Review: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

My historical fiction kick is not over. No. Not at all. In fact, I am expanding. No more am I stuck to Western Europe. Nope! I found a book set in Norway/Denmark. In the 1600’s. There were witch trials and a lot of death. It was great.

I also spent a lot of time on wikipedia trying to figure out where things were happening, what was fact vs fiction. You know, completely normal things. I can’t be the only one that didn’t know there were Witch Trials in Norway…Right?

Let me backup. The Mercies is a story about a community of women from Finnmark. On Christmas Eve of 1617 the men of a small village go out to sea. In a flash of a storm they are all gone. Among those left behind is Maren, who we follow as her entire world is set adrift by the loss of her brother, her father, and her betrothed. With her community of survivors Maren finds new meaning in her life, until a new commissioner from Scotland arrives with his endearing wife, Ursa. 

At heart The Mercies is a story about the things we don’t like to see women do. It is a powerful narrative about fear and empowerment,friendship and love, and most of all loss. The theme of loss is so prevalent there is barely a page where it is not felt. Hargraves prose is crisp and her characters believable. 

If anything I wish The Mercies had been a bit longer. There are many threads to this story, and some of the more interesting, that of the Sami population, the trails themselves, and Ursa’s growing competence as a housewife all could have soared with a few extra pages. 

Overall this The Mercies is one of my favorite reads of early 2020. It expands upon an area and era rarely tackled in popular fiction, gives voices to women, and paints a striking picture of community and prejudice.

On Second Chances: Rereading Jane Eyre

When I was 14 my freshman English class assigned us a book report. They gave us a list. There was a paper, a presentation, and otherwise little guidelines. As an early teen I wasn’t super interested in reading for school. I was a voracious reader in my free time but didn’t care to read for class. At this point in life my opinion of the classics was quite low. Didn’t my teacher know about Harry Potter and all of the amazing books being published in the early 2000s?

Like a true procrastinator I put off selecting a book, and then put off locating a copy of my chosen book. To this day I cannot remember what book I had intended on reading, but I can tell you I wound up with a heavy bound copy of Jane Eyre, because it was available on sale at Costco and suddenly my report was due in 3 days.

Reader, those next three days were pure hell. I don’t like to read on command. If a story doesn’t grab me I really struggle with completing it. I felt like I was being tortured with the occasional decent chapter, only to be set adrift in boredom for another 50 pages on the regular. After 3 days of stops and starts I had made up my mind on Charlotte Brontë and all of her sisters.  

Sidenote: By the time I gave my book report I had my teacher fooled. I nailed the presentation, and it wasn’t until the very end when I revealed how much I loathed the Charlotte Brontë classic did my teacher bat an eye. 

Needless to say I wasn’t chomping at the bit to reread Jane Eyre. 

Last month I was looking for a lot of romance. I was counting down to the release of the new Emma movie, and still suffering from book hangover from Red, White and Royal Blue. It was during this phase that I made the mistake of mentioning to a friend how much I hate Jane Eyre during a very riveting conversation about Regency and Victorian era novels. She asked why wouldn’t I give Jane another chance? It’s a classic, and in theory it checks all of my current favorite boxes. 

I had a long internal monologue before I responded: Despite 15 years and a lifetime a growth  hate for Jane Eyre never died. My reading habits have changed. My tastes have evolved. I never once entertained the idea of giving Jane another chance. Sure, I’ll reread books on the regular. Pride and Prejudice gets taken out once a year. I’ve already reread Circe this year. In theory, I could just read Jane Eyre again and be done with this conversation forever. 

So I did. The results were mixed. I will say reading Brontë as an adult is a different experience. I appreciate a lot about Jane’s character. I actually enjoyed the first 80% or so of the novel. Up until the big twist. I have never really been a fan of Rochester but as a 30 year old woman I am super not here for his creeptastic ways and locking women up in attics. Nope. Not here for it one bit.

I was surprised to find that wasn’t my hard stop. As soon as Jane is in contact with her cousin, St. John I lost absolutely all interest in the story. Despite tackling Eyre as an audiobook to ensure I actually finish it I found that the last 5 hours took me forever. I found excuses not to listen. I even picked up other audiobooks to fill my work hours so I didn’t have to hear more about Jane and St. John’s boring ass life. 

