Books: All the Birds, Singing

18142324All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
Published April 15, 2014
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All the Birds, Singing is not a bad book, it’s just emphatically not my cup of tea. While I appreciated the author’s atmospheric setting and the way she plays with gender roles, I was ultimately put off by the graphic depictions of animal deaths, and found the ending confusing and unsatisfying.

The novel centers around Jake Whyte, a sheep farmer who lives in self-imposed isolation on a rugged British island with only a flock of sheep and a collie named “Dog” for company. When someone, or something, begins to pick off her sheep, Jake’s search for the culprit brings her into contact with her neighbours, and forces her to confront the mysterious past she’s been running from. Jake’s past is slowly revealed in flashback chapters that occur in reverse chronological order to answer questions such as why is Jake estranged from her family? And how did she come to have the scars on her back?

Wyld is at her most effective in creating an atmospheric setting, that highlights the vague sense of unease underlying the book. The craggy coast feels appropriately desolate, and reflects Jake’s state of being. I also really liked the dynamic between Jake and the stranger who becomes a part of her life, Lloyd. She gives him a place to stay and he, in turn, provides help with tasks on the farm. The development of their friendship feels patient and organic, as it has to be when Jake has been living a self-sufficient existence and carries baggage from her past.

The gender dynamics at play in the novel are also really interesting. All the Birds, Singing was this month’s choice for the book club I’m in. Interestingly enough it reminded me of our last read, American War, in that they both play with gender roles. Jake has a more masculine build, and goes by a typically male name. She works manual labor jobs, including shearing sheep. When Lloyd arrives in her life, he tidies the farmhouse and sets a welcoming blaze in the fireplace while she tends to the sheep.

Equal parts literary fiction and thriller, All the Birds, Singing is definitely outside my genre comfort zone. Here’s the thing: I don’t read a lot of literary fiction to begin with, but when I love a work of literary fiction, it usually has flowing, moving prose, and delves deeply into the minds of its characters. All the Birds, Singing doesn’t tick either box. Wyld tries to provide insight into Jake’s mind, and even writes using a first-person perspective, but because Jake is so closed off and the narrative keeps her at arm’s length from the reader in order to slowly reveal her past, I don’t think it really succeeds. Wyld also writes with shorter, more concise and contemporary prose than I typically prefer from a work of literary fiction.

I wasn’t expecting All The Birds, Singing to be so blunt in its depictions of both sex and animal slaughter. The off-putting and not at all romanticized descriptions of sex fit the story Wyld’s telling, but I found the descriptions of animal death to be unnecessarily brutal.

Without spoiling anything, this is the sort of book where I read the last page (without knowing it was the last page since there were a few left for acknowledgements), flipped to the next page and thought, ‘oh, that was it.’ It ends very abruptly and without a lot of answers, which I found deeply unsatisfying.

Just because the book doesn’t fit my personal preferences doesn’t mean it won’t appeal to other readers though. All the Birds, Singing appears to be a divisive work, and I suspect others will get more out of it than I did.

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The End of the Year Book Tag

Like Rachel, I’ve seen this tag going around and thought it looked like a really fun way to look back on the year so far and glance ahead to 2018 in books.

I wasn’t specifically tagged for it, so I won’t tag anyone in return, but if you feel like doing this please pingback so I can read your answers!

Are there any books you started this year that you need to finish?

I’m pretty up-to-date with my reading for this year actually! I’m currently reading War and Peace in a group read that includes Rachel and Hadeer, so my first priority is finishing that off, but I’m targeting end of October to finish the book so I’ll be done by the end of the year.

Do you have an autumnal book to transition into the end of the year?

I don’t at the moment, but I’ve been toying with the idea of reading King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett, which is a take on the historical Macbeth. Not explicitly autumnal, but I associate Macbeth with Halloween and fall. We’ll see, I might need a break from denser reads after War and Peace!

Is there a new release you’re still waiting for?

