Review: Terry Pratchett – Reaper Man

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Title: Reaper Man
Author: Terry Pratchett
First published: 1991
Dates read: 18.-20. 10. 2018
Category: reread, own book (last read November 2012)
Rating: 3/5
The book in five words or less: a mixed bag

My thoughts:

When Death gets laid off, things start to go wrong. Really, really wrong. Turns out, even the Discworld, strange and magical as it seems, still needs a functioning waste disposal system.

In classic Discworld fashion, Reaper Man combines several strands of narration: While Death enjoys his new-found (free) time and starts a new job as a farm hand, the rest of the Disc tries to deal with excessive life energy and the fact that the dead no longer properly pass on. Wizard Windle Poons, formerly of Unseen University, suddenly finds himself not alive, but also not fully dead, an unexpected development that leads him into the depths of Ankh Morpork’s Undead community. His former colleagues, on the other hand, try to help him on his way to the next world – and then there are the mysterious globe-shaped things that start popping up everywhere… If this sounds at the same time slightly ridiculous, thought-provoking and hilarious, it’s because it is.

However, unlike some of the other Discworld novels which I enjoy wholeheartedly, Reaper Man is a bit of a mixed bag. I did like the reading experience but I remembered halfway through the book why memory tells me this was a weird one. Death’s narrative strand I liked very much – full of symbolism, growth, and sweet relationships – and Windle and his weird friends grew on me, but the whole wizards bit (MINOR SPOILER: and especially the strange allegory of the parasitic shopping centre) went a bit over my head. Still – an enjoyable read, though probably not the book you should start the Discworld series with.

Read if you like: the Discworld series, what if? stories, fantasy with a touch of sarcasm, literary motives turned on their heads

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Review: Alice Munro – The Beggar Maid

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Title: The Beggar Maid
Author: Alice Munro
First published: 1977
Dates read: 21.-29. 10. 2018
Category: first time read, library book
Rating: 3/5
The book in five words or less: well-written but slightly uneven

My thoughts:

The Beggar Maid (first published as Who Do You Think You Are? in Canada) by Nobel Prize Winner Alice Munro is not quite a novel, but not quite your average short story collection, either. The stories in The Beggar Maid intertwine and reference each other to chronicle the lives of two women, Flo and Rose, over almost forty years. While Flo is fairly down to earth and practical about her life in the poor part of a small Canadian town, Rose’s dreams are big and slightly chaotic, just like her life. We first meet her as a school girl, but she soon leaves the small town and her stepmother (Flo) and half-brother behind to go on, first to college, and then to a number of different jobs and several failed relationships with emotionally unavailable men. Each story in the collection focuses on one or two of these episodes, continuously layering on more backstory and chraracter development until we get a fairly well-rounded, albeit fragmented view of Rose’s life. (Flo moves into the background for the middle of the book.)

I liked Alice Munro’s style – very precise and almost dreamy – and the way she drew references between the different stories, which were by no means written and published all in one go. Munro is also excellent at observing human interaction, relationships (and their failure) and small-town life. However, while I did find her characters fascinating, I also found them rather unpleasant. Granted, the men turned out to be way worse than the women (which might have been part of the point), but that doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of occasions where I just wanted to shake some sense into Rose. I think the setting also played a role in this: The stories are set from approximately 1920 to about 1960 ot 70 and the social mores of the time (especially those surrounding marriage and relationships) influenced the plot of more than one story in ways which I found tropey at best and infuriating at worst. Moreover, the general outlook of the whole collection is rather pessimistic, which means my reading was propelled more by a sense of morbid fascination than genuine enjoyment about half of the time. Add to that the fact that the stories are a bit uneven in terms of quality and depth (and some of them, like White Swans, deeply uncomfortable to read) and you can probably see why this is a three-star read for me.

Read if you like: Brooklyn, slice of life stories, The Cure for Death by Lightning, coming of age stories

Tentative November TBR

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Another month, another (tentative) TBR. This month I plan on picking up or finishing the following books:

Charles Maturin – Melmoth the Wanderer

I already started this book in October but have barely made it past the halfway point. It’s slow-going, but I hope to finish it this month.

