Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Crimson Petal and the White Read-a-Long: Week 1

1) We'll start simple. How are you finding the book so far?
I'm loving it! Seriously, I rattled through this week's chapters in a very short space of time and had to fight with myself not to keep going. I love Victorian London. I mean, really love it. And the descriptions are so detailed and evocative I can just lose myself in it like the nerd I am. And then there's the writing style, addressing the reader directly, which could go so wrong but it just works wonderfully.

2) The language and tone of the writing is pretty brutal and unflinching. Does that bother you?Does it change how you feel about doling out recommendations?
Heh, this question just made me remember the time I was in the library and overheard a very elderly lady raving to the staff about how great this book is. The language clearly didn't bother her ;)

But yeah, I had mostly forgotten how... explicit this book this. But, hey, I like explicit. Especially in historical fiction, and especially the Victorian period because so many people think of the Victorians as prudes and they really, really weren't. Really.

3) We've met both Sugar and William Rackham now. First impressions?
Okay, let me disclaim first of all that I have vague memories of hating Rackham from the last time I read this, though I don't remember exactly why. Actually, it may not be for much more than what we've learned about him already, because he does so many infuriating things. Hey, if you don't actually want to inherit your family's perfume business, that's fine! But, you know, you still have to DO something with your life. You know, other than just spend your daddy's money *grumbles* I know, I know, easier said than done and people are complicated and all that, but I'm finding it difficult to have any sympathy for him. And his family life! We don't know much about his and Agnes's marriage but it seems safe to say it was pretty much done for the money and they were never really in love. It still makes me feel bad for Agnes that he has affairs, though. I'd probably stay in bed all the time too if I was married to him.

Sugar is an intriguing one. There's a bit of a mystery about here- she reads so much and so well in a time when many women of her class couldn't read at all. Makes me wonder how she ended up as a prostitute in the first place- and is Mrs Castaway really her mother? (I don't remember!) I think she's very clever and stuck in the wrong time and place, really. I feel sort of bad for her, as much as she seems to be able to make it work for her.

4) Agnes Rackham has been a bit of a fringe character in this first section but her treatment by her husband and doctor makes her quite the tragic figure. What do you think about her mysterious 'illness'? 
Mental illness, probably some form of depression, seems to be the most likely scenario. Though that was all tied up in the idea of hysteria and other 'women's problems' back then, so it's all very much the same.

I feel bad for Agnes and I can tell you I'll continue to feel bad for Agnes as the book goes on. Just like Sugar, she's a victim of the society she lives in.

5) Much though I'm really enjoying the book, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of plot. Any predictions about what's coming up?
I think it's fairest if I give this question a skip, since I've read this before, and though I don't remember specifics, I remember certain big things ;)

Saturday, February 20, 2016

February Mini Reviews: Part 1

So I'm still reading... quite a bit. I know I sound surprised, but my reading had sort of fizzled out a bit (well, by my standards) by the end of last year. Now I'm back to the pace I was reading years ago, getting a book finished nearly every other day. Of course, uni has helped a bit in this regard. At undergrad, I thought having to read a book/per class/per week was bad, but at MA level it's suddenly 2 or 3 books per class per week. Most of what I've read so far has been pretty damn good. I'm doing Irish Gothic and Fin de Siècle fiction, both of which are kind of my jam. So a lot of the texts on the syllabus are stuff I've read before and stuff I really love, so that's nice.

Anyway. I'm dividing this month into two parts, and then doing a separate post for my uni reading too, just because I like it when these posts don't drag on for too long :)

Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters by Joan Ryan

If you're confused as to why I decided to read a 20-year-old book about competitive gymnastics, let me explain. I first encountered this book in this article on Autostraddle back in wow, 2010. Not going to lie, I have a sort of morbid curiosity and a grizzly exposé of the gymnastics world sounded interesting to me. Then Book Riot mentioned it in a recent article and I was like, oh, that book. I wonder if I can find a copy. And I did, and it was pretty great. It's pretty much as bad as you can expect- eating disorders, 14 hour training sessions, brutal injuries, gymnasts being forced to continue competing with brutal injuries. Of course, this was published in 1996, which begs the question of how much has changed. Hopefully a lot, but I suspect maybe not so much. As for the writing: I know this book has been criticised for being biased, but I don't think balance was really what Ryan was going for, so that doesn't bother me. What does bother me: she could seriously have used a better editor. Little details like ages were sometimes inconsistent, and there was some repetition- yes, it's incredible that gymnast Kathy Johnson, due to being forced to keep her weight dangerously low, didn't get her first period until she was 25, but does it really need to be said three times? Still. I liked this a lot, actually. I wholeheartedly echo Book Riot's call for more gymnastics books.