I’m on the library holds list for Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng at the moment. I LOVED Everything I Never Told You, and I’ve been similarly positive reviews for this book, so I can’t wait to read it! Also, I’ve heard good buzz about That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E.K. Johnston and have been told that it’s up my alley so I’m looking forward to that, which I think is released sometime in October.

What are three books you want to read before the end of the year?

Besides the books I’ve already mentioned in this post, Vale Aida published the second part of her The Magpie Ballads duology, titled Swansong, so I’m looking forward to reading that. It’s a really excellent fantasy series that definitely draws inspiration from Dorothy Dunnett, so right up my alley! I currently have The Good People by Hannah Kent in transit from another branch of my public library, and I loved her other book, Burial Rites, so this should be a good read. Finally I’ll pretty much read anything Leigh Bardugo writes at this point I am such a fan of her writing, so I can’t wait to get into Language of Thorns.

Is there a book you think could still shock you and become your favorite book of the year?

Hmm I’m not sure! You never know, and I haven’t figured out all of my reading for the next few months anyway so things might change. I don’t have a far and away leader of the pack yet either. So far I think Pachinko, A Conjuring of Light, A Closed & Common Orbit, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, and The Bear and the Nightingale are in the mix.

Have you already started making reading plans for 2018?

Only slightly. I’ve been feeling the itch that occurs every few years to re-read Dorothy Dunnett’s The Lymond Chronicles, my favourite series of all time, and I think I’ve managed to convince Steph, Hadeer, and Rachel, who have never read the series, to read along with me, so that has me very excited! Otherwise I’ve bought a lot of books recently, many used ones that I was looking for copies of, but still, so I’d like to devote some of 2018 to reading books that I already own and clearing out my bookshelves a little.

T5W: Favourite Fancasts

Although it was a lot of fun to put together, I actually found this week’s Top Five Wednesday topic, Favourite Fancasts, quite the challenge! Although I can quite easily create casts for a ballet version of a favourite book, or cast stage actors for a fictional musical adaptation, I had trouble coming up with film/TV casting for some of my favourite books. I’ve put together a list (by book/series) of some of my top choices though.

Top Five Wednesday is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Want to join in the fun? Check out the goodreads group!

1) Luke Newberry as Kell Maresh
(The Shades of Magic series by V.E. Schwab)

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I feel like there are two types of fancasts. There are the ‘oh you know who would be great in this role? so-and-so!’ You’d like to see them play the role and you believe that they would be great, but it wouldn’t break your heart if there was an adaptation and another actor was cast instead. Then there are the other kind. The kind of fancast where an actor is SO RIGHT for a character that it’s hard to picture anyone else in the role. Luke Newberry is this second kind for me.

Physically he fits the role well. He’s English, in his twenties, and has a fair, slender, red-haired appearance. We know he’s fine with wearing contacts in order to portray Kell’s mismatched Antari eyes because Newberry wore contacts frequently when he played PDS (Partially Deceased Syndrome) sufferer Kieran Walker on (the excellent drama) In The Flesh. Most importantly though, his acting on the show was brilliant and has some similarities to our beloved Kell Maresh. Kieran is an outsider, alienated from others in his village initially due to his sexuality and then by his condition as a re-animated person. His  worries and past deeds weigh on him heavily, meaning Luke Newberry has a perpetual furrowed brow on the show and can scowl with the best of them, perfect for serious Kell. And Kieran eventually stands up against those who seek to oppress his kind and becomes more confident with who he is as a person. His acting in this show is brilliant and I honestly can’t picture anyone else as Kell anymore!

2) Eddie Redmayne as Felix Harrowgate and Jamie Bell as Mildmay
(Doctrine of Labyrinths by Sarah Monette)

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jamie-bell-turn-2   mildmay

When I saw the Jupiter Ascending trailer for the first time I had two thoughts – what the Hell is this? and OMG it’s Felix! Sarah Monette’s criminally underappreciated Doctrine of Labyrinths series is told primarily from the perspective of two protagonist half-brothers, dramatic, gay wizard Felix Harrowgate, and laconic, gruff but inwardly sensitive thief Mildmay.

