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…