July, August, September Reading

It has been Several Months since I posted a reading list (or posted anything at all); and there’s been very little to say. I read very slowly this summer, but I did do some good work, spent lots of time walking around Newcastle and saying goodbye to it, was officially awarded my PhD, and organised yet another intercontinental house move.

Lots of the things included in the list below are things I read several weeks ago, and so I’ve not got a lot to say about them. One book in particular seems to have provoked a longer rant, so I’ve left it till the end. Anyway, here’s what I read over the summer.



Robin Stevens, The Case of the Missing Treasure: I was a bit nervous about this book, with a very Egyptian sarcophagus on the cover. I have Views on Egyptian (and other African and Asian etc) artefacts in European museums, and while I don’t expect characters in 1930s settings to wholly subscribe to them, I’m rarely in the mood for the sort of entitlement that characterises British responses to these artefacts. In the event this short story was not as radical as I’d have loved it to be, it does manage to weave a great deal of discomfort with the museum into the narrative–through George’s moral clarity (I love him so dearly) and even more effectively, through Daisy’s uncertainty.


Gabrielle Kent and Rex Crowle, Knights And Bikes: Going in I knew almost nothing about this book; I don’t tend to pay much attention to games (this is set in the same world as a forthcoming one), and only gathered from the cover that it was about two kids with bikes. The knights/quest narrative I’d rather assumed to be something along the lines of Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights–more a product of the characters’ imaginations than an Actual Supernatural Adventure. I was wrong about this; this is absolutely the sort of local fantasy quest that I read as a small child, castles rise from the sea, statues come to life, and so forth. More importantly, there’s treasure, formed of Crusaders’ loot, and it becomes essential to the book that that treasure be returned to the places from where it was stolen. Combined with the Stevens story above, and Emma Carroll’s Secrets of a Sun King, which I’m currently reading, it feels like there’s a lot to say about writers responding to current critiques of the imperial museum and yet attempting to still write familiar forms of story. I’m not sure if I’m the person who’s going to write it–at the moment it feels a little too intertwined with arguments I’m making throughout my PhD, but I’m hoping to find a way.


Katie Tsang and Kevin Tsang, Sam Wu is Not Afraid of Ghosts and Sam Wu is Not Afraid of Sharks: Breezed through these during a long-haul flight, and thoroughly enjoyed them, though my enduring memory is a sort of uncomfortable awe that Sam, who is (like me) afraid of snakes, is keeping one *in his house* where it can sometimes escape.


O. Douglas, Eliza for Common: As I’ve said on here before, I really like O. Douglas for a very particular sort of mood and character-observation. This was one of the major books by her that I hadn’t read, and it’s great for a really clear, sympathetic depiction of adolescent … self-fashioning, for want of a less good phrase; the forming of Good Taste (and so often in these gently middle-class books good taste is treated as inherent and genetic; to see it as a construct here is rather nice), the appropriate short form of one’s own name; the right level of cosmopolitanism. For that, and for a sudden, painful moment towards the end of the book that felt very familiar at the time, I’m very glad I read it.


Nadia Shireen, Billy and the Beast: A very classic picture book plot–intrepid small child outwits and defeats monster–and it’s adorable. The cat, who is fat (and called fat cat), has the grumpiest little face, Billy’s big, curly hair means that she can hide useful tools in it, the hedgehog is reading a classic penguin paperback. This will probably be the book that multiple friends’ small children are given this year, and I think they’re going to love it.


Malala Yousafzai and Kerascoet, Malala’s Magic Pencil: This was on of the books on the Little Rebels shortlist, which was my main reason for reading it. I … wasn’t a huge fan; I think it needed to be either an explanation of Malala’s activism and shooting or a book that took our knowledge of that context for granted, because the magic pencil itself gets rather lost. The Kerascoët illustrations are very good, though.


Birdie Milano, Boy Meets Hamster: This has been a nice summer for the teenage romcom– I enjoyed Love, Simon and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and (bookswise) Becky Albertalli’s Leah on the Offbeat. Boy Meets Hamster fit in very well with this general mood; gay romance set in a rainy caravan park and featuring an alarming hamster mascot. It’s at its least convincing when its protagonist is smitten with the horrible boy next door–if the book is from Dylan’s perspective, surely his horribleness shouldn’t be this obvious to us? I would still watch the cute netflix film of it though.


