Spring Wrap Up

For 2019 we’re mixing up the standard monthly wrap ups and instead I’ll be posting four seasonal wrap ups for the books I read in Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. With each season I’m going to go through each book organised by my rating, and end with my top three books of the season. So without further ado, let’s jump into Spring (even though it’s felt like Winter…).

For the first three months of 2019, I’ve read a total of 13 books: 4 adult fantasy, 1 YA fantasy, 1 children’s fantasy, 4 fiction, 2 YA and 1 poetry collection. The children’s fantasy, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, was an audiobook, whilst the rest were physical books. The longest was The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and the shortest was Fierce Fairytales by Nikita Gill. The book which was an unexpected favourite was On the Come Up by Angie Thomas.

The Three Stars

I think it’s a pretty good month where the lowest rating I gave a book was three out of five stars. The books that received this rating from me were Fire and Heist by Sarah Beth Durst and Fierce Fairytales by Nikita Gill. Neither of these reads were bad, but nor were they stand out books for me. Fire and Heist is a YA fantasy where there are shapeshifting wyverns in the real world, living a socialite-style life. The book was great fun to read, and easy to finish within a couple of days, but for me it didn’t feel developed enough. When reading YA, it’s obvious that the characters will be young, but whilst I greatly enjoy plenty of YA, Fire and Heist came across as too young for me. There were funny moments and overall it was an easygoing, fantasy romp, but the predictable plot points and under-developed world made this a three stars for me. Fierce Fairytales, on the other hand, was a completely different experience. I went into this poetry collection expecting to really love it, and instead found it repetitive and in parts it felt as if it didn’t go far enough. Hugely quotable, the feminist retellings of classic fairytales had very strong ideas, but they were either not taken far enough – ie not much was actually being said – or they were completely overdone, where the author didn’t allow any room for interpretation as she spelled out exactly what she wanted the reader to take from it. Whilst there were certainly poems I thought were especially strong, as a whole collection I was left a bit uninspired and felt as if there were three or so motifs that were done at least 3 or 4 times each.

The Four Stars

I rated six books with four stars, and each of them are so different to each other. The YA contemporary The Truth About Keeping Secrets is a debut novel from Savannah Brown. It read like a thriller and touched on subjects of grief, love, bullying and LGBTQ+ issues, making it an ambitious, powerful read that I truly enjoyed. Spinning Silver is a fantasy written by Naomi Novik, whose Uprooted and His Majesty’s Dragon series were firm favourites of mine when I read them. Spinning Silver for me was a difficult one to place, as I personally found the beginning quite slow paced as Novik built the world and the various threads from all the different perspectives she delves into. Had the ending not been as perfectly woven together as it was, this book might have been three stars, but I was so happy with how she finished and tied everything off that it had to be four stars for me. The other four books are all fiction, and all vastly different. Everything Under by Daisy Johnson was so excellently written that I couldn’t read at my usual speed with how much I was concentrating – a powerful retelling of an intense Greek myth, told in Johnson’s wonderful style. My main taking from The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt was its sheer size, and whilst it was written with such fantastic prose, I found I was more relieved than anything else when I finished it and didn’t have to lug it around with me anymore. In contrast, If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin was as light as a feather, far shorter than I had expected it to be. A poignant story of love, hope, and the still-prevalent issue of race and discrimination, all framed around one family’s story, beautifully told. The Binding by Bridget Collins was another great read from this Spring. I definitely felt far more engaged halfway through after the slow start – overall an entertaining read, even though I found the plot predictable.

The Five Stars

Not including my top three, I had two other five star reads. The first of which, and the first book I finished in 2019, was The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden. The second in her Winternight trilogy, I truly adored this book. Arden’s writing is so magical and sweeps you into the story so firmly that you won’t want the book to ever end, so tangible is the atmosphere and setting she creates with characters that tell such an incredible story. I could never tell where the plot was going, something which I appreciate greatly, and Arden’s ability to pick up the pace at such speed halfway through meant that I had several late nights unable to put the book down. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince by J K Rowling was a very different experience as I listened to Stephen Fry telling the story in the audiobook. As someone who has never read the books, getting to this one truly illuminated how much the films didn’t cover, and if anything only made my enjoyment of the series and franchise that much better.