Lumberjanes Vol. 1: Beware the Kitten Holy by Noelle Stevenson, Brooke Allen & others

This is a graphic novel about a bunch of girls at a scout camp and all sorts of strange and wonderful things that happen to them. I was excited about this ever since I first heard about it- from Autostraddle as well, oddly enough- but I had to wait ages for the trade paperback to come out, and then ages for it to come out in the UK, and then several months more because a certain online store messed up my pre-order. But it was totally worth the wait and well-deserving of the hype- it's so fun and original. The only problem is that it's so short- even for a graphic novel, as this only includes 4 issues. But Vol. 2 is out already and Vol. 3 is out soon, so you bet I'll be grabbing those ASAP.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

This has a Jeffrey Eugenides blurb on the cover which is rather fitting because this is so similar to his The Marriage Plot. I mean, I suppose in lots of ways they're very different- Eugenides' book is about immediate post-college life while this one follows the characters all the way to middle age. But it had a lot of the same feelings- even the main female characters of both are married to men with mental health problems. Basically, it follows a group of friends at an arts summer camp in the 70s and what happens to them afterwards- how some of them try to reach their goals and some of them succeed and some of them fail and some of them do well in other fields. Some of them marry each other. Some of them leave the group forever. It was an interesting (sorry) read, one that makes you think about your life and your teenage goals and all that.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

This is another book/author that had been on my radar for some time, and I'm glad I finally got around to it. It's a collection of essays, some of which (but by no means all) are about feminism. Other essays are about race, TV and competitive Scrabble. No, I'm not kidding about the last one. It's hard to talk about it as a whole, since the essays range so much. I enjoyed pretty much all of them, even when she was tearing apart things I like, as her arguments were all pretty sound. So, yeah, this was a really good read. I already have her novel An Untamed State on my Kindle and I'm looking forward to getting to that soon.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Crimson Petal and the White Read-Along, Week 0

It's here!

Charlotte at Lit Addicted Brit is hosting a read-along of The Crimson Petal and the White, which I read a few years back and loved, so she's giving me an excellent excuse to reread it. I may have already gobbled up this week's chapters and am having to reign myself in to stop myself reading the whole thing before next week. But, well, here's the intro post anyway!

1. Introduce yourself!
I'm Gemma, I'm 23 and I live in Belfast. I'm currently studying for a MA in Literature. I play a bunch of musical instruments and I love cats, creme eggs and Doctor Who.

2. If this is your first read, what are you expecting from it? If this isn't your first time, what has prompted you to re-read?
I read this in 2012 and I absolutely loved it, though I don't remember the specifics of the plot. I remember hating Rackham and feeling sympathy for basically all the female characters. We'll see if I still think that!

3. Book porn time- share a picture of your edition

Tiny bit different from Charlotte's and Hanna's. Please ignore the horrible flash.

4. This is some pretty chunky historical fiction. Is it the kind of book you'd normally go for or is this more a safety in numbers deal to help you tackle something out of your comfort zone?
This is pretty firmly in my comfort zone, I have to say. I love books about Victorian London and prostitutes. I also tend to read quite a lot of doorstoppers- when your two loves are historical fiction and fantasy, you end up with a lot of long books. I do seem to remember managing to read this fairly quickly last time though!

January Round-Up: Part 2

Welcome to part 2 of my January round up! I actually thought I'd posted this, like, a week ago, but I must have hit 'save' instead of 'publish'. Oops. Better late than never. Here's the rest of the books I read in January.

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

I'll preface this by saying that Middlemarch is one of my favourite books. It's so, so good. Please read it, if it even at all sounds like it might be your jam. Don't be intimidated by the size of the thing- I was, and I used to actually use it as literal door-stopper in my old flat. Anyway, I thought it was about time I read some more George Eliot, of the slightly shorter variety.

There's something nice about reading classics that while still famous, aren't so famous that nothing in it is a surprise. Like, everyone's heard of Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre, but Maggie Tulliver doesn't ring any bells for most people. As a result I went into this more or less blind, which was nice. There's something to be said for the free kindle editions that don't have so much as a blurb attached to it.

Pretty much the only thing I knew about this, actually, is that it's supposedly Eliot's most autobiographical work, which just makes it even more heartbreaking. There's the Family-Going-To-Ruins bit which you see in so many Victorian novels, but more than that for me was the gender stuff. Maggie gets told repeatedly that she's just a girl and couldn't possibly understand things, and her brother gets educated even though he's... not the brightest, while she is super smart and curious about the Latin and stuff her brother's learning and totally bored with but she can't have any of it. I don't know, that's really stuck with me for some reason. I know George Eliot maybe didn't experience this so much since her father was apparently awesome and encouraged her education, but you have to wonder. Also everything I've read about George Eliot seems to emphasise that the only reason she even got an education was because she was considered ugly by everyone and therefore not likely to get married, which is a whole other level of depressing, but there you go. Nineteenth century, you were crazy and as much as I love you, I'm thankful I was born when I was.

