Well, it’s been a while! I’m not going to do a full roundup, because it really has been too long, but this will serve as a placeholder for hopefully getting back to business as usual. So here’s a selection of books I got recently/for Christmas…
As ever, a pretty eclectic mix, and I look forward to ignoring them all equally while I reread older books… okay, okay, not really — I hope to read some of these very soon! But we all know what I’m like…
I was really in the mood to reread one of Mary Stewart’s novels, and I felt pretty nostalgic about The Gabriel Hounds. I thought I’d remember it pretty well, but there was actually a bit in the middle I was more vague on and that I could swear had happened in a different Mary Stewart book… In any case, The Gabriel Hounds follows Christy, separated from her group on a package tour of the Lebanon. Reminded that her great-aunt lives in the area, and surprised by the legends that seem to have grown up around her, Christy resolves to see the old lady — and thus finds herself plunged into a whole mess.
As ever, Stewart had an excellent way of bringing the landscape to life, not just the sights (I can’t imagine those anyway) but the smells and the impressions, and even somehow something of the light and the quality of the air. She’s very good at invoking an idealised, picturesque landscape — and some real nastiness, as well, of course, but that’s more commonplace. She’s not so bad with character, either — spoiled, sharp Christy; kind Hamid, who almost felt like he should be a bigger character or get some much better reward out of the story; poor Lethman…
I should warn readers that the love interests are full cousins, whose fathers were twins; cousin-marriage happens a couple of times in Mary Stewart’s books, but this one is closer than most, and lays particular emphasis on the two growing up like siblings. It might gross you out, so I mention it even though it’s a spoiler.
The actual plot is fairly obvious, and the romance almost perfunctory… but it has a kind of magic anyway.
Long Live the Post Horn! Vigdis Hjorth, trans. Charlotte Barslund
I’ll confess that I read this book pretty much solely because it involves saving a postal service, and I’ve been reading a few books which involve post and postal services in order to stock up on reviews for Postcrossing’s blog. Long Live the Post Horn! is a drifting, rambling novel in which a woman having a mid-life crisis about everything being fake and meaningless recovers her passion through getting involved in the fight to save the postal service from an EU initiative to introduce competition.
The problem for me is that rambling, wishy-washy quality — that stream-of-consciousness has never been my style. There are a couple of bits I liked, bits which capture some of the joy of post in particular, and also a scene in which the main character’s boyfriend explains he sends letters to himself as a sort of life coach — something about that felt distinctive and endearing, rather than kind of generic as in the rest of the book.
Not one I enjoyed — the narrator who never quite knows what she’s doing or why will never really work for me — but I’m sure there are people who will.
The Faerie Hounds of York did not quite go the places I expected it to. It started off with Loxley finding himself in a fairy ring, rescued by a gruff but kind stranger, Thorncress. Warned to leave the area and get himself to London, away from Faerie influence, Loxley quickly finds himself under Thorncress’s care again. A bond is forming between them, as Thorncress tells Loxley he will help him solve his mystery and get free of the Faerie… if it’s possible.
There’s one hell of a moment with this book which I didn’t expect, given the genre; I shouldn’t say too much unless I spoil the impact, because it turned a story I was mildly enjoying into something more intriguing for me. Some aspects of the romance genre are still here, but there’s a subversion of certain expectations which put me on the back foot. I shouldn’t say too much about that!
I enjoyed the characters and the bond they form, but that moment of subverted expectation might’ve been the best bit — I could otherwise have wished for more build-up, more familiarity with the inner lives of the characters (particularly Thorncress). On the other hand, then there’d be less mystery… In any case, definitely enjoyable.
Holy moly, this is lovely. I was urged to get this to do a review on it for Postcrossing (check out my others on the Postcrossing blog!), so it was one of the things I bought with my Christmas gift cards… and I’m glad I did. It’s an epistolary story, showing both the fronts and backs of postcards and — in little pouches, from which you have to pull out actual letters which are handwritten (Sabine) or typewritten (Griffin) — letters sent between Griffin (an artist who creates postcards) and Sabine (an artist who illustrates stamps).
