2020 reading challenges – a bit behind the times

DSCF7978

Having – somewhat to my surprise – filled an entire bingo card on the Indie Challenge last year, I had a vague idea of quitting while I was ahead, and not doing any reading challenges this year. Then I was messing around on Twitter and found a couple that looked a) interesting and b) manageable.

  1. The #EU27 project. This involves reading one book from each of the 27 EU countries that aren’t the UK. I’m late to the party on this one, as it began when Article 50 was triggered, and here we are over two years later. I’m going to miss being part of the European Union, and I rather like the idea of this challenge as a way to remain connected with the rest of Europe in at least a small way. I will write up books from this challenge on this blog. The majority will be translations: my French is good enough to read Jules Verne in the original, if not Colette (mind you, I get bogged down in Colette in English, too) but I don’t think I can say the same for my smattering of German and Spanish, let alone my opera fan Italian – and that’s as far as my languages go.
  2. #TBR20, which involves making one’s first twenty reads of the year books which one already possesses, and which appears to be a descendant of the TBR Dare (which involved reading only books that one already possessed for the first three months of the year). Since I’m likely moving house in March, this seems like a useful discipline, and I’m going to go for both goals: the first twenty and the first three months. I won’t be reporting back on these unless they also count towards #EU27.

The other thing I’m trying to do is use Goodreads and LibraryThing more. I don’t do star ratings, which in my experience are pretty much meaningless, but I will be posting text reviews. We’ll see how it goes…

#EU27project

Denmark: A Poet’s Bazaar (Hans Christian Andersen)

Germany: What Remains (Christa Wolf)

#indiechallenge (completed!) – El Hacho (Luis Carrasco)

DSCF8568

The blurb

El Hacho is a timeless evocation of inheritance, duty and our relationship to the landscape that defines us. Set in the stark beauty of the Andalusian mountains it tells the story of Curro, an olive farmer determined to honour his family tradition in the face of drought, deluge and the lucrative temptations of a rapidly modernising Spain. Wonderfully crafted, El Hacho is a poignant and compelling story of struggle and hope.

The author

Luis Carrasco lives and writes in Gloucestershire. He was inspired to write El Hacho after falling in love with the people and natural beauty of the Sierra de Grazalema whilst living in Andalucía. He is currently working on his second novel.

The publisher

époque press is an independent publisher based between London, Brighton and New York, which specialises in literary fiction.

The bookshop

I ordered this book direct from the publisher.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘Est. 2018’; ‘A new to you press’; ‘A debut’.

My thoughts

This is a gentle book, but it’s filled with tension as it explores the relationship between human tradition, ambition and destiny, and the forces of the natural world. The mountain of El Hacho dominates the action as it does the landscape in which that action takes place. Close behind the mountain comes the weather: an active force, sometimes empowering, sometimes destructive, whose changes are to be both longed for and feared. And against that backdrop the minute details of human relationships stand out vividly.

This is a short book, but it packs a lot in. I think I’ll have to go back and read it again.

The challenge

And that’s my twenty-fifth book of the #indiechallenge completed and reviewed. Here’s a round-up:

It’s been fun: an opportunity to reread old favourites, to discover new authors, to make a dent in my TBR pile. I’m particularly amused by how much of the non-fiction in particular is on bi themes – well, it’s true, we don’t get much representation in the mainstream. (And how every single one of them came from my TBR pile…) Two books included contributions from me; four were written by people I know; one was translated by someone I know. (And Peggy Seeger once said she liked my hat, though I’m sure she says that to all her fans.) There are a couple of books on there that I wouldn’t read again, and YA in particular just doesn’t do it for me any more, but generally speaking this has been a very positive experience. Now, do I want to do it all over again next year?

