Library Scavenger Hunt: January

This month’s challenge was to read a book with your favourite colour on the cover, which in my case is orange, and I was pleasantly surprised upon arrival at the library to be reminded that the paperback version of Release – a book which I hadn’t had specific plans on reading, but which I had a good reason to think I might like (that being its author) – is, in fact a glorious celebration of the colour! 🍊 There were a few other interesting-looking orange books that I spotted, too, but to be honest, it wasn’t much of a competition… thus:

RELEASE
Patrick Ness

Adam’s ex-boyfriend is moving away, and Adam’s not entirely okay with this, even though he’s trying to at least pretend that he’s moved on. But despite the many crises (including but not limited to: his ultra-religious family, his creepy manager, and his own conflicted feelings) that are threatening to tear his life apart, he’s determined to make it to the farewell party. Meanwhile, the ghost of a local murdered girl has emerged from the lake, and is hunting her killer.

If that last sentence seems random, it’s because it is. I really liked this book, but it was despite the supernatural sub-plot, not because of it, and had the ghost-story sections been longer, I probably would have rated the book lower. I get the feeling that Ness was aiming for a Pan’s Labyrinth-style atmosphere, but the two storylines were just too disconnected for it to work; apart from a brief scene at the very end, there was no character crossover, and neither plot had any impact on the other.

However, the main part of the book, Adam’s story, was amazing. His strained relationship with his parents was poignant, and provided a dramatic contrast to the heartwarming bond he had with his best friend Angela, who in my opinion was one of the highlights of the whole book. And although his failed romance with Enzo seemed like more of a focal point of the story than his new relationship with Linus, I found myself surprisingly invested in the success of the latter.

This is not a long book (the entire story takes place over the course of a single day), but it feels incredibly substantial; powerfully written, and dramatically plotted. The two wildly different storylines make it hard to rate, but on the whole I felt that the greatness of Adam’s tale outweighed the book’s more lacklustre parts.

[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]

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Library Scavenger Hunt: December

The final LSH challenge of 2018 was to read a book with a lamp on the cover, and although I had a backup pick in the form of The Bedlam Stacks, in case my reservation didn’t arrive in good enough time, I knew pretty quickly what my first-choice book was going to be, as I’ve been wanting to read more from this author for a while now. And as luck would have it, my library came through for me again this month, so I’ve spent the last week or so reading (and pondering)…

THE TRANSMIGRATION OF BODIES
Yuri Herrera
(translated by Lisa Dillman)

An epidemic is spreading across the city, and a young man and woman have died, but whether it’s by chance or design is up to the Redeemer to discover – and his also is the faint (and growing fainter) opportunity to keep their feuding families from all-out war.

My decision to pick up The Transmigration of Bodies was based primarily on my previous enjoyment of Signs Preceding the End of the World; it’s a very short book, with a heavy focus on crime, and none of these are things that I would usually gravitate towards, but I was drawn in by my appreciation for Herrera’s writing (and further reassured to see that Transmigration and Signs also share a translator)… And although I didn’t like this book as much as Signs, I’m glad to have read it.

As I almost expected, I didn’t really like a lot of the characters. The Redeemer – our protagonist – grew on me after a while, but I particularly disliked our introduction to him, where he comes across as an old man perving over his young neighbour (though in fact I don’t think we’re ever told how old he actually is), and most of the other characters came in and out of the story very quickly, which is to be expected from a novel this length, but disappointing nevertheless, as some of them seemed quite interesting. (The sister of one of the two deceased, known only as the Unruly, was my favourite.)

That said, what I was hoping to get out of Transmigration was not pure enjoyment, so much as a thought-provoking reading experience, and that was something that Herrera delivered in spades; he’s an absolute master of making a huge impact in a tiny amount of space. In this case, the story’s dark premise allowed for some really interesting discourse on violence and its consequences, and the eerie emptiness of the unnamed, plague-ridden city makes for an excellent backdrop, and was a huge highlight of the book for me.

[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]

Library Scavenger Hunt: November

My tiredness laziness overcame me somewhat while assigning this month’s challenge, which was to read a book chosen by someone else, but thankfully I have good friends who are willing to put up with this kind of nonsense. 😊 I prevailed upon my friend Grace to pick something for me to read, and she very kindly came up with (and lent me) a set of journal entries from her favourite Antarctic explorer, which had a couple of advantages, those being 1) extreme shortness, and 2) ticking another continent off on my personal challenge to read a book set on every continent this year… The journal in question (from the anthology The Ends of the Earth, Volume 2: The Antarctic) is:

MAWSON LIVES
Douglas Mawson

In January 1913 – towards the end of the Australian Antarctic Expedition, which he led – Douglas Mawson found himself stranded on his return to the Hut (the expedition’s base of operations) only a few days before they were due to leave Antarctica, his companions and dogs dead, and the vast majority of his food lost. For the ten days chronicled in this extract from his journal (Home of the Blizzard; 1915,1930), he struggled his way through the snow on foot, alone and starving.