Sabine has been seeing Griffin’s art in her dreams for years, and reaches out to him via a postcard once she finally finds out who he is and how to contact him (through running across his artwork). After just a few postcards are exchanged, she proves to him that she knows his art like no one else can, and they quickly forge a connection despite the physical distance between them. It’s a love story, and a mystery: how are they connected? Why are they connected? What does it mean?
It’s a lovely reading experience; the pouches are a nice gimmick, and they really give you a sense of discovery. I’m not super great with visual detail, but the fronts of the postcards (illustrated by Griffin and Sabine, in the story) and the decorations on envelopes and letters add quite a bit. It’s a very short read, but worthwhile — and that ending! I’ve ordered the next two books.
It’s been a while since I posted one of these here! But I’m trying to be more present again now… So let’s have a reading check-in!
What are you currently reading?
Long Live the Post Horn! by Vigdis Hjorth. It is… not really my thing; the rambling reflective narration is not working for me. It’s mostly for Postcrossing’s blog, though, so I’m forging my way along, slowly. Presumably the main character is going to care about working with the Norwegian postal service sometime soon.
I’m also partway through rereading The Gabriel Hounds, which I have fond memories of — partially memories of buying it while I was in Italy, my BA graduation present oh these many years ago, and reading it on the train between Naples and Rome.
What have you recently finished reading?
Griffin & Sabine by Nick Bantock, also for Postcrossing’s blog — it never rains but it pours; I’m stocking up blog posts for the next little while in case I come over all contrary and don’t feel like reading anything about postcards/postal systems. (This is bound to happen at some point.) I loved it; it’s a very tactile experience, since it actually contains the letters in actual envelope-like pouches, so you have to carefully slip them out and unfold them. I’m intrigued by the mystery of it.
Before that was Holy Shit, by Melissa Mohr — thank you to whoever recommended me that, though I’ve forgotten who. It was great; the chapter on oath-taking in the Bible was particularly fascinating.
What will you be reading next?
Sadly, it will not be Sabine’s Notebook (the sequel to Griffin & Sabine) because that’s in the post to me, having been only ordered today when I closed Griffin & Sabine on that cliffhanger. As ever, the answer is probably a shrug emoji, though I do want to go back to and finish Monstrous Regiment (Terry Pratchett), and a revisit of A Wizard of Earthsea seems indicated, because it’s a book club book (we all got together and picked our favourite books, then 12 of those got picked out of the hat to serve as prompts for a year of reading) and I still haven’t read the illustrated edition.
As with Accessories: Bags, this book caught my interest less because I have an inherent interest in the subject, or even fashion more generally, but because it suits my current rabbit-hole interest. I was here for the titbits about why certain shoes went hand-in-hand with certain dress fashions, and the book certainly had plenty of that kind of titbit — like the fact that the very long points of shoes like poulaines were somewhat eschewed by women at the time; they just weren’t practical and would tangle in the long hem-lines of dresses.
The book is beautifully presented with full-colour photographs/reproductions of art, and it’s structured well as a chronological dash through shoe fashion. It’s much better about women’s fashions than men’s (which is not, of course, because women have always had the reputation for being obsessed with their shoes — I refer you to top boots and Hessians, not to mention the aforementioned poulaines!) because of a survival bias in the existing shoes, and it is much stronger on more recent shoes… which are perhaps least interesting to me.
Definitely interesting, and one I’d recommend if you’re interested in the subject.
Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing, Melissa Mohr
Sorry, that really is the title of the book! And it’s kind of central to Mohr’s premise: that there are two axes of swearing, the ‘Holy’ and the ‘Shit’… or the profane and the obscene, or swearing and cursing — however you best see the distinction between “for God’s sake” and “for fuck’s sake”. She sets this up by discussing various different cultures (all familiar to a Western audience), starting with the Romans and Greeks (mostly the Romans), then moving to the development of Judaism and the rising importance of oath-taking… and then round the full circle back to obscenity.