In the end I didn’t hate Jane Eyre as much as I remembered. Don’t get me wrong, I am still not thrilled by the book. It is not my favorite. I will not be championing Jane and Rochester’s relationship in any capacity. In fact, the Hark a Vagrant comics remain just as true as ever.

But I am happy I read it. I am glad to say I went back with a critical eye and gave a book a second chance. 

Just don’t expect me to do the same for Dickens. 

On Reigning in My Book Buying Addiction

As I mentioned earlier this week my boyfriend recently lost his job. While I am glad for the saftinets unemployment provides and the excitement of new opportunities around every corner there is still a lot of fear and stress in our house. We’re both looking at things we can cut back on, and ways to spend our time that don’t require doling out the dollars. 

One of these cuts will be my books. You all know I love books, but you may not have known I buy most of my collection. Despite being a librarian, my place in a special collection doesn’t give me extra easy access to popular fiction. I also find that as a voracious reader my tastes and eagerness for new releases tends to mean I am on a waitlist at my public library for months on end or beginning my library to pick up a new title by a little known author just so it can circulate to just me. As much as I advocate for libraries and their use I am not exactly a leader by example. 

This is saying nothing of other book formats. Sure I love a good codex. I want to own my favorite books for the sheer beauty of cover art and fat pages. But I also love to read in a variety of ways. Audiobooks get me through many workdays.  I love my Audible subscription (which I am keeping) but I also love buying audiobooks on sale. My library is a little out of control and I am finding myself confused as to how I own so many books that I have such little interest in listening too. Clearly there is room for cutting back here but I am not good with silence, and the idea of jumping back into the world of podcasts during the Coronavirus outbreak and the US Primary election is just too much. 

I have a similar problem with ebooks. I always have a book going on my Kindle. I’m a light sleeper and more nights then not I spend an hour or so in the middle of the night reading by the soft screen of my Paperwhite. The idea of having no reading material readily available for in bed reading makes me anxious. This on top of the portability of both my Kindle and the phone app brings me so much joy that I don’t quite know how to move forward. Library holds do take forever. My public system doesn’t support e-resources as well as a physical collection, but the costs of buying them for myself adds up. 

I am of course starting by eyeing my own personal backlog. The Audible library, my Kindle collection, and of course my physical books, which live on two floors of my house between 5 rooms and countless bookshelves. As a mood reader I am finding that I own so many books that sound amazing, but not right now, in the fall, or the summer. They sound like a great read for when life is less stressful, or that I should save it for the next time I am on a roadtrip or need a book for a flight. I’m trying to break this mood reading habit so I can still enjoy my favorite pass time while cutting through my backlog and saving money but so far I have resolved myself to library holds. 

Yes. Despite my complaints about wait times and lack of electronic resources I am getting a lot of use out of my library. I had 4 holds come in at once and I am paralyzed by the act of needing to read so much so fast both before my mood pasts and before my time with these items end. 

I guess what I am saying is that my book owning addiction is a work in progress. I know I am not alone in my love of owning books, in my mood reading, or in my want for more comprehensive libraries with shorter wait times. 

Readers, I need advice. How do you cut your bookish spending while still enjoying all of the books?

Review: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

My boyfriend was laid off last week. As a result I’m taking a look at my tbr pile, my kindle backlog, and library holds. I’ll talk to you more about the inner crisis this is producing in my bookish heart later this week, but am really excited to share with you my review of Ghost Wall.

Ghost Wall is a story about reenactment, about control, about fear. Silvie and her family are spending their summer vacation with a group of graduate students pretending to live as Iron Age Britons. Silvie’s dad, a truck driver, is fascinated with this era of history, and his brutish personality leaves an impression on everyone he meets. Over the course of several days Silvie learns that there is more to life than her small, often toxic family. Also, she has awesome foraging skills. Go Silvie. 

Moss’s novella is just that, short and sweet. Or short and stressful, if you will. Despite being under 150 pages I took several days to digest what was happening. Moss’s writing is unique. Her descriptions pop of the page and it feels like you are living this strange, slightly horrifying vacation with Silvie. By the end I was flipping pages quickly, taking in the story while also hoping that nothing would come to Silvie, and that maybe she would find some happiness.  

Plot wise there is clearly a treasure trove of research that made Ghost Wall possible. I found myself googling different aspects of Iron Age life as I read, and was generally fascinated with the type of archaeology and immersion depicted on the page. 