I always find it somewhat challenging to review non-fiction, as there’s no way to talk about plot or character development in regards to real people and events. What’s left is the writing – something that Mawson does very well. He is well-spoken, his descriptions are vivid, and paired with the life-or-death situation that he was in, the journal is both gripping and engaging. Personally, I could have done without the stomach-turning description of the condition of his feet, but my reaction to it certainly proves its effectiveness. I’d definitely be open to reading more of his journals, though, realistically speaking, I don’t know if it’s something that I’d ever get around to.

[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]

Library Scavenger Hunt: October

As soon as I decided what this month’s challenge would be (a retelling), I knew exactly which book I should be looking for, both because a retelling of a classic horror novel would be particularly seasonal, and also because this book keeps catching my eye when I’m at work (I work at a bookshop, if you didn’t already know), yet I never seem to be able to make reading it a priority. Well, I’m glad to say that that’s finally changed! And the book in question is…

THE HISTORIAN
Elizabeth Kostova

When a young girl discovers a strange old book in her father’s library, printed with the curious image of a dragon, she is compelled to confront her father about it… but she doesn’t expect it to lead to a tale spanning continents and generations, concerning a great evil that has haunted her father since his postgraduate days, and which may even be connected to the mysterious, long-ago disappearance of her mother.

I struggled quite a bit with this book, but it’s difficult to put my finger on why, except that it is a very long book that also feels very long, and the plot – though interesting – is not quite gripping enough to make up for its incredibly slow pace. The payoff at the end of the book was significant, and the last hundred pages or so were incredibly engrossing, but it was definitely more of a challenge to get there than it ought to have been.

The book is more concerned with scholarship than action (all of its primary characters are academics), and is full of interesting tidbits about the life of Vlad the Impaler, as well as vampire lore, which was of particular interest to me as I’ve been somewhat fascinated by this era of history since reading Kiersten White’s Conqueror’s Saga – but it may not be quite so appealing to somebody less so. Kostova also pays a great deal of attention to the history and culture of the different countries that her characters visit (mostly in Eastern Europe, but a significant portion of the book is also set in Istanbul), and her descriptions are vivid and full of character…

I do think that this is a novel way of retelling the tale of Dracula. Like its source material, much of the story is told through letters, retaining the feel of the original even though the story is quite different. And lastly, it occurs to me how appropriate it is that I borrowed The Historian from the library, as so much of it is set in, and concerned with libraries and librarians. 😊

[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]

Library Scavenger Hunt: September

This month’s challenge – to read a book connected with the antipode of the place where I live – was particularly exciting to me, as (assuming that I took “connected to” to mean “set in”) it would allow me to tick off another continent on my read-a-book-set-on-every-continent challenge for the year (and in fact, my eventual choice unexpectedly ended up ticking off two!), but it ended up being a tougher search than I was expecting. 😨 Not because there aren’t a lot of great books set in New Zealand (which is the closest landmass to my antipode), but because my library doesn’t seem to stock a lot of them… 😓 Nevertheless, I did manage to find myself a couple of options, of which I was most drawn to…

THE LIFE & LOVES OF LENA GAUNT
Tracy Farr

In her youth, Lena Gaunt was at the forefront of electronic music’s wave of popularity. Now in her eighties, she is approached by a filmmaker, who wishes to make a documentary about her, and so finds herself looking back over her life, and the people – and instruments – that shaped it.

I was primarily drawn to this book because, on the surface at least, the main character seemed a lot like my sister – a cellist, and a theremin player, whose name is Helen(a) – which amused me, but thankfully the similarities end there. The Life & Loves of Lena Gaunt is a great novel, but Lena’s life isn’t the most cheerful… 😓

The story spans eighty years, and switches back and forth between Lena’s present-day encounters with the filmmaker Mo, and her memories of her earlier years; her childhood in Singapore and Perth, and later her time travelling wherever her loves (both human and other) led her. Both of these storylines were heartfelt and compelling, and although it could at times seem a little directionless, I found myself really appreciating the meandering, introspective tone of Lena’s narration.

I also appreciated how much Lena’s love was directed towards music, and how much that love of music influenced her life. Many of the significant moments in her life were, of course, affected by the people she most cared for (most notably, her Uncle Valentine and her lover Beatrix, among others), but just as important were her two instruments, the cello and the theremin. Lena was an incredibly vivid, realistic character, and I had to remind myself a few times while I was reading that this is a fictional autobiography.