#indiechallenge – Purple Prose (ed. Kate Harrad)

DSCF8562

The blurb

Purple Prose: Bisexuality in Britain is the first of its kind: a book written for and by bisexual people in the UK. This accessible collection of interviews, essays, poems and commentary explores topics such as definitions of bisexuality, intersections of bisexuality with other identities, stereotypes and biphobia, being bisexaul at work, teenage bisexuality and bisexuality through the years, the media’s approach to bisexual celebrities, and fictional bisexual characters.

Filled with raw, honest first-person accounts as well as thoughts from leading bisexual activists in the UK, this is the book you’ll buy for your friend who’s just come out to you as bi-curious, or for your parents who think your bisexuality is weird or a phase, or for yourself, because you know you’re bi but you don’t know where to go or what to do about it.

The editor

Kate Harrad is  a published fiction and non-fiction writer. She co-edited The Ladies’ Loos: From Plumbing to Plucking, a Practical Guide for Girls (The Friday Project, 2006), and her novel All Lies and Jest was published by Ghostwoods Books in 2011. She has over a decade of experience working in business editorial/writing positions, and has written for the Guardian, the F-Word and the Huffington Post. She has also been a bi activist for several years, and has co-organized numerous UK bi events.

The publisher

Thorntree Press is an independent publishing company that was founded in 2013 by Eve Rickert and Franklin Veaux. They publish non-fiction books about sexuality, love and ethics with a focus on non-traditional relationship models.

How I got this book

I made a donation to the Indiegogo crowdfunder – a paperback copy was part of the reward level I chose.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘A crowdfunded book’; ‘A book from your TBR’; ‘Marginalised people’; ‘Non-fiction’; ‘Book from a micro press’; or ‘LGBTQIA’.

My thoughts

I have a soft spot for this book: I’m a contributor to it, in a very minor way (my poem Circles concludes the chapter on ‘Bisexuality and Faith’). And being a contributor, being part of process of putting this book together, was important to my own process of coming to understand who I was, of moving from an ill-defined conviction that I could call myself bisexual if I really had to, but God forbid it inconvenience anybody else, to a sense that I was part of a community.

But, although it was published back in 2016, I didn’t read it end to end until this year. And I think that what I really enjoyed about it this time round was that same sense of community. I follow many of the other contributors on Twitter; I’ve met some of them in real life, or recognise them as friends of friends. But even if that weren’t the case, even if I’d picked it from the shelf with no prior knowledge, I think I’d recognise myself in it, and be glad of that. It’s a great book for feeling less like you’re the only one who’s ever felt like this.

It’s a joyfully eclectic book, too – for a group that gets stereotyped as much as bisexuals do, we’re an eclectic bunch – and some parts inevitably feel more relevant (or, which is not the same thing) interesting to me than others do – but that’s a good thing. The multiplicity of perspectives makes it that little bit more representative.

#indiechallenge – Squirt (Kate Spencer)

DSCF8525

The blurb

Kate made a discovery. She wrote a poem. She writes lots of poems about sex, sexuality, the body and body and bodily functions. She’s filthy, flirty, and funny; saucy, seductive, and sensual; raunchy, ridiculous, and ravishing. You won’t believe what comes out of her lips.

The author

Kate Spencer is co-producer of Poetry in Motion, the Wellington Feminist Poetry Club and Naked Girls Reading NZ. She’s a national slam finalist, a typewriter poet for hire, an editor, a writer, a promoter, a committed Christian, a dichotomy.

The bookshop

I ordered a copy direct from Kate.

The bingo card

I am going to count this for ‘a poetry collection’, but it would also work for: ‘a debut’; ‘a women’s press’; ‘LGBTQIA’; ‘Marginalised people’; and very possibly ‘Favourite’.

My thoughts

I’m somewhat amused by the way that this challenge started out as an earnest attempt to take on the worthy books that hadn’t got to the top of my TBR pile, and has recently become ‘I read this book by a friend and it’s a hell of a lot of fun’.

It would be funny to say that Kate was the one that the Christian Union warned me about, but I never really got into the Christian Union. Still, by all accounts we had far more fun in the Methodist and Anglican Society. (Not like that.)