Tall and handsome with red hair, pale skin, and mismatched eyes (one yellow, one blue), Felix is a member of the court, well-dressed, and impossible to ignore. I can think of no one better suited for the role than Eddie Redmayne circa his Jupiter Ascending days. Felix is the kind of part that requires a balance between camp and genuine emotion, as he is charming, but is also capable of cruelty, even towards those he loves. I think Eddie Redmayne would be an ideal choice.

As Mildmay, I’d cast Jamie Bell (pictured in Turn). Mildmay and Felix have a striking resemblance that leads them to discover that they’re actually half-brothers. How appropriate then that I sometimes mix Bell and Redmayne up! Mildmay is one of my favourite fictional characters. Short, but strong, he moves with grace (perfect for an actor who once starred in Billy Elliot!) and is also fair and red-haired, but has a long scar down one side of his face. I feel like Bell’s more compact build and sharper features, yet physical similarity to Eddie Redmayne would make him a great choice for the role. I feel like Jamie Bell is one of those actors who is really very good, but is either not cast in, or isn’t choosing the best parts to show off what he can do. Mildmay would definitely give him a chance to shine.

3) Alfie Enoch as Maia
(The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison)

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Alfie Enoch seem to have this eternal vaguely clueless, puppy-dog look to him. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the first season or so (before things got especially dark) as Wes in How To Get Away With Murder. Add some prosthetics and makeup and he would be absolutely perfect for Maia, the lonely, mixed-race character in exile who becomes emperor when his estranged family die in a mysterious accident. What I loved so much about this book was how nice Maia is. Literally all he wants are to have a friendship or two and to make things better for everyone. It’s impossible not to love Maia as he tries to muddle through complicated court intrigues alone. I’m convinced that the utterly adorable Alfie Enoch would be perfect for this role.

4) Amandla Stenburg as Syenite and Harold Perrineau as Alabaster
(The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin)

photo-2-copy_67_orig   harold-perrineau

I haven’t decided on picks for The Fifth Season‘s other two narrators, Damaya and Essun, but even though she may be a little on the young side, I’d love to see Amandla take on snarky and headstrong Syenite as she becomes a confident and talented young woman and finds love. For the older orogene Alabaster, who is described initially as older than 40, with black so dark it’s almost blue skin, and tightly-curled hair, I think Harold Perrineau would be a good fit, capable of showing both vulnerability and irritation.

If you thought I could make it through a T5W without including The Lymond Chronicles, well then you are wrong! This is my favourite book series of all-time, which means I have a lot of thoughts on who I would cast in major roles. Unfortunately for Francis Crawford of Lymond himself, I have to cheat a little, because I would need a time machine to make either of these castings work!

5) Tom Hiddleston OR Peter O’Toole as Francis Crawford
(The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett)

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So this was Richard’s brother. Every line of him spoke, palimpsest-wise with two voices. The clothes, black and rich, were vaguely slovenly; the skin sun-glazed and cracked; the fine eyes slackly lidded; the mouth insolent and self-indulgent.

When I read The Lymond Chronicles for the first time in 2012, The Hollow Crown miniseries was still fresh in my memory and Tom Hiddleston in Henry IV became my indisputable headcanon for Francis Crawford. For so many reasons, Hiddleston seemed a perfect fit. Physically his long fingers, fair hair, thin mouth, blue eyes, and slender build are all appropriate. Hiddleston is a mimic who seems to enjoy (and does a passable job at) different accents, including Scottish and Irish (I wonder how his Spanish is). He even has Scottish heritage! The actor enjoys Shakespeare, meaning the sometimes dense language in Dunnett wouldn’t throw him off. Five years ago Hiddleston was on the older end of the spectrum to play this character, but could have pulled it off. Now, unfortunately, I think he’s a little too old for the role, but oh if I had a time machine! Regardless, I desperately want him to voice the audiobooks of this series, how perfect would that be?!

