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House Built of Books

I read. A lot.

Currently reading

Lyndon B. Johnson: Portrait of a President
Robert Dallek
The Death House
Sarah Pinborough
Riding North One Summer
Bettina Selby
The Shining Girls
Lauren Beukes
Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West
Tom Holland

Single short stories published in anthologies/un-added books tracking post

At Crighton Abbey - Mary Elizabeth Braddon - liked

The Crooked Branch - Elizabeth Gaskell - Liked the language, not so much the story

A Warning to the Curious - MR James - liked

The Blush - Elizabeth Taylor - loved

Ligeia - Edgar Allen Poe - hated this - turgid, slow and not remotely chilling.  


Happy New Year, resolutions and random thoughts

My bookish resolution this year is to track everything I read here.  Last year's was to read all the books across various "Books of the Year" lists.  I managed *one*.  So hopefully this year's will actually be achievable...


I see a lot of "This is what I've read this year" lists.  When everything on them is impeccably intellectual, I wonder exactly how curated they are.  Surely everyone gets distracted by a thriller or romance some of the time?  


YA books I'm looking forward to in 2015:  Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman, and most especially All the Rage by Courtney Summers.  I'm also hoping Against the Clock, the second in Kate Lattey's Clearwater Bay series, will be out in 2015.  I read Dream On yesterday in one sitting and it was just as good as Dare to Dream.  I hope her books find a wide audience; they certainly deserve to.


No doubt there will be others!


A Christmas Feast and Other Stories - Katie Fforde

Pure romantic bliss.  

Shadow Scale

I expect I'm horribly late to this, but two chapters of Shadow Scale, the sequel to Rachel Hartman's wonderful Seraphina, are available to read NOW:




The covers, the covers.  I could die for those covers.  They are stunning.  I hadn't read a word about Seraphina before I saw that first cover on a bookshop table.  I picked it up and bought it without reading the blurb, flicking through, or anything.  The cover did it all.


The book was pretty great too. 



If you're a worldbuilding geek, read this now.

The Goblin Emperor - Katherine Addison

This reminded me rather of Queen of the Tearling in that both plots begin with a very similar situation, that of a young heir having to claim and hold their throne.  I love this plot and would happily read any variation on it.  


The Goblin Emperor is much less of an adventure than Queen of the Tearling.  It's a long, slow-paced introduction to a world.  Maia, the fourth (I think...) son of a put-aside wife, never expected to be Emperor, but lands there when his father and half-brothers are killed in an airship accident.  The story takes in his claiming of the throne, coronation, and rocky first few months before emerging from coups and conspiracies as a strong and accepted Emperor.


If you want a rich, beautifully imagined world, look no further.  I love a world I can sink into and really inhabit, and the world of The Goblin Emperor is definitely that.  It can be hard to keep all the court names and places straight, but it doesn't really matter much.  


Maia is a good character to spend time with.  Exiled and abused before becoming Emperor, he tries to do what is right once he is on the throne, while also negotiating the deadly waters of the court.  He makes mistakes, but never mean-spirited mistakes, and he is always aware of his power having the ability to hurt those under him.  I loved that.  His uncertainty with women was beautifully drawn (and so were the women themselves, and their relative social situations.)  Gradually, Maia makes friends.  


Some reviews have suggested that Maia was very lucky in his court in that so many people wanted him to remain Emperor; this is partly true, but it also misses the importance of law in many people's lives.  Maia is the lawful Emperor.  That is enough for him to have people on his side, particularly people in government.


I adore government procedural meetings and insights into business in worlds, and was quite happy to read long arguments about building a bridge over a river, but it's possible that not everyone shares this interest.


The book does have a somewhat stately pace in parts, weighed down a little by detail, but then that's part of the charm.



The Talisman Ring

The Talisman Ring - Georgette Heyer

Yesterday's re-read.  I remembered most of the plot, but I'd forgotten just how good Sarah Thane and Tristram Shield are together.  The slow growth of their understanding is a thing of beauty.  


A Georgian rather than a Regency, for anyone who enjoys keeping count.

Who doesn't love a lovely French accent?

The French for Love - Fiona Valpy

This is a sweet romance set in the Bordeaux region of France, but it's a bit let down by the pacing.


Valpy lives in the area - her detail is fantastic and really makes her French-set books special.  (I have also read The French for Always, which I liked better - the heroine is in the same industry as me and it's a more accomplished, structurally sound book.)


Gina, having lost her father, her job, her boyfriend and her beloved Aunt Liz, moves to the house Liz left her in France to find a new start.  She discovers family secrets, exciting new wines, and two potential suitors.  The first, Nigel, is a little caricature of a certain type of English expat.  The second is the delectable stonemason Cedric.


