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!

★ ★ ★ ★