My 2020 TBR

Since I have a lot of reading to do for my MSc, I’m keeping my TBR for 2020 short and sweet. There are a couple of next instalments from series that I love, a couple of children’s classics and a couple of authors who I’ve been meaning to read more of. What books are on your list for the new year? And have you read any of these ones?

  1. Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames. An epic fantasy about a gang of middle-aged, washed-up mercenaries, full of adventure and humour – Yes please!
  2. The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian. Because I did the 2019 Reading Women Challenge, I haven’t read any Patrick O’Brian in a year and I’ve missed him. Time to get back to the nautical adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.
  3. A biography of Sir Isaac Newton. I don’t read much non-fiction (except for my MSc) but I do like a good biography and Isaac Newton fascinates me. I want to find out more about his experiments with alchemy, his nervous breakdown, and what exactly happened with the apple.
  4. The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante. I am in urgent need of the fourth and final instalment of The Neapolitan Novels. What the hell happened to Lila?!
  5. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. This is one of those classics that I never read as a child, but I like the sound of it. It’s about a bunch of kids having adventures in the Lake District, in the days before anyone worried about health and safety.
  6. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield. Another children’s classic that I never got around to reading. Possibly because I gave up ballet at age 5.
  7. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. I can’t quite believe I’ve only read two and a half Neil Gaiman novels (I consider Good Omens to be 50% a NG novel, since he co-wrote it with Terry Pratchett). I plan on remedying this by reading a bunch of NG in 2020, starting with this one.
  8. Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust. I’m a sucker for a fairytale re-telling, and this one is described as “Frozen meets The Bloody Chamber”. Gimme gimme gimme!
  9. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. I’ve heard many good things about this award-winning space opera.
  10. Swing Time by Zadie Smith. I’ve just finished Smith’s Grand Union Stories and I want more of her impeccable writing. I love stories about close but complicated friendships, and have high hopes for this one.

The 2019 Reading Women Challenge – What I Learnt

So far this year, I’ve read nothing but female authors. I feel like I’ve learnt a few things from the 2019 Reading Women Challenge. Mostly about my own reading habits, but also about the different things that male and female authors focus on when we write.

Differences between male and female authors

I wish I’d noticed something more profound but honestly, the first thing I noticed is that female writers seem to focus more on food. When reading an epic fantasy written by a man, I’ve found that it’s normal to get through the whole quest without anyone stopping for a bite to eat. Does that happen in the same kind of novel written by a woman? Hell no.

Food is mentioned in every book I read for the challenge, often in lingering detail. There are probably all sorts of complex reasons for this. Historically speaking, women have been mainly responsible for food preparation, and it could be argued that women have a more complicated relationship with food because we’re under constant pressure to be skinny. Whatever the reason, I’m glad female authors focus on food because it’s such an important part of everyday life.

The next difference I noticed was that when writing about a character’s appearance, female writers tend to focus on different body parts. You know how women like to make fun of male writers who focus too much on a female character’s tits? (“She breasted boobily down the stairs”) Well, it turns out some female writers have an equally obsessive focus on eyes.

If a male character is attractive, his eyes are often described in rather ridiculous ways. They are given all sorts of flowery adjectives. They are always doing something sexy, like flashing or smouldering or turning the colour of storm clouds, rather than just sitting there like two blobs of jelly with a biological function.

Where are the male authors writing female protagonists?

All books read for the Reading Women Challenge had to be by or about women. So I could have read male authors as long as their main characters were women, but there don’t seem to be many men writing female protagonists. This is surprising, as women buy more books than men, so surely a male author would want to appeal to female readers.

Maybe they’re just not interested in writing female characters, but I suspect the reality is much more complex and beyond the scope of this blog post. I’d just like to say to any male writer who wants to write interesting female characters – Do it! It may be more difficult than writing male characters, but it will be worth it!