Peter O’Toole circa his Lawrence of Arabia days was the author’s imagined dreamcasting for her famous character. When I finally watched the film (for Lymond reasons, of course) I felt like I understood so much more about the way Dunnett had written Francis Crawford. The deliberate choice to describe Francis’ hair not as blond but as “yellow”, his “cornflower blue” “heavy-lidded” eyes, and of course the melodic timbre of his voice. All of that is in Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence. If I had a time machine and could bring forth a young Peter O’Toole he would be excellent in the role.

Kathryn Winnick OR Natalie Dormer as Marthe

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“A girl far younger than Kiaya Khatun, with high cheekbones and open blue eyes, set far apart; with a patrician nose, its profile scooped just less than straight. The face of a Della Robbia angel, set in gleaming hair, golden as a Jupiter’s shower.”

Marthe is described as having a such a physical resemblance to Francis that the similarity is striking enough to be uncomfortable. Importantly, Marthe is also a badass and has to look like she could kill you and you would enjoy it. Kathryn Winnick is superbly in control as Lagertha in Vikings, and Natalie Dormer’s smirk is just perfect for the bitter Marthe. Either of these women would be wonderful but Winnick is the better physical match for Tom Hiddleston and is capable of an ice queen demeanor that makes her my top choice for the role.

Sarah Bolger as Philippa Somerville

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Philippa is probably my favourite character in the series, and I feel like the charming Sarah Bolger, pictured here in period-appropriate clothing thanks to her role as Mary Tudor in The Tudors, would be a splendid choice to play this Queen of my heart.

Aidan Turner as Jerott Blyth

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“Blyth himself, his handsome black head bent, his only ornament the gold ring belonging to the dead girl he was to have married, looked distant and unlike the intelligent, talented and spectacularly wild young gentleman he had been.”

This one came to me recently, but now I can’t get it out of my head! Jerott Blyth is dark and handsome, but also incredibly stubborn, repressed, and not the sharpest tool in the shed. I haven’t actually seen Poldark, but I’m definitely a fan of Aidan Turner’s from Being Human UK and Desperate Romantics. He can brood with the best of them, and would be an excellent companion for Francis.

Holiday Grainger as Joleta and Michael Fassbender OR Arnie Hammer as Graham Reid Malett

original    6024aa0d5b2e4b87690ff2de3d21d490    2015 Vanity Fair Oscar Party Hosted By Graydon Carter - Arrivals

This is another time-machine cast since I think they’re all getting on a bit to play these roles. Graham Reid Malett appears on the scene as a match for Lymond’s mind and talents. Handsome and tall, with guinea gold hair, I can see either Michael Fassbender or Arnie Hammer playing the role well. I think I’ll always picture apricot-haired Joleta Reid-Malett as Holliday Grainger from The Borgias.

Eddie Redmayne as Will Scott and Amy Manson as Christian Stewart

223b1ce7bc072b3892b3221ffe59cbe2-les-mis-movie-the-movie    amymanson

He was a graceful creature, with fair skin and a thatch of carroty curls

Comely and tall, with hair of fine dark red and a decisive air to her, she was pleasant and positive to talk to, and it was impossible to tell that she was blind from birth.

I won’t hijack the entire post for Lymond, but I can also strongly picture Eddie Redmayne (the only actor to appear on my list twice) as Will Scott, although he’s again perhaps five years too old at this point. Will Scott is rash and young, joining a band of outlaws because, despising hypocrisy, he admires the band’s consistency in professing no virtue and being exactly as bad as they say they are. Is he a bit of an idiot? Yes, absolutely, but there’s something lovable about Will Scott nonetheless, particularly since the first book in the series, The Game of Kings, is largely viewed through his eyes. I hold an almost Marius Pontmercy affection for the character, and can definitely see Redmayne (an excellent Marius in the Les Miserables movie) doing ‘Marigold’ justice. I’ve had Scottish actress Amy Manson in mind for blind, good Christian Stewart ever since her Desperate Romantics days and I remain convinced that she would be an excellent choice.

Surprise, surprise this week’s Top 5 Wednesday more or less dissolved into fancasting for Lymond, but hopefully it was still an interesting read! If you’ve read some of these books, what do you think of my fancasting choices? Who are your choices this week?

