While I spent a huge portion of October not blogging, I for once allowed myself to indulge in a massive series re-read. The series I chose was the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire (very appropriate for October, I think you’ll agree), one of my favorites. The Winter Long is the eighth book in the series and I, of course, bought it on release, but didn’t want to read it without re-reading the series. After seven previous books, the first of which I read a good few years ago, I was losing track of who people were, what they meant to Toby, and where the wider plot was going. I knew that the seventh book hadn’t had the same impact on me as it should have simply because I forgot what happened. I had read that this eighth book was a game changer and I didn’t want to miss out any emotional impact.
I intended to re-read the series gradually, spacing in between them with other books, but what happened in actual fact was that I raced through the entire series. I genuinely had forgotten a lot of what happened. I only read one book while I was in the midst of my re-read and it was only because I went on holiday to Italy and couldn’t bring all those paperbacks in my luggage.
As with many of us, I loved re-reading as a child and teenager, even as a younger adult. There was a time in my life when I’d read every adult book I owned at least twice and I think my record for an adult book was eight times. This ended when I got old enough to buy books for myself, but I still re-read sporadically then. Unfortunately, once I hit book blogging there wasn’t time any more. My logic went like this: There are so many books in the world. I own a solid chunk of them. I don’t have time to spend reading over again books I’ve already read. But that misses an essential fact; I loved re-reading these books. I enjoyed immersing myself back in Toby’s world so very much. It was fascinating to remind myself of the habits she acquired over the course of the series (coffee addiction – almost absent in the first book, rears up in the middle, vanishes) and the characters she befriends, admires, loves. And with so many books in the series, I could really feel how much things had changed for her, how she’d gone from a lonely woman who had lost everyone who meant something to her to a strong, confident one with friends and family.
I knew I loved these books, but I think re-reading them cemented that for me. I was worried a little bit that they wouldn’t hold up. Seanan McGuire is an auto-buy for me and I’ve read a lot of her books, so I was actually worried that Toby would sound just like all the other characters McGuire has written. She doesn’t and neither do the other characters in this book. In addition, McGuire has obviously grown as a writer since she started writing these books and the last book was jaw-dropping. I picked exactly the right time to do my massive re-read as I genuinely don’t think I’d have gotten the connections as much without it. Yes, McGuire fills in the backstory, but filling in the backstory has never been the same for me as having it in my own memory. I’d rather flip through a paragraph of who Simon Torquill is remembering the emotional impact his actions had on Toby than forget who he is and need that paragraph. This book truly is a game changer, just like the back cover says. Toby is hit by revelation after revelation that change the way she views many parts of her life and which will have a significant impact on future events in her life. I was so glad I could make those connections.
I don’t think I’ll re-read all eight of these books when the ninth comes out, but I am so pleased I’ve reminded myself of how much joy there is in re-reading. This won’t be the last time I read these books.
And this re-read, although it was a few months ago, has sparked another one, which I’m in the midst of at the moment; all of Robin Hobb’s Farseer (and related) books. When I went to hear Robin Hobb give a talk and sign books in honor of Fool’s Assassin a few months ago, I was dismayed by how little I remembered the books. Not small things – big things, like who characters actually were besides Fitz. I shouldn’t have been particularly surprised since I read them in high school (I think – I can’t even remember how I discovered Robin Hobb, let alone when I read Assassin’s Apprentice for the first time, since she was already a favorite when I started recording books I read) and there have been a lot of books between then and now. Rediscovering books I think I’ll love just as much now as I did then seemed like a great way to start 2015 to me, and so here we are.
How do you feel about re-reading your favorite books?
2014 was the year I gave up on the reading spreadsheet and decided to just let Goodreads sort out my reading. As a result, I don’t have fancy statistics to show, and this post has been a bit more difficult to write (and included me getting halfway through creating a new spreadsheet before giving up) but I decided to just go with it and highlight what I thought was worth it.
