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Review: Hild, Nicola Griffith

hildSeventh century Britain is a harsh world, comprised of petty kings and their domains, haunted by the frequent spectre of war. Little Hild is born into this world as the daughter of a prince, her mother prophesying before her birth that she will be the light of the world. But Hild’s father dies when she is only a child, throwing her world into uncertainty. Her mother, and then she, schemes to keep their rightful place, and Hild becomes a seer for her uncle, King of Northumbria. Not only does she have to handle difficult and uneasy politics, but she also has to deal with the regular struggles of any young girl growing into a woman.

The author for this book has done a lot of research into the period and it shows. She freely admits that she’s completely made up the vast majority of Hild’s story – it is fiction, after all – but the surroundings and the life that Hild lives are entirely possible for a girl in seventh century Britain. She is the seer of just one petty king in a Britain full of them. They each hold one piece of what is now a whole, but that is not treated as a foregone conclusion in the slightest. I liked reading about some of the smaller kingdoms, including Alt Clud, which was actually in Vanished Kingdoms, a book I found incredibly interesting nearly a year ago, about kingdoms and provinces in Europe that have since been forgotten.

As for Hild, all this means is that she has to keep Edwin’s favor but at the same time weigh what might happen if one of the other kings surge in power and she’s no stranger to battle. Because she is a seer, and not just the king’s niece, she has to endure a huge amount of danger and uncertainty.

At the same time, though, Hild is very clearly a teenage girl, and even though the world she lives in doesn’t at all resemble our own, she’s easy to relate to. This book really spans her childhood, from when she can’t even speak to the moment when she becomes a woman and in charge of her own destiny – at least, as much as she possibly could be. She grows and we understand where she’s come from and where she thinks she’s going, even when she’s not sure.

This book’s storyline spans the conversion of Christianity, which I found fascinating. The bishop, Paulinus, is a missionary and it’s his job to convert Hild’s people. The king in Kent is of course the first to be converted and then Christianity spreads across the island. The book thus has to deal with the reconciliation of pagan beliefs with Christianity; how to get these people to decide to be baptised and then how to compromise in order to keep them Christian. Hild doesn’t stop being the king’s seer even when she has to be baptised. She remarks with surprise at the time that she hasn’t burned and she’s still herself and her visions are given just as much credence as they were before. She still fits, even though the world around her is changing and adapting.

I read Hild slowly – it’s not a fast read – but it’s a book worth spending time with. Hild’s world is very unlike our own and it takes some getting used to, but the reward is an intricate, cleverly written story and a worthy heroine as its star. Recommended, especially for those who already enjoy historical fiction.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

TSS Currently: 20.07.14

tssbadge1Time // Sunday evening, 16:12

Place // My desk - haven’t actually written a post on the laptop in ages.

Eating // Leftover pasta and homemade sauce for dinner a bit later on

Drinking // A glass of water

Reading // Today I finished Hild by Nicola Griffith, which I should be reviewing this week. It’s coming out this week and is definitely a read for the historical fiction lovers amongst us. One of the blurbs compared it to Game of Thrones, too, which I can totally see in some of the scheming and politics within the book. Great stuff.

Yesterday I finished The Devil’s Playground by James Traub, which was a relatively brief history of Times Square over the course of the twentieth century. I’m always interested in the history of places I’ve been and I knew Times Square had changed a ton even in my parents’ lifetimes, from a relatively seedy and unsafe part of New York City to the insanely crowded tourist and big brand hub that it is today. The book did a good job of exploring that change, although I got a bit bogged down by the large amount of it that had to do with corporations. The author did interview and get in touch with people on the street, but it’s kind of depressing how much everything is controlled by humongous companies now.

Finally, today I’m going to start A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie and I’m reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in ebook form. To say that I’m looking forward to both of them would be an understatement.

Watching // I’m nearly finished with season 3 of Veronica Mars and I’ve already pre-emptively bought the movie for when I finish. We spent quite a bit of time over the last few weeks watching the World Cup and it’s been nice to return to watching a show with a plot again. I’m also kind of glad I haven’t raced through this season as much as I have the first two. It’s not as addictive and it means I can stay in the world a little bit longer. Still very slowly watching Game of Thrones with a couple of friends.

