January 2021 Books Read

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, by Susanna Clarke (2006)

When I mentioned that I was having trouble focusing on anything long, my friend Maggie suggested this book of short stories, which turned out to be perfect for the end of December and beginning of January. I finished 2/3 of the stories in December, but since I finished it this month, it counts as the first read for 2021!

These stories were delightful forays back into the world introduced in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. They all take place in Clarke’s alternate-nineteenth century, full of the twisty magic that was part of that book. Mr. Strange even makes an appearance in one of the stories. If you liked Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, you’ll enjoy these stories.

These stories a great side-adventures, and feel like they would not be out of place in a collection of Grimm’s fairy tales. The stories also feature more female magicians, who were overlooked by Strange and Norrell, and I enjoyed them very much.

Two of my favorites were “John Uksglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner”, and “Mrs. Mabb.” The first story is about the king getting a comeuppance (somewhat accidentally) from a lowly charcoal burner who feels himself injured by the king’s thoughtlessness, with entertaining result.

Mrs. Mabb is about a young woman determined not to give her suitor up to the titular fairy’s attentions. It’s suitably tricky and sometimes hilarious to figure out how to defeat a fairy antagonist.

Great fun, and a great way to kick off the new year.

★ ★ ★ ★

The Priory of the Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon (2019)

I started a conversation with my husband this way, “I haven’t read Game of Thrones, but…” and he laughed, which was fair. Since I haven’t read Martin’s tomes, it’s probably unfair to compare this to those books, except that I know those books are fantasy with political maneuvering, and this book is also high fantasy with kingdoms, political machinations, magic, and yes, dragons (two types of dragons, and the water dragons have human riders).

The most evil fire dragon, The Nameless One, is prophesied to rise again, a thousand years after he was defeated, and the disparate human kingdoms and queendoms of the world must unite to stop him before he destroys them all.

As with some high fantasy, especially fantasy heavy on plot, there is not as much about characters’ inner lives, and some characters are more well-drawn than others. There are four perspective characters whose adventures we follow: Ead at the court of Inys, Tané in her quest to become a dragon rider, Niclays as he tries to claw his way back to his home and relevance, and Lord Arteloth as he (somewhat haplessly) wanders about, connecting threads.

Of the four, Ead was my favorite and felt the most fleshed-out. We start the story with her at court as she rises in influence and seeks to hide her true nature and mission from Queen Sabran (another interesting character).

In many fantasy stories, the heroes are mostly men with women as love interests or guides, and only occasionally adventurers in their own right, so I appreciated that Shannon’s world was populated with powerful women—queens, mages, warriors, schemers, pirates, and courtiers.

As this book is quite long, there were places where it dragged a bit, and it took a while to really kick into high gear, and Niclays Roos especially was an annoying character because of his constant self-pity and selfishness. But everyone had a part to play by the end. It’s not super nuanced, but if you like fantasy with political stakes and a world-ending quest, you might enjoy this book.

Content warning: sex, some violence (though not too graphic)

★ ★ ★ ★

Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry pic

Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry (2004)

While I’ve read a few essays and some poetry by Wendell Berry, I’ve somehow missed reading any of his novels. I got Hannah Coulter for Christmas, and started in on it. As expected, the writing was beautiful and spare, and the story was very human.

Hannah Coulter narrates the story of her life, reflecting on her 70+ years and its joys and sorrows. In some ways, it was a low-stakes book, as the characters are all ordinary people living in ordinary times, but in other ways it reminded me that we are all making choices and setting the course of our lives one moment at a time, and that ordinary lives are beautiful too.

Hannah reflects on her marriages (she’s now twice-widowed) and her children, her community, and the land she’s been farming and which has supported her in its own way. They cared for the land and the land cared for them. And living a “slower” and “smaller” life has kept her more connected to who she is, tethered in a way she fears her children are not.

I look forward to reading more of Berry’s novels—if you have suggestions of which one to read next let me know!

★ ★ ★ ★

Favorite Books of 2020

I do not completely understand why people write their “best of 2020” lists in December. On the one hand, it’s the last month of the year and things are wrapping up. On the other hand, it’s still 2020, and what if you read something great right at the end of the year? It’s too late to include that amazing read from Christmas break if your “best things I read” list was published on December 15th!

So here are my ten favorite reads from this year, in no particular order (except for my favorite, which I’ve noted):

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

Lovely writing, an interesting set-up (a man is sentenced to life imprisonment…in a fiver-star hotel), and the importance of human connection. Interesting to read about someone stuck in one place for an extended period of time, though he did have the advantage of many humans to interact with (and I have the advantage of a vaccine coming to restore interaction)!

Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah

I don’t read a lot of memoirs, because I’m always worried they’ll be a bit self-indulgent. But this audio version, read by the author, was highly entertaining, interesting, and horrifying without going too in-depth about life in apartheid South Africa.

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

A court intrigue story…in spaaace. Interesting plot and characters, and a mystery to unravel while the protagonist raced against the clock trying to find her place in an unfamiliar world. Plus the goofy naming convention of the court (everyone’s name is a number plus a noun, for example: Nine Seagrass) was highly entertaining.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, by Austin Channing Brown

Challenging and eye-opening very personal look at race and the American church.

The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien

A tough year calls for some re-reads, and escaping into Middle Earth was just what I needed this summer. A classic adventure story that sets up the larger events of The Lord of the Rings and is great fun in itself. I forgot how funny Tolkien can be and a straightforward adventure is great.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V. E. Schwab

There were parts I liked and parts I wanted to skip past, but the “girl makes a deal with the devil” premise was great and it went in directions I didn’t expect. I found the parts from Henry’s perspective were my least favorite, but I liked Addie and her clever determination to stay alive and outwit her antagonist.