So, Maggie and Tom are miller's children, and there is Trouble At Mill, as you might expect, and things go downhill for the family, which is the basic plot. There's some interesting brother-sister dynamics- which you really don't see often enough in literature, and Maggie gets involved with a sort-of enemy of the family without it being ridiculous and Romeo and Juliet-y. I liked this book a lot. It's no Middlemarch, but few things are.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson 

Look at me reading hyped books two years after they were published! In case you've managed to escape this one, it follows Ursula who dies and comes back many times throughout the book. It's quite hard to explain, but it makes sense in the book- so there's all sorts of 'what if' moments, little things that end up killing Ursula and little things that end up saving her. Ursula is born in 1910 and the book follows her life (not always in chronological order) up to after WWII, and when I realised this and read the first chapter I was worried this was going to be a clichéed 'would you kill Hitler if you could' thing. But that part was fairly minimal. I was more interested in the details of her lives- it reminded me of Jo Walton's My Real Children in a way, all the little choices you make in life that lead into bigger things. This was also superbly written- I'd never read any Kate Atkinson before but I'm encouraged to track some of her other stuff down.

Every Day by David Levithan

I was intrigued by the premise of this book- every day, 'A' wakes up in a different body and lives a different life for the day, never forming any connections or continuity. Then one day they fall in love with their host person's girlfriend. The actual science behind the body-swapping is a bit ropey- conveniently, they're always a sixteen-year-old in roughly the same geographic area, and the change happens every night at midnight when A is asleep (seriously, what if they can't be asleep at midnight?!)- but I didn't really mind. More important to the book is the actual emotional consequences of being a different person and being in love with the same person, and trying to make that work. There's a lot of queer subtext- A is constantly changing sexes, genders, races, body types, personality types... It was an interesting read and one that I got through very quickly.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson 

I'd been meaning to re-read this, and then I spotted a copy for just £2 in my favourite second-hand bookshop at the end of a day hunting for university texts- hey, if I'm spending money on books I might not even enjoy, I might as well treat myself! This is a sort of companion book to Oranges are not the Only Fruit, Winterson's own memoir of her childhood. The reality is much stranger and sadder than the fiction, it turns out. Like the protagonist of Oranges are not the Only Fruit, Winterson was the adopted child of a fervently religious mother who threw her out for being a lesbian. Winterson then lives in a car, reads lots of books and somehow ends up at Oxford. I loved this; the drive to just live your life the way you want and the influence that your parents have over you, no matter how much you try to escape them. This also reminded me that I really need to re-read Oranges- I've only read it once, when I was still in school. So, I need to get to that.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

So like a lot of people, I loved the crap out of Gone Girl and am always trying to fill the void that book has left, and Dark Places was the remaining novel of Flynn's that I hadn't read. Libby Day is the sole survivor of the horrific murder of her mother and two sisters. Her evidence led to the conviction of her older brother for the crime. Twenty-five years later, she meets a group of crime enthusiasts who believe her brother is innocent and she is, well, forced to confront her past, but in a less cheesy way than that. This was a good read- I admit I'm a bit like those crime enthusiasts in that I love a good unsolved murder- don't get me started on JonBenét Ramsay, for example. This book was also clearly influenced by the Satanic Panic and McMartin Preschool Case, another thing I find endlessly fascinating. This book keeps you guessing, and I definitely didn't see the ending coming- but perhaps it is just a little, well, unrealistic? That didn't bother me much though, and if it doesn't bother you this is definitely worth a look.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell 

I loved Fangirl but I was surprised when Rowell released Carry On, a book set in the fictional universe Fangirl's Cath writes fanfiction in. Simon Snow to me always seemed like just a surrogate for Harry Potter, but I still wanted to see what Rowell could come up with. And that's actually kind of a lot, it turns out. Yeah, Simon and Baz are basically literally Harry and Draco, but that's sort of the point. The universe is actually surprisingly well thought out, and Rowell totally needs to write more fantasy, if just so I can have little things like merwolves and worsegers (like badgers, except worse). This is a fun, unapologetically indulgent read and I actually really loved it and consider it my favourite of the year so far. My fangirl crush on Rainbow Rowell has increased even more, if that were even possible!

That's my January! 15 whole books. February will probably not be so prolific, what with university starting up again. Then again, my master's requires me to about 3 books a week, so in theory I should have an equally full list, albeit with a bunch of 19th century texts. We'll see!