Gina's voice was engaging enough, and I liked the characterisation - not a lot of stock here.  There were some nice details about wine and wine-making and the introduction of various new characters never felt like sequel-bait (even though they appear in later books.)


But for me too much time was spent on Gina's introspection, and not enough on the romance.  There is a lot of "we're attracted to each other" but there's no date until maybe three quarters of the way through the book, and the thing that keeps Gina and Cedric apart could've been easily resolved by Gina asking one simple question.  The courtship is then dealt with in what feels like about three paragraphs.


Gina then has to make a decision: take the big career opportunity she's been offered and leave France, or turn down the job and stay with Cedric.  


I was quite disappointed with the way this went down.  Cedric yells at Gina as if her wanting a career was purely selfish.  In the end, Gina gives up her opportunity - but I don't see Cedric giving up anything in return.  (To be fair, Gina makes a further appearance in The French for Always, working for a vineyard.)  Cedric is painted as a man of sorrow who had lost his first wife to cancer, but we are never really shown that - perhaps a limitation of the first-person narrative.  


There's a baby epilogue, which always makes me want to vomit.  Romance is not just for people who want babies...I hope.


I'd recommend, with caveats.



Dangerous Women - Jim Butcher, George R.R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, Lev Grossman, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Joe Abercrombie, Sam Sykes, Diana Rowland, Caroline Spector, Melinda Snodgrass, Cecelia Holland, Megan Abbott, Megan Lindholm, Nancy Kress, Pat Cadigan, Joe R. Lansdale, Gardner R. Dozois

A title like "Dangerous Women" invites cliché, and this anthology features a fair number of them - particularly the femmes fatales.


It could be that the femme fatale just doesn't work for me as a character.  Always seen through jaded male eyes, she perhaps has a longer history than is sometimes realised as another incarnation of certain goddess figures in both ancient and modern myths.  This is most obvious in Lansdale's "Wrestling Jesus", where two men fight for the favour of a woman and the winner takes her home, a clear echo of winter and summer kings and Robert Graves.


But we rarely inhabit her, see through her eyes, feel her feelings, understand her actions. There's a sameness to the stories featuring her, of both plot, tone and character.  Of all the femme fatale stories in this anthology, though, I did quite like Melinda Snodgrass's "The Hands That Are Not There" - the one in which we do, in fact, get a sense of her motivations and actions.  


Some of these stories, I didn't even finish.  I think that's down to the tone.  Jaded, morally-compromised male narrators...they're a hard sell to me.


I can't read Jim Butcher or fake Scottish accents, so Butcher's story and Gabaldon's novella passed me by.  I tried the Wild Cards story, but it didn't speak to me, and there wasn't enough magic in Caretakers to keep me reading.


I enjoyed the George R R Martin novella finishing up the anthology, and I can always read about dragons and bloody civil wars...but I feel it was rather shoehorned in, and sold as a rivalry between a princess and a queen that was really a rivalry between a princess and her half-brother.  It can be summed up as everyone fights, miscalculates, does stupid things, and then dies, or lives irretrievably damaged.  Yay.  What I want to know is whether winter was coming in that civil war, and if not, why not?  


The stories I liked most tended to be post-apocalyptic.  Some Desperado, Pronouncing Doom, Second Arabesque Very Slowly, Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell.  Pronouncing Doom wasn't my favourite, but I've always loved stories about the remakings of societies after disaster, and I liked the detail here.  Some Desperado was just fun.  Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell was probably my favourite.  Long, satisfying and hung over by a sense of doom and hopelessness, I loved every word.  


Two others stood out for me.  My Heart is Either Broken speaks to the way women are treated as victims of crime, disbelieved, their lives pulled apart by media and the professionals who are supposed to help them - and how that feeds distrust in their personal relationships.  


A Queen in Exile showed a woman with a different kind of courage to the many warrior women we tend to get as "strong female characters."  The style was a bit too much telling of history but I loved the story.


Name the Beast is one of the most original stories in the anthology, but takes concentrated reading.


I didn't care for Raisa Stepanova by Carrie Vaughan, mainly because the ending isn't what I wanted from stories here.  The Girl in the Mirror irritated me when the heroine was rescued by a man half-way through but as an antidote to Harry Potter, it's not bad at all.


A bit of a mixed bag overall, but a lot of story for £6.99.


"I wouldn't wish what I have on anyone, but unless you get it, you don't get it."