Anyway, oblique nostalgia for my university years aside, this book is a hell of a lot of fun. It has all the verve and immediacy that I associate with slam poetry. An extensive vocabulary, creatively and joyfully used (‘Don’t expect me to labour over my labia/epilate before a date/or pluck pre-fuck’). In this book there’s a joy in both sex and words that makes me smile. It’s usually funny (‘don’t tell me I’m ovary-acting’), sometimes angry (‘Fucking is supposed to be fucking consensual/if not, it’s not fucking sensual/it’s a fucking con/and you should be fucking convicted’) and always honest.

#indiechallenge – The Duke Is Dead (Ankaret Wells and Irene Headley)

DSCF8558

The blurb

It is seven years since the Cousins’ War ended.

King Roald has brought peace to the Three Kingdoms and driven the last heirs of the king he deposed into exile. His brother Thomas, Duke of Wharram, is a man for whom loyalty is the greatest virtue and family the highest cause. So when his sister Josiane, Duchess of Bergomance, finds herself widowed, her beloved stepdaughter Ambrosia beleaguered by suitors and her late husband’s coffers mysteriously empty, who better to send than Thomas?

But the ghosts of old wars are waiting in Bergomance, and new threats are rising. Some see heresy everywhere, and others look to an Empire in the east that has suddenly begun seeking allies. And into it all, a ship driven off course by storms brings a young man fleeing King Roald’s mercenaries and throws him into Thomas’s path. Nicolas ás Ithel, a man with dark eyes and a love of numbers, and an inheritance in his veins that could reignite the Cousins’ War.

Kingsblood.

The authors

Ankaret Wells and Irene Headley are friends of mine, and they talked about how they came to write this book on this blog a little while ago.

The bookshop

I bought the ebook version from Lulu; then, on discovering that there were family trees and maps to flip back and look at, bought the print version too.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘Genre fiction’; ‘Book from a series’ (at least, it will be soon); ‘Book that defies genre’; or ‘LGBTQIA’.

My thoughts

In recent years, holidays with my partner have tended to be ‘somewhere in the Low Countries’ (Leiden; Ghent; most recently, Lille, which is pretty sure it’s in Flanders) and ‘some time when the wind is very cold’. Don’t ask me why we keep doing this, especially since we live in Cambridge and therefore this isn’t much different from being at home.

I mention this because The Duke Is Dead is set in a fantasy Flanders in the middle of winter, but is very much concerned with a fantasy version of British history. Specifically, the Wars of the Roses. If royal heritage on all sides was marked by some kind of magical power – which might or might not be useful. If the men we now think of as Richard III and Henry VII found each other inconveniently attractive.

But The Duke is Dead is not just about the slash. In fact, the uneasy liaison between Thomas of Wharram and Nicolas ás Ithel is one single example of the tension between personal inclinations and private loyalties and public politics and the way that plays out for many of the characters when there are kingdoms at stake. Thomas’s sister Josiane is a major player, and her daughter is much more than a pawn, no matter what her suitors seem to think. Religion in this universe is fascinating: there’s a béguinage and a St Mary the Evangelist, and the doctrine of the Trinity is heretical. The weather might be horrible, and the humans certainly have their moments, but this novel is, apart from anything else, fun. I’m looking forward to seeing how the rest of the series plays out.

 

#indiechallenge – Keep Faith (ed. Gabriela Martins)

DSC_0107

I apologise for the quality of the picture. I took it on the train. Erm, at least you can just about see my jolly reusable coffee cup in the background? It’s in iridescent bi pride colours, not that you can really tell that. The cover looks much prettier in full colour.

The blurb

Keep faith, in the broad sense of the word. It doesn’t have to be a religion, unless you want it to be. It doesn’t have to speak about the universe, unless you want it to. It doesn’t have to be about anyone but yourself. Keep faith, in other planets and other houses; be it in the face of danger, grief, or while you spread your arms and laugh. Keep faith the same way you keep hope, bright and shiny, ever present. Keep faith in all your queer, beautiful self. Because you deserve it.

