October Round-Up: Not a Lot

I didn’t get much reading done in October, but I ended with a bang: waiting up for my teenager to get home from a Halloween party, I had a few solid hours of reading time and finished both the books I’d been reading for the past couple of weeks. And I enjoyed them! I have a feeling that in November I’ll still be too tired and busy to read as much as I want to, but my enthusiasm for reading and my desire to read have been renewed.

Here’s what I read/listened to in October:

Standout Book of the Month

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake  I read this because of Rosario’s review, and I could just leave my response at “what she said.” But of course I won’t. There was a point, about halfway through, when I started to feel that a book about the aftermath of the Norman invasion of England written in an accessible reimagination Old English was a stunt, and that 150 pages of stunt were enough. But then I got hooked again, not by a plot twist exactly, but by the recognition that something other than what I expected had been slowly unfolding all along.

This is, as Rosario says, a kind of post-apocalyptic novel, for Buccmaster’s world has been destroyed and he gathers a small band of men to resist the enemy. But unlike popular YA dystopias, it would not lend itself to a big-budget action movie trilogy. The action that matters, really, is in Buccmaster’s head. And in the end, this book reminded me most of the book on the Congo I read this summer, because it depicts a post-conquest land in which people’s homes, lives, and society are destroyed. People around Buccmaster want a leader, and he wants to be one, but . . . well, I don’t want to spoil it. But there are plenty of places in the world today that show us what can happen when people are unmoored from society and human connections.

It was only as I was walking to the library to return The Wake this morning that I realized the title could have another meaning besides the references to the historical resistance leader, Hereward, (whom Buccmaster views as a rival) or to the wakening of the old Norse gods that Buccmaster hopes to achieve, driving the Normans and Christianity from England and restoring the old ways his grandfather taught him of. Because a wake, of course, is a watching by the dead–and part of Buccmaster knows from the first that that’s all he can do. I will be thinking about this one for a long time.

Another Hit

Emma Barry, Special Interests I liked this Washington, DC-set romance a lot. For one, Millie and Parker are smart and dedicated to their jobs (in different ways) and they admire that about each other. I’ve had some conversations lately about how romance characters can feel a bit vestigial, lacking the values, interests, world view, family, work lives, etc. that would make them feel more like real, rounded people (Robin had a great post on this). Barry’s characters are not lacking in these things and I really liked that their values are part of both the characters’ internal conflict and the romantic conflict. Plus, the black moment/fight felt like a realistic kind of misunderstanding for once. My biggest quibble about this one is that the editing was kind of sloppy, and got worse as it went along–words in a sentence out of order, and a reference to the Canadian “chartreuse” Alanis Morrisette, for instance. I don’t usually have this issue with Carina books and it got distracting. But in general, I thought the writing was good, I liked the characters, I cared about what happened to them. Win! I think I already have the next book in  my TBR, and this reminded me that I have other politically-themed romances I’d been meaning to get to.

The DNFs

Neither of these were bad; they just weren’t for me, or not for me right now.

Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist (Surely this makes me a bad feminist!) These essays should be right up my alley, but though I admire Gay’s writing, the topics didn’t engage me. Reality TV and Sweet Valley High? It’s not that I think pop culture is unworthy of analysis, but I have spent a lot of time reading about gender and race in pop culture in recent years and I think I’m looking for different subject matter in my non-fiction reading now. (Remember how I got tired of the centrality of pop culture in Alex Tizon’s book?).  I also wondered if I’m too old for Bad Feminist. That seems condescending and dismissive of Gay, and I don’t mean it that way–I hope. But I felt like the essays were picking up questions I’ve more or less settled for myself and am not interested in revisiting right now. I’ll probably try this again some time in a different mood.

Rebecca Makkai, The Hundred-Year House I really liked Makkai’s first novel, and the plot of this one, the story of a house and its secrets moving backwards in time, sounded intriguing. But it started with an academic couple, she forging ahead in her career and he jobless and not writing his book, and I found this made me so anxious I could not continue. It wasn’t like my own marriage or career at all, and yet it brought up painful feelings. No can do, at least not at midterm time.