The trouble is, none of the words we use to express profound fatigue are good enough.  Tired just means, tired.  Go to bed and feel better in the morning.  Exhausted suggests you've been doing things and your tiredness has an immediate cause and will go with rest.  People have experience of these feelings so when you say "I'm tired," meaning "I'm so tired my whole body hurts and I'm miserable.  Every part of me aches with tiredness that is so deep it bites like a constant, low-level pain that weighs so heavily all I want to do is lie on the floor and whimper for it to go away," that's not what others hear.  They don't understand, and it's impossible to make them understand, unless they've felt it.  They say they do, but then they say "Can't you do a bit more exercise to help?"  and "Why don't you change your diet?"  


Do they think I haven't tried that?  It's not easy to exercise when your body is screaming "REST!"  And it doesn't help.  If you do too much it only hinders.  Diet changes have worked for some, but they haven't helped me.  Nor has "lying in the sun," or "going out to see friends."  It's nice to see friends, and helps emotionally, but the effort doesn't help physically.  if anything, it triggers more tiredness.  


Any stress makes things worse, and most well-meaning suggestions, frankly, are simply stress.  


I've been more tired than the tired I am right now.  I've been so tired I couldn't sit up for an hour at a time without feeling dizzy and sick and needing to sleep.  And while sleep was necessary, it didn't stop me from feeling tired.  It didn't (and doesn't) get better with that sort of rest.  That lasted months.  


It did get better.  I struggled with a short walk to the village and needed a rest when I got back.  It took me all day to wash up dishes and cook supper.  I needed a doze in the afternoon.  Slowly, I went back to work.  I took on another job that I could do from home.  Things kept getting better, perhaps related to the thyroid medicine I was taking.  Perhaps not.  I don't know anymore.  


It even got better to the point where I didn't feel tired every day.  I don't think.  I'm not sure I even know what normal is anymore, and I never jumped out of bed full of energy ready to attack the day.  But I worked full-time and more, went for walks, had a life.  It doesn't feel good to be feeling the need to cut down on that life right now.  Fewer work hours, very little walking.  Lots of fucking rest in the same bed I was thoroughly sick of in 2012.  Lots of anger and wanting to break everything I can see.


I want this tiredness to have a direct physical cause that can be treated, because then there is at least hope that I won't have to struggle for the rest of my life.  But perhaps it's time to accept that it's not going to happen, and that accepting and learning to live with it is the best I can do.


It could be worse, after all.  I'm still here.  I still have partner, work, friends, books, food, most of a life.  It's enough.  And things might be better tomorrow. :-)  

One of my favourite comfort reads

Out of Love - Victoria Clayton

I first read Out of Love at university, curled up in my duvet with a packet of Pringles.  Those were the days!  Since then it's always been a go-to comfort read.


The story follows Daisy as she meets up with her old schoolfriend, Min, makes up the quarrel that led to 15 years' worth of estrangement, and goes to stay at Min's rambling pile in Yorkshire.  


On the face of it Daisy's life is wonderful.  She has a convenable career as an academic in Cambridge, an independent income and a fast car.  But as she begins to assimilate herself into Min's family life, she realises there's something missing.  Something that might well be Min's beloved husband, the gruff and enigmatic Robert.


A different writer might have turned this set-up into a suspense, but Clayton instead uses her premise to meditate on the nature of love, friendship and forgiveness.


The novel begins with Daisy's and Min's coincidental meeting at a college reunion, and then tells the story of their intense friendship and quarrel in flashback.  I love the portrayal of childhood; the loneliness of Daisy's, and the loving household that grounded Min's.  Daisy keeps Min, vague and disorganised, out of trouble; Min's generosity gives Daisy a taste of family.  This dynamic is replayed in their later relationship, after they have met up again.  


There are several things that make this novel for me but probably the single most important element is the cast of well-realised supporting characters.  There are harsh schoolmistresses, priapic gardeners, hot tanned South African men, clean-skinned, floppy-haired Oxford academics, gossiping shopkeepers, pot-smoking teenagers, Wildean schoolmasters, and two nymphomaniac mothers of different social class.  My favourite is Mrs Butter, the housekeeper Daisy finds for Min, who has a sad history and who ends up selling her prescription drugs to kids in the school playground - and who remains an intensely sympathetic character.  She has her reasons. 


I also adore the way Daisy sets about sorting out Min's house and family when Min burns her arm and asks Daisy to stay on a bit to help out so that she can finish the academic preface she is writing.  List after list, task after task, from organising regular deliveries of dog food to cooking every meal (using Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking, of which I thoroughly approve) and rearranging furniture to bring the house back to something approaching its former state.  As a fellow manager of human beings, I cheer Daisy's bossiness on with all my heart.