I didn’t manage 150 books, but 144 is a number I’m very happy with. My reading was mostly speculative fiction, with fantasy in particular dominating the books I chose for personal enjoyment. This year, that was most of them. My system of reading a review book and then a personal book got dropped, so although the “immediate” TBR pile still has a few of them in there, they seem to make up more like one of each six or seven books I read rather than every other book. I love the freedom of choosing whatever I like. It may have kept me away from reviewing, because of the guilt thing, but I missed reading whatever I felt like whenever I wanted. As a result of this I had an amazing time re-reading the October Daye series in (not coincidentally) October, along with lots of other books I chose myself. Although I felt like I did away with all of my rules as the year went on, I kept reading more books by authors of colour – the figure isn’t high, but the consistency is there, and I can and do plan to work on that balance in 2015. Mostly female authors, mostly fantasy of various kinds, that seems to be where I’m happiest in my reading life right now, and I’m okay with that.
My own personal reading highlights, reviewed and not reviewed:
- Edward III and the Triumph of England by Richard Barber – review – perfect for my target period and really interesting besides (or so I would think!)
- Life after Life by Kate Atkinson – review – I just loved this book. I loved the time travel aspect and the way it looked at how tiny events can result in huge life changes. I’ve recommended this to so many people this year and I don’t see that ending. I’m so excited for the follow-up, I just hope it’s as brilliant.
- Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress by Marissa Meyer – these books completely captivated me. This was the first time in a long time that I stayed up too late reading, and I want more of that in my life. I was in London for work and read Cinder and Scarlet in one night (consuming a really amazing curry in the meantime). Never have I been so grateful for my ereader – and the meeting the next day still went well.
- A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan – this hit just the right notes for me at the right time. Very anticipated and very enjoyable.
- A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki – I so wish I’d written about this book after I read it. I absolutely adored it and, like Life after Life, have gone about recommending it to everyone I know who reads books regularly.
- The Raven Boys and The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater – The only reason I haven’t read Blue Lily, Lily Blue yet is because I can’t bear the idea of waiting for the fourth book, and also because I think I want to read these two. So brilliant. Wish I’d written thoughts down (again).
- We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler – review – I’ll let my words speak for themselves this time.
- The Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henriquez – review – you can’t go wrong with either of Henriquez’s books.
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – mini review – I loved so much about this book. I’m glad I at least wrote something to express that.
- Written in Red by Anne Bishop – this was a surprise to me. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. In some ways it reminded me of books I’d read when younger and I’m not sure I can articulate why I liked it so much. Maybe because I love closed-in communities and stories (boarding schools, spaceships, etc.) and this fit right in. I remember it really fondly and I’m looking forward to book 2.
- Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins – review – a book I liked so much it inspired me to write about it. More of these in my life and no books I feel required to review and I might just become a blogger again.
- My Notorious Life by Madame X by Kate Manning – review – One of only two historical fiction choices on this list, I was so unexpectedly pleased with this book that I had to include it. It is not only a good read, it feels important.
- I love everything that the writing team of Ilona and Gordon Andrews produces. No questions. This year, I only read Clean Sweep, but trust me when I tell you I have a re-read of the Kate Daniels series planned this year.
- Rainbow Rowell – Fangirl and Attachments this year. Love stories <3
- Rachel Bach – I read the Paradox trilogy this year and loved Devi and her quest to save the universe. I have really high hopes for future writing from her.
- Seanan McGuire – as I mentioned above, I read the entire October Daye series in a row before I read the latest installment and I loved doing it. I had forgotten so much about Toby’s earlier books and the way things changed. Plus, going back at this time was honestly perfect because the last book was a game changer and it became clear that McGuire laid the groundwork from day 1. Amazing.
2014 is also the year I blogged less than ever (since making a start), and I’ve not made my general malaise about writing much of a secret. I’m trying to remove requirements and write when I feel like it, about what I want. I am trying to remember this blog is for me – so often I only write about something if I have it for review or if it’s exceptional. I want to write a sentence about everything I read, even if it’s just I loved this and I think this is why, or why not. I want to make this into a hobby I enjoy again, because what I’ve learned with my haphazard year of blogging is that I don’t want it to end. I’m not a professional at this and I don’t need to be.
