Put the Book Back on the Shelf (3)

My original aim was to read 50 books in 2019 – ambitious but achievable. As I explained in another blog post, I’ve now upped this to 130! This may seem an odd number to choose but it’s all explained here: https://debbiescancerblog.wordpress.com/2019/02/07/scm-130-challenge/

I’ve been on a few book buying sprees lately, though I still have a few (and by a few, I mean a lot!) on my shelves that I haven’t read. I went to Foyles earlier in February and decided that buying five books was probably enough… this challenge is great for my reading but less good for my bank balance!

Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie

The first book I read in February was Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. I very much enjoyed this – it’s been on my shelf for ages since a friend gave it (and the rest of the trilogy) to me as a present. It’s a series which I keep seeing being recommended to people looking for more inclusive sci-fi/fantasy. The next two books in the series are very high up on my reading list – I’d recommend this to anyone who likes sci-fi and science fiction that explores new ground and isn’t just about white dudes having adventures in space (and I say this as someone who adores Luke Skywalker!) I’ve already recommended it along with the Wayfarer trilogy to someone looking for sci-fantasy, in fact. What it does with gender in particular is really interesting, and there’s some things about language that are fascinating. I’m looking forward to reading the next two books in the series!

The Bricks that Built the Houses – Kate Tempest

Second was Kate Tempest’s ‘The Bricks that Built the Houses’ (and yes, it’s the musician Kate Tempest!) – again, I really enjoyed this book. As you might expect from Kate Tempest, it’s well written and you can tell she’s someone who has a real way with words. I liked the characterisation, and it was one of those books I found difficult to stop reading once I had started it. It’s very ‘London’, which sometimes annoys me when reading, mostly because a lot of the time it ends up fetishising London and Londoners (the main reason I’ve never really been able to get into Dickens) but I expected that, and it gave a real authenticity to the main characters.

The Wicked Cometh, Laura Carlin

Next up, Laura Carlin’s The Wicked Cometh, another offering from the ‘historical lesbians’ genre, which has long been a favourite of mine. I think I’ve now read all the Sarah Waters books and so I’ve been looking for similar things to read and (a pleasant surprise!) this ticked that box. I liked the writing style, and while it wasn’t as good as Sarah Waters, it made for a good addition to that genre, and a particularly appropriate read for LGBTQ+ History Month.

Grimm Tales for Young and Old, Philip Pullman

My next book was Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales – it was a fairly easy read, but an engaging one. Some of the stories captivated me more than others but that’s the nature of this kind of book; in that sense it was quite similar to the book I read in January about Icelandic elves and folklore. As a pseudo-academic I liked that he showed his sources at the end of each tale!

On the Frontline with the Women who Fight Back, Stacey Dooley

Although I’d heard about her TV show before she was on Strictly Come Dancing, I’ve never actually seen it. This book is based on her experiences filming that, but I enjoyed it despite never having watched it, so I don’t think it’s a requirement at all! It was a quick and easy read – I started it when I got back from physio on the 8th and had finished it by the end of the day. I loved how refreshingly honest and herself she was – she wasn’t afraid to admit when meeting other women had changed her mind about the issues she was investigating. Her authentic voice really came across and she managed to bring her own experiences to the situations without making it about herself – it definitely made me more interested in watching her TV show.

Can We All Be Feminists? Ed. by June Eric-Udorie

Enjoyed isn’t really the right word for this collection of essays about feminism, but I found it really interesting. As is often the way with books which have multiple contributors, some of the essays were more interesting than others, and although I read it cover to cover, it’s the kind of thing you can dip in and out of. I particularly valued the different range of perspectives offered, especially on race. It also made me think a lot about things which seem obvious to me now but which hadn’t crossed my mind before – things like the relationship between gender and immigration, for example.

The Robber Bride, Margaret Atwood

A few years ago, I went across from Glasgow to Edinburgh with some friends to hear Margaret Atwood speak. She was mostly talking about Hagseed, her retelling of the Tempest – having read it since, it’s my second favourite in the Hogarth Shakespeare series (after Jeanette Winterson’s retelling of the Winter’s Tale, the Gap of Time. When I read Atwood’s the Handmaid’s Tale as an (even more so than I am now) impressionable 12 year old, it really switched me onto feminist ideas, even if my feminist ideas have developed since then. All this is really to say that Atwood has been hugely influential on me, and whenever I see something by her that I haven’t read, I try to take the opportunity to read it.

All that said, I found this a very disappointing read. It was the first book this year that I have genuinely struggled to finish – I couldn’t empathise with any of the characters, and worse than that, most of them melted together in my head. At no point was I interested in any of their actions or inner conflicts – it also contained a few very lazy tropes. This may have been my reaction to it and I’m sure lots of people who have read it would disagree, but I just really didn’t warm to it at all.

We are Displaced, Malala Yousafzai

The next book on my list is Malala Yousafzai’s We are Displaced. After being shot by the Taliban as a campaigner for girls’ education, and coming to the UK with her family, she actually ended up going to my old school – I was at university at this point, so I have never actually met her. I mention this not to brag or anything, but because she mentions the school, although not by name, and the students there in this book, and how strange it all seemed in comparison to Pakistan. I think this was a very recent publication, and one which continues my aim to read more diverse books. Sometimes reading books like this one can feel a bit voyeuristic – I’ve never had to leave my home for fear of persecution, and these kinds of stories (though very important) sometimes engender a reaction that doesn’t quite feel right. By their nature, the stories in this book tell of girls who survived their journeys across different countries and continents – it’s for the reader, especially those of us who haven’t been in these situations, to remember that not all stories are the same.

As an actual book, though, this was a short and very quick read, although important more than enjoyable.

The Book of Joan, Lidia Yuknavitch

On the back of this book, there is an extract from a review published in the Guardian. I don’t often read book reviews before I read a book, unless they’re by people I know, but as soon as I saw this sentence I knew I had to read the book: ‘Joan of Arc and Christine de Pizan are reimagined in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, in this compellingly ambitious examination of gender, semiotics and warfare’. What more could a girl want? Along with ‘historical lesbians’, feminist sci-fi and science fantasy is one of my favourite genres.

So my expectations were high before I even began – it’s hard to live up to that description! There were things I really loved about it; the writing was beautiful, the way the story started was great and I wanted to keep reading it, but also to spend more time with the world that Lidia created. My favourite thing though were the reflections on storytelling – on how we tell stories, on who tells those stories, and why. The main criticism I have is that I don’t think it is nearly as clever as it thinks it is – the post-apocalyptic world in which it’s set seems to have no appeal, and I’m not quite sure how it came about. Some of the violence also made me feel uncomfortable, and it wasn’t as clever or radical regarding gender as it thought it was. Despite all the thinking about gender, for example, it kept referring to God as he. With those caveats though, it was almost an excellent book, with enough flaws just to make it a bit frustrating!

I just had a quick look at the reviews on goodreads, and this really seems to be a book that polarises people – they mostly either hated it or thought it was genius, the literary equivalent of Marmite.

Room, Emma Donoghue

My next book was Emma Donoghue’s Room, made into a film with Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay (not to be confused with the film The Room, widely acknowledged as the worst film of all time). I’ve not seen the film yet but I enjoyed the last book of hers that I read. This was a very absorbing book; it could definitely be quite disturbing for some people, but it managed to replicate both the claustraphobia of ‘Room’ and the agoraphobia of ‘Outside’. A lot of people have commented on how irritating they found the child narrator, but for me, that worked well and was believable for the most part.

Running total: 31/130

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