My reading habits

This reading challenge has taught me a lot about my own reading habits, and one thing that has become clear is that it often takes me a while to “warm up” to a book. Sometimes I love a book from the first page, but sometimes it takes me a few chapters to get into the style. DNFing a book before the halfway mark is a very bad idea for me.

I also realised that the only books I really dislike are the ones that disappoint me. If I suspect from the beginning that a book is going to be cheesy or have under-developed characters, I can still enjoy it for what it is. But if a book shows loads of promise and then screws everything up, I’ll never quite forgive it.

This challenge has pushed me out of my comfort zone a few times and I’m glad about that. But it has also reminded me that when it comes to books, I should follow my instincts rather than the opinions of others.

For example, I was planning on reading “Gods Behaving Badly” by Marie Philips for Challenge #13 – A myth retelling. But then I read a bunch of recommendations for “The Song of Achilles” and bought it instead. I didn’t hate the book, but I certainly didn’t see what all the fuss was about (this often happens with romantic books). I suppose there’s a delicate balance to be struck between reading outside your comfort zone and acknowledging that you know your own taste.

The 2019 Reading Women Challenge – Summing Up

Firstly, here are the books I read for each challenge. Then I’ll tell you my favourites and least favourites…

Challenge #1 – A mystery or thriller written by a woman of colour – Murder in Montego Bay by Paula Lennon

Challenge #2 – A book about a woman with a mental illness – The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Challenge #3 – A book by an author from Nigeria or New Zealand – My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwait

Challenge #4 – A book about or set in Appalachia – Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg

Challenge #5 – A children’s book – Night Monkey, Day Monkey by Julia Donaldson

Challenge #6 – A multigenerational family saga – Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon

Challenge #7 – A book featuring a woman in science – The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

Challenge #8 – A play – Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar

Challenge #9 – A novella – The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Challenge #10 – A book about a woman athlete –  Trudy’s Big Swim by Sue Macy

Challenge #11 – A book featuring a religion other than your own – Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

Challenge #12 – A Lambda Literary Award winner – Autonomous: A Novel by Annalee Newitz

Challenge #13 – A myth retelling – The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Challenge #14 – A translated book published before 1945 – The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

Challenge #15 – A book written by a South Asian author – The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Challenge #16 – A book by an Indigenous woman – Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot

Challenge #17 – A book from the 2018 Reading Women Award Shortlist – All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva

Challenge #18 – A romance or love story – The Song of Achilles counts for this one. I originally read  Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding, but that turned out to be more of a comedy, whereas The Song of Achilles is a proper, swoony love story.

Challenge #19 – A book about nature – Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Challenge #20 – A historical fiction book – Written in My Own Heart’s Blood again. You bet I’m counting this for two challenges. It’s at least twice the size of a normal book!

Challenge #21 – A book you bought or borrowed in 2019 – Almost all these books count for this challenge!

Challenge #22 – A book you picked up because of the cover – Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Challenge #23 – Any book from a series – Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas

Challenge #24 – A Young Adult book by a woman of colour – Boys Don’t Cry by Malorie Blackman

My favourites

The Bell Jar (I should have read this years ago but thought it would be a downer. It’s not.)

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (How can such a dark book be so feel-good?)

The God of Small Things (Incredible use of language. Everything is very vivid and it’s the funniest literary novel I’ve read in ages.)

All the Names they Used for God (Brilliantly imaginative short stories)

Prodigal Summer (Proof that you can write beautifully about nature without romanticising or over-simplifying it)

My least-favourites

The Other Einstein (An intriguing premise, badly handled)

Boys Don’t Cry (Disappointment at finding that Blackman is not as good a writer as I remembered)

Most strongly mixed feelings

Heart Berries: A Memoir (I’m too judgemental to fully enjoy this memoir! Seriously though, the author does some horrible things but also overcomes enormous challenges.)

Rebecca (It’s a beautifully written book. But that twist, and the protagonist’s reaction to it, made me so f*cking angry!)