The same honestly goes for reading. I’d like to achieve more diversity, and I think the best way to do that is to continue making sure I’m reading diverse books every single month, like I did this year, but more of them. I’d like to read more non-fiction, but I think I can do that if I disregard my numerical targets. I have a lot of exciting non-fiction waiting for me, more than ever. I did put a numerical target in place – the same as last year, 150 books – more because I think that’s the amount I naturally read than a stretch. I just like having a number there.
I think I’ve stopped accepting review copies, too. I still get emails. I star them sometimes and think I’d like to read those books. But then I remember the pressure and I think, you know what, I’ll just buy it if I want to read it. I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford to buy the books I really want to read, and in any case I have two bookcases full of books I haven’t read yet. No point adding to those.
In other aspects of my life, much of this year was great, and should go down as such in memory. We have made strides financially, professionally, and educationally. We saw the culmination of years of work and effort – our debt is gone and my husband completed the degree course he’s spent six years on with a first. I was promoted at the beginning of November and for once I’m not getting the two-year job change itch. I’d like to stay where I work. Personally, I rediscovered one of my favourite hobbies, which is crocheting, and although I may not have exercised enough this y ear, and really should do more in 2015, I am the same dress size as I was when I was 21 (albeit a bit tighter) but I will take that as a victory since it definitely hasn’t been the case for all of the years since then.
Nothing is ever perfect, and I don’t want to pretend it is; there are a few things going on which are not in the public eye and which I’d like to keep out of it. But this was, primarily, a good year for me and I’d like to remember it that way.
So, for 2015, let’s keep it simple. More of the good stuff, less of the pressure. No expectations or requirements, just goals. And we’ll see how we get on.
I’m not sure how to even start describing this book. Greg is a very shy, awkward teen boy who is deathly afraid of Them – spiders. This fear permeates many of his thoughts, and amongst a few other things, like a lisp and fits, makes him a complete and total outcast who virtually never speaks to anyone. But he does think, and feel, and want to share, so he does this in the form of a diary to a pretty girl he likes. This is what we read, gaining access to Greg’s innermost thoughts while only intermittently experiencing others’ thoughts of him.
Just like the summary to this book is hard to write, so is any review of it. It’s extremely affecting, but difficult to describe. The story is revealed very slowly, mainly because Greg’s diary is interlaced with interviews done after an unknown event about him. In this way, we get to know him mainly through his own eyes, but also through the eyes of others. This is a heartbreaking way of telling the story, really effectively getting across how very different someone can be on the inside. Greg is isolated, but he both does and doesn’t want to be, something that the people around him don’t realize at all. It casts a fresh perspective on the way we treat those we consider to be different, especially mentally ill, who may look or act differently but are still so human.
This book is designed to make us uncomfortable, to make us think about how we treat people. It costs so little to be friendly yet we can be so horrible to someone we perceive as different from us. Greg’s mind is not an easy place to be, but it’s how people treat him that hurt the most, even when he shrugs it off. It is painful, and it is uncomfortable, but it is worth reading.
A lot of the press surrounding this book emphasizes that it’s really about love, and I didn’t see this at all at first but eventually came to see this point of view by the end. Greg’s illness doesn’t stop him from loving with all of his being, nor does it stop others from being capable of loving him, even if he is isolated. It is also about the struggle to put on a front and appear normal, even when we really aren’t, even when no one is. Greg’s family is far from normal, but they go to lengths to pretend and to project an image of perfection and happiness rather than addressing any of the causes behind their root misery. This willingness to ignore very obvious issues is part of what results in the final piece of the plot falling into place.
I couldn’t say I enjoyed this book, because I don’t think it’s a book to enjoy. I was certainly drawn to it, intrigued enough to find out what had actually happened, to gain some sort of resolution, but it was hard going. Not hard to read, but very affecting. I can see why it’s garnered so much pre-publication praise, and I would add my voice to theirs. This is a book that’s worth reading.
I received this book for free for review consideration.
