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!]

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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!]

Library Scavenger Hunt: June

Last month’s challenge – suggested a few months back by my dad – was to read a book where the title and author’s name begin with the same letter, and it’s one that I’ve been holding onto for a while, saving for such a time as I was really, really eager to read the last Imperial Radch book. 😉 Considering that, I think it’s fairly obvious what I picked for the challenge – though I am rather glad that it was available, as I didn’t think to check beforehand… 😓

ANCILLARY MERCY
Ann Leckie

[Warning: This is a spoiler-free review, but I will be referencing some events from the previous books in the series, so if you haven’t started it at all yet, beware. Click here for my reviews of Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword.]

After the events of Ancillary Sword, Athoek Station enters a period of calm – but it is a short-lived one, soon interrupted by the troubling appearance of an unexpected visitor in the Undergarden, and then by the even more worrying arrivals of first a new Presger Translator, and then the Lord of the Radch herself, and not the part of her that purports to be Breq’s ally.

Ancillary Mercy is the final book in the Imperial Radch trilogy, and takes place entirely on and around Athoek Station, which was also the setting of Ancillary Sword. In tone, it’s also more similar to Sword than Justice, which is a bit of a shame (as Ancillary Justice is definitely my favourite of the two), but I did find that it did a good job of showing how the events of the second book tied into the overarching storyline, and answered a lot of the questions that I had at the end of Ancillary Sword. I also really enjoyed the way that Leckie wrapped up the plot; it was both brilliantly conceived, and completely unexpected.

Other things I appreciated about this book: Though the relationship between Breq and Seivarden didn’t go in quite the direction I was hoping, it did evolve in a way that felt very natural for both characters, and I was glad generally that Seivarden seemed to have a much more prominent role than in Sword. Breq’s assumptions about her bond with Mercy of Kalr were also challenged in a significant way, which made for several very interesting, character-defining moments… And I really enjoyed Tisarwat’s continued development; of all the characters in the series, she’s probably the one who’s grown on me the most. 😊

In terms of worldbuilding, Mercy gives us a better insight into Athoek Station’s importance to the Radch Empire than was previously known, as well as more information about the Presger, via Translator Zeiat (they’re still a difficult race to wrap my head around, but in an intriguing way rather than a frustrating one). A lot of attention was also given to the question of A.I. rights, a topic which interests me greatly, from a great many different angles – as there were so many prominent A.I. characters (even discounting Breq herself) – and I loved the discourse over the issue…

My favourite in this series is still Ancillary Justice, but I do think that this book was an improvement on Ancillary Sword – and, to be honest, the whole series is so good that “not-as-good-as-Justice” isn’t a very meaningful criticism. I will say, however, that those unhappy few who didn’t like Ancillary Sword at all will likely be disappointed by Mercy as well. I’m looking forward to reading Provenance, which I believe is connected to the trilogy (though I’m not sure how), but mostly I’m anxious to get hold of my own copies of these three, so that I can re-read at my leisure. 🎶

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

Library Scavenger Hunt: May

I’ve taken the last couple of months off from the LSH due to what I’m finally ready to admit to myself is probably something of a reading slump, but since I had some time off work this month, and am feeling a bit less frazzled, I thought it’d be a good time to try to get back into the swing of things – and although this month’s challenge (to read a book with “away” in the title) wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be, I’m pretty happy with the choice I made. 😊 The book I ended up reading was…

THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY
Melissa Pimentel

Years ago, Ruby and Ethan were in love, before she broke up with him without explanation. Ruby might still be in love, but she’s not holding out hope that Ethan feels the same way, after everything she’s put him through… Her resolve to stay away, however, is put to the test when they’re thrown together again and again in the lead-up to her sister’s wedding – and could this romantic atmosphere lead to a rekindling of feelings on Ethan’s side as well?

It took me a little while to realise that this was a retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and even then it was only because I saw a review that mentioned the fact – but to be honest, I would consider this story to be loosely inspired by Persuasion rather than an outright retelling. The premise is obviously similar – two characters meeting again after a breakup that neither of them really got over – and there are a few resemblances between Austen’s characters and a couple of Pimentel’s, but the tone of this book is quite different, and many of the complexities of Austen’s story have been left out of The One that Got Away. Familiarity with the source material is certainly not necessary in order to enjoy this book (though, if you don’t know Persuasion, why not? It’s great! 😋). In terms of Austen retellings, The One that Got Away is much closer to Bridget Jones’ Diary than, say, something like Eligible (for which you can find my review here).