The Top Three

As I previously mentioned, one of my unexpected favourites was On the Come Up by Angie Thomas. Powerful, inspiring, and so brilliant that I kept wanting to cheer whilst reading. We need this book not just for all YA readers to enjoy, but for everyone to pick up. I feel that I don’t have words adequate enough to describe how important this book is, so all I can reaffirm is that Angie Thomas is a brilliant author and you should all read it.

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What won’t be unexpected is my second top favourite of Spring, given how much I’ve shared by adoration for the rest of the series, and that is the final in Katherine Arden’s trilogy The Winter of the Witch. What more can I say about this series that I haven’t already? It’s one of my favourite ever fantasy series with its sweeping Russian landscape filled with fantastic characters, from a tormented priest to a frost demon and most importantly the heroine of the tale, an unassuming girl who is flawed enough that she isn’t boring to follow in her adventure. Arden’s captivating language and turns of phrase make this a series that anyone can enjoy and appreciate, whether they read historical fantasy or not.

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My final favourite of Spring was a book that I had on my list to pick up for several months, and boy was I glad that I did. The Poppy War by R F Kuang is an adult fantasy that reminded me of An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir along with Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. What I found wonderful about this book is that it felt like two different stories in one, so when I reached what I had assumed would be the end of the first book only halfway through I was overjoyed. The world Kuang creates is just fantastic and so immersive, touching on Chinese history to further develop the book. I did not for one second guess what would happen in the end, and I cannot wait for the sequel to publish. Could not recommend more highly for those who like fantasy, as The Poppy War is one of the very few in-depth adult fantasy books that had me hooked.

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The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden

*This is a spoiler free review*

The vast majority of my all-time favourite books have various things in common. They’re likely to be classed as fantasy, and include some sort of fantastical creature. They’re likely to influenced my mythology, fairytales, and legends. Most will have incredible leading female characters that defy all expectations. Very rarely, they will encompass all of these things.

Allow me to introduce one of my new favourite series: The Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden, an incredible historical fantasy. The series order is as follows: The Bear and the Nightingale, The Girl in the Tower, and The Winter of the Witch.

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My first thought when I started The Bear and the Nightingale was that it was beautifully written. The prose is very lavish and poetic in its descriptions, making a wonderful sweeping rhythm as you read. I have heard from a few friends that they found it quite boring and too long in descriptions when they started reading, but personally I found the writing too lovely to care. It definitely does have a slower start, but as I’ve found with all three books the plot picks up. With the first in the series, this perhaps doesn’t happen until the latter half of the novel, which can be expected as Arden is slowly weaving together her world and its characters for the majority of the novel. With the second and third book however, the plot really takes off much sooner and meant that I preferred these over the first title just for the sheer pace they set.

The plots themselves are incredibly well crafted. For me, the first book definitely had that classic, fairytale vibe – you have the legends of Winter Kings, conflicting family dynamics including a new stepmother, a young girl who wants a life not permitted for young girls, and the struggle between old legends and new religion. It’s difficult to say too much about the plots of the following two books, but what I can say is that they both took me by surprise. In the second book, there were plot twists I hadn’t seen and an edge of anxiety throughout as you wait to see whether or not everything will come crashing down around the main protagonist. The third book actually had a huge plot twist that occurred around half way through – and it was here that I had believed the series would end, only to find that Arden reinvents the tropes and creates a far better, more imaginative, conclusive end to such a fantastic series.