Some more thoughts on the 2019 Reading Women Challenge and what I learnt from it coming soon. Has anyone else been doing this challenge? Have you read any of these books and if so, what did you think of them?

2019 Reading Women Challenge – The End of the Road

Hooray, I did it! I completed the 2019 Reading Women Challenge and I’m feeling pretty good about it. I’m glad I took the opportunity to explore the wealth of female talent out there, from the 11th century writer Murasaki Shikibu to modern visionaries like Anjali Sachdeva. Here are my thoughts on the final books I read, which may contain spoilers!

Challenge #16 – A book by an Indigenous woman

For this challenge, I chose Heart Berries: A Memoir by the First Nation Canadian writer Terese Marie Mailhot. It doesn’t read like a traditional memoir, with its disjointed timeline and poetic style. It also eschews easy lessons or neat resolutions as it recounts her mental health struggles and her relationships.

It is, frankly, a mess. At times it is a beautiful, inspiring mess, but at other times it is like holding your chaotic friend’s hair back while she word-vomits all over the place. Mailhot doesn’t come across as likeable, and I doubt she intended to. Her rawness is exhausting and I had to read it in small doses.

Challenge #1 – A mystery or thriller written by a woman of colour

Murder in Montego Bay is the first book in the Preddy and Harris series of detective novels, and I don’t think I’ll be reading any of the others as this one just wasn’t my cup of ganja tea (Detective Preddy’s favourite brew).

The pace is leisurely, bordering on glacial, for the first half of the novel. This wouldn’t be a problem if there were more depth to the characters, but none of them seem particularly complex or interesting.

When events kick off towards the end of the novel, there are one or two neat plot twists, and the whole thing develops a filmic, blockbuster kind of feel. Unfortunately, the lack of depth lets the novel down again when the killer is revealed. I didn’t find their motivation entirely convincing, so it worked for me as a “whodunnit” but not as a “whydunnit”.

Challenge #7 – A book featuring a woman in science

I really wanted to like this one, but The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict was a disappointment. It’s about Albert Einstein’s first wife, Mileva, who was also a physicist and is claimed by some historians to have helped him considerably with his ground-breaking theories.

This novel portrays Mileva as Albert’s intellectual equal, who (SPOILER ALERT) comes up with the theory of relativity herself while grieving for her daughter, who dies of scarlet fever. Albert claims the idea as his own, and Mileva’s genius is lost in the shadows while Albert becomes increasingly famous.

Despite an intriguing plot, I didn’t like the book. I found the writing flat and exposition-heavy, and Mileva is portrayed as unrealistically flawless and selfless. Even when she’s angry about not getting credit for her ideas, it’s not for her own sake – it’s because she wanted the ideas to be a tribute to her daughter. It didn’t ring true for me, and I would have rooted for her more if she just wanted fame and recognition because she earnt them, dammit!

Challenge #10 – A book about a woman athlete

Trudy’s Big Swim by Sue Macy is a lovely picture book about Gertrude Ederle – the first woman to swim across the English Channel. It should appeal to a wide age range, as younger readers can enjoy the main story and illustrations, while older readers have background information such as sports timelines to read before and after the main story.

It’s an ideal book for sporty girls (and boys, of course). It’s full of fun little details like people on a boat singing songs to encourage Trudy, and passing her fried chicken in a net to keep her strength up. But it doesn’t try too hard to be a “kids’ story”, and the illustrations are realistic, with Trudy looking more like a real swimmer than a Disney princess.

Challenge # 15 – A book written by a South Asian author

It’s not hard to see why The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize in 1997. It’s just magic. Go read it!

It’s the story of Estha and Rahel – twins from a complicated family. It can be difficult to write from a child’s-eye view, but Roy manages it with aplomb. The minor characters are also fully formed, so that nobody is a hero or a straightforward villain (except perhaps the Orangedrink Lemondrink man, who is a POS).

