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Recent reads

Woah I’ve built up a backlog of recent reads, I’ll just make some quick comments about each for now. How is this year going by so fast?!

In Real Life, Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang
Gorgeous comic — I love both Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang’s work, so no surprises here. Lovely story of family and friendship that also raises the issues of unfair labour conditions in China.

The Unadulterated Cat, Terry Pratchett
I was feeling sad about the lack of Pratchett in the world, and I hadn’t read this one. A light collection of anecdotes that cat owners will recognise.

The Strange Library, Haruki Murakami
Not my cup of tea, but it’s super short so I finished it anyway.

Their Finest Hour and a Half, Lissa Evans
I didn’t enjoy it as much as Crooked Heart (which I loved), but it was still enjoyable and had some lovely characters and also fed my current WWII obsession.

The War That Saved My Life, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
See above re: WWII obsession. This came in with the new books at the library and it looked interesting. I enjoyed reading it, but I felt like some of the vocabulary wasn’t quite right for the period. BUT I loved its sensitive portrayal of a main character with PTSD. Her simultaneous rage at but also hopeful love for her mother felt incredibly real and sad. Also a great depiction of a character with depression! Stars all round.

Bombs on Aunt Dainty and A Small Person Very Far Away, Judith Kerr
I read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit several years ago without realising that there were sequels, and I finally borrowed these from the library. Just as good as the first, but more depressing. Anna (well, Judith really) takes on more responsibility as she grows up and has to deal with a difficult, unhappy mother who hates her job and hates having to organise everything for the family, and a father who doesn’t speak English so cannot support them with his writing. This is all during the blitz and the fear that Germany would invade Britain and their long flight across Europe would be for nothing. How did anyone stay sane?! And then in the third part of the trilogy Anna is a lot happier (recently married, taking on an interesting new career) but has to deal with her mother’s attempted suicide while being in a country she feels resentful and uncomfortable in (Germany). It’s all fascinating but sad, and now I’m thinking I’ll have to go back and reread When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.

A Childhood in Scotland, Christian Miller
Saw Elizabeth Wein’s review on goodreads and ordered it from the library. Interesting, funny in places, and deeply evocative of a particular place and time. Illustrates the paradox of growing up quite wealthy but also incredibly neglected. I wish I could get hold of her other books.

Harvest, Robert Westall
I confess I knew nothing of the Mau Mau before I read this book. While it’s a thoughtful illustration of a woman coming to terms with trauma and getting ready to rebuild her life, I would have been interested in seeing more of life in Kenya.

The Murdstone Trilogy, Mal Peet
Read on Elizabeth Wein’s recommendation. It’s very funny in parts, and I liked the premise, but some of it didn’t quite sit right with me. The names of the Tibetan monks, for example. And Philip is just yet another middle-aged male writer character (yes, I get that this is partly the point). But the library scenes are pure gold.

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Monthly roundup and recent reads

Reviewed this month:

  • Princess and the Hound, Mette Ivie Harrison
  • Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
  • The New Moon with the Old, Dodie Smith
  • Brother Cadfael’s Penance, Ellis Peters
  • (In a Sense) Lost and Found, Roman Muradov
  • Seconds, Bryan Lee O’Malley
  • Royal Airs, Sharon Shinn
  • Fleabrain loves Franny, Joanne Rocklin
  • Illusions of Fate, Kiersten White
  • Saga vol. 4, Brian K. Vaughan
  • Finder: Third World, Carla Speed McNeil
  • Tina’s Mouth, Keshni Kashyap
  • Crooked Heart, Lissa Evans
  • Unmade, Sarah Rees Brennan
  • Gabi: A Girl in Pieces, Isabel Quintero
  • Blue Lily, Lily Blue, Maggie Stiefvater
  • The Moon and the Face, Patricia McKillip
  • The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters

Darkbeast, Morgan Keyes

Keara’s darkbeast is Caw, a raven who has been her constant companion since birth, taking her faults and making them his own. Everyone has a darkbeast until the age of twelve — on their birthday, they must sacrifice their darkbeast and become an adult. But how can Keara kill her best friend?

I liked the worldbuilding in Darkbeast, the small details of religion and common phrases and family. I think Caw was my favourite — funny and wise and always hungry. But I feel the relationships could have been fleshed out more, and the end seemed a bit weak. I guess it was left hanging a bit in order to get people to read the next book? I don’t know. I’m still undecided on whether I want to read the sequel.