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Next up: the characters. In the first book, we follow a family that live in Russian wilderness surrounded by forests and lying some distance from Moscow. In particular, we follow the young Vasilisa (Vasya) Petrovna, who is a strange child compared to her siblings. One of the main reasons she is her gift to see the old creatures of Russia, domovoi and other beings that live in houses, stables, woods, and more. When her mother dies, Vasya’s father ventures to Moscow and returns with a devout stepmother who is determined to bring in her new religion (a beloved priest alongside her) and cast out the old beings. When evil in the forest creeps nearer and the battle of new and old truly begins, Vasya must choose whether to obey by marrying or joining a convent, or go against them all and use her gifts to save her family.

Vasya is a fantastic character. Whilst she is very young in the first book, at no point does this diminish her incredible characterisation and Arden’s ability to make you root for her. She makes stupid mistakes through the whole series, but has brilliant growth from each one. In The Bear and the Nightingale, the perspective is mainly Vasya’s – when she is too young, we see Vasya through the eyes of her father and nurse – and the priest who is brought to her home. There is a frost demon (and who doesn’t love the odd frost demon thrown in) who has his own plans that as a reader you are unaware of, along with the smattering of household domovoi who pop up throughout the book. My favourite character is actually not introduced until toward the end of the first book, and just happens to be a horse (but of course).

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The atmosphere is just the best thing about this book, and if you like Naomi Novik’s Uprooted then I’m sure you’d adore this series. One of my favourite aspects is of course the various legends and fairytales throughout the books, but storytelling in general. Whether it’s a character telling a legend within the book or Arden herself telling the story of Vasya, the language and narrative are just so stunning that I couldn’t help but sink into the pages.

Originally I didn’t pick up this series as it was always on the romance table, and whilst I love a bit of romance every now and then it just didn’t seem to stand out to me. A colleague however told me that she adored it, and as soon as I knew it was a historical reimagining set in Russia with folklore and fairytales I was in. It was a relief that the third book came out so soon after I picked up the first one, as I’m not sure I could have waited for each new instalment.

So to all of you who are looking for a new series – this is the one to pick up, as the trilogy is completely published! Rejoice for not having to wait for the sequel! If you’re a fan of fantasy I’m sure you’d love it, and for those who are new to fantasy or who don’t read fantasy, this is the perfect book to dip your toes into the magical worlds. It’s a wonderful blend of historical fiction with fantastical elements, and the lush language and wintery atmosphere are ideal for this time of year. It’s enchanting, to put it simply. I can’t recommend it enough.

November Reading Wrap Up

The further I get into the year, the harder I find writing these wrap ups. You know the drill, I read three books, they were great, they were as follows:

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – a book that I read years ago, but had no recollection of the vast majority of. All I could remember was that there was a girl who went to live with adopted parents, a woman who called her Saumensch, Death is the narrator, and the setting is World War II. I’m so glad that I decided to pick this one up again and reread, because there was so much that I didn’t remember and characters that I fell in love with all over again. A true classic that I think everyone should read, even if it’s only to read a book where you have a narrator almost more interesting than everything else that’s happening.

The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward – I picked this book up because I was going on a short holiday away and needed a light book to take with me (along with The Book Thief, which I was so close to finishing). I had no idea what this book was about before I started, and I’m actually very glad that I didn’t. This is memoir that is part prose, part verse about childhood, growing up, and the bonds of family. I read this in a few sittings, and could have done it in fewer had I not chosen to take breaks. A really engaging, powerful read.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden – now this is the kind of book I adore. Sweeping fantasy tangled up with historical fiction, with beautifully written prose, fantastical creatures, and a great plot. Set in the wintery wilderness of Russia, this story follows the grandchild of a woman who was called a witch and appeared from the woods. You follow her along with various other characters she encounters as an old evil gathers strength near by.

I set a goal of reading 45 books this year, and currently I’m at 40 – whether I can read 5 in December who knows, but we’ll see what happens…

September Reading Wrap Up

Well, September was quite the month. I read what will most likely be one of my favourite books of 2018 – possibly two of my favourite books of 2018 – along with a book that has taken me over a year to finish. Halfway through the month I thought I’d only finish 2 books, and it got to the end of the month and I somehow realised that I’d read far more than anticipated.