Claire Fuller – Bitter Orange

One of my birthday impulse buys; I started this and am about 30 pages in. It looks like a quick, fascinating read.

Kate Tempest – Running Upon the Wires

A short (64 pages) poetry collection which will hopefully be a quick read that I can fit in later on in the month when I’m busy with paper writing and preparing for the workshop I’m organising.

I’m also carrying over some of the books that I’ve been meaning to read in October but didn’t get round to or which didn’t fit my mood then. Those books are:

  • Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset
  • Toni Morrison’s Home
  • Annalena McAfee’s Hame
  • and Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods

I don’t believe I will finish all of these books; I have a very busy month ahead of me and am well aware of that. I want to give myself a bit of a selection, though, and preferably one that contains a couple of shorter reads that I might just be able to finish despite everything else that will be going on.

October Wrapup

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Another good reading month (at least partly thanks to two readathons), but one where I deviated a lot from my TBR. Well, there is a reason it was only tentative to begin with. 😀

All the books I finished:

Sophie Mackintosh – The Water Cure ★★☆☆☆ .5 – ★★★☆☆

I started this book in September as part of my attempt at reading more contemporary fiction. I did enjoy the reading process, I just thought the book was a bit underdeveloped and not very deep.

Daisy Johnson – Everything Under ★★★☆☆ .5

Another book from the Man Booker longlist that I started and finished this month. It’s a solid book with beautiful language but which I thought was trying a little too hard.

Claudia Rankine – Citizen ★★★★☆ ?

A very poignant and topical poetry collection that I certainly found fascinating, but which I have trouble rating because I feel it was not written for me.

Terry Pratchett – Reaper Man ★★★☆☆

Not Pratchett’s best (in my opinion), but certainly entertaining. I love Death and the wizards of Unseen University alright, I’m just not sure what the whole thing about the magical shopping centre is supposed to be about.

Terry Pratchett – The Wee Free Men ★★★★★

The Tiffany Aching series is much more a children’s book series than the rest of the Discworld-novels, but it still showcases Terry Pratchett’s wit and talent with language and wordplay. Plus, I absolutely adore the Nac Mac Feegle and Tiffany ‘No Nonsense’ Aching.

Alice Munro – The Beggar Maid ★★★☆☆

A collection of intertwining short stories that almost reads like a novel. Munro’s prose is excellent, but I couldn’t really connect with her characters and the quality of the short stories (in terms of plot, themes, and structure) was too uneven for me to give this a higher rating.

J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (audiobook) ★★★★☆

Another long-time favourite, and one I don’t think I need to review. I like HP1 slightly less than some of the later books, but I still think it’s an excellent first installment of what is essentially (at least at this stage) a children’s book series. Plus, the audiobook narrated by Stephen Fry is excellent.

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I also started Melmoth the Wanderer but it’s a 500+ pages book and pretty slow-going so I’m only halfway through so far. Maybe I’ll finish it in November?

A (Very Late) Readathon Wrapup

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Remember when I said I was going to participate in two readathons and then promptly forgot to post about that any more? Yep. This post is about those readathons. It’s very late, but I’ve also been very busy – and very knackered after a weekend which I almost exclusively spent reading, eating, and sleeping.

Turns out it was a very successful weekend!

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I started off Friday & #8inboo with some PhD work and Terry Pratchett’s Reaper Man, then continued in the evening with Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer & a hot bath. I got about four hours of reading in on the first day (and without pushing myself too much, which I liked!), and even went to bed at a reasonable hour.

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Saturday morning started off with a nice, relaxed breakfast and a little more Melmoth, but since Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon didn’t start until 2 pm for me, I decided to spend the rest of the morning doing other things. I wasn’t too worried about the other four hours of reading for #8inboo since I planned to do a lot more reading that afternoon/evening, and there were household chores and more PhD-related work to be done.