Deep Amber, C. J. Busby

Two pairs of protagonists (a sister and brother in our world, and an apprentice witch and castle troublemaker in another) set out to solve the mystery of objects being transferred across worlds. I read this because I saw a recommendation by Frances Hardinge on the sequel (Dragon Amber), and Frances Hardinge is amazing so I thought maybe this would be amazing too. Alas, I think I suffer from being too old for this book. It’s probably something that I would really enjoy as an eight to twelve year old, but it doesn’t have that deeper layer that authors like Diana Wynne Jones or Frances Hardinge create. I would still recommend Deep Amber for child fans of the above authors as a light read with a similar flavour.

The Motherless Oven, Rob Davis

I don’t even know what to say about this book. A world where it rains knives and children construct their parents out of spare parts and old machinery. Intriguing, but a frustratingly vague ending. Maybe I’m not smart enough? Sometimes comics seem to end just because the author has been working on it for a while and it seems like they should end it, rather than because the story makes sense/is satisfying to end that way. The art was interesting though.

Kingdom by the Sea, Robert Westall

I can’t remember who mentioned this. Elizabeth Wein, maybe? Whoever it was, I’m glad I took note of it because this is fantastic. I thought I’d read Westall before but looking at the books he’s written maybe I haven’t, which is ridiculous because he’s exactly the kind of writer I love. It was interesting reading this so soon after Crooked Heart, which also features an orphaned boy looking for a home but is shelved in adult fiction, whereas Kingdom by the Sea has some adult references (not stated outright, but it’s implied that one character is a paedophile) but is shelved in the children’s section. Not saying they shouldn’t be shelved where they are, but it goes to show that anyone who thinks kid’s books are simple or don’t deal with serious issues are reading the wrong books.

The Just City, Jo Walton

Very philosophical, which isn’t surprising given that it’s set in Plato’s Republic — or rather, the best approximation that its citizens can create. This isn’t something that would normally appeal to me. The narrative voice of the novel is incredibly passive to the point where I didn’t really feel any emotions even when awful things happened, and the characters didn’t seem to really feel emotions either. On the other hand I kept reading to the end, and I have a vague interest in learning what happens to the city.

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Crooked Heart, Lissa Evans

Search for Crooked Heart on the library catalogueI’ve read World War II evacuee stories before. The fear of the unknown, sullen confusion, awful foster homes, inevitable loss. Children labelled like lunches, dragged from door to door in search of a temporary home. I can’t think of many novels with positive evacuee experiences.

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans doesn’t sound like a positive evacuee story, but it is. It begins with Noel, age 10, realising his godmother, Mattie, is succumbing to dementia. A tragedy for anyone to have to deal with, but especially for a boy on his own.

She was losing words. At first it was quite funny. ‘The box of things,’ Mattie would say, waving her mauve-veined hands vaguely around the kitchen. ‘The box of things for making flames. It’s a song, Noel!

The box of things for making flames
I can’t recall their bloody names.’

After a while, it stopped being funny. Some words would resurface after a few days; others would sink for ever. Noel started writing labels: ‘SHAWL’, ‘WIRELESS’, ‘GAS MASK’, ‘CUTLERY DRAWER’.

There are two unusual and meaningful relationships in this book: between Noel and his suffragette godmother Mattie, who is so erudite and funny I could quote pretty much anything—

‘Hobbies are for people who don’t read books,’ said Noel; it was one of Mattie’s sayings.

—and, later, between Noel and his foster mother Vee, whose early descriptions make me think of a hen — head constantly turning, looking for something better.

At first Vee sees Noel as an opportunity, a crippled evacuee who might get her some more money (which she is severely lacking). In a way she was right: Noel quickly catches on to her scams, and becomes the level-headed organiser of their illegal outings. It sounds awful, but I ended up rooting for the pair of them, even while they’re going around pretending to be collecting for the war fund. Despite their seeming differences — Vee is “common” and middle-aged, Noel is educated and a child — they’re both lonely and neglected by their surviving relatives. Their growing affection for each other and funny/heart-breaking mishaps already guarantee Crooked Heart a place on my Best Of 2015 list.

Some more books of love and friendship set before, during or after the World Wars:

Search for From a Distance on the library catalogueSearch for Code Name Verity on the library catalogue

What are your favourite sad but funny books?

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