This definitely isn’t my usual literary fare, but I’m glad to have read it nonetheless, and am sure that Lena’s journey will be sticking with me for a while. I’m interested, too, in checking out more of Farr’s writing, which also doesn’t look like what I’d usually gravitate towards, but will hopefully surprise me as pleasantly as this one did.

[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]

Library Scavenger Hunt: August

This month’s LSH challenge was to read a book that was recommended to you, and I’m sorry to admit that I cheated (just a little bit) once again. 😳 This was a genuine recommendation, but that recommendation was also accompanied by a gift of the book in question, so I’m afraid that I haven’t actually set foot in the library this month… 😓 (I will do better next time, I promise!) But in any case, my pick for this challenge was:

FATHERLAND
Robert Harris

It’s 1964, just one week before Adolf Hitler’s 75th birthday – and the body of a high-ranking Nazi official is found floating in a lake. Was it an accident? Suicide? Or is that just what it’s supposed to look like?

On the surface, Fatherland is your basic murder mystery (unusual setting notwithstanding), which I’m generally not a fan of, and I probably wouldn’t have ever chosen this book for myself – but I’m grateful for the recommendation that led me to it! The mystery is of course an integral part of the plot, but Harris seemed less concerned with the murder that occurred than with the political implications of it, which were fascinating, and utilised the Orwellian backdrop excellently.

In fact, I found myself reminded a lot of 1984 while reading this – or rather, of what I hoped 1984 would be. The two books share their unsettlingly close-to-possible style of dystopia, but while I detested everybody in 1984Fatherland’s protagonist, SS Sturmbannführer Xavier March, was sympathetic despite his (reluctant) Nazi affiliation, and there was a memorable and compelling supporting cast. As the book went on, I became particularly invested in March’s relationships with his partner Jaeger, and with the American journalist Charlie Maguire.

It’s an excellently-crafted world: Picking out the differences between Harris’ alternative history and our true history was an interesting experience, but the similarities were also very striking (again, in a rather unsettling way), and I was impressed by how well Harris was able to play off my expectations of which things would and wouldn’t have changed.

[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]

Library Scavenger Hunt: July

I was torn between two different books for this month’s challenge, to read a book without a picture on the cover,  my eventual choice and H.G. Wells’ The Rights of Man – both uncharacteristically non-fictional, and (I will admit with some shame) not actually from the library; they’ve been sitting on my shelf for more than half a year, while I’ve looked longingly at them, but have ultimately found myself too busy with other books. ☹️ I am pleased, therefore, to have finally made the time to read at least one of them (despite breaking stretching rules which I set myself), and that book was…

WOMEN & POWER
Mary Beard

A write-up (and slight update) of two lectures that Beard gave in 2014 and 2017, which discuss ways in which Western society tries (and often succeeds) to keep women out of power and delegitimise those women who manage to achieve it regardless – and how those same methods have been modelled in antiquity, from Homer’s Telemachus telling his mother off for speaking amongst men, to Perseus, lauded for decapitating the monstrous-but-still-powerful Medusa.

The first chapter, The Public Voice of Women, is primarily a study of women as public speakers – or the lack of them. Beard begins with the example I mentioned earlier, where Telemachus tells his mother to go away and leave the talking to the men at the beginning of The Odyssey, and goes on to talk about various other women in antiquity (both historical and mythological) who have tried to speak up outside the home, and been dismissed, or ridiculed, or seen as un-feminine because of it. The thing that I found most interesting in this first essay was actually the exceptions that Beard gives us; examples of the rare times when the classical world considered it acceptable for women to be given a voice. Specifically, when denouncing a rapist, or discussing “women’s issues”, or representing a group that is only made up of other women – but never when speaking on any issue that might be thought to concern society as a whole.

Afterwards is the 2017 lecture, Women in Power, which draws heavily on the tale of Perseus and Medusa as an example of powerful women being seen as a threat to be defeated, illustrated by the many, many depictions that exist of various female politicians as Medusa – most notably Hillary Clinton, with one particularly striking image showing Trump-as-Perseus holding up her severed head. This chapter also discusses the tactics that women in power use to make themselves be taken more seriously – often by making themselves seem more masculine. Beard compares this with classical figures like Athena (among others), who, by taking on an un-womanly role, became something other than a woman; she could be a woman or she could be powerful, but to be both was a contradiction in terms.

I wouldn’t really qualify Women & Power as the manifesto that it claims to be, as it doesn’t really offer any suggestions on what can be done to rectify this tendency of society, but it is a very interesting collection of observations, and will undoubtedly open a few eyes. Personally, I leave this book with a re-discovered appreciation for those women who speak out, and are brave enough to bear the consequences, and a vague desire (which may or may not pass) to read Herland, a book that Beard refers to a few times, about an all-female utopian society.

[Find out more about the Library Scavenger Hunt by following this link!]