Cooking // I’ve been falling down at cooking again lately, especially this last month. I’ve gotten a couple of vegetarian cookbooks and the second Hairy Biker diet cookbook, so I clearly want to get back into it, but haven’t had the energy.

Learning // We’ve decided that we’re going to Italy for our holiday this year, so I’m probably going to start learning a little bit of Italian, just to help us cope. I’ve not really started yet, though. I did get back into driving and spent the last week driving to work on the motorway for the first time, so I am tempted to count that as learning.

Gaming // I’ve played a little bit of Crusader Kings II recently but it has been a while since I got properly into a game. I have been reading less because of driving to work instead of taking the train, so now I consistently feel like free time has to be reading time.

Loving/Hating // Loving the fact that it’s been warm! We’ve had some amazing weather recently. Hating that it mostly happens on weekdays when I’m at work, but I will take what I can get.

Anticipating // Keith finishing his university course after something like 7 years doing it part-time alongside his full-time job. I can gleefully say only two months to go, although he will worry more about finishing everything in two months. After that, actually doing things together again!

Credit goes to Kim for the Currently format!

Review: Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell

fangirlCather Avery would have been perfectly content to stay at home with her dad and twin sister, Wren, and write fanfiction about Simon Snow for the foreseeable future. If she has to go to college, which of course she does, she’d at least have preferred to live with her sister, as she has for the first eighteen years of her life. But instead, both twins go to college, and Wren chooses to live with someone else – leaving Cath to stand on her own two feet for the first time in her life. Cath can’t deal with her roommate or her roommate’s adorable boyfriend, Levi; she can’t seem to find enough time to write the fanfiction that she loves so much and she’s afraid to leave it behind to write fiction separate from that world; she can’t stop worrying about her dad, coping alone in the world without his two daughters for the first time. Can she find a place for herself in the world outside the bubble she’s created for herself?

Rainbow Rowell’s books make me want to write about them immediately. I loved Eleanor and Park late last year (how has it been that long?) and it was only a matter of time before I found myself starting FangirlOf course, I am a “fangirl” myself, which explains part of the attraction. I spent most of my teenage years hanging out on Final Fantasy forums and have tried my hand at writing fanfiction more than once. I have had plenty of friends who have done the exact same thing. Like Cath, too, I’m shy and socially inept (at least in my own head). Starting college with literally no one I knew anywhere was hard and scary, and while I didn’t hide in my room like Cath, I certainly wanted to until I found my eventual, amazing friends who made that time incredible.

What I’m trying to say with the above paragraph is that I massively related to this book, to Cath, and I felt like I could get more inside her head than with most other fictional characters. I normally don’t like books that are too close to my own possible life experience, but I related and I wanted better for her. And I loved Levi, the boy who gives smiles away like it doesn’t cost him anything. I loved them together, I loved that everything was behind closed doors but so, so charged with tension. Rowell is absolutely brilliant at this – who can forget how emotional she makes hand-holding in Eleanor and Park – and she puts her talents to good use in this book, too.

On top of the wonderful relationship she’s got starting with Levi, Cath relates to everyone and cares so much. Her conversations with Reagan had me laughing, frequently, and her constant care for and worry about her father and sister make her a good person. It doesn’t matter what else is happening at any given moment, if someone she loves needs her, Cath will go there and be with them. Everyone has lessons to learn in this book, but Cath doesn’t need to learn how to love. She’s so good at loving that it’s no wonder she worries people will take advantage of her, and she’s damaged from having that love essentially spurned. But even though she categorizes herself as broken, she’s not. She just needs to learn how to be whole again and this book is her wobbling and then learning to do just that.

I could quote so many passages that I loved, but instead I’ll link to this goodreads page. Every quote on there is golden. So often there would be a passage and I would think yes that it’s impossible to summarize all of them. I’d have to quote the entire book.