My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier

A twisty story about an infatuated young man, a mysterious woman, and the way unchecked speculation can really go awry. It’s not as popular as Rebecca, but I thought it was just as good.

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

A lonely man, Piranesi, is almost alone in the world—a house full of statues and strange tides. But the house provides for him, so he is cared for and loved. But he starts digging into his story a bit and finds all is not as it seems. A perfect little seashell of a book.

North & South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

A re-read, but still great. Gaskell and Jane Austen definitely have some overlap, but Gaskell is a little less witty and a little more concerned with the plight of the working-class. Still great.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

Yes, she’s on the list twice, because she’s that good. A 21st century book about English magicians written in a 19th century style. Excellent writing, magnificent world-building, sprawling storyline, great characters, amazing footnotes. It’s nice and long, and I love sinking into a good book, so this was basically everything I love rolled together. This was my favorite read of the year.

An Acceptable Time Review

An Acceptable Time, by Madeleine L’Engle (published 1989) is sometimes counted as the fifth book in the series about the Murry-O’Keefe family. Apparently there are more books about the O’Keefes and their adventures as a separate series, so I’m sure there are references to those that I missed. Or rather, I could tell there was elaboration on those adventures elsewhere that I just haven’t read, but this story was ok as a standalone (I think anyway—I don’t know otherwise as I haven’t read them!).

Polly O’Keefe, daughter of Meg, is staying with her Murry grandparents (who get names! Alex and Kate) after…something happened? I think a close family friend and mentor to Polly died, but it isn’t super clear to me.

Anyway, Polly stumbles back in time 3,000 years, but only for a moment, and meets two druids who tell her that the time gate is open. Then she spends many pages of the book mostly in her own time with her grandparents worried about what’s happening and forbidding her from going on adventures. While I’m sure it’s more realistic that the adults would be concerned that she might get trapped 3,000 years in the past, especially as they are just her temporary guardians, I see who most kid-goes-on-crazy-adventure books just have the kid go off without any input from the guardians: it’s boring to read all the objections, and it stops the story in its tracks.

Polly also has a friend, Zachary, who drags her back into time for the longer actual adventure part, and while I was grateful that he really kickstarted things, he gives a bad name to Zacharies everywhere.

He’s selfish, gaslights Polly, takes no responsibility for his actions, and in the end is treated far more kindly by the characters than he deserves (though that’s part of the point, but still…). He’s supposed to be charming, but I don’t see a lot of evidence of that—the “charm” seems to be confined to compliments to Polly, politeness to adults, and a bit of emotional manipulation. Clearly, I was not a fan.

The bits about people from the present and past crossing to each other’s time were interesting, and the characters from the past were good, but while it was interesting to imagine what culture might have been like 3,000 years ago, we don’t get enough time there to go much beyond stereotypes, and spent too much time in the lead-up. An ok book, but not one I think I’ll feel the need to revisit.

This was the last book I finished in 2020, though I ended the year 2/3 of the way through some Susanna Clarke short stories, so I ended on a better note than this.

★ ★ ★

Many Waters Review

Many Waters, by Madeleine L’Engle, was published in 1986 and is the fourth book in a series about the exceedingly strange adventures of the Murry children.

Somehow, though I read and loved the first three books in the series growing up, I missed reading book four, so I thought it was time to rectify that mistake.

This story follows twins Sandy and Dennys (which I think is just an alternate spelling of “Dennis”? I have never been 100% sure). They are the most “normal” presenting of the brilliant Murry children, and did not go on the adventures that their siblings Meg and Charles Wallace went on in the first three books.

Sandy and Dennys, arriving home one winter afternoon, don’t see the sign on the door of their parents’ lab/ garage that says “experiment in progress” and are flung back in time—all the way back to the time of Biblical Noah.

It’s an interesting look at what things might have been like in a strange time in a strange story. I have lots of questions about unicorns and mammoths now, but also, it’s weird to include unicorns and mammoths in a pre-flood culture—did they just go extinct? I have mixed feelings about the success of the story which, while interesting, seemed very far removed from any story set on Earth.

I kind of wish Sandy & Dennys had traveled to a different planet instead of being flung back in Earth history, because thinking that this was supposed to just be primitive Earth brought up so many more questions than otherwise.

In general, I think the first three stories in this set are stronger, though that could also be that I experienced those stories as a child. There’s no nostalgia for this story for me, and that might be a contributing factor.

★ ★ ★

November 2020 Books

Well, one things I’ve noticed about this year is that I’ve found it more difficult to read books and keep my focus. So I only have two completed books to report for November….

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V. E. Schwab (2020)

Like Belle in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Adeline LaRue wants much more than her provincial life in a 17th c. French village. She’s an artist and a dreamer, and doesn’t want to marry a widower and raise his children. So she makes a deal with the god of darkness to live as long as she wants. He can have her soul when she’s finished with it.

As with all deals, the devil (so to speak) is in the details, and Addie is cursed to be forgotten by everyone. As soon as she is out of sight, everyone forgets her. She can make no mark upon the world, no writing, drawing, nothing to make people remember her.

But Addie is determined to live, to explore the world, and to leave a mark in some way. If people cannot remember her, perhaps she can inspire them.

After 300 years, Addie meets someone who does remember her! But why? And how long will it last?

The premise is interesting and the story goes back and forth in time, chronicling Addie’s 300 years of life. I was less interested in the story of the boy who remembers Addie, but this was still a fun story. It’s got more about Addie’s inner life and the loneliness of living (and she has a lot of one-night stands) than it does on details of magic and gods, more contemplative than adventure tale, so keep that in mind.

★ ★ ★ ★

My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier (1951)

This was for my 50 Classics list, so I’m giving it its own review post here.

★ ★ ★ ★