This is an anthology of 14 short stories, by 14 queer authors, where faith and queerness intersect. Incidental, purposeful, we-exist-and-that’s-why queerness. And faith meaning whatever you want it to mean.

The contributors

This anthology is edited by Gabriela Martins, with cover art by Kess Costales, and short stories by Adiba Jaigirdar, Bogi Takács, C.T. Callahan, Elly Ha, Gabriela Martins, Julia Rios, Kate Brauning, Kess Costales, Mary Fan, Mayara Barros, Megan Manzano, Shenwei Chang, Sofia Soter, and Vanshika Prusty.

The bookshop

This book is available on a ‘pay what you think is appropriate’ basis from Gumroad.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘An author from another country’; ‘A new to you press’; ‘Marginalised people’; ‘An anthology’, or ‘LGBTQIA’. Also, arguably, ‘Rec’d by a friend’, since I only came across this book when I saw a friend irritably tweeting it at Tim Farron.

My thoughts

The premise of this anthology is of course right up my street: the intersection between queer identity and faith identity is one that fascinates me on my own behalf and more generally.

The stories approached this from all sorts of different angles. Some, inevitably, worked better for me than others did. My favourites included “And I Entreated” (Bogi Takács), in which the narrator is having to deal with being a houseplant while her child prepares for their bar mitzvah, and “On The Other Side” (Shenwei Chang), which was a really poignant exploration of loss and tradition. “How Not To Die (Again)” (Gabriela Martins) was a light-hearted piece of high school magical realism. And “Godzilla” (Kate Brauning) was a perceptive picture of a well-meaning church attempting to be inclusive.

I was less impressed by “Bigger Than Us” (Megan Manzano) and “Golden Hue” (Mayara Barros). These both featured the sloppy worldbuilding that’s been irritating me in YA literature recently, where a very familiar twenty-first century culture prevails despite the presence of major fantasy elements that ought to have made things develop in very different ways.

Overall, though, this anthology was a good deal of fun, and I’d recommend it to anybody who enjoys exploring the nuances of identity.

#indiechallenge – The Sleep Quilt (Tracy Chevalier and Fine Cell Work)

DSCF8551

The blurb

The Sleep Quilt is unlike any other quilt you will have seen. Commissioned by Tracy Chevalier, it is entirely stitched and quilted by prisoners in some of Britain’s toughest jails. Each of the 63 squares explores what sleep means in prison. A moment of escape for some, for others a dark return to all they most regret in life, sleep has a great significance in jail that is only strengthened by the difficulty of finding it in the relentlessly noisy, hot and cramped environment. By turns poignant, witty, lighthearted and tragic, The Sleep Quilt shines a light on lives that few outside can guess at.

The contributors

Tracy Chevalier is an American-British historical novelist, the author of books including Girl With A Pearl Earring and The Lady And The Unicorn.

Fine Cell Work is a charity which makes handmade textile products in British prisons:

Fine Cell Work enables prisoners to build fulfilling and crime-free lives by training them to do high-quality, skilled, creative needlework undertaken in the long hours spent in their cells to foster hope, discipline and self esteem. They can also learn sewing machine and textile production skills in our prison based workshops. Our aim is to allow them to finish their sentences with work skills, money earned and saved, and the self-belief to not re-offend.

The publisher

Pallas Athene has been publishing books for 25 years, starting with travel guides and now mainly focussed on art. Rather endearingly, they say:

We also have some wine and food titles, and other books we publish simply because we like them and want to bring them to a wide audience. (Most recently, David Lack’s wonderful Life of the Robin). The aim is always to make books that are approachable and intelligent, and we are great believers in illustration.

