The Almost-Spring’s Reading: Less of the Male AlreadyPosted: 15 May 2012
My review of March and April’s books has been unfortunately delayed due to a gallavanting around the southern counties, which I must apologise for. As a consolation, I was carrying a copy of Philip Pullman’s The Tin Princess on my travels to keep up my comfortable lead on the 50 books challenge. You see, by reading one book per week and thus four books per month, I would succeed. Given it is May now and I’m on my 22nd book, I’m pretty pleased with how this is progressing!
In March I looked back at my list and realised that the vast majority of it was taken up by male authors. I then decided, henceforth, to read more books by female authors. This resolution drew me towards a collection of wonderful writers I hadn’t read before: famous, not so famous, exciting fiction, history and autobiography. All in all, a most enjoyable two months’ worth of reading.
Defying the prediction I made in my last entry, I did indeed finish March’s first book, The Priestess of the White by Australian fantasy author Trudi Canavan. First of the Age of the Five trilogy of novels, this book was a daunting prospect because of its sheer size. As occasionally happens, I snatched it from the shelves at closing time for something to read on my journey home from work.
I quickly became hooked on the narrative, which is colourful, wonderfully descriptive without being dry and full of well-rounded characters; each one given a distinct, interesting, identity. The novel is high fantasy and bears many of the hallmarks of the genre. Even though the book introduces many characters and moves among many scenes of action, the narrative reads smoothly and easily: a refreshing change and no mean feat in epic fantasy of this type. It is no surprise to me that so many of my friends (in particular Mrs. Cleary) recommend Canavan so highly; I really enjoyed this novel and tore through it at a speed which defies its length. Oh yes, and I now have quite a few more Canavan books checked out on my library ticket!
Next up, another library book: the swashbuckling Hammer: A Tale of the Victorian Underworld by Sara Stockbridge.
This book immediately visually appealed to me with its promise of seedy underground dealings and unashamed Victoriana in the alleyways and back streets of London. However, upon reading it I felt that it lacked the grit and realism I had (perhaps unfairly) expected of it: though interesting the characters feel too stereotyped and the situations and outcome too predictable. You can sense throughout the book that the main character Grace Hammer (who reminds me too much of Nancy) and her children will survive every scrape and come out at the end completely unscathed. This disappointed me; I don’t like to know the ending of the book before I’ve gotten there.
There is no way I could describe this book as anything other than light reading. However, if you take it as such it has much to commend it. This is essentially a modern novel with a Victorian ambience to it. You can’t imagine these characters on the streets of Victorian London without a lot of imagination. However, this is pure unassuming fun with frivolous characters, a few chastefully described murders and a nice twist at the end.
The Witch’s Trinity by Erika Mailman is a strong contender for my book of the year so far. Set among the religious hysteria of 16th century Germany, the narrator is a grandmother who finds herself the centre of suspicion when a fanatical priest arrives in her village, determined to find the ‘witch’ who made the fields barren and the villagers starve.
This book could be facile, it could lose sight of realism, it could revel in the horror of fanatacism of death which left thousands of innocents dead during the Spanish Inquisition. It does none of these. This novel is understated, a personal account which feels authoritative and authentic; Güde is a very believable narrator whom Mailman has brought to life with all her fears, sorrows and eventual mental collapse. The author has clearly put a lot of herself into this novel; though a fictional account the research that has gone into this book lends it the authority of history. At the same time, the novel is so sympathetically written and powerful that even the lesser characters have an emotional impact upon the reader; you feel like one of the villagers, witnessing the horrors of their predicament alongside them.
Next up, historical fiction by Ariana Franklin by the title of The Death Maze. This one I picked up from a local charity shop. I’m not a stranger to the odd bit of historical fiction, the bulk of which seems to focus on the Tudor period and medieval Europe. This novel is no different – it has all the trappings of its closest relatives – courtly drama, secret plots, assasinations, forbidden love, mistresses and an unconventional heroine. However, I’m pleased to say (in my opinion) that the formula works.
Franklin appears to be one of the greats of historical fiction of this era, which is pleasingly well-represented by predominantly female authors. Fans of Phillipa Gregory (like me) will enjoy this novel. The female lead is extremely likeable, and most importantly, believable – a strong character, working within the social conventions of the time rather than stepping over them. The story is fulfilling and the mystery compelling: the crimes leave you guessing right up until the revealing moment. I wouldn’t be averse to reading more by this author.
April came with much promise, for I managed to get my hands on a book I had much wanted to read for months. Raising My Voice is the real story of Afghanistan’s youngest female politician, Malalai Joya. I first came across her name in an Afghan exhibit in Second Life, the creator of which told me of this amazing woman and her struggle to bring justice and freedom to the people of her country.