There’s some very dark content in the story, but it’s told with wit, a surprising streak of scatological humour, and a real playfulness with language. The structure can be confusing at times, but a novel this rich is worth a few mental gymnastics.

Challenge # 12 – A Lambda Literary Award winner

I don’t read much hard sci-fi, but Autonomous: A Novel made me want to read more of it. Set in the 22nd century, the world-building is phenomenally detailed and imaginative. The future isn’t presented as a hellscape (people routinely live past 100 and eco-friendly technology is commonplace) but there are also some very Orwellian elements.

Some of the characters aren’t as fleshed out as the world they live in. Threezed’s sarcasm is “told” more often than shown, and I never understood why Eliasz got so hung up on being attracted to a male robot rather than a male robot. Is LGBT+ acceptance so crappy in the future that it’s seen as more acceptable to fancy robots than someone of the same gender?

Despite these flaws, this novel takes a brave stab at tackling huge issues like identity, capitalism and personal freedom, and it’s also just a damn good adventure story with great action scenes. Overall, I’d say I’m ending the 2019 Reading Women Challenge on a high.

2019 Reading Women Challenge – The Speedy Reads

I’ve been whizzing through books lately. Lots of travel means lots of waiting around at airports and train stations, which is a perfect time to read. Here are my thoughts on the books I’ve read which, as ever, may contain spoilers.

Challenge #14 – A translated book published before 1945

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu was published waaaay before 1945. It was written in the early years of the 11th century, and is arguably the world’s first novel. I had no idea what to expect from it.

It’s about this prince called Hikaru Genji who is, basically, an 11th century f*ckboy. I found the novel quite confusing because I kept getting mixed up with who he’s f*cking, who he’s trying to f*ck, who he’s gotten pregnant, etc.

Some of it is worryingly familiar. Some of it is more jarring to the modern reader, like when he takes a ten year old girl to live with him because he’s convinced they are soulmates (thankfully he waits a few years before screwing her).

The character of Genji isn’t exalted or demonized. He’s just a young, handsome and very privileged man who keeps his ego in his dick. You don’t have to look too far to see characters just like him in modern fiction.

Challenge #8 – A play

Juicy and Delicious by Lucy Alibar is the play that inspired the film “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, which is one of my favourites. There are some differences to the film – the setting is different, and Hushpuppy is a boy – but it has the same grit and the same joy at the good things in life.

I don’t know much about theatre, and reading a play obviously isn’t the same experience as seeing it performed. I found it similar to reading poetry, especially with all the surreal stage directions about grits and lemons falling from the sky.

Challenge #3 – A book by an author from Nigeria or New Zealand

I have a bad habit of judging books by their covers. The acid green text and pulp fiction imagery on the cover of Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer (not to mention that tantalisingly dark title) made me expect something very twisted and sinister.

It was actually surprisingly light. At times it almost reads like chick lit, with a lot of focus on the main character’s unrequited love for her colleague, and her sexual jealousy of her beautiful but dangerous sister.

At first, I found this disappointing because I hoped for an insight into the serial killing sister’s mind. But I gradually realised that the sensible protagonist might just be more interesting than her murderous sister, and it became one of the most purely addictive books I’ve read this year.

Challenge #9 – A novella

The Awakening by Kate Chopin is a classic. It was published in 1899 and describes the sexual, intellectual and spiritual awakening of a young, married woman in the American South.

Maybe it’s just me being a 21st century woman (a little jaded, difficult to shock) but much of this novella is unexpectedly nice. The protagonist’s rejection of societal norms doesn’t cause her much trouble at first. She explores her new ideas, becomes an artist, has a sexual affair and then a love affair, all without causing a scandal. At times, it is even gently comic.

Though interesting, I didn’t find this novella powerful right until the end. Parts of the novella reminded me of those cosy books about women discovering themselves after divorce, but the last few chapters are full of a desperate yearning for freedom. 