Ghost Wall is everything I hoped it would be. It is a perfect short read. It haunts you even after the pages are firmly pressed together and you’ve moved on to your next book. I keep thinking back to Silvie, her family, and her new found acquaintances. Give Ghost Wall a chance. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

On Creating Bookish Chaos

We’ve reached the point in every year where I go review crazy. All of the “what to read in 2020” lists are out, people are looking further to the future. Library journal is putting together fantastic resources and I am absolutely inundated with recommendations. 

I like to share these recommendations with friends. Friends who then actually go and READ what I recommended. It’s great, really, until I feel compelled to read along with them. After all I thought the books sounded good. I told people to read them. I should read them too. I have a major FOMO when it comes to books. Not so much other aspects of my life, but with books I absolutely panic when I can’t read everything all at once. 

So here I am. My usual 3 books ballooning to 6. I think I have finally reached the point where I am confusing the storylines in my head. Is Mr. Rochester shopping at Celestel’s doll shop? Am I reading about the Iron Age or Colonial America? I’m confused all the time, but am loving each story so I cannot just give up. None are worth not finishing, and I can’t quite make myself put one on hold. 

So here I am, a librarian amongst bookish chaos. The books are currently reading. One day I will cull down my pile. I’ll read more responsibly. I’ll be able to tell my stories apart again.

Until then I’ll just keep recommending hot new titles and wishing I could keep up with the Jones

Review: The City of Lost Fortunes by Bryan Camp

It is Mardi Gras season, and as I have mentioned before one of my favorite cities on this rock of a planet is New Orleans. I love the culture, the food, and the sense of history the city conveys. The people are amazing. Every single visit is a treat. 

So 2 years ago when I saw that a book about adventure, Gods, magic, and fortune was set in New Orleans I picked it up without reading a full description. It was the first book I bought for my brand new kindle and I read it all through the evening on Christmas, and then finished up the following day. I insisted all of my friends read City of Lost Fortunes as well. For me, aside from The Library at Mount Char, The City of Lost Fortunes quickly became my favorite fantasy book. 

Lost Fortunes tells the story of Jude. He’s a bit down on his luck but he has a special talent, he can find lost things. All lost things. Ever since Katrina hit Jude has been on the down low, trying not to get too entangled in anything as his magic is thrown off kilter by the magnitude of loss delt by the storm. But then some debts come due, some magical highjinx turn serious, and Jude needs to fight for his life and for the Fortune of all of New Orleans. 

Camp excels at bringing New Orleans to life on the page. His descriptions are vibrant. His characters are real, flawed, and intriguing. While I didn’t love every single person in front of me I always thought their motives rang true. Camp also built in stakes that felt real. There was real motive, real consequences for actions, and real magic that was compelling and thoughtful. 

The City of Lost Fortunes is the kind of book I wish everyone would read. It is fun, mysterious, and full of life. It is a perfect read as you get ready to eat your king cake, paczki, or pancakes and the best way to end February.

Review: Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

In college books were my sanctuary. Specifically books about books spoke to me. When I was lost and unsure of where my life was headed I could turn to stories and escape, and when those stories were about how other people used similar escapist methods I felt at home. 

So I loved Diane Setterfield’s Thirteenth Tale. I adored it. All these years later some of the details are fuzzy but the book still ranks high on my favorites list. 

Of course this meant last year when Setterfield put out Once Upon a River I was ecstatic, and then promptly got distracted by life to read it. Now it is a new year. I am in a new book club, and our first read is….you guessed it! Once Upon a River.

Once Upon a River is a love letter of sorts. It is a letter to the love of stories, and to a lesser degree the myths and fairytales that stay in our hearts long after we hear them. With a large and diverse cast of characters all connected by one mysterious child Setterfield excels at world building. The Thames is a central character here, and the river is always present. 

I will say that while the prose was beautiful and 90% of the characters intriguing Once Upon a River for me was a bit of a dud. I didn’t sign up for a mystery, and the core question of “who is the girl?” that plagues the entire 400+ pages was not my favorite thing. Mostly the mystery girl felt like an unneeded element to tell a story of already connected characters. I will say that the historic elements, the photography, the medicine, and the social conventions were incredibly  interesting. I truly did care about all of the characters. I just didn’t think the central mystery was anything to write home about. 

Though as I prepare for my book club meeting I am getting many messages of joy at the experience that is Once Upon a River. Maybe I’m just a callous reader now, or maybe this wasn’t the right time for me to take this journey down the Thames.