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Saturday afternoon had me feeling pretty frazzled because the PhD work I had to finish in the morning required a lot more brain capacity than I anticipated, which promptly translated into low-level anxiousness and mental exhaustion once the readathon started. I decided a walk and some fresh air was just what I needed, and it turned out I was right. I considered picking up an audiobook, but I don’t actually like the background noise of those very much and too much auditory input usually makes my mental exaustion/anxiousness worse. However, I’m usually also not one for reading while walking, which means I was faced with a “difficult” choice, at least where optimizing my reading time for the readathons was concerned. I decided to go the route of the physical book, and – lo and behold – Claudia Rankine’s Citizen turned out to be a good choice. I read a little while walking (only in places where there is no traffic around, which luckily are plenty around where I live), took a quick break to read outside (on a bench at the local graveyard, which is actually pretty nice this time of year), and then later on grabbed a coffee at my favourite coffee place and read some more.

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I got back home around 5 pm, where I listened to the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone audiobook while cooking dinner and doing more household chores. I usually have a pretty hard time focusing on audiobooks (I tend to zone out a lot), but I seem to be doing somewhat better with books I already know. To be honest, though – I think I would have skipped the audiobook altogether if that hadn’t been a square on the Dewey’s Bingo, for which I was aiming for a full bingo/blackout.

I spent the rest of the evening alternating between books and trying to fill in the bingo squares – which I very nearly managed! When the readathon ended on Sunday, I was only missing one – the one that said “Read 500 pages”. I knew that one would be a stretch for me – I know my average reading speed, which is anywhere between 50 and 10 pages per hour, depending on the reading material. I was willing to make some concessions regarding my book pics for this readathon – choosing shorter and slightly easier picks, for example, instead of spending the entire readathon reading Melmoth – but I knew I wasn’t going to pick anything I wasn’t really interested in just for the sake of getting those pages in. Plus, I wasn’t going to cut down on sleep, which is why I spent a full nine hours of the readathon not reading but getting some shuteye – a choice that I do not regret in the least and will repeat during any upcoming readathon.

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Even without the full blackout on the readathon bingo, I really like how my final stats turned out:

#8inboo: 7.30h of reading + 2.55h of audiobooks = 10.25h, with a total of 326 pages of phyiscal books & 88 pages of audiobook

Dewey’s: 9.50h of reading and 5.20h of audiobooks = 15.10h, with a total of 319 pages of physical books & 126 pages of audiobook

Books finished: Reaper Man, Citizen – both started before the readathon

Birthday Books & A Short Update

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I know I’ve been very quiet around here lately.

I’ve had a couple of very busy weeks this month, what with a lot of PhD-related deadlines, the readathons – and my birthday last Thursday. I’ve sort of managed to stay on top of work-related things, but communication – or any kind of online presence, really – has suffered.

I can’t say that things have let up much (they haven’t; I still have lots of PhD-related stuff that needs to get done urgently), but I’m making more of an effort to make time for other things I enjoy – including blogging.

Plus, I got new books for my birthday! Pictured above we have:*

I suppose that’s enough to keep me busy for a while, especially on top of all the other books I still want to read this year. 😀

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*(That catalogue of the Bodleian Tolkien exhibition is just there because it currently doesn’t fit anywhere else on my shelves. I think I might have to do some rearranging soon…)

Readathon Time!

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This weekend, I’m participating in not one, but two readathons!

First, I’ll start off with #8inboo, a readathon hosted on Instagram by the organisers of 25infive. The aim is to read eight hours over two days on Friday, 19 and Saturday, 20 October. Four hours of reading per day doesn’t seem too hard to me (and I’ve managed to meet the goal twice before already); I’ll just spend the time I usually watch series on Netflix on reading. 😀

It’s just after 6pm where I’m based and I’m currently at just over two hours of reading, so everything is going swimmingly.