Where I found this book

I’ve been staying with a friend and reading my way through as many of her books as I could in a week (while also managing to fit in a lot of standing at the side of the road cheering on cyclists, and playing Pandemic in between times). We’ve been comparing textile notes for years (she is a very good embroiderer; I am a slapdash quilter) and so she brought this one to my attention.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘Rec’d by a friend’; ‘A crowdfunded book’; ‘A new to you press’; ‘Marginalised people’; ‘A press over 20 years old’; ‘Non-fiction’, and, perhaps, ‘Anthology’.

My thoughts

This is a beautiful, moving, little book. It opens with an essay by Tracy Chevalier explaining how she came to commission the Sleep Quilt (for an exhibition of quilts entitled ‘Things We Do In Bed’) and one by Katy Emck describing the aims of Fine Cell Work. The majority of the pages, however, are devoted to pictures of blocks from the quilt accompanied by contributions from the prisoners who worked on it, explaining the thinking behind the designs or expanding on quotations included in them. It’s fascinating and thought-provoking: a small treasure.

DSCF8555

#indiechallenge – Meant To Be Me (Wendy Hudson)

DSC_0031

The blurb

Trying to find “The One” is never easy and engineer Darcy Harris is finding it tougher than most. It doesn’t help she’s also dealing with a shadowy stalker trying to make trouble for her. But Darcy’s determined not to let anyone ruin her life.

Her loyal best friend and boss, Anja Olsen, is stuck in a strange conundrum, forced to question who she has become and who she wants to be.

Meanwhile, stranger Eilidh Grey’s first instinct is to run fearlessly toward chaos and love. But this time she’s on a collision course with fate.

A chance meeting on a snowy bridge in Inverness, Scotland, binds all three women together, creating an unexpected, tangled, love triangle. What happens when it all unravels?

A compelling, slow-burning, romantic suspense that will keep you guessing right to the end.

The author

Wendy Hudson is an award winning author based in Scotland.

Her debut novel “Four Steps” won a 2017 GCLS Debut Author Award, was a Diva Literary Award Finalist 2017.

Her second novel “Mine to Keep” was a 2018 GCLS Finalist.

All her novels are set in Scotland among the inspirational landscapes that first inspired Wendy to write.

In her spare time, Wendy has a love for travel, as well as camping, skiing, football, festivals and reading.

The publisher

Ylva specialises in lesbian fiction by authors from all over the world and across a wide range of genres.

The bookshop

Another one from Kobo.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘Genre fiction’, ‘A Women’s Press’, ‘Marginalised people’, or ‘LGBTQIA’.

My thoughts

Wendy Hudson is a colleague, and about a year ago we spent an enjoyable evening in the bar at one of the University of Warwick’s conference centres, drinking beer and talking about writing. She was working on this book at the time, and she told me what the twist was going to be.

And it didn’t matter at all. It was as much fun knowing what was coming as it would have been to be guessing. That particular twist was revealed about a third of the way in, after which I was on a level playing field with everybody else – and there was still a lot of suspense to come. Knowing something that the characters don’t is all very well, but I didn’t know when or how they would find out. And I kept on reading until they did.

Beyond that: it was a romance between two women, each with a complicated past, which was always haunted by the claustrophobic, effective, suspense plot. I’d have liked to see a little more of how that eventually plays out, but that would have made for a very different book.

#indiechallenge – The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton)

DSC_0026

The blurb

It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky. The Luminaries is an extraordinary piece of fiction.

The author

Eleanor Catton was born in 1985 in Canada and raised in Christchurch, New Zealand. She won the 2007 Sunday Star-Times short-story competition, the 2008 Glenn Schaeffer Fellowship to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the 2008 Louis Johnson New Writers’ Bursary and was named as one of Amazon’s Rising Stars in 2009. Her debut novel, The Rehearsal, won the Betty Trask Prize, the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, the NZSA Hubert Church Best First Book Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, the Prix Femina literature award, the abroad category of the Prix Médicis, the University of Wales Dylan Thomas Prize 2010 and Stonewall’s Writer of the Year Award 2011, and longlisted for the Orange Prize 2010. In 2010 she was awarded the New Zealand Arts Foundation New Generation Award. The Luminaries was the winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award.