I Dare You Book Tag

I was tagged by Hadeer for this I Dare You Book Tag and it looked like a huge amount of fun, so here I go. Thanks for the tag Hadeer!

RULES:
You must be honest
You must answer all the questions
You must tag at least 4 people

1. What book has been on your shelf the longest?

I have a shelf of childhood favourites that I can’t bring myself to part with, so probably either Brian Jacques’ Redwall, which I read when I was 9 or 10, Lloyd Alexander’s The Prydain Chronicles, or Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles.

2. What is your current read, your last read, and the book you’ll read next?

I’m currently working my way slowly through War & Peace (Briggs translation), and at all of 1300+ pages, I’m going to be doing so for awhile! Over the weekend I finished N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky, the last book in her Broken Earth trilogy and it was every bit as excellent as I hoped it would be. Next up for me is John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, because Rachel rec’ed it!

3. What book did everyone like, but you hated?

Two equally heinous science-fiction blockbusters written by men – Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest, which was appallingly misogynistic and yet nominated for a Hugo Award??? and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, also pretty misogynistic with the female character getting fridged in the first forty pages to further the male character’s manpain, and very derivative. If Michael Bay wrote a book, it would be Red Rising. Yet it’s immensely popular, go figure. I didn’t hate Naomi Novik’s Uprooted but I’m completely baffled by the hype it got and the award nominations. I liked it, but didn’t find it very original or engaging, and I would have preferred that a relationship between the main character and her female friend to what the novel gives us instead.

4. What book do you keep telling yourself you’ll read, but you probably won’t?

I have half a shelf full of non-fiction books, biographies mostly, that I keep meaning to read but I just prefer fiction and find it really hard to engage with non-fiction to the same extent, even when it’s well-written. I tried and failed to make it through the Hamilton biography, the John Adams biography by McCullough biography, as well as a really interesting looking one on Pitt the Younger’s eccentric niece, Lady Hester Stanhope. Maybe one day I’ll be in a non-fiction mood. Maybe.

5. What book are you saving for retirement?

Not deliberately saving for retirement, but generally the larger fantasy series, like Sanderson’s works or Erickson’s that require setting aside several months to really delve into.

6. Last page: read it first, or wait ’til the end?

Generally wait ’til the end. I never flip to the very last page, but sometimes when I’m extremely anxious about a character’s fate or a particular scene, my eyes will jump down the page looking for reassurance, or a warning if bad things are to come for this character. So I’m not completely spoiler adverse, and I’d prefer to know in vague terms that something is likely to make me emotional and I should not read it in public, since I do a lot of commute reading. Kind souls warned me about Lymond book 4 so I could save the last 100 pages for the weekend, ditto A Little Life, because I was just BROKEN after reading them.

7. Acknowledgement: waste of paper and ink, or interesting aside?

I enjoy reading acknowledgements! The Captive Prince ones the author even thanks everyone by username who commented back in the Livejournal days, and yes my name’s in there which is pretty cool!

8. Which book character would you switch places with?

I feel like the characters I love the most tend to be the ones who go through the most pain, which I would like to avoid… Can I be a spectator watching the element tournament in A Gathering of Shadows? Because that would be cool. Otherwise, maybe Princess Cimorene in The Enchanted Forest Chronicles. I think she’s braver than I could ever be, but I like the idea of learning a bit of everything, including magic, making cherries jubilee, latin, and fencing. Oh, or Morwen in the same book. A witch with lots of cats!