Plus, starting on Saturday 2pm (for me), there’s also Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon. This one is a bit trickier: There is just no way I’ll spend the entire twenty-four hours reading. I know I can’t concentrate that long (and I don’t do well with audiobooks, so those are not an option, either) and I really, really can’t afford to go without sleep for both health- and work-related reasons. So my aim for Dewey’s is to get to the halfway mark, aka spend twelve out of the twenty-four hours reading. That way, I can hopefully get a solid nine hours of sleep, participate in some of the group activities on social media (like the Bingo on Goodreads – I really want to finish the bingo!) and even have some time for household stuff and PhD-related emergencies.

As for books to read, I’ve learned from my ‘mistakes’ from previous readathons and have collected a pile of books from my shelves – see the picture above! Most of these are on my TBR anyway (the only rereads in the pic are Terry Pratchett’s Reaper Man and Alan Bennett’s The History Boys), and a good amout of them are under 300 pages. I’ve picked quite a lot of different books because I’m in a bit of a slump right now and very indecisive when it comes to genres. — No way do I expect to finish off all of them. I do, however, expect to finish Reaper Man and Citizen and hope to read a sizeable amount of either Melmoth the Wanderer or Les Misérables, all of which I’ve already started.

Review: Daisy Johnson – Everything Under

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Title: Everything Under
Author: Daisy Johnson
First published: 2018
Dates read: 3.10.-16.10.2018
Category: first-time read, own book, Man Booker longlist
Rating: 3.5/5
The book in five words or less: trying to do too much

My thoughts:

Everything Under is the story of Gretel, a lexicographer in her early thirties who goes searching for a mother who abandoned her over fifteen years ago. It is also a book about the river, about living on a boat, about coming to grips with age and Alzheimer’s disease, about mother-daughter relationships, language, gender and sexuality, the monsters that lurk just underneath the surface, and fear. And somehow, it is also a modern ‘retelling’ of Hansel and Gretel and the myth of Oedipus Rex.

If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. In fact, this is my main criticism of Everything Under: The book is trying to do too much. It is telling at least five stories at the same time, and somewhere in all this, the book falls apart.

Don’t get me wrong: The writing is lyrical and evocative, and Johnson is particularly adept at describing nature and the characters’ relationships with it. I loved how Gretel and her mother relate to and speak about the river that has been their home for years, and I really felt for Gretel and her struggle of dealing with a mother who has not only aged but is also suffering from a disease that makes her volatile and unpredictable. I was fascinated by the structure of the book, the shifting perspectives, the interlacing of past and present, and a second-person narration that I didn’t expect but which worked surprisingly well. Heck, I even liked the elements of magical realism and fantasy (the monster in the river that seems a figment of the characters’ imagination in one scene, and entirely flesh and blood in another) and the fairy tale motives because they fit the overall tone of the story. Had Everything Under stopped at this point, it might have been a four- or even five-star read for me.

Unfortunately, it didn’t. Instead, the book also follows the general plot of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, at which point we’re moving from ‘layered and evocative’ to ‘a mess’. The myth ‘retelling’ doesn’t add to the story, it detracts from it because it forces characters to act in ways which are often strange and sometimes downright unbelievable. In fact, two of the main points of the Oedipus plot – namely the Oedipus-character’s unwavering belief in the prophecy about them, and their attraction towards their own mother – did not come across as convincing to me either because of the modern setting, or because of the way they were executed. Additionally, because this book has been marketed as a ‘retelling of Oedipus Rex’ pretty much everywhere and because I remember the plot of Sophocles’ play pretty well (I guess you would, too, if you had studied literature and had to take it apart in school), I was able to predict all of the major plot points, which seriously detracted from my reading experience.

So, all in all Everything Under is a clear case of ‘less would have been more’ for me.

Read if you like: Ancient Greek drama, retellings of myths and fairy tales, nature writing along the lines of Rebecca Solnit and Helen Macdonald, tales about monsters and rivers

Review: Sophie Mackintosh – The Water Cure

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Title: The Water Cure
Author: Sophie Mackintosh
First published: 2018
Dates read: 19.9.-1.10.2018
Category: first time read, own book, Man Booker longlist
Rating: 2.5-3/5
The book in five words or less: fascinating but very disturbing

My thoughts:

The Water Cure is a book about three sisters – Grace, Lia, and Sky – who live with their parents on an island in a strange, dystopian world in which men are a threat and women must be protected from them at all costs. Which is why, when three men are washed up by the sea, things start to go horribly, horribly wrong.