I read this book in the space of a single evening, forgoing sleep in favor of getting to the end; although there is no real suspense here, it’s hard to tear yourself away from a page that is so full of beautiful words and emotions and living. Rainbow Rowell is brilliant. I’m glad I already bought all of her books, because I’m certainly going to be reading all of them.

Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler

we are all completely beside ourselvesWhen she was a little girl, Rosemary was a chatterbox, happy to talk anyone’s ear off. Her mother told her to choose one of the two things she had to say; when that wasn’t enough, it became one in three. But by the time Rosemary is a college student, she hardly ever speaks, and she’s moved halfway across the country to avoid the gaps in her life. Her brother and her sister have been missing from her life for years and, even though she loved both of them, she’s been spending most of that time misunderstanding why they are gone. Eventually Rosemary can’t deny her past, but in order to unravel it, she begins in the middle with this book, where her father always told her to start stories, when telling the beginning would take too long.

I went into this book knowing almost nothing about it. I have probably mentioned it before, but this is the way that I enjoy books the most, because I don’t have any preconceived notions about what’s in them and I can come to the story in the way I imagine the author intended. That is almost certainly the case for this book, which is why I’ve tried very hard not to give anything away. The bit I’m keen to avoid talking about happens around page 70, so it isn’t as though it takes long – I just think it’s worth not knowing, avoiding preconceptions, before you realize what’s happened.

One of my favorite things in a book is an unreliable narrator, I think mainly because we’re all unreliable narrators of our own lives. Rosemary spends quite a bit of time in the book going back to the beginning, to her very early childhood, and often has to confront whether what she remembers is fact or fiction. Does she remember something or does she now only remember being told the story? How much do the facts of her life, as she sees them, line up with what her parents and siblings remember and experienced? I love books that start out in the middle and only gradually reveal what actually happened and what it meant. This is definitely one of those.

There’s also identity and how our family shapes it, by action, inaction, or by simple absence. Rosemary’s adult life is in many ways dictated by what her parents chose to do when she was a child, factors that she simply can’t escape, and maybe shouldn’t, no matter how far from them she tries to go. Though she’s writing this novel as an adult, it actually documents more the process of her coming to terms with this and understanding their actions as well as her own.

And, although all of this sounds very serious, and most of the book is serious and sad, there’s also a light touch. Some of it is genuinely funny, almost to relieve the tension of everything else. Fowler maintains a delicate balance between a book that is extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking and one that is a pleasure to read.

The book is about so much more as well, but as I said above, I don’t really want to give it away. I just really want other people to read it so I can talk about it more. So I hope that, despite the “mystery”, others will feel the same way, and perhaps be inspired to pick We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves up. I would certainly recommend it.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

Wordless Wednesday: Medieval Horse Armour, Royal Armouries, Leeds

Horse HelmHorse Helm Explanation

Review: The Emperor's Blades, Brian Staveley

the emperor's bladesThe Emperor has been murdered, dead far before he planned to be. His heir, Kaden, is far away, learning to be a monk, not yet ready to take on the mantle of imperial rule. His second son, Valyn, is still in training to become one of the empire’s most deadly fighters. Only his daughter Adare is in the capital. Though her father has granted her the position of Minister of Finance, she still isn’t as powerful as either of her brothers could be, and must navigate the tricky waters of court politics while trying to bring her father’s murderer to justice. Meanwhile the lives of Kaden and Valyn are in danger and both brothers must confront their own problems before they can even begin to start on the empire’s.

This book, which is an ARC, makes the claim on the back that “fantasy has never been more popular”. While I’ve been a fan of fantasy for most of my life, I think I’d agree with its assertion. Game of Thrones has taken over the imagination of many people and, although I like the books a lot less than I once did, I like that it’s becoming less of a stigma to enjoy fantasy and science fiction. The Emperor’s Blades isn’t quite up to the standards of the masters who have gotten us this far, like Robin Hobb or George R.R. Martin, but is certainly a big step in the right direction for its author.

The narrative is balanced between the three children, although they are all mostly grown. I think Kaden and Valyn were given more page time than Adare, but I personally found Adare’s part of the story most interesting. She’s the one who actually has to figure out what is going on, while her brothers are more impacted by related events. And her part of the story had the one moment where I think my mouth actually gaped open in surprise, although both boys have interesting stories, too.