Smriti Prasadam-Halls and Jonathan Woodward, The Ways of the Wolf: As some of you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about children’s nonfiction over the last couple of years, and particularly about nature-related nonfiction. Woodward’s art here is beautiful, Prasadam-Halls’ prose is lyrical, for a format that’s of necessity sparse. I rolled my eyes quite a lot at the reference to Native American stories about wolves–instead of being included in the other myths and folktales about wolves, this was is part of a double-spread titled “Friends of the Wolf” where the “friends” were black-winged ravens and Native Americans (which Native Americans?). Besides this, I did like a lot about the book–when dealing with animals, it’s substantial and beautifully made.


Margaret Biggs, Christmas Term at Vernley: Team who are bad at stuff make good is another classic plot, especially within the school story (as I wrote this, I had to go and reread Wodehouse’s The Head of Kay’s), and the sports film. A favourite iteration of this is Josephine Pullein-Thompson’s Pony Club Cup; the Woodbury Pony Club triumphs, sort of, but they and their ponies never cease to be a bit of a mess. Christmas Term at Vernley straddles this comic tradition and a more straightfaced “for the sake of the school” narrative, but falls mostly on the comic side–it’s set in a school where there are only two houses and one is better at everything. The head of the other house is challenged to reform her half of the school, and sets about this with the dubiously-useful aid of an eager little sister. The younger girls evolve series of grand plans that go wrong; the elder girls quietly make friends. This is the first thing by Biggs that I’ve read (it’s a standalone book and I didn’t want to start collecting a new series); it’s good enough that I might have to look into her Melling books.


Tamora Pierce, Tempests and Slaughter: I’m not sure the Tortall books were ever going to survive rereading by an adult. (Except the Keladry books, because those are good.) Pierce is such a formative writer for so many fantasy-reading women of my generation–she’s where many of us saw women having periods and casualish sex for the first time in the genre, she’s good at stubborn girls with magic (or without) and their rather daunting destinies. The Tortall (and surrounding countries) books are less good, and less interesting on things like race and empire–Tortall itself is just another fantasy medieval western European nation, and its main social difficulties seem largely solvable by having a sufficiently progressive monarch. (The Keladry books point out many of the limitations of this, but settle for a sort of patient centrism that insists that you read it as pragmatic.)

Non-white cultures occasionally appear–the Carthaki empire that is inhabited by black- and brown-skinned people, is a centre of learning and does slavery; the Yamani who have enigmatic poetry, tea ceremonies and martial arts and who train themselves out of facial expressions; the nomadic tent-dwelling Bazhir tribes, etc; there are flashes of interest with some of these, so perhaps I’m being unfair in reducing them to their stereotypes, but the books make it very easy to and that’s telling. In the Trickster duology, there’s a promising set up involving an island nation to the west colonised by (white) Easterners where the slave trade and a form of plantation slavery are practised. The duology documents the overthrow of the white colonising class and the establishment of a multiracial queen whose blood is sufficiently noble under both traditions. Even here, though, the books are unable to not make the story that of a white Tortallan girl, Alanna’s daughter. It’s not that the Copper Islanders have no agency, it’s that the books are unwilling or unable to wholly hand us over to them–Tortallan values, and Tortallan perspective must be present, must be nuanced.

And so to Tempests and Slaughter, a prequel to Pierce’s Immortals tetralogy, and providing backstory for that series’s beloved Numair Salmalin. Numair’s childhood was spent in Carthak; and Pierce’s portrayal of that empire in the earlier books is rather jarring and continues to be so here. We have the oriental despots with their dependence on overornamentation and slavery, the virtuous hero who, the book is careful to inform us, is not really from here–his family are from the north (this also serves as a hint that he’s white) and so even growing up in a society where slavery is normal and uncommented upon has not encroached upon his innate love of Freedom. It’s not clear to me why this is better than, say, The Horse and his Boy.

There are other issues. This is primarily a book about magic school and I love magic school as  a genre. There are inter-student politics, intense boarding school friendships, and even a hint of the animal-transformations-as-education of T.H. White. But in all of this the book is hamstrung by the worst sort of prequelitis. The later books have already determined what aspects of Numair’s past are going to matter when he’s an adult, and so this book is determined that we get all of them. He was friends with Ozorne when they were children? Now they must be intensely involved best friends. He had a girlfriend at some point? Now he must have been in love with her from childhood. In adulthood he’s friends with a man who’d escaped slavery? Then the enslaved man he befriends in his youth obviously must be the same man. It’s stifling. This focus on the characters’ futures also means that the book’s relationships are only effective if the reader already has all the context of the later books–which seems a weird choice, given that the Immortals books were published in the early 90s. This reads like nothing more than a litany of complaints, but it just doesn’t work, and I retain enough fondness for these characters that I wanted it to.


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