anthology for a while; it had some impressive names in the TOC. To the anthology as a whole my reaction was mixed, but there are some good stories, and one of them (Vandana Singh’s “Sailing the Antarsa”) was one of the best things I’ve read so far this year.

Djibril al-Ayad and Fabio Fernandes (ed), We See A Different Frontier: This anthology I loved, even though some of the stories felt considerably weaker than others. I think I’ve said elsewhere that while I understand intellectually the importance of seeing oneself represented, I rarely feel deeply moved by it when I am. WSaDF did something better; I hadn’t realised that a collection of stories working around issues that I think about a lot would feel as invigorating as it did.

March 3, 2014

February Reading

I was on holiday for part of last month, and reading Swallows and Amazons things for the rest of it.


Kate diCamillo, Flora and Ulysses: Gorgeous, funny, some reservations about evil, squirrel-murdering mothers (and also about texts that go back on the “evil” bit and decide that attempted pet-murder is excusable) and romance novel hating. But so good.

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Janie of La Rochelle, Janie Steps In: Hm. Based on just these two (I’ve not read the whole series) I suspect the La Rochelle books are better on character and also romance than the main Chalets. I may not be setting a very high bar here, but there’s the bit in JoLR where Janie refuses to give a young man a picture of her friend without said friend’s permission, or the bit in JSI where she advises Nan not to get engaged till she’s met many more men than she already has. Also the messy Chester family dynamics, where parental character flaws fucking up children is seen as a thing that happens sometimes, and no one has to be particularly evil or misguided, and people end up hurt. I’m still unclear on who the minor characters in this series are; at some point I must find and read the other books.

Georgette Heyer, The Toll-Gate: Tall people fall in love, and this is good because there aren’t any other people tall enough for them. Also bank robbery and murder happen. It isn’t Heyer’s best.

Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, Winter Holiday, Secret Water, Pigeon Post, Peter Duck: I’m always a bit surprised by people dismissing this particular series as Middle Class Children Have Adventures books of the Blyton variety. I mean, sure, all those things are true and it’s important to keep pointing that out, but they’re also stylistically interesting, experimental in ways that very few books quite manage (the closest comparison I can come to for their interplay between the fictional and the real is William Mayne’s The Grass Rope) and in general quite amazing.

P.G. Wodehouse, Service With a Smile, The Small Bachelor, Summer Lightning: I was at Delhi airport and I had a certain sum in rupees on me and a departure gate to get to in five minutes and so I bought three P.G. Wodehouses and read two of them on the plane. As you do. I was happier for it.

James Smythe, The Machine: This is great, I love all its references to Frankenstein, and the ways in which the sense of menace ebbs and flows at first, and then builds up … I’m not sure praising a book for its pacing and its completely unsubtle use of its intertexts is quite as impressive-sounding as I’d like it to be, but I did really like this.

Rakesh Khanna and Rashmi Ruth Devadasan (ed), The Obliterary Journal Vol. 2: Non-Veg: See here.

Edmund Crispin, Love Lies Bleeding: School (particularly boarding school)-set murders are a thing I love very much. And so this, which I also loved very much.

Nicholas Blake, A Question of Proof: Completely different school murder. The first Strangeways book, and before the character is quite as established as he feels in the later books; he also feels younger. Random mental illness-related awfulness, in an of-its-time way that would be quaint if not for its being awful. But Strangeways! Not being awful to women! Solving crime! Chalking moustaches onto statues! 

Sarra Manning, It Felt Like a Kiss, Unsticky: I read the first of these, then because it had the protagonists from Unsticky as minor characters I read that too. Manning continues to give most of her heroes first names for surnames (Unsticky‘s Vaughn does have a reasonable first name but no one calls him it). This time it’s “Curtis”, which is at least better than Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend‘s “Wilson”. Enjoyable, though it was no You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.

Courtney Milan, A Novella Collection: A thing which allowed me to complete my Brothers Sinister reread for this post, and also read a couple of other novellas. 

Mhairi Macfarlane, Here’s Looking At You: I’m sure I had more profound thoughts when I was actually reading this book. I enjoyed it, anyway.

Clara Benson, The Murder at Sissingham Hall: Apparently Benson’s Angela Marchmont books were found and published after her death in 1965, but were presumably written much earlier. Which might explain why this felt so Victorian–in narration, in characterisation, and certainly in the fact that the protagonists don’t seem ever to have read a detective story. 

Christianna Brand, Suddenly At His ResidenceThis was oddly dissonant in some ways–things didn’t feel like they had the import they ought to, or felt like they mattered to much, and this gave the whole thing an air of unreality that I don’t think was caused entirely by its being set in a very different time to my own. I think I’d like to read more Brand. I’m also, in connection with Mhairi Macfarlane’s first book, now pondering the logistics of literary home wrecking.

Frank Cottrell Boyce, The Unforgotten Coat: This does so many things I like; it’s all mixed-media and memory is complex and identity is complex and familiar places can be made alien and afternoons when you’re a child turn into hazy, semi-enchanted, impossible places, and then its treatment of the two Mongolian refugee children who move the plot and disappear … concerned me. It’s a book that might be saying (and undercutting) a lot of things about the portrayal of people from a culture other than one’s own. But I read it as part of an academic reading group and the other brown person in the room also found it uncomfortable, whatever it may have been trying to achieve. It’s also a book whose author explains in the afterword that it was based on a school visit to a class which contained a Mongolian girl, who totally lit up the classroom, and of whom the rest of the children were really proud. As if she were a mascot or the class pet or something–it’s tremendously well-meaning and ill-judged and (I’ve been the only brown kid in a otherwise white primary school class) made me a bit nauseous. The afterword makes me wonder if all the clever things I see in the text itself are things I’m reading into it. I don’t know.