There are a few things I don't like about this book.  Perhaps some of the minor characters are a little stereotypical, and the attitudes some of the characters display towards homosexuality are uncomfortable.  The story's time period (1950s to perhaps early 1970s) may go some way towards explaining that.  A vein of snobbishness runs through the book, with many of the characters lower down the social scale seen as silly, stupid, or dishonest.  (this is true of more of Clayton's work, too.)


Overall, though, the charm of the book carries me through every time.  

Medieval assassin nuns! I repeat. MEDIEVAL ASSASSIN NUNS!

Dark Triumph - Robin LaFevers

I don't know how anyone alive could resist that premise, frankly.  I am in thrall, and this is my favourite of the three books that make up Robin LaFevers' trilogy.


The setting is a medieval, alternate-history Brittany, just after a young Anne becomes duchess.  An older, nine-god religion (based on Celtic deities) fights for primacy with the new Christianity.  (Religious geekery.  I love it.)  The assassin nuns are the instruments of Mortain, the God of Death, and are deployed according to his wishes by the Abbess of the convent.


Dark Triumph is the second of the series, and it is dark.  Very dark.  It doesn't hold back on cruelty or abuse. The main character, Sybella, is sent back into the family situation that nearly drove her into madness in the first book, Grave Mercy.  I thought my own family was dysfunctional, but hers beats mine into a cocked hat.  The story follows her as she navigates the dangerous waters of her suspicious, manipulative father, over-possessive brother, ladies-in-waiting who spy on her every move, and over-eager retainers, all the time attempting to follow the orders of her convent and keeping her real mission secret.  


Sybella thinks of herself as something dark, almost evil.  The story's romance features a man who sees the good in everyone, Sybella included, and the way she finally comes to accept herself and her place in the world is a treat to read.  


In so many books featuring strong women, the heroine still ends up rescued by the man.  Not in this book.  I also love the real friendship between Sybella, Ismae (the heroine of Grave Mercy) and Annith (Mortal Heart), the relationship between the daughters of the convent and Anne of Brittany, and the complicated, sore relationship between the nuns and the Abbess - who may not be all she seems.  


The Witch of Exmoor - Margaret Drabble

This book reminded me forcefully of why I stopped reading Margaret Drabble.  A few years ago I went on a Drabble binge; I wanted everything; I read everything of hers I could get my hands on.  Then The Garrick Year came along and killed me.  I still love A Summer Bird-Cage, but that seems nearly forgotten now.


Anyway, The Witch of Exmoor, like many Drabble books, is full of tedious middle-class people with tedious middle-class concerns (inheritances, their children's educations), doing tedious middle-class things (dinner parties, weekends in the country, jobs in art galleries or with New Labour).  I didn't like or care about any of them, and I've no idea what the point of the story was.  A struggle to finish.Dr

Unsentimental memoir

Cider With Rosie - Laurie Lee

Until I took this on holiday with me, I had only vaguely seen a rose-tinted TV adaptation.  It completely prejudiced my view - I didn't want to read some sentimental crap about village life in the early 20th century that would fit well with John Major's warm spinsters and beer on bicycles, or whatever it was he went on about it.  Various different editions with soft-focus covers featuring pretty maids of the fields and lusty youths didn't help.


Then I saw a copy of Red Sky at Sunrise, containing Cider with Rosie, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and A Moment of War, in the bookshop and thought, fuck it, everyone else has bloody well read this, so will I.  I was pleasantly surprised.  


The book depicts Laurie's early life in a Cotswolds village without any sentiment at all, really.  People are cold, hungry, impoverished, but their lives are lived with a flourish of character. 


The title doesn't refer to a young Laurie having a drink with an ancient pagan wise woman of the village, as I'd always suspected and rejected with a resounding "Yuck," but his awakening sexuality with the rather-more-worldly-and-knowing Rosie of the title.


Historical novel rather than romance

A Civil Contract - Georgette Heyer

This is marketed the same way as Heyer's romances but be warned: while it has her trademark sparkle, it's explicitly a more serious historical novel, and may disappoint you if you pick this up thinking of Venetia, Frederica or any of Heyer's other classic romances.


I wasn't; I think it's one of her best novels.  I like the story's intersection with real-life events, and the explicit discussion of class themes is interesting, although somewhat limited.  


Jenny is neither pretty nor clever, but her loyalty, sensitivity (which she tries to hide behind a gruff, matter-of-fact exterior) and staunch common sense make her a compelling heroine.  It's sad to think that she's still a somewhat unusual heroine today.