A Not So Favorite Entry in a Favorite Audio Series

Jayne Castle, The Hot Zone It was inevitable that I’d buy this, because I have an inexplicable love of Castle’s futuristic Harmony books, even though I think they’re silly and kind of formulaic. I can hardly remember a thing about this now, but I enjoyed it, and I know I’ll listen to it again. Previous entries in this series have been read by Joyce Bean or Tanya Eby, both of whom I like; this one was read by Barbara Rosenblat, and didn’t work so well for me. I love Rosenblat as a narrator some of Castle’s older historicals as Amanda Quick, and I love her reading Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody books. Her somewhat mannered delivery works for the rather Gothic Quicks I’ve heard her read or for the comic, mannered voice of Amelia Peabody, but–as one Audible reviewer said–here she sounds sort of like William Shatner, with lots . . . of odd pauses . . . and weird emphases on certain . . . words. I like a brisk contemporary-sounding narrator who downplays the goofiness of these books; when it’s played up, I can’t just wallow in the fun.

A Couple of Mysteries

I wrote about one of these. The other was Steve Burrows’ A Siege of Bitternsa birding-themed mystery–but not as cozy as that sounds–set in the Norfolk saltmarshes (like Elly Griffiths’ series featuring anthropologist Ruth Galloway). This had a good twisty plot and I was kind of intrigued by the way Jejeune (really?), the detective, remained a bit of a mystery. He’s brilliant at the job but doesn’t really like it. The real downside was a lot of vague reference to backstory that made me feel I’d missed a book even though this is the first; I’m sure more will be revealed as the series goes on but I just felt jerked around. It wasn’t bad, but I don’t know if I like it enough to continue. It got a rave review in the Globe and Mail, though.

What’s Next?

Thanks to the fabulous discussion on my post about listening to the Brontes, I am now listening to Charlotte’s Shirley, her “industrial” novel (which means I read it years ago for my PhD work). I’d forgotten how funny it, and CB, could be. Sunita and Miss Bates are listening too, and I’m looking forward to what they have to say.

I have Hilary Mantel’s short story collection, The  Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, from the e-library and I’ve zipped through the first couple of stories. I’m really enjoying them–I don’t read short stories enough–but I don’t know that I’ll want to write about them. I’m just enjoying the experience of reading and her skill at creating mood/atmosphere (which I can’t or don’t want to analyze or explain). I’ve also got Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster and Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed  downloaded, though I’m not sure I’ll get to them before they return themselves (pretty ironic on that last one). And I think–gasp!–that I am going to read Sonali Dev’s Bollywood Affair  even though it’s a just-published romance that “everyone” is talking about. So many different readers liked it and I’m in the mood for something sweet and fun.



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23 Responses to October Round-Up: Not a Lot

  1. lawless says:

    Your description of The Wake reminds me a little of Bruce Holsinger’s historical mystery A Burnable Book. It’s set later (during the reign of Richard II, using historical events and personages) and mostly uses modern English interspersed with modernized Middle English, but it also has that feeling of a world that’s foreign yet familiar — in some respects, more familiar than later periods that put more of a premium on respectability. The plot is a little convoluted — it feels as though he threw in as many twists as he could think of to keep reader interest, but by the end that starts working against him, not for him — but the setting, language, and characterization are quite convincing.

    I’ve been thinking about reading Special Interests. This may give me the push I need to seek it out.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks, that Holsinger book sounds interesting. I found the world of the Wake very alien–or the mind of the narrator very alien–in an interesting way. But I could also see a lot if parallels to contemporary people and situations. Kingsnorth said he thinks people are shaped by language (sure) so you can’t write a historical novel in contemporary English (not so sure, I think Hilary Mantel is in interesting contrast to his approach). But what he does with language and worldview in this book is fascinating.

  2. Miss Bates says:

    *waves* I love these round-up posts. For someone who’s “not been doing a lot of reading,” you’ve been doing a lot of reading!