Joya’s story is an inspiring one. Through her own words you learn the truth about post-war Afghanistan. Even though the country has a parliament, it is a corrupt one, populated by the same warlords who ravaged the Afghan population before the rise of the Taliban. Those few politicians who choose to stand up for the rights of their people are silenced, ridiculed, threatened and murdered in the pursuit of justice. From an early age, Joya chose to be a fighter: surviving endless derision and many assassination attempts, she has continued fighting for Afghanistan. Reading her story has made me an avid fan of hers; in an age of political apathy and spineless ineffective politicians it is satisfying to learn about a politician who truly deserves the title.
Mistification is most definitely the strangest book I’ve read this year so far. I found author Kaaron Warren recommended by Trudi Canavan (see above) on the Fantastic Fiction web site, and although Mistification wasn’t the specific title mentioned, it was the only copy the library had. I’m not normally a fan of the horror genre (never touched a Stephen King) and so I was fairly dubious about whether I would enjoy this one. I was pleasantly surprised.
This novel is full of unanswered questions. The main character Marvo lives with them as he goes out into the world as a teenager; unknown, unloved and with a strange power which allows him to control the memories of others. He thirsts for story. Fact and fiction blur together as he searches out the stories of others and shares his own in an attempt to lessen the burdens which he alone and those like him among mankind carry. I haven’t picked up such a fascinating book in quite some time; there is such genius among its pages that it truly was difficult to put down.
Admittedly, I take a keen interest in the books people return to the library. It’s good for my career, as I can gain knowledge about genres that I would never read (such as the greater part of crime and family saga). Occasionally though, I receive in a book which catches my interest immediately. Gypsy Princess by Violet Cannon was one of such.
You don’t need me to tell you that gypsies have featured quite frequently on the British news in the last few years. Aside from the storybook variety, which are brightly coloured, bespangled and dances in quaint old market squares, gypsies have terrible reputations in the UK. Gypsies are either pests who try to sell you tatty charms in the street or set up camp on someone else’s land, make a mess and refuse to leave. My tendency to play the devil’s advocate made me pick up this book, to learn about the Roma culture and perhaps hear the other side of the story.
Violet Cannon’s autobiography is one of the most interesting I’ve read. Her childhood, although frought with prejudice, was clearly a blessed one. You begin to understand why people would choose to live their lives from a wagon. It would never have occurred to me that travellers have a culture so very different and separate from our own, yet special and unique. There is so much to recommend this book, which is well-written and simply fascinating.
I should perhaps be embarrassed to admit that until last month, Frankenstein numbered among the vast sea of titles I hadn’t read. I knew the story behind its creation, of the private competition entered into by Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Bysshe and some friends on a dark night by the shores of Lake Geneva. Shelley’s short story would later become the classic masterpiece which has rivalled Bram Stoker’s Dracula in its influence upon popular culture.
As most people would, I brought to this book several preconceptions of the content. In my favour, I was already aware of the fact that Frankenstein was the young scientist rather than the monster he created, and I was familiar with the monster’s infamous speech upon the snowy mountain. However, the common image of the shambling, zombie-like green man with bolts on either side of the neck could not be further from the intelligent, feeling creation which sprung to life from Shelley’s pen.
Frankenstein’s monster definitely appears one; it threatens the hapless Frankenstein to the novel’s unhappy conclusion and destroys all the scientist holds dear. However, I was not expecting the novel to be of such moral interest; depending on the reader’s point of view, a new life cannot be evil in itself. Only by outside influences can it develop a character and a nature. Would the monster have been a monster if it had been given the love and attention it craved from its creator, from the family it longed to be part of? Would it have committed murder if it had been provided with that which it craved?
Finally, my last book of April was the true story of a woman not unlike Malalai Joya in her strength and fearlessness. A Different Kind of Courage is the autobiography of Gretel Wachtel, an ordinary German woman who became part of the underground movement against the Nazis during the Second World War.
A native of Hamburg, Gretel witnessed the atrocities of Kristallnacht, during which her Jewish friend disappeared. She married a freedom fighter, worked actively on the black market, helped to hide refugees from the Gestapo and hid her own Jewish doctor in her home. She survived the prolonged bombing of her city unharmed, but after an unguarded comment was sent to work in an ammunition factory. She befriended and cajoled her way into a typist job at the Wehrmacht, eventually being promoted to code messages on the Enigma machine itself. She used her priviledged position to pass along information to the freedom movement, risking her life in order to bring down the Nazi government.
Her story is a fascinating insight into the life of an ordinary non-Jewish German citizen during the war, which I had not encountered before; a personal, frank and deeply touching account of daily life in Nazi Germany.