Ann “Axie” Muldoon is an Irish girl poor in money but rich in family, with a mother and two beloved siblings. When she, Dutch, and Joe meet a philanthropist intent on saving children, she finds her young life spiralling deeper into poverty, this time without the people she loves, as her brother and sister are left behind in Illinois with adoptive parents. Now an orphan, Axie is taken in by a doctor and midwife, learning a trade that will rescue her from the poorhouse but set her up for an infamy her young mind can’t imagine.
Loosely inspired by the life of Ann Trow Lohman and set in mid-nineteenth-century New York City, My Notorious Life by Madame X is a brilliant historical novel rooted in actual fact. While Ann Muldoon didn’t exist in real life, children were taken from their parents in New York City and sent to the midwest to be adopted. Midwives – particularly those who performed abortions – were persecuted for the smallest of visible crimes, as was anyone doing anything perceived immoral in a similar way by the male lawmakers of the time. And Ann Trow Lohman did make an absolute fortune as Madame Restell, midwife and seller of contraceptive medicines under a different name. These historical events, combined with Manning’s gripping storytelling and evocative scene-setting, resulted in an excellent read.
Though Axie is a midwife, her practice is secondary to the relationships that make this novel. This is not only with Charlie, her husband, but with her mother, the midwife who teaches her the trade, the cook who cares for her, her only friend as a girl, her lost brother and sister, and finally the women she cares for and helps in desperate circumstances. Throughout the novel it’s clear that she firmly believes that she is doing right by these women, helping many of them out of a situation they cannot handle, or doing her best to help them avoid pregnancy altogether. As a modern reader it seems obvious that her medicines won’t always do the job she’s advertising, but she doesn’t know that, and she sticks fiercely by the women she’s caring for even at risk to herself, more than once. This, combined with her vulnerability, made me love her. She’s by no means perfect, struggling constantly with the idea that people might love her and pushing against them as a result, and she certainly does some things I wouldn’t personally agree with, but she’s strong, loyal, and ultimately admirable.
Axie also gives women early term abortions, which is discussed in detail. She is a midwife, first and foremost, but it is certainly a huge component of her working life, because women need her for so many reasons. They are too poor to feed another child. They have been raped. Their lover, who was full of compliments and kind words, will not marry them. Their families will disown them and they will live on the street. She says that she wishes the men persecuting her for helping women found themselves in some of the same situations that the pregnant women who approach her do; she’s certain that if that was the case then laws would be different. How depressingly little has changed in this respect in many parts of the world, even with the advent of birth control and women’s rights, which makes this novel resonate even more strongly with a modern reader.
And then there is Axie’s relationship with Charlie, which is never easy but had my romance-reading heart in thrall to the book more than once. From the rooftop of an orphan train to a prison cell to a 5th avenue mansion, their love story is never boring and, although it isn’t the focal point of the novel, so well done.
This book was so much more than I was expecting – a deeply powerful, fantastic novel which reminds me once again that I do love historical fiction. Well worth reading and highly recommended.
I received this book for free for review. All external book links are affiliate links.
We might all know the ending to the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, but how did they meet? Throughout the play it’s clear they have a history and Marina Fiorato has taken it upon herself to imagine what that history might be. From their first summer together through the ten years it takes them to reunite, this is a love story woven in and around Shakespeare’s wonderful play.
Much Ado About Nothing is the first play that taught me that Shakespeare could be for me. It was the first Shakespearean play I’d ever seen performed live by professionals (there have been more now, I assure you). I went to see it in the Globe, with a group of friends I had never met before. It was amazing. I loved the entire experience and it’s something I simply can’t get enough of. So it’s entirely possible that this book had a little too much to live up to and maybe it isn’t surprise that I didn’t like it all that much.
My previous experience with Marina Fiorat0’s books hasn’t been the most positive, either. I read The Glassblower of Murano a few years ago and while it was okay, it didn’t blow me away. I feel similarly about Beatrice and Benedick. I would probably not have picked this up on my own as a result, but it arrived as an unsolicited review copy. The book itself is beautiful (yep, I judged a book by its cover) and the connection with the play made it something I chose to read and looked forward to. To be perfectly honest, the book didn’t really capture me until we got to the part Shakespeare had already written – and it’s not always the best idea to mess with someone that is already so wonderful. The misunderstanding that leads to their separation was certainly Shakespearean in nature, but it frustrated me, using a common theme of two romance characters failing to talk to each other as a reason for years of suffering.