9. Do you have a book that reminds you of something specific in your life? (Place, time, person?)

I have a few, but I think the most important, and the I’d grab this if my apartment was on fire, is my copy of The Brick, Les Miserables. After I read the unabridged version, I brought it with me to London in 2011 and although I failed in my quest to get ultimate Enjolras David Thaxton (who I had seen in 2009) to sign it at the Love Never Dies stage door (he’s tall and he’s fast and I wasn’t crazy enough to chase him down the block or yell after him), I did get my copy signed by my favourite actor to play the role of Jean Valjean, Jonathan Williams, who was lovely. More recently though, the Toronto cast of my favourite show was so fabulous, I saw them 7 times in 5 months, and over multiple occasions I asked a bunch of the cast to sign my book, even pre-marking certain passages for actors who I particularly loved in their roles, like Melissa O’Neil (Eponine), Mark Uhre (Enjolras), Perry Sherman (Marius, who in true Marius form signed the page opposite the one I asked him to), Andrew Love (u/s Javert), Aaron Walpole (alternate Valjean), and Jon Winsby (Courfeyrac, who laughed at the fact that I wanted him to sign the “he looked completely idiotic” part because he had ad-libbed “Marius, I’m about to lose my lunch” in the ABC Cafe). I have a lot of fond memories of standing outside the stage door in the middle of a particularly brutal Canadian winter in tights clutching my Brick, and it means a lot to me.

10. Name a book that you acquired in an interesting way.

I have a whole shelf full of books (a lot of Jacqueline Carey, but also some other fantasy books, and two of the Doctrine of Labyrinths series by Sarah Monette) that a friend brought (I had asked to borrow something from her – not sure what!) over in tote bags because she was going to New Zealand for awhile. Well, she loved New Zealand so much that she never came back, so I got to keep the books!

11. Have you ever given a book away for a special reason to a special person?

Not given. I’ve lent things to friends and some have come back and a few haven’t. I’m definitely keeping my eyes peeled in used bookstores for an extra copy of The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett that I can conveniently leave with Rachel when I see her next month though (so far I’ve found three of the other Lymond books, but not the one I’m looking for alas!) …

12. Which book has been with you most places?

Geographically, it’s Les Miserables again! I’ve dragged my copy to London (twice!), and to New York City, carried it to and from work and shows, and it moved to fake London (London, Ontario) with me when I went to grad school.

13. Any “required reading” you hated in high school that wasn’t so bad two years later?

My opinions on high school “required reading” pretty much stayed the same. I hated Tess of the D’Urbervilles in high school and I continued to hate it in a Victorian Lit class 3 years later. I loved To Kill A Mockingbird and Fahrenheit 451 and they both stood up to recent re-reads. I gained a greater appreciation of Shakespeare after taking a university course with a really great professor, but even then the plays I liked most remained the same (King Lear and Much Ado About Nothing).

14. Used or brand new?

Both! I’m lucky enough to live in a city that has some great used bookstores and I love browsing the three-level BMV in particular. I tend to only buy either new releases by an author I know I love, or new releases I can’t wait for, and I otherwise buy “keeper copies”, meaning books I’ve read once, loved, and know I will want to read again in the future, so scouring used bookstores for keeper copies is fun. I do love new book smell and the unblemished appearance of a new book just waiting to be read though.

15. Have you ever read a Dan Brown book?

Yep! I read and enjoyed at the time The Da Vinci Code. I enjoyed Angels and Demons even more. By the time The Lost Symbol came out I had pretty much moved on, but I enjoyed it as a light read. He may have written more since, I honestly can’t remember, but I haven’t read them anyway. I don’t think anyone who missed the great Dan Brown craze is missing out by not reading his works.

16. Have you ever seen a movie you liked more than the book?

I feel like this is a question that gets asked a lot, but yes, Brooklyn much improved on the decent but not great novel by Colm Tóibín. I felt like the pacing was really off and I didn’t connect with the book on an emotional level. Saoirse Ronan was really charming in the movie and I thought the bright colour palette added some interest to the story. Movie!Eilis was also a more interesting and stronger character imho.

17. Have you ever read a book that’s made you hungry, cookbooks included?

Gotta second Hadeer, GRRM is really descriptive about meals, and Game of Thrones definitely made me hungry at times!

18. Who is the person whose book advice you’ll always take?

Rachel @ pace amore libri may not read the same genres as me generally, but we’re weirdly exactly in sync on what we enjoy about books, what kinds of characters we like reading about, and the types of writing styles that appeal to us. I think we also have a really great idea of what the other person likes and what might not appeal to them as much.