For me the book started off slowly. I no longer read much epic fantasy and I’ve found that this sometimes means I am a little slower on the uptake as I try to learn who each character is, what their backstory is, and how it all relates together. It really picks up in the second half though because all three characters start sensing that something is going on. Neither of the boys know their father is dead for a good portion of the beginning of the story, but both sense that something is wrong in the way that others behave and how events fall out. Once those events and conspiracies start to come together, everything ties in and gets much more exciting.

The magic system in the book is particularly interesting as well. Magic has a very strong stigma against it and those who practice it are called leaches, because they must leach their power from something in their environment. The magic itself is slippery and mainly seems to involve changing the environment just slightly, enough to throw enemies off balance but only sometimes to cause big, cataclysmic events. It’s an intriguing enough concept but wasn’t developed enough for me.

I did think the book was lacking in some areas. Like I mentioned above, I didn’t think Adare had enough page time; there is far more potential around exploring her story and I hope that Staveley lets her shine in the rest of the series. I also felt that the world-building was a bit weak and confusing; most of it seems to come about through telling, especially one particularly long diatribe to Kaden, because the main characters stay more or less in the same relatively boring places throughout the entire book. The capital, where Adare is located, had the most potential, but was again not really explored. Amazing world-building really adds an extra dimension onto a fantasy novel and it was missing here.

In any case, I did feel The Emperor’s Blades was a solid debut and, if the next volumes address some of the lacks in this one, has a lot of potential for a great series. I’ll be giving the next one a try.

All external links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

TSS: The scary halfway-through-the-year-already post

tssbadge1June will be over tomorrow and that means six months of 2014 will be gone. I’m sure I only wrote this goals post a short while ago, but now we’re here checking up on progress.

I’m not sure how I’d rate the first half of 2014. Nothing much has stood out to me, to be perfectly honest. We haven’t left the country except to visit my parents and that was pretty much the only time I’ve had off from work, too. Nothing to complain about, nothing to shout about. Just ticking along, working to clear off the rest of our debt, and buying copious amounts of books with what’s left over. This might be why the year feels like it’s gone by so quickly already; I know breaking up time with unusual events is a great way to make it feel like it’s taken longer, but there hasn’t been much of that this year so far.

I have kept to the spirit of most of my goals, I think, and I’m relatively pleased with where I am. I think we’ve spent most of the year so far being reasonably healthy. Both Keith and I have been exercising regularly (until I got shin splints which seem to never go away, but that’s a different story). We have a 10k to run in August which I hope I’ll be able to do. I’ve been cooking more without meat. I’ve not really taken enough pictures or signed up for a class yet, but we have six months to go, and it’s now looking like that class will be for swimming lessons (what with the shin splints and the not being able to swim at 28 years old).

On the reading front, according to Goodreads I’m just behind my goals, about 2 books behind with 71 books read so far this year (assuming I finish a couple in the next two days, which might not happen). I don’t think this is *too* bad and I can easily make it up if I try, so I’m not going to worry about it too much. What does disappoint me a little is that I haven’t stuck well in particular to the non-fiction goal. I am doing better reading more international fiction and authors of colour, with June the single exception where I managed the former but not the latter. All other months I have actually been right on target, if not exceeding it, about which I’m pretty pleased. I’ll try and make up for June’s lack in July.

Here’s what I’ve read this month (I’ll add if I finish anything tomorrow):

  • Three Weeks with Lady X, Eloisa James
  • Mogworld, Yahtzee Croshaw
  • Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
  • The Borgia Chronicles, Mary Hollingsworth
  • Year of the Demon, Steve Bein
  • Deadly Sting, Jennifer Estep
  • Fortune’s Pawn, Rachel Bach
  • The Emperor’s Blades, Brian Staveley
  • The Dead Girls’ Dance, Rachel Caine
  • We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler

I’m much happier with the quality of my reading this month than last month and some of these books were real gems. Fortune’s Pawn and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves were definitely the highlights in different ways. I hope to write about both; I’ve actually already drafted up a post about the second one.