It’s a fascinating history, though it really is brief when you consider the potential scope for investigating swearing throughout history. I found the chapter on the Old Testament Yahweh fascinating — Mohr charts the development of monotheism through the way oaths are taken and the importance of oaths in the Old Testament, and it makes a lot of sense. (Reassuringly, it’s also well-sourced, and includes quotations and examples.)
It was slower-going than I thought, when I look at my reading time records, but I found it very absorbing. My only complaint would be that the ending felt rather abrupt, even with the later postscript (which briefly discusses an analysis of swearing on Twitter). Recommended!
Band Sinister is one of my favourite romance novels, a favourite even among Charles’ reliably entertaining bibliography. I thought I’d reread it now because I needed the literary equivalent of a bubble bath, and it filled that role perfectly.
The Rookwoods and the Frisbys are at odds, partly because of Sir Philip Rookwood’s reputation and association with an infamous libertine, but mostly because Philip’s brother ran off with Guy and Amanda Frisby’s mother. Amanda’s just written a rather sensational Gothic novel about Sir Philip and his associates, the Hellfire club known as the Murder… and then she falls off a horse badly on Sir Philip’s land.
Because of Sir Philip’s reputation, and the family history, Guy can do nothing but go and stay at the Hall to watch over Amanda as the doctor battles for her life. Initially focused solely on her — she’s all he has left, and is very much the light of his life — Guy then finds himself drawn into the Murder’s discussions, and drawn most of all to Sir Philip.
Band Sinister is incredibly tender, incredibly focused on meaningful consent and good communication around sex and relationships. People who say consent isn’t sexy have not read this book; I have (as an asexual person) very little idea of what is sexy, but what makes for a good story about two people for me is the real connection they forge through communicating, being vulnerable, being sincere. The way they work out their problems by talking is great — and though it isn’t perfect and they don’t always communicate properly (Guy tries to take responsibility for Amanda’s doings against her will, Philip storms off), it sells me on their need to be together.
The whole book is an honestly beautiful tapestry of all kinds of love: Guy’s love for his sister; the complicated bond between Phillip, Corvin and John (which includes being family but also sex and a certain amount of possessiveness that doesn’t preclude other relationships); the bonds between the members of the Murder… and the love that grows quickly between Guy and Phillip.
There’s also a fair bit of sex, of course. It’s not really skippable (for fellow aces/sex-averse folks) because it builds the relationship between Philip and Guy, initially based very much on their mutual attraction and deepening partly due to how their experiences in bed work out. It still works as a reading experience for me because of the emotions involved, because of that attention to communication and consent.
I love the book very dearly. It helps that it also has some funny bits, and some situations that make me laugh in delight — as good as Georgette Heyer’s best bits.
This most recent book in the Invisible Library series features Irene, Kai, Vale, Irene’s new apprentice (Catherine), and Kai’s brother. It’s a very Sparks Will Fly sort of arrangement, not least because Vale is pitted against an adversary, his criminal mirror. A mastermind. A Moriarty — or so it seems. I was a little disappointed that certain characters didn’t interact more (let’s not be coy, I wanted more of Kai and Vale working together), and it feels like the particularly mixture of characters didn’t really have time to mix up and cause mayhem before the book was suddenly over.
That’s partly because recurring themes get tugged on again, and characters that had left the narrative triumphantly returned… some of them more predictably so than others.
All in all, the book sped by at the usual pace, and I ended up pretty happy with the explanations for the way characters are being moved around the gameboard. One very predictable outcome comes in almost at the end of the book, and honestly, it shouldn’t have taken a genius detective to see it. At the same time, the epilogue gives us an intriguing glimpse at deeper machinations and stories yet to come…
Not a favourite in the series, I think, but one which moves the plot along — and is as always a very absorbing and swift read.