The publisher

Granta Books is an independent publisher based in Cambridge, with a very long About page.

The bookshop

Downloaded, boringly, from Kobo.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘An author from another country’; ‘A new to you press’ (I think); ‘A press over 20 years old’; ‘An award winner’; and ‘Book that defies genre’.

My thoughts

I’ve often seen this in bookshops and charity shops and thought what a lovely cover it has (neither my ebook reader nor my photograph do it justice), but I would probably never have got around to buying or reading it had my office book club, which has a penchant for award-winners, not picked it for the September meeting. Since we were reading this one over the summer, there was time to tackle the nine hundred or so pages of it.

And I absolutely loved it. I’ve a weakness for nineteenth century doorstops, and this included many of the things I like about them: a twisty, turny plot full of mystery, melodrama, and the supernatural (the latter almost but not quite explained away); treasure hunts and missing documents; vividly-drawn characters; an omniscient but selective narrator.

But it also subverted them. It brought twenty-first century nuance to questions of race and, to a lesser extent, gender; it did something very interesting with chapter headings, and it gave almost all of the characters at least a moment in which they were sympathetic. There was a humanity and a generosity to it that kept me reading. Quite apart, of course, from its being a whole lot of fun.

#indiechallenge – The Silken Thread: stories and sketches (Cora Sandel, translated by Elizabeth Rokkan)

DSCF8509

The blurb

‘And so Rosina is set free on the path of candour, where we so easily gallop a little further than we would wish. It looks so innocent to begin with. One starts out so far from the great confidences…’

A silken thread loosens Rosina’s tongue to admit the desperation behind her confident manner. A woman allows herself to feel secure when her lover gives her a bracelet, until the history of the bracelet is shatteringly revealed.

Cora Sandel’s short stories are about what is concealed behind ordinary situations; what people really want to say to each other when they argue about money or exchange niceties or merely sit in silence. This collection displays the extraordinary economy of Sandel’s writing: finely tuned and exquisitely understated, yet full of meaning.

The author

Cora Sandel is the pseudonym of Sara Fabricius, who was born in Kristiania (Oslo) in 1880. After studying to be a painter, mainly in Paris, before and during the First World War, she abandoned painting at the age of forty, settled in Sweden, and turned seriously to writing, publishing the first volume of her Alberta trilogy in 1926. She died in Sweden in 1974.

The publisher

The Women’s Press now seems to be defunct, but it used to put out a lot of feminist fiction and non-fiction. Its steam iron logo and stripy black-and-white spines are still worth keeping an eye out for when browsing charity shop shelves.

The bookshop

I can’t remember – this has been hanging around on my shelves for ages, waiting for me to read it – but am fairly sure it must have come from a charity shop in Woking.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘A Women’s Press’ (obviously); ‘An author from another country’; ‘A book from your TBR’; ‘Translated book’; ‘A press over 20 years old’; or ‘An anthology’.

My thoughts

There are some gems in here, set across quite a wide range of places and, to a lesser extent, times. The one that’s stuck with me ever since I read the book (several weeks ago, now) is Artist’s Christmas. It’s a detailed, atmospheric piece that evokes all the chill of winter and the misguided idealism of the bohemian lifestyle – with a vicious sting in the tail.

Some I inevitably found less successful, such as The Broad Versus the Narrow Outlook, in which a dispute between neighbours made a slightly clumsy metaphor for the Nazi occupation. On the other hand, I did find There’s A War On very moving – and a timely counter to the assumption that the Blitz was something that happened only to Britain.

This is by no means a comfortable read (and I would recommend skipping The Polar Bears or Two Cats in Paris and One in Florence if you’d rather not read about harm to animals) but I found it a worthwhile one, and am rather regretting letting it languish on my bookcase for so long.