In July, I’m hoping to get to more of my summer reading listHild by Nicola Griffith will definitely be read and written about, as I might actually start it today, and Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire might as well. I’m also going to finish Bone by Jeff Smith, which I’ve purposely been dragging out mainly because it’s amazing and I could race through it much too quickly if I tried, and I suspect I am going to start getting into more graphic novels in the very near future.

I honestly haven’t made many plans for the next six months; at the moment I feel like most of my life plans are put on held a little bit while my husband finishes the university degree he’s working towards (while also working full time, which makes for a distinct lack of free couple time). We’ll see what the world brings after that.

How is 2014 treating you?

Review: Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims, Toby Clements

kingmakerIt’s 1460. Katherine is a young nun, caught outside her English priory by a group of rampaging knights during the Wars of the Roses. Her life is saved by a slightly older monk, Thomas, but her reputation isn’t. Not only has she spoken to a man, but her closest friend has died under suspicious circumstances, and Katherine finds herself expelled from the priory. Under related circumstances, so does Thomas, and these two young people find themselves with nothing and nowhere to go in the middle of a bloody civil war, fleeing from a knight whose mission is to kill them.

We’ve reached a bit of a saturation point with the Wars of the Roses, or at least I have. There are so very many books floating around about the Woodvilles, Richard III, Edward IV, the Princes in the Tower that it’s actually overwhelming, and no longer all that interesting in fiction. These royals have been considered from virtually every angle and it can seem like there isn’t anywhere new for fiction writers to go. Clements goes completely against that trend and focuses his novel on two ordinary people instead, who are simply caught up in what is wreaked by those who rule. In doing so, he creates something that is much more innovative and, ultimately, retains its interest in an over-saturated market.

In altering his focus, Clements allows us to take a completely different perspective on the war. Thomas and Katherine don’t really care who wins the war. They don’t even know what’s going on sometimes, though they do know the man who’s caused all of their troubles. They do their fair share of fighting and they even meet some of those figures about whom so many authors write. But this is a more personal struggle, viewed from a different level. They’re loyal to minor lords and it’s a member of the minor nobility who plagues them throughout the book. Everything else is more or less incidental, even though they travel across the Channel and back and feature in a few of the major battles fought during the war.

Both characters are sympathetic; I especially liked Katherine, but I wanted both of them to survive and thrive as best they could. Their personal struggles can easily strike a chord with readers; both have to find their way in a world outside the priory. They had assumed they would be there for their entire lives, but instead find themselves not only in a war but challenged with moral questions they never expected to encounter. The responsibility for killing people, the exposure to an outside world of sin, the fight for revenge; it’s very human.

Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims took me a while to read because it’s fairly long, but I enjoyed it, getting wrapped up in their struggles and experiencing a little more what the other side of the Wars of the Roses would have been like. Recommended.

All external links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review consideration.

TSS: Summer Reading

tssbadge1I love summer. It is by far my favorite season. There’s just so much to love about it; sunshine right into the evening, flowers, warmth, greenery everywhere, holidays and weekends away (not this year, but most of them). It’s all about the endless possibility that nice enough weather brings. I like wearing dresses and t-shirts without thinking I’m going to be too cold or I need a jacket.

In addition, I love the heat, more so since I live in a country now which doesn’t actually get that hot. I’m the one who actually enjoys the heat inside a car that’s been parked for a while, who takes every opportunity to sit in the sun (within reason, I don’t like sunburn), and who delights in opening all of the windows in the house to let all the fresh air in. I love especially going home for a visit and feeling the humidity and heat in the air around me as soon as I step out of a plane; I’m sure this is at least partly because we have modern wonders like air conditioning, so it’s never endless, but I’m just happier when I’m slightly too warm.

Then there’s the fact that as a child summer meant almost limitless freedom; for me, it was hours and hours of reading and no real responsibility. Now that I’m an adult and and work full-time, this is no longer the case, but I think summer still retains some of that feeling of freedom. And that means it’s fun to think about which books I want to read this summer and always makes for a good excuse to pull together a pile of all of those books I wish I could just read now.