February 5, 2014

January Reading

I spent the second half of January being thoroughly on holiday, much of it in a garden overlooking a lake. Much of my reading this month has been holiday-ish (the first half of the month was spent producing many thousands of thesis words and I read very little as a result) as a result. It has been a good month.


Mhairi MacFarlane, You Had Me At Hello: There’s so much about this book and its characters that is charming and likeable, and then there’s the thing where grand romances are easier if the wife of your beloved is a bitch.

Alison Lurie, Foreign Affairs: I read this on a plane. It begins with a children’s literature scholar travelling to England, on a plane. And having a relationship with England and English literature that is  uncomfortable and familiar. And some other stuff happens, but the real point is this is my future and that is terrifying.

Georgette Heyer, The Reluctant Widow: Not one of her best, but I found myself appreciating it more on this read than on previous ones.

Shoma Narayanan, The One She Was Warned About: Wrote about this here.

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Redheads at the Chalet School: Which is actually a meta-commentary on fictional worlds including but not limited to Brent-Dyer’s own. I can totally prove this.

Adam Roberts, The Riddles of The Hobbit: I don’t plan to list things I read for academic purposes in these posts, and I’m quite sure I’ll be citing this particular book a few times because there are parts of it that are very useful to me. But I’d have read it even if I was studying something completely unrelated because I enjoy Roberts’ criticism and I love The Hobbit. I have a whole rant about What’s Wrong With Tolkien Criticism (it is full of generalisations but I am willing to perform it for anyone who will listen) and I read this book during a month when I was drowning in it, and it was exactly what I needed. Sometimes I need to be reminded of how much criticism allows you to do with a book. This was a good reminder.

Anna Katharine Green, The Affair Next Door: Wrote about this here.

Patricia McKillip, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld: I seem to remember thinking that the Riddlemaster books were great and find that I remember nothing about them. This book has made me think they need a reread; not much happens but it’s very good anyway.

E.J. Swift, Osiris: I feel like I need to think about this one a lot more, but I also think I liked it.

Edmund Crispin, The Glimpses of the Moon, The Long Divorce: The Long Divorce contains possibly the least convincing romance I’ve ever read—shy, attractive man and reserved, attractive woman’s eyes meet across a murder (in a manner of speaking) and they Just Know. But there is a crime that is vaguely solvable for once (I can never solve a Gervase Fen mystery, and hours after reading one have usually forgotten who the criminal was and how they did it and that’s okay) and there is a cat who sees Martians and everything is delightful. Glimpses of the Moon is one of the weaker mysteries, but it’s hilarious. With this I’ve read all the Fen books, and I am rather sad about this and I wish there were more.

Anoushka Ravishankar, Jerry Pinto, and Sayoni Basu, Phuss Phuss Boom: Three excellent short stories about farting. I was a little concerned, reading Jerry Pinto’s introduction to his story, that he thought some creatures were more deserving of having their eyes farted out ( … spoiler?) than others; I was happy to find that that was not the case.

Courtney Milan, The Governess Affair, The Duchess War, The Countess Conspiracy, The Heiress Effect: Reread The Heiress Effect for a post I’d been wanting to write for a while (coming soon, hopefully, along with another post about Milan I didn’t think I was going to write), and therefore read the others in the series for context + completion. Milan really seems to like pitting her hero and heroine against one another in situations where their aims come directly into conflict: see Selina’s attempts to bring down the Duke vs Hugo’s need to keep the Duke afloat for his own payoff, Robert’s inciting the workers vs Minnie’s hiding her past, Oliver’s political aims vs Jane’s need to remain oblivious for her own (and her sister’s) protection. A thing that is good about this: Milan’s characters are always people with lives and concerns outside of their romances. A thing that is annoying about this: if you read them all at once it’s hard not to notice their sameyness of plot.

Nadifa Mohamed, The Orchard of Lost Souls: I read this for a review, which I should maybe get around to writing.

Nicholas Blake, The Sad Variety: I think I’ve also read all the Nigel Strangeways books now, and while some of them have made me angry or unhappy, I’m genuinely sorry I’ll never have another. This one is very much Of Its Time—published in 1964, with frequent references to the revolution in Hungary, the horrors of communism (the villains are communists—though when Blake has characters argue its benefits he generally comes down on the leftier side of things), nuclear fission. There is not enough Clare, there’s one tragic Motherhood Is Everything figure who the other characters seem to think belongs in Greek tragedy but to me belonged in Agatha Christie, and there’s a precocious child with adorably bad spelling. It’s also not so much a detective story as a thriller; Nigel does very little detecting. I enjoyed it anyway.

Shalini Srinivasan, Vanamala and the Cephalopod: This is so good. It reminded me a bit of Valente’s The Girl Who books, a bit of China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun, even a bit of Kipling’s Just So Stories. There may be an H.P. Lovecraft reference. Our heroine calls all older people mama or mami, whether they be god, underwater dictator or local grocer. I’m still not entirely sure what a Boopy is.

Jeanette Winterson, The Daylight Gate: This is awful. It’s not Winterson-y at all, which is fine, there’s no reason why she shouldn’t branch out into other things. But it is actively, (objectively?), bad.

Beatrice Alemagna, A Lion in Paris: Gorgeous, though I find myself wanting to read it alongside a mummy story I read in December. Which is not something I was expecting.

Geeta Dharmarajan and Wen Hsu, How To Weigh an Elephant: Is a Women in Science book, and I think I must write a column about it sometime. This, and the books above and below it on this list, were the result of a visit to the children’s sections of various bookshops to see what I’d missed. A lot, apparently.

Komilla Raote and Vandana Bist, The Princess with the Longest Hair: Lovely, and I’ll put my column that is mostly about it on the blog soon.