There’s also that awkward juxtaposition between the years-long story of the main characters meeting and the very few days that make up the play, as usual with Shakespeare. It just doesn’t fit together that well. The pacing feels off and rushed in the latter half because the author suddenly has to speed up the pace of events, instead of spreading them out over a summer or several years. There might be a reason there aren’t many novelizations of Shakespearean plays.
Overall, I felt it was okay, a book I didn’t mind reading, but not a book that will stay with me as I know the play will. Perhaps I shouldn’t compare, as it’s a different medium, but it is hard to come up against Shakespeare and not be found wanting.
I received this book for free for review.
Boy Novak is the daughter of an abusive rat catcher, a man she longs to escape. One day, finally, she goes; she gets on a bus and finds herself somewhere new. In her new home, Boy meets a few friends and Arturo Whitman, father of a beautiful little girl called Snow. Boy and Arturo marry and only when Boy gives birth to her own daughter, Bird, does she discover that Arturo’s family has a secret – one that has a great deal of resonance in 1950’s America.
This book is somewhat obviously modeled on Snow White, but twists and turns that fairy tale to become almost entirely different, with the evil stepmother actively trying her best not to be an evil stepmother. It struck me as a novel primarily about how people appear and how a little change can make a lot of difference. There are several characters in this book whose appearances don’t match the way their “true” selves would be perceived in society, which is both good and bad for them. It’s about prejudice and how we apply it based on something so shallow which actually resonates a lot with current events. And that’s all I’ll say about that, to avoid overtly spoiling a crucial plot point.
Though it’s a twisty book with a lot of surprises and a mystical feel, I actually didn’t enjoy Boy, Snow, Bird very much. I often struggle with books where I don’t connect to or empathise with any of the characters and this was the case here. The three title women are the only characters who are fleshed out to any degree, with the rat catcher, Arturo, Boy’s first love, and Arturo’s family mostly glossed over. The letters between Bird and Snow towards the second half of the book were easily my favorite part; two sisters getting to know each other again, understanding how they are alike and how they are different. But overall I just found myself feeling sort of underwhelmed. I felt like I’d seen a lot of other bloggers heap praise on Oyeyemi’s works and I just felt cold towards this, never really involved or that interested in what was happening to the characters or why. It’s been a few days since I finished it and I already feel like it’s left my consciousness, rather than causing me to dwell on some of the powerful messages it contained.
I’d be very interested to know if any of you would recommend any other Oyeyemi works to try, but in the meantime I probably wouldn’t recommend this one.
All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.
Anna Oliphant’s sudden-millionaire author father has decided that his settled American daughter needs to finish high school in France. So, for her senior year of high school, and mostly against her will, Anna is sent to an American school in the centre of Paris. She’s ready for a year of hiding in her room, longing for her American life back, but then she meets Etienne St Clair, a ridiculously gorgeous boy with an English accent, incredible personality, and a girlfriend. Anna soon fits in with his crowd, but she can’t help her feelings for him, and suspects that they might just be mutual.
I thought I didn’t really like YA, but books like this one just keep on winning me over. I have known so many book bloggers who have read and adored this book, but I still thought – not for me. I’m not even entirely sure why, now; I know I don’t particularly like contemporary books, sometimes I find YA romance a little too overwhelming, but neither of those are justifications. I bought it, based on all the rave reviews out in the world, but I didn’t pick it up until last week, when to be perfectly honest I needed something that was light, stress-relieving, and not a huge chunkster like the other two books I found myself reading.