Here’s what I’m looking at:

summer reading 2014

  • The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan – I read A Natural History of Dragons back in March and loved it. It was just the sort of book I love to read and completely fulfilled the expectations I had of it (which were honestly pretty high). I’ve been looking forward to the sequel ever since and so I picked it up on my last trip to Forbidden Planet in London. Hoping to get to it soon.
  • We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler – I don’t know much about this book except for the fact that I want to read it! It’s been gaining rave reviews all over the place and I feel I’ve had it in my TBR for too long already.
  • Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire – I buy pretty much everything Seanan McGuire writes (in actual fact, I do think I own every book she’s published). I’ve so enjoyed all of her books, especially the October Daye series, that it’s always worth giving the next one a shot.
  • A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie – I loved the first book I read by Kamila Shamsie and I’m really looking forward to this.
  • A Darkling Sea by James Cambias – My craving for science fiction has not gone away in the slightest and I’ve had this space opera on my list since I first heard it existed. I had intended to get it last time I went to the United States but actually couldn’t find it anywhere. I was delighted to find it in Forbidden Planet at the same time I bought The Tropic of Serpents and it goes straight into the immediate TBR.
  • Skin Game by Jim Butcher – The Dresden Files are awesome. I have a whole shelf full and there was no question I’d be buying this as soon as it came out. I suspect I’ll get to this sooner rather than later.
  • Hild by Nicola Griffith – The only historical fiction book on my pile, this promises to be an amazing read set in 7th century England around St Hilda of Whitby, starting with her youth in what is now northern England. Very much looking forward to this.

What are you looking forward to reading this summer?

May 2014 Reading Wrap-Up

For me, May 2014 was a slow reading month, but in all good ways. I spent the first 10 days visiting my parents in the United States, which naturally meant that I didn’t have as much time as I normally would to read (although you might expect the opposite). By the time I’d got back, one of my friends had started work at my current company, so I got a commuting buddy – less time to read on the train, although company I am certainly happy about having. It also looks like we’re going to start driving to work, which eliminates that commuting time altogether. And then I got completely obsessed with Veronica Mars and spent every free hour for the last few weeks watching the show.

Speaking of Veronica Mars, I can’t believe I missed it when it was actually on TV. I think the first season is among my favorite seasons of television ever now. I’m in the middle of the third season now and will probably finish that and the movie this month.

We spent the last weekend of May in London, which was really lovely. Even the weather managed to be wonderful, staying in the low 70′s and sunny most of the time. We went to see the Viking exhibit (a real Viking ship!) and the Ancient Lives exhibit in the British Museum. Naturally, my favorite was the Vikings, while Keith preferred the mummies, but both were really, really interesting. I also brought my husband to his first Shakespeare play at the Globe and we went to Hampton Court Palace for the first time.

Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court Palace

Learning how to be mostly vegetarian is also consuming some time (thank you so much for all of the suggestions!) as I’ve been experimenting with different types of cooking and ingredients, like tofu and lentils. So far, I’ve been relatively pleased with what I’ve managed to create, but there has been quite a bit of recipe following as I try and figure out what to do on my own.

There was also the reading slump that I mentioned last time I actually managed to blog.

So what did I actually read?

  • Heart of Steel, Meljean Brook
  • The Dream Thieves, Maggie Stiefvater
  • Indexing, Seanan McGuire
  • How to Lose a Duke in Ten Days, Laura Lee Guhrke
  • Level 2, Lenore Appelhans
  • Banished, Liz de Jager
  • The King Must Die, Mary Renault

Looking at that list, I can see why I felt fairly uninspired by reading in May. For once, a favorite choice is easy; The Dream Thieves stands out immediately, as did its predecessor, The Raven Boys. I loved those books. Everything else on the list was mostly okay, but nothing stands out.

The list is also distinctly not multicultural; all of the authors are white women (as far as I can tell, anyway) and only one book is set elsewhere in the real world, which is The King Must Die. I’m definitely not hitting my goals here and will need to do my best over the rest of the summer.

How did your May go?