The first book I finished in the month of September was an 800+ page beast of a book, The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon. Thanks to very good friends and the lovely world of publishing, I managed to get my hands on an early review copy. As we all know, I adore all things fantasy and dragons – and this tome did not disappoint. Sweeping landscapes, extensive character lists, and intricately intertwined plots made this standalone epic a true delight. I truly hope that Shannon has a chance to write more in this world, as it’s probably the first 800+ page book that I’ve ever finished and wished for more. Highly recommend to any fantasy lovers, or those looking for a fresh, feminist take on typical fantastical tropes found in legends and lore.

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The next book I read was On Writing by Stephen King – an unexpected gem. I’ve been desperately trying to get back into a good writing habit, and thought a little bit of non-fiction writing wisdom from one of the greats might inspire some motivation in me. This book did that and more – it told the story of how Stephen King became, well, Stephen King, along with the tools and habits that he picked up on the way. There are snippets of advice, hints, and tricks to guide you on your way, along with incredibly poignant and moving episodes and anecdotes that came as a complete surprise to me. I found myself wanting to highlight passages like it was a textbook I needed to study, and now that I’ve finished it I know I’ll be dipping back into its pages to try and unlock even more.

Then came the book that I’ve been literally reading for over a year. It’s no secret that I’ve been trying to get through the Harry Potter books on audiobook, and I was enjoying listening to them so much that I thought it would help me get through other, very different, titles. After finishing The Order of the Phoenix, I decided to listen to something else before continuing my listening journey with Harry and the gang – what a mistake. A year and several months after starting, I have finally finished listening to 36 hours of Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I can’t quite collect my thoughts on this book just yet, so thrilled I am to be finished, but it is finally, finally, over. Goodbye Esther and Jarndyce, it’s been quite a ride.

The last book I finished this month was a sequel I never thought I’d get to a book I never thought could get better – Vengeful by V.E Schwab. Honestly, Vicious was one of my favourite books when I read it, an incredible reimagining of the Frankenstein myth in a new, superhero format with dark edges, twisting plots, and brilliant characters. Vengeful was like Vicious at 100 miles per hour. The characters were even better, with new characters that definitely fit the current mood of the world where all women want to burn everything to the ground (which is exactly what we got with Marcella). Schwab has a great way of setting up lots of different plot lines and little details, some that she’ll use later and some that she won’t, and drawing all of them together in a huge, climactic finale that has you reeling. Beautifully written, gripping all the way through – it is no surprise that I finished this book in just a few sittings.

And that was my September. It’s going to be a struggle to top it in October, but I suppose with the cold nights drawing in and the increase in evenings spent curled up in blankets with candles lit, I’m sure I’ll get some good reading in.

August Reading Wrap Up

Plot twist: I did not read four books this month, like every other month. I read fewer books, but in my opinion more pages as last night I finished an 800+ page fantasy book that I adored – stay tuned until next month to find out what that was, or just look at my Instagram where I’ve already told everyone about it.

The first book in August that I finished was the incredibly powerful and moving Almost Love by Louise O’Neill. This is my third book by this author, and I still don’t know how I don’t seem to realise beforehand that, like all of her other books, this one would also wreck me in its own, gutting way. In some ways this one was similar to Asking for It, in the way that the main character isn’t immediately ‘likeable’. She’s a tough character to stick with, I’ll give you that, but mainly because you’re watching a woman who has been abused push everyone she loves away – and the worst part is, something you see from page 1, is that they let her. This is a story split into two narratives – the present, and the past. In the past you watch the main character in a ‘relationship’ with an older man, and in the present you see how the abuse from that affects her still, especially with her current partner. I didn’t read this quickly because I felt it difficult to read in long periods of time – not because it was a bad book, more the opposite. It was so well written, so poignant and close to real life that I found it difficult to stay in that ‘world’ for long.