Challenge #17 – A book from the 2018 Reading Women Award Shortlist

All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva is a collection of short stories, most of which contain a speculative element. Sometimes this is subtle (A young woman may or may not have brought a man to Montana by sheer force of will) and sometimes overt (A sailor finds a mermaid, aliens have invaded Earth, etc.)

Let’s cut to the chase – these stories are brilliant and you should read them. Sachdeva’s writing is clear and unfussy, and her imagination is dazzling. Only one of the stories has a slightly unsatisfying ending, and the others are pretty much perfect. My favourite was the darkly funny tale of the aliens who steal human hands and the humans who rebel.

Top Ten Tuesday – Things That Make Me Pick Up a Book

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future weeks’ topics can be found here. This week’s topic is…

Top Ten Things That Make Me Pick Up a Book

1.The cover. I know, I know. You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I can’t help it. If a book has a beautiful old ship or a tiger or something else really cool on the cover, I’m bound to judge it more positively.

2. A strong sense of place. Whether a book is set in the American South or an imaginary world on top of a giant turtle moving through space, I want to feel like I’m really there.

3. A good old-fashioned adventure. Give me epic quests and faraway lands and heroes overcoming insurmountable odds. Bonus points if the heroes react realistically to all this danger and experience real fear and doubt and excitement, rather than just gliding through it like it’s a day at the beach.

4. If it’s written by a brilliant writer. I don’t mean a writer who comes up with interesting stories, because there’s always a chance that their latest story isn’t so good. I mean a writer with a style that I love, regardless of what the story is about. Raymond Chandler could write about a man standing in a puddle and I would read it.

5. The extraordinary hidden inside the ordinary. I love it when someone or something strange, magical or supernatural is tucked away in a perfectly mundane corner of the real world. That’s why I’m such a sucker for Urban Fantasy and Magical Realism.

6. A strong central friendship. Or any platonic relationship really. I’m more of a friendshipper than a shipper, and the love and loyalty between friends gets me emotionally invested far quicker than even the sweetest romance.

7. It was recommended by someone with good taste in books. I do pay attention to book bloggers, but my #1 source of recommendations for awesome books is my mum. She’s been picking out great stuff ever since she bought me Pippi Longstocking when I was eight, so if she recommends something, there’s a good chance I’ll love it.

8. Antiheroes/antiheroines. I find protagonists more interesting when they are complicated, and that often involves a bit of moral ambiguity. Antiheroines are especially fun – they are a great antidote to all the too-perfect, Mary Sue characters out there.

9. Animals. I just love stories about animals. Talking animals who wear clothes and drive cars. Metaphorical animals. Animals hunting humans. Animals being hunted by humans. They are a source of endless fascination for me, and I love animal books from The Wind in the Willows to The Call of the Wild.

10. If it’s cheap! Disclaimer – If you can afford it, you should of course pay full price for books to support the author. But if you’re strapped for cash, there’s a lot of fun to be had in hunting for cheap treasures in a charity shop or at a jumble sale. It’s a great feeling when, in amongst all the generic thrillers and endless copies of Fifty Shades, you find something spectacular.

Top Ten Tuesday – Platonic Relationships in Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future weeks’ topics can be found here. This week’s topic is…

Platonic Relationships in Books

I’ve been really looking forward to this topic. I’m aromantic, so whatever I read, I tend to get more emotionally invested in the platonic relationships than the romantic ones. Does it count as shipping if you want characters to be together forever, but solving crimes or fighting the forces of evil instead of all the kissy stuff? If so, I’m the biggest shipper in the world and here are my favourite platonic ships.

N.B. If you’re into the other kind of shipping, that’s cool too. No disrespect intended to anyone’s headcanons!

  1. Sherlock Holmes and John Watson

Let’s start with the obvious one. Holmes and Watson are an iconic duo, and rightly so. Their adventures are legendary and their friendship is rock solid. Every troubled genius like Holmes needs a good egg like Watson to look out for him, tolerate his eccentricities and make sure he doesn’t shoot too much cocaine.