Actually my mom is someone I almost always listen to when it comes to books. Left to her own devices she tends to read a lot of mysteries and lighter fare, but she’s found some great YA and fantasy books, and she’s the one I tend to thrust books at and say “read this!” On these books we almost always agree.

Finally, I feel like Hadeer @ Hadeer Writes and Steph @ Lost Purple Quill have tastes that are very similar to mine, so I would definitely put more weight on a recommendation from either of them!

19. Is there a book out of your comfort zone (e.g., outside your usual reading genre) that you ended up loving?

I really didn’t expect to enjoy In Cold Blood or Room, both selections for the book club I’m in, as much as I did! I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, and In Cold Blood was the first time I’d read true crime, so I didn’t have high hopes, but I found the writing style really engaging and beautiful. And with Room it was one I had been avoiding because of the subject matter, but it’s incredibly well structured. The decision to tell the story from the five-year-old boy’s perspective is brilliant, and just when the story inside the titular room is beginning to get tired, the story switches gears and looks at how Jack and his mother cope when they’re back in the outside world. I loved it. Also I usually hate war books. Two of my closest friends are really interested in non-fiction and in WWII and I couldn’t be any less interested in this time period, but I adored two WWII hist fic novels, All The Light We Cannot See and Code Name Verity.

I Tag:
Elise @ The Bookish Actress
Darque Dreamer Reads
Lorryn @ Reading Parental
Jess @ Reads and Dreams
Emily @ Embuhleelist

Top Ten Tuesday: A Book For Each Year Of My Twenties

In 2016, I turned the big 3-0. Milestone birthdays don’t usually have much of an impact on me, but 30 felt different. How weird it felt to be able to say “I’m in my thirties”! Big birthdays tend to be a time for reflecting on what you’ve accomplished so far and since this week’s Top 10 Tuesday topic is a Throwback Freebie, I’ve chosen to list a favourite Book For Each Year Of My Twenties.

Want to join in the fun? Head on over to Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and Bookish.

2006 (Age 20): Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

14497One of my favourite undergrad classes was Science Fiction & Fantasy. A chance to read sci-fi and fantasy lit and write about it for credit? Sign me up! The class had a fabulous professor (who did the gollum voice when he read aloud from Lord of the Rings!) and there were some great books on the reading list, including my introduction to Neil Gaiman’s works, Neverwhere. Even before I visited the city of London, I was charmed by Neverwhere. I love the idea of a London beneath that involves the subway system and found the story imaginative and whimsical. I loved every word of Neverwhere.

2007 (Age 21): Runaways by Brian K. Vaughan (Marvel)

7389In 2007, I walked into the local comic book store with one purpose: to purchase the first issue of the Buffy season eight, a canonical continuation of my favourite television show in comic book form. Joss Whedon had also just taken over writing for a book called Runaways, so I picked up his first issue as well as a digest version of the first several issues of the series. I continued to read the Buffy comics for awhile, but it was Runaways that had captured my heart. I devoured the rest of the series and impatiently awaited new issues. I fell in love with the diverse cast of characters that includes an African-American genius, a Japanese-American witch, a mutant pre-teen, a gay alien, a mutant, and an overweight sarcastic teenager telepathically linked to a genetically engineered dinosaur. The dialogue is snappy and filled with pop culture references, and I loved the concept – that a group of teenagers finds out their parents are actually evil supervillains and teams up to stop them. When the series was indefinitely placed on hiatus I was devastated. This fall Rainbow Rowell is writing a new set of stories about the characters I so love and a Runaways TV series is debuting on Hulu in November, so I can’t wait for more people to discover this series I love so much!

2008 (Age 22): Watchmen by Alan Moore (DC)

472331Confession time: I could not for the life of me figure out what I read in 2008! My goodreads account only dates to 2009, as does my current e-mail address, and I don’t keep a diary or any kind of hard copy record of what I’ve read. 2008 marked my last year of university, so I wasn’t reading much for pleasure and no course books jumped out at me. In desperation I ended up sifting through my (dozens of) Facebook statuses and posts from 2008 for clues! Despite the various cringeworthy statuses (“likes danishes” really ca. 2008 me?!) in the end I found what I was looking for, 2008 was the year I read Watchmen. Published by DC, the graphic novel is set an an alternate 1980s where the presence of superheroes has dramatically affected and altered the outcome of real world events, including the Vietnam War. Watchmen is a masterpiece of the comic medium. Grim and realistic, it features characters from the relatable Dan Dreiberg to the superhuman tall and blue Doctor Manhattan, and the end packs a punch I never saw coming.