Most summaries of The Water Cure stop here, and, having finished the book, I now see why. Saying much more than the above about the plot and the setting would be already giving away too much about both. However, not saying more also makes writing a review of this book incredibly hard. Which is why I will try to do both – stay vague, but also point out a couple of things I liked and didn’t like about this book.

First off – The Water Cure is a very strange book and difficult to rate. It is certainly well-written with a turn towards the truly beautiful on occasion, but it is also very disturbing and just a tad unsatisfying. Many aspects about the plot and the past of the characters and their present actions are only hinted at, and some parts of the setting remain unclear enough that you’re never quite sure which of the events are actually happening and which are imagined. The fact that most of the narrative focus is on Lia, probably the most emotionally and psychically unwell of the three sisters, sure isn’t helping with this point, either.

As for the characters, most of them are traumatized in some way – or otherwise mentally and emotionally hurting – and it shows in their actions. There is also mental and physical abuse going on, and some of that is not for the faint-hearted. That said, the book is not overly gory or creepy in typical horror fashion – it’s more of a psychological thriller than anything. Still, it definitely needs all sorts of trigger warnings, mostly for abuse, incest, and self-harm.

I think, this last point, combined with the development of the plot, is why this is not a five-star read for me (despite the raving reviews this book has received elsewhere). While I like that the author doesn’t seem to see the need to spell everything out in capitals, on occasion I would have liked just a tad more precision. For a book that has been lauded as a “feminist dystopia”, the ending in particular was a bit disappointing and anti-climactic. Having women as the main characters isn’t feminist per se; giving them actual agency is. Plus, if you strip away the top layer of abuse and cult-like living situation, there isn’t much below the surface. This book is not very deep and didn’t leave me with any more profound realizations about mankind, womanhood, or human relationships in general. All in all, I can see why this made it onto the Man Booker longlist, but I think I can also see why it didn’t make the shortlist.

If you have read this book and would like to discuss any of the above points with me – please feel free to do so!

Read if you like: this has been compared to The Virgin Sucides, I guess? (but I didn’t particularly like that one, either), strange books about strange women

Review: Maggie Nelson – Bluets

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Title: Bluets
Author: Maggie Nelson
First published: 2009
Dates read: 9.-10.9.2018
Category: first-time read, memoir, non-fiction, poetry
Rating: 4/5
The book in five words or less: meandering and meaningful

My thoughts:
Bluets is a strange book. It’s not quite poetry, but it’s not quite memoir, either. Mostly, what it is, is more. The kind of more that makes you think and that defies neat classification. Bluets reads like a long train of thoughts that meanders from reflections on the colour blue, to grief over the loss of a lover and the near-loss of a friend, to art and literature, pain, pleasure, and everything in between. It’s not quite a stream of consciousness – Bluets is too structured for that – but it jumps around from thought to quote to different thought in a similar way. It is joyful, and sad, and bittersweet, and goes from one to the other in a matter of words.

I know my first rating for this book on goodreads said five stars right after I finished it, but I think I’ll have to knock it down to four. The reason for this being that while I really liked how thought-provoking Bluets is, it didn’t touch and resonate with me quite as much as A Field Guide to Getting Lost and H is for Hawk, the other two non-fiction books I’ve read this year. That said, I do really like Maggie Nelson’s poetic language, the way her thoughts flow from one idea to the next, and the way the book is put together. Who knows, I suspect I might give it the full five (again) at a reread.

And, in a slightly different but related vein, Bluets also made me want to get more serious about my own writing, which is always an added bonus. (The result of that being, of course, the revival of this blog.)

Read if you like: lyrical non-fiction, contemporary poetry, Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, and the colour blue