I didn’t expect much, but this book is so sweet and wonderful. It is a romance which grows from a friendship, even if attraction is always there. I love books that do this – completely portray the underpinnings to the love story, not just oh-look-I’ve-seen-you-I-love-you-now. Etienne and Anna are friends. They grow together. They learn how to talk to each other, and they learn how to deal with the myriad concerns that compose their lives. They really turn into best friends. And it’s not actually to the exclusion of all of their other friends, either. It’s easy to believe that a couple like them could genuinely stay together in the real world because they’ve had to learn so much to get to the point where the book ends.
Anna’s confusion and homesickness at the beginning of the book completely and totally won me over. Her embarrassment at her foreignness, her terror of embodying stereotypes, her complete block against even trying to speak French – these are things I could relate to, even though I have always consciously chosen to live away from my own country. I’ve actually read reviews that criticize Anna for this, which baffles me. Perhaps they’ve never quite experienced the combined paralysis of shyness and unfamiliar culture. The fact that Etienne is experienced in more cultures than Anna is but still understands then in turn made me love him (also, the English accent, never gets old even when you live in England and are married to an English man), and the rest of the book I spent luxuriating in the slow burn of their growing romance.
Although, seriously, sometimes people in books need to talk to each other.
Plus, Paris itself. I will be completely honest, I didn’t like it that much in person, but in this book I loved it. I could connect my memories to Anna’s experiences and think, yes, actually; this could have been magical. For her it is as she gets used to it and the city becomes a place of wonder and discovery. I loved the way their love story was woven into the fabric of the city, that their major landmarks in discovering each other are mirrored by shared experiences within such a romantic place. If a book could make me want to go back to Paris and try it all over again, this is the book.
I finished it in one day with a happy sigh, and then bought Lola and the Boy Next Door and Isla and the Happily Ever After. If you, like me, have been waiting to read this book because you’re not sure, I would encourage you to give it a try anyway. It might surprise you.
Hello! I think I might be ready to return, tentatively; I’ve written and scheduled a bunch of book reviews and I’ve started thinking of things to write about, which is always a good sign. We’ll try it and see how it goes. I have a had a couple of days off work which has helped a ton, and I’ve got another one on Friday so we’ll see how inspired I am to keep up the post writing.
November has been a busy month. I’ve been promoted at work (which is of course wonderful and I’m so pleased about) and spent a lot of time learning what I’m doing while still doing parts of my old job. I don’t particularly anticipate this getting much better until January when I’ve settled more into my new role, but I am still convinced it was the right choice – it just means my free time is a little bit less free than it was previously. It will be worth it in the end, it’s a big step up for me and I hope I’ll be getting somewhere with it soon. I’ve been spending a lot of that free time watching Buffy and crocheting. I’ve never seen Buffy before; I’m mostly through season 3 now and I love it. I’m a bit sorry I missed it while I was in high school, but on the bright side I can binge watch it now.
I’m pleased that I’ve done a considerable amount of Christmas shopping already, too. Everyone has something except for one person, so while I might pick up little things as I see them, the progress has been made and I’ve been happy with that progress.
I finished 9 books in November. They are (with quick thoughts underneath the ones I haven’t reviewed already, as I probably won’t get to them):
- The Epigenetics Revolution, Nessa Carey
- This was a fascinating-to-me book about how we are made up of more than just standard DNA. I felt like the author laid everything out clearly enough for me, a non-scientist, to understand and I was kept intrigued the entire time. Very pleased with this read.
- Midnight Alley, Rachel Caine
- Still feeling a bit meh about this series. This is the third book – I bought them quite a while ago and they’re fast, easy reads, so I’m working to get them off my shelves. All okay, but not my favourite series by any means.
- Anna and the French Kiss, Stephanie Perkins
- Smiler’s Fair, Rebecca Levene
- The Sandman, vol. 2: The Doll’s House, Neil Gaiman
- This is (obviously) a graphic novel rather than an entire book. I love the art and this one grabbed me from the first page, so I actually read most of it in one sitting (although with a graphic novel this isn’t quite such a feat). Really looking forward to the next one.