After that tornado, I went to my happy place: fantasy with dragons. This time I picked up Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman – I read Seraphina a few months ago and really enjoyed it as a very differently written fantasy. Tess of the Road was no exception, but this time I far preferred the main character and her journey. Tess, our heroine, is sister to Seraphina – but unlike her esteemed sister, Tess is the opposite. From a past mistake, she is a disgrace to her family and destined to forever be a nun or a maid to her sister. One day, she decides to take a risk and runs away from home to find her own happiness elsewhere. A really enjoyable read, this was exactly the kind of book that I was after following the heartbreak from Louise O’Neill gave me.

The last book I finished in August was Fen by Daisy Johnson. This was an unexpected book, one that was sensual, dynamic, and pointed – far closer to the themes of Almost Love than Tess of the Road, for sure. Haunting as much as it was illuminating, this short story collection shows the contrast between the routine, everyday life and dark, magical wild that lives close by. I read a review of this that talked about the themes of Otherness, desire, and loss – and that’s exactly what these stories encapsulate in every line. It is twisted, dark, and exists on a very different plane. Some stories I loved, others I struggled with, but overall really enjoyed the full experience.

And that was my August. Unlike last month, I’m sat here in a jumper not even thinking about ice cream, so it definitely feels like Autumn is on it’s way. Although I’m sad to see the hot sun leave once more, I can’t wait to bundle up in scarves and jumpers, light candles every evening, and restock my bath bomb supply – and, of course, read some fantastic books.

 

July Reading Wrap Up

Every time I try to sit down and write this wrap up, I keep having to abandon all progress I make because it’s too bloody hot to be sitting down with a laptop and all I really want to do is lie in the shade with an ice cream. But, here I am, ready to bash out this wrap up post in a prompt fashion so I can go back to finding ways to keep cool.

It seems my average books per month this year is the nice, even number 4, and July was no different. I was off to a flying start in this month because I picked up a fantasy novel I’d been meaning to read for a while, which only fed my fantasy addiction so I picked up another straight after. The first was Beyond a Darkened Shore by Jessica Leake, a fantasy set in a historical Ireland where the main threat consisted of Nordic Viking invaders. You follow the heroine Ciara, who has strange and powerful gifts to control the minds of people in battle, as she is forced to partner up with her enemy to defeat a greater threat. There are great elements to this story, blending two different folklores such as The Morrigan with Norse Mythology, and doing it very well. I loved the opening chapters, with these engaging storylines and well paced plot – any book with Norse mythology in it will obviously keep me very happy, but I think there was definitely more that could be done.

On the whole, the book was paced well, but scenes towards the end seemed cut short – a huge battle that is essentially the ‘boss fight’ lasted no more than two or three pages. And let’s be honest, I love a good bit of romance and I liked the two leads, but I was the complete opposite of invested which isn’t exactly what you’d expect from a fun fantasy adventure. Overall a good book and a fun read, but definitely think there was more room for development – especially in the second half of the story.

Whilst I was still in the high of whizzing through that fantasy, I dived straight into Onyx and Ivory by Mindee Arnett. And, again, I finished this in two or three days. A really enjoyable, quick read – which was exactly what I wanted from it. For me, I think whilst I did enjoy the book it definitely needed some more worldbuilding and explaining of magic systems, religions, and the actual reasoning behind some parts of the story. There are also more YA fantasy cliches and tropes than you know what to do with, which can be a bit of a slog if you’re fed up with similar plot ‘twists’ and character traits. I’m hopeful that the world will develop more in the sequels, and maybe the following books will give answers to elements not covered in the first book. Overall, I found it gripping up until the last quarter, where the end felt forced and rushed. Still, I would recommend for a light, fun read if you’re not too worried about large world building elements and rich detail.

Deciding that I needed to make sure July wasn’t a fantasy-a-thon, the next book I picked up was I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell. Wow, is all I can really say. An incredible memoir of Maggie’s near-death experiences, from reckless childhood behaviour to illness to giving birth. There are accounts of encounters with strange men on deserted paths, being robbed on holiday, and ending with protecting her daughter from a condition that leaves her vulnerable to the world around her, for who the book is written for. I honestly could have read this all in one sitting, but it was the perfect book to read on the tube, dipping into one episode after the next on each journey. A truly fantastic, powerful read.