    Learning “Old English” is my fondest memory of going to grad school and I’m intrigued by THE WAKE. I read Rosario’s terrific review as well, but I might need a less busy time of year to tackle something like that. If there’s one thing to be said about reading romance, and not a good thing necessarily, is that there is an ease to the reading. And the more familiar one becomes with the genre, the less there is to navigate and challenge. But when it’s dark and cold and the student essays are near-unintelligible, that’s what I’ll seek.

    I’m very glad you enjoyed Barry’s SPECIAL INTERESTS. Though her BRAVE IN HEART remains my favourite of her books (there’s a hipness to the contemporary series that doesn’t immediately appeal), I do think that, like you, I loved the protagonists’ commitment to their work and how important it was to the narrative.

    I’m very much enjoying SHIRLEY, though I’m not very far in it. It’s been interesting and challenging 😉 to train myself to listen so attentively to something. Usually, my listening is limited to weaving in and out of the CBC. It’s so different from my beloved JANE EYRE and the narrative voice, in the third person more or less, so much more distant and rueful. The historical context is fascinating and it’s such a broader canvas than JE. In a way, it reminds me, though I know it came later in publication, of reading Gaskell’s NORTH AND SOUTH.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      It reminds me of North and South a bit too. There is a whole subgenre of Victorian industrial or social problem novels and I read a bunch of them.

      I know what you mean about the hipness of Barry’s book. It made me feel old sometimes. I found myself thinking “isn’t 30 too young for cynical burnout?” and also wondering if young women in their 20s really refer to their dates as “boys.” I noticed this in Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series too. My friends and I never did that. Once out of high school we referred to guys or when we were more formal men. Maybe it’s regional, or maybe it is because we were at a women’s college and insistent on calling ourselves women, not girls. But I STILL don’t think of the college-age guys I teach as “boys.” So the characters sometimes seemed both older and younger than their stated age to me. But, all that said, I liked it a lot.

  3. sonomalass says:

    I need to read Emma Barry. Not sure why I haven’t yet, but too many trusted reader friends like it for me to miss it. I’m joining the Shirley group to, although not in audio. It’s one I don’t remember reading at university; Villette was my favorite Brontë back then.

    I’m rereading Simon Brett’s Charles Paris series, thanks to a conversation with Sunita that made me aware he’s gone back to it and written new ones. Paris is SO imperfect as a main character, and of course I love the setting in the world of theatre.

    I also enjoyed Sonali Dev’s book. I hope you do!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I put Simon Brett on my library wishlist after observing that Twitter conversation! (and the only reason I didn’t request one right away was having too many library books to get to already). They sound great!

      Glad you are joining us for Shirley. I know I read it–I dug out my print copy as well, so I could check some things–but I remember almost nothing about it.

  4. rosario001 says:

    Great to hear you enjoyed the Wake! That’s so interesting about the title. I hadn’t really thought of it at all, not even to note the reference to Hereward, but of course a title thought up by someone who’s devoted so much attention to language is going to have several levels of meaning!

    I liked the Emma Barry very much as well. I liked the romance well enough, but most of my enjoyment came from having characters who really cared about the sorts of things many of my friends and I (government economists) spend so much time thinking about.

    Barbara Rosenblat reading Jayne Castle? That does sound a bit wrong. I think she’s best when doing the point of view of older, complex women (Amelia Peabody, of course, but I also liked her narration in the early Temperance Brennan books, by Kathy Reichs).

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I am so glad your comments made me pick it up! I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the Booker list this year and I wouldn’t even have heard of The Wake if not for you. Not at all my usual kind of book, but one I’m very glad to have read.

      Yes, I thought Rosenblat sounded too old for the heroine, really (this is a problem I have with a lot of Heyer readers, as well–their narration may be great but I have to remind myself the heroine is not actually in her 50s).