The story is structured in two parts – past and present – and yo-yos between the two with each chapter, and it’s a structure that works well, building on the main plot largely uninterrupted, while gradually revealing more of the backstory in a separate storyline; it does a good job of building suspense  for the big reveal of what exactly happened to break Ruby and Ethan up, which is explained to us at almost the exact same time as it’s explained to Ethan – though, being that we are in Ruby’s head for most of the story, a fair number of readers will have already guessed it by that point. Speaking of which, the entirety of the present-day storyline is seen from Ruby’s perspective, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the past storyline was partially told by Ethan, allowing us to get to know him on a more personal level than just through Ruby’s eyes, without ruining the mystery of his present-day view on her… Both timelines seemed very well-crafted, but I will admit that I found it a little easier to get into the past storyline, if only because I found the things that they were both going through at that time to be more relatable.

Ruby and Ethan both made for relatable leads, and although their (very cute) romance is the driving force behind the plot, their own personal growth was just as compelling. It was genuinely upsetting to see Ruby’s downward spiral of (what seemed to me to be) depression in the past timeline, especially when contrasted with the huge bright spot earlier on that was the beginning of her relationship with Ethan. And Ethan got less of a spotlight, but he was incredibly likeable, and grew a lot over the course of the story… Where they both ended up in the present-day timeline was completely believable, and I’m glad to say that their character development didn’t stop there, either.

As you can probably tell from the review so far, I really enjoyed most of this book, but it definitely also has its flaws. The very ending felt incredibly rushed: The chapter where Ruby finally reveals to Ethan why she broke up with him is only four pages long, and is mostly  just Ruby mentally building herself up to it; the actual revelation happens off-screen, which is fine because we as readers witness what happened to Ruby first-hand in the next chapter (which is set in the past timeline), but in the few subsequent chapters there’s very little follow-up to their discussion, especially on Ethan’s part. And Ethan’s reaction to Ruby’s confession is actually quite problematic, as it indicates either that Ethan is not as good of a person as we’ve been led to believe, or else a complete disconnect between what Pimentel thought she was implying about what happened to Ruby, and what she actually implied… and this disconnect (which I think is the more likely answer) left a really sour taste in my mouth, very nearly spoiling what was otherwise a really fun read.

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

Library Scavenger Hunt: February

This month’s LSH challenge was to read a book with pictures in it, and since I’ve been craving Batman comics recently, I thought it’d be fun to try out some of the Gotham-based series that I’m not already collecting… There were two series in particular that I considered reading for this challenge, but although I borrowed them both (and I intend to read the second of them very soon, too), the one that I decided to review this month was…

WELCOME TO GOTHAM ACADEMY
Becky Cloonan & Brendan Fletcher
(Illustrated by Karl Kerschl)

Gotham Academy is home to the best and brightest students in Gotham… as well as a whole slew of strange secrets. Olive Silverlock just wants to get on with her life – and hopefully puzzle out what happened over the holidays that’s got her jumping at bat-shaped shadows – but unfortunately the world has other ideas, as she (along with Maps, the new student she’s supposed to be showing around) becomes drawn into investigating a series of school-wide ghost sightings.

This was a really fun read! The plotline (and the little mysteries that it presented) was both interesting and engaging, and surprisingly self-contained; though I am intrigued by the hints at a larger storyline in Gotham Academy, this first volume is quite satisfying to read as a standalone. It’s definitely lighter in tone than many of the other Gotham-based comics that I’ve read, but I found that that made for a really lovely change of pace…

The two main characters, Olive and Maps, played off one another wonderfully, with Maps’ innocent exuberance proving a nice counterpoint to Olive’s more serious character. (Maps was probably my favourite thing about this book, though – she’s just so cute! 😆) The cast of secondary characters wasn’t large, but those that we were introduced to seemed interesting, too, and I’m looking forward to getting to know them all better. And the tease at the very end of the book that Damian Wayne may be joining the Academy is another reason that I’m very likely to continue reading this series.

I also really enjoyed Kerschl’s artwork, which was incredibly expressive, super-cute, as well as consistently high-quality throughout the book.

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