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Finally in July, I ended on a bit of a slog with The Idiot by Elif Batuman. Despite all the acclaims, praise, and recommendations, I just couldn’t get into this one. I really struggled to pick it up and read, and so ended up talking half the month just to finish it. In comparison to the fantasy I read, this was the exact opposite where I had to force myself to find time to read it, and felt like I’d read 50 pages when I’d barely got through 10. It is very well written, but unfortunately wasn’t for me.

And that was my July! Four books, all memorable and different in their own ways. I’m on track for my Goodreads reading target for the year, but since leaving working at a bookshop my TBR pile has really shrunk – hurrah! This means I’m on the hunt for reading recommendations, so if you have any definitely let me know. I’m also on the hunt for a proof of Samantha Shannon’s new book The Priory of the Orange Tree, but I have a feeling I’ll have to wait a long while for that one.

June Reading Wrap Up

June is always the month I look forward to the most. In my mind, June is the perfect month – halfway through the year, not too far in that you can’t change how the year is going and also far enough that whatever you’ve done so far doesn’t mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. June is summer, sun, beaches, lazy mornings, salads for lunch that you actually choose to have because anything warm is a huge ‘no no’. For me, June also means my birthday, again perfectly in the middle so I have a little wait when it hits June 1st but also not too long. Most importantly, June is the month for sitting outside with a book, jumping from reading in the sun to scurrying back to the shade because your poor, english skin is unused to such weather.

This June, I did pretty darn well when it came to books – and I base that solely on the first book that I read, no, that I conquered, because ‘read’ is too light a word for completing the masterpiece that is American Gods by Neil Gaiman. WHAT a book. It’s been on my TBR so long that I almost don’t recognise the list without that title on there. An incredible re-imagining of what ancient gods would be like in the 21st century, and which new gods have been created to worship over time. This in a fantastic road-trip esque romp through the US, leading to the battle between old and new – with plenty of twists and turns throughout. Gaiman once again proving to be an incredible storytelling.

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After that, I was very easily swayed by a lot of friends in my decision to pick up HeartburnI by Nora Ephron. This was an unexpected gem, and one that I truly enjoyed. Bound in the new Virago Classic covers, this gorgeous looking book is, as the author prefaces, a novel/memoir/nonfiction/fiction journey. An examination of the days around the fallout of her second marriage, Nora tells the story with new names and a few reimaginings, but at the heart is Nora herself. The more I try to describe it, the worse I become at explaining exactly what this book does, but I recommend it all the same.

Whilst I like to think of June months as hot moments in the sun reading, the truth is I spend most of my week at work and do most of my reading on my commute. As I’m sure many can relate, the tube is so disgustingly unbearable in summer that trying to focus on some lovely chunky book that you can sink into, I can barely concentrate on a few lines before thinking ‘god, it’s bloody hot in here’. This is why the next two books I decided to read were two more of the Penguin Modern Mini Classics.

The first I decided to pick up was The Skeleton’s Holiday by Leonora Carrington. A small bind-up of some of her very short stories, this was an enjoyable read and perfect for dipping in and out of. They made me think of small vignettes rather than explored ideas, just a glimpse of a story without more meat to it, but enjoyable all the same. A couple I truly loved and would read again, but others definitely felt like they went straight over my head.

The second mini, and last book I read in June, was The Missing Girl by Shirley Jackson. If I quite liked The Skeleton’s Holiday, then I absolutely loved The Missing Girl. This has definitely convinced me to pick up a Shirley Jackson, and I definitely plan to do so when Halloween is approaching later on this year. Creepy and unsettling, this different stories were all expertly told and addictive, ones that you just have to devour (before they devour you).

And that was my June! July is already off to a flying start for me, mainly because I started off with a couple of fantasy books to get my reading juices flowing again, so I look forward to telling you all about them next month.