      I loved that Barry’s characters talked about real things and that she chose not to be vague about their politics–they have a party affiliation and specific causes they care about. The wonkery was part of what made them real–and since I spend plenty of time talking to friends and partner about my own particular wonky areas, it rang very true to me.

  5. Sunita says:

    Great roundup, and now I really have to read The Wake. I’ve a trip to Alaska later this month, maybe the Last Frontier is the right setting for a dystopian set in the past. 😉

    I totally know what you mean about the Roxane Gay book. I feel too old for it too. Not in the sense that I know it all already but in the sense that I’m not its target audience. I share the goals and interests but not the formative experiences, and that’s part of what her pop culture references and objects of analysis are about. Just as my mother’s feminism was rooted in different experiences from mine. I feel as if I know and greatly sympathize with what Gay is talking about but like you, this is more or less settled stuff for me in terms of my own ideology. Also, I already feel inundated by pop culture that I don’t participate in, so reading more about it, even for a worthwhile cause, doesn’t really appeal.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, that is a great way to put it–she’s just enough younger than I am that the touchstones are not mine. I asked myself why that made me not want to read it–because I think understanding younger (and older) women’s touchstones matter–but I think the specific pop culture topics aren’t the touchstones that interest me most. I was interested when she talked about grad school and being a new academic, for instance, because though her experiences were very different from mine, it’s a world I recognized. Reality TV I think she’s right about but I just don’t care because I hate it.

  6. Rohan says:

    I’m looking forward to everyone’s discussion of Shirley! I haven’t read it in years — not since I seminar I offered on literature about the ‘Condition of England’ question. Compared to North and South, I remember thinking, it is not nearly so clear or coherent a response: perhaps predictably, for Bronte, it turns more on emotional and personal questions, and on those (as I recall) I thought it was kind of uneven or awkward. But as I say, that was a long time ago — could it have been as much as a decade? Yikes.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I remembered it for the riots, but I’d forgotten all the stuff about the church and the comic curates, for instance. It is kind of a mess, whereas North and South is, as the title suggests, so beautifully balanced and works out its themes of opposites coming together almost too neatly, maybe.

      The thing that has surprised me most so far is that I am several hours in to listening and Shirley herself still hasn’t made an appearance! And I can’t even remember how she’s connected to the other characters we have met. It’s a really different experience from listening to a much more familiar novel like Middlemarch or Jane Eyre.

  7. Ros says:

    Fwiw, I noticed the same editing issues with Barry’s second politics book. I enjoyed it very much though, as I did the first, so I tried to ignore it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Sigh. I mourn again the death of time for proper copy-editing. Or the death of anyone thinking it’s worth the time.

      • Sunita says:

        I’m surprised by the copyediting issues because I’ve found the Carina books I’ve read to be quite clean, even in ARC form. But I haven’t read Barry or many books by her main editor, so maybe there’s more variation than I realize.

  8. Sonali Dev says:

    I’m looking forward to hearing what you thought of A Bollywood Affair. Must Read The Wake now.

  9. willaful says:

    Chartreuse is used correctly in _Private Politics_ — perhaps Barry wanted to prove she knew what it really meant. 😉

    Since you were brave enough to mention it… I also DNF’d _Bad Feminist_! I’ve very much enjoyed some of Gay’s internet writing, but BF seemed kind of scattered and obvious to me. Perhaps also a “target audience” thing.

    • I think I am the target audience, and I’m certainly very interested in the pop culture topics she explores in the book, but I also couldn’t finish it, in part because my interest and familiarity with the themes she explores meant that the book felt too much like a rehash of things that have been analyzed and digested to exhaustion (and not just because the book is a collection of her past articles). I do think it’s a good book for those who don’t follow Gay’s online writing, though.

    • kaetrin says:

      What does it mean in the book? I looked it up in the online dictionary I checked only said a (brilliant green/yellow) colour or a liqueur. #curious

  10. KeiraSoleore says:

    I’m planning on reading A Bollywood Affair, too. A lot of solid buzz around it. Just not sure I’ll get to it this year. It’s on my list though so within the next few months…

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