- Shadow and Bone, Leigh Bardugo
- I’m not sure I’d praise this as much as others have, but I really, really liked it; loved the vaguely Russian feel of the world, Alina’s uncertainty and growing confidence, the creative idea behind the threat to the world and how it’s handled, and the way this particular book ended. Another book 2 I’m really looking forward to.
- The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson
- This felt too long to me, and somewhat contemplative. I like the ideas behind this author’s books but I am not sure I have the patience for a book quite this long. It took me 3 weeks to read, which makes me feel impatient while I’m reading, but isn’t something I could read for extended periods of time. I preferred Red Mars.
- Heaven’s Queen, Rachel Bach
- This trilogy is just fantastic. I should probably do a proper review of it, but seriously, if you enjoy sci fi with a fantastic heroine, this is a series to go straight to. It has all the elements I love – great story, intriguing worlds, fantastic characters, powerful and convincing romance – and feels truly epic throughout. Love.
- Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi
I think my favorite is Heaven’s Queen. Space opera is my genre of choice recently, I’m quite new to it so I keep discovering amazing reads.
How was your reading November?
It’s been a full month since I last published a blog post, which is my longest unannounced break from blogging ever. To be perfectly honest, my heart hasn’t been in it for a very long time, and the longer I leave blogging, the harder it is to return. It isn’t as though I don’t have things to say about the amazing books I’ve been reading; it’s just that I seem to have lost the will to sit down at my computer at the evenings or on the weekends and write them.
I’m sure I’ll be back. But not just yet.
Kolya is a deserter. He and his brother have left their Red Army unit, disgusted and uncomfortable with the atrocities they have been committing in Russia in 1920. On the way back to his family, Kolya’s brother Alec dies, and Kolya lives for nothing but the chance to spend the rest of his life with his wife and children. But the village is empty. There is no sign of anyone, no hint of what’s happened to them except a legend told by an old woman. Kolya sets off on a desperate trek to find them, through frozen wilderness and into the heart of the army he left behind.
This landed on my doorstep as an unsolicited review copy with a cover that, to be perfectly honest, didn’t appeal to me all that much (okay, not at all). Nor did the cover slogan, “The only thing that matters is blood”, and I think both are doing the novel a huge disservice. I decided to read it because the description sounded interesting and because I’ve been fascinated with Russian history for more than half of my life. The decision I made was the correct one, because behind the bland cover and needlessly violent words was a book that I genuinely enjoyed.
First of all, the setting. Russian wilderness in the grip of coming winter leaps out from the page. The season is perfectly chosen – winter is choking the countryside just as suspicion gone mad is choking the people with fear. Everything feels cold, closed-off, and terrifying. Smith’s writing helps this come alive; it’s easy to be really scared for these characters because there is no hint of what might happen next. Anyone could be an enemy, even your friend, because that’s exactly the attitude that the leaders are using to scare the many, many peasants into submission.
Kolya himself is an excellent character. He’s committed many wrongs and justified them in his head, just like all of the other soldiers, but he wants to make things right. He has finally seen what matters in his life and when he goes to find it, he can’t. It could drive him mad but instead it makes him more determined, although tinged with an edge of despair. I liked both the idea that Kolya was redeeming himself and his admirable drive to find his family. He doesn’t try to do everything; he’s not a superman. He just wants to save the people he cares about, and to me this seems a very human reaction. We perhaps would all like to end every atrocity in the world, but at this point he has to understand what is and isn’t possible and accept it. And this is why the sentence on the cover annoys me – what really makes Kolya move is his family, not “blood”. I worried about what happened to them for him.
The story itself is well-paced. Endless trudging through a frozen forest could have easily become boring, but the actual journey keeps throwing obstacles in Kolya’s way, both good and bad ones, that help inform his plan. It probably does qualify as a thriller, with plenty of exciting scenes and a few fights, but the overall impression the book gave me was quieter than that. Its strengths were in the cold, quiet nights, the air of suspicion and uncertainty, the crunch of hooves moving through a freezing, silent forest.
In conclusion, I really liked Red Winter. I would suggest it to those who enjoy historical fiction, especially if you’re interested like me in the dangerous times when societies are changing or in Russia.
I received this book for free for review consideration.