2. Leah Hanwell and Natalie/Keisha Blake

Zadie Smith’s brilliant novel NW focuses on two childhood friends growing up and apart in London. While Leah doesn’t move far from her childhood home, Keisha becomes a successful barrister, changes her name to Natalie, and moves to a posh area. I really can’t do justice to how well this novel articulates the many obstacles that get thrown in the way of lifelong friendships. The TV adaptation is worth watching too.

3. Chips and Jessie

This is a childhood favourite of mine. Charmingly written and beautifully illustrated by Shirley Hughes, Chips and Jessie is about two best friends (Chips is a boy and Jessie is a girl) who have small, relatable adventures together. I stumbled across this book in my parents’ attic as an adult, and it gave me a weirdly intense, bittersweet kind of feeling. There’s a reason why the only male-female friendship on this list is from a children’s book. Chips and Jessie love each other in such a pure and uncomplicated way, and that’s something you just don’t see enough of in adult or YA fiction.

4. Anne Shirley and her adoptive parents

In L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert – middle aged siblings who own a farm – try to adopt a boy to help them with the farm work. They end up with the highly imaginative chatterbox Anne Shirley, and have no idea what to do with her. Matthew is a little scared of her at first, then proceeds to spoil her rotten. Marilla tries to iron out Anne’s quirks, but ends up learning from her. It’s a beautiful story of unexpected, unplanned familial love.

5. The March sisters

Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy in Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women were a celebration of sisterly love long before Frozen came along. Sure, the girls disagree and fight and occasionally burn each other’s most prized possessions, but their love for each other is the emotional core of one of the best coming-of-age novels of all time.

6. Aziraphale and Crowley

Some of the most heart-warming stories of friendship involve two people from vastly different backgrounds, who form a bond due to similar personalities or interests. Aziraphale and Crowley from Good Omens (co-written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman) are, respectively, an angel and a demon. Their personalities are chalk and cheese, but they bond over a shared interest in preventing the apocalypse. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like if an angel and a demon got drunk together and tried to talk philosophy, you need to read it, like, now. Preferably before the TV adaptation arrives.

7. Colin Singleton and Hassan Harbish

To be honest, I didn’t really care about any of the Katherines in John Green’s YA novel An Abundance of Katherines. Colin will probably get dumped by a dozen other Katherines, and Hassan will be there to pick up the pieces with his take-no-shit attitude and unfailing humour.

8. Roz, Charis and Tony

It’s the characterisation in Margaret Attwood’s The Robber Bride that makes the friendship between these three women so believable. Each one has her own distinctive attitude to life and ways of relating to the other two. In her short story collection Stone Mattress, Margaret Attwood included a story that showed the friendship between Roz, Charis and Tony continuing into old age. They go for long walks and watch trashy vampire movies together. #Squadgoals.

9. Harry Potter and all his father figures

I was going to put Harry’s friendship with Ron and Hermione here, but then I figured that everyone would do that. And since I’m a special snowflake, I’m going to pay my respects to Harry’s mostly-departed father figures instead. Rubeus Hagrid, Sirius Black, Albus Dumbledore and even, arguably, Severus Snape all showed paternal instincts towards Harry. Sure, they frequently led him into danger and had a tendency to die tragically, but they each guided him along the treacherous path to adulthood in their own unique ways.

10. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin

My dad once tried to convince me that male friendships don’t have all the drama and complications and general nonsense that female friendships have. Dad, may I present Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin as my counter-argument. In Patrick O’Brian’s epic series of novels set during the Napoleonic wars, Jack and Stephen save each other’s lives, very nearly kill each other (over a girl, naturally), argue constantly, love each other fiercely, and have a falling-out because Jack fed Stephen’s pet sloth some grog and got it drunk. Their friendship is one of the best ever written – I challenge anyone who disagrees to a duel.