2009 (Age 23): The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

186074One of the great things about working at Chapters, the major chain of Canadian bookstores, was meeting people who felt the same way as I did about books. Two of my fellow employees were also fans of fantasy fiction, and when the store wasn’t too busy and we were working at the same time, we held an impromptu fantasy book club, discussing which novels we had recently finished and loved. The Name of the Wind was one such book, read and loved by one of my co-workers and enthusiastically recommended to the rest of us. Sure enough, I fell in love with this book. I’m not sure what 31-year-old me would think of The Name of the Wind. I’ve read more widely now than I had at age 23, and even at the time I recognized some issues with the way female characters were written. But either way the prose is gorgeous and lyrical, the dialogue at times witty, there’s a clear love of literature and libraries here, and I love the description of the magic system. Despite its faults, this is a book worth reading.

2010 (Age 24): 1916 by Morgan Llewelyn

300944During university, one of my favourite courses was Irish History. I loved learning about the tumultuous and fascinating events that shaped the country, and eagerly sought out more. In 2009 I had the opportunity to visit Ireland, and spent about five weeks traveling around the country, so it’s only natural that I found Morgan Llewelyn’s Irish Century series of historical fiction novels. 1916, the first novel in the set, starts shortly after the sinking of the Titanic and covers the events of the Easter Rising, an armed rebellion in Dublin aimed at ending British rule in Ireland and establishing  an independent Irish Republic. What I love so much about the novels is that although they are fictionalized accounts, told from the perspective of a fictional main character, the books are incredibly well-researched and include historical figures who actually existed. If you’re looking to learn more about Irish history and enjoy historical fiction that gets the details right, this series is for you! By nature I’m more interested in the Easter Rising, the Civil War, and earlier Irish history so I found the first two books in the series held more interest for me than the later volumes (1949, 1972, 1999) but they’re all worth reading.

2011 (Age 25): Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

24280I’ve talked a lot about Les Miserables on this blog, including in last week’s Top Ten Tuesday, where I named it one of my Top Ten Books That Are Worth The Work, and here’s where it began. I’ve been a fan of the musical adaptation of Les Miserables since I was a little girl, but it wasn’t until age 25 where I read the unabridged novel (I had read a heavily abridged edition in high school). It was definitely a “project book” where I set a number of pages I would read a day and worked through it, but I also loved reading this book. Sure Hugo could have used an editor, but much of the prose is beautiful, the characters are sympathetic and engaging, and the events of the novel interesting enough to keep the plot moving. I conveniently timed this read so I finished Les Miserables in the Spring. That summer I went to see the musical in London and had my copy of the Brick signed by the actor playing the role of Valjean, who is still my favourite performer that I’ve seen in the role. My signed book remains a treasure on my shelf, and I’ve now also had it signed by many members of the Canadian cast of the musical.

2012 (Age 26): The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

112077Probably the only book I’ve talked about as much as, or more than, Les Miserables is The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett. The first in her six-book historical fiction epic The Lymond Chronicles sees Francis Crawford of Lymond returning (illegally) to his native Scotland. Upon his return, Lymond promptly flirts with his new sister-in-law, steals his mother’s jewels, gets a pig drunk, and sets his brother’s castle on fire… all in the first chapter! The series is dense, but the pay off is huge. Few things that come close to having the impact that Lymond has had on me. When I finished reading the series for the first time (in May or June 2013), the only way I could get rid of the book hangover was to re-read the entire series! I’ve managed to stay away for awhile now (this series is so addictive!!) but I’m planning on doing a re-read next year, so look forward to my nearly incoherent thoughts on that early next year!

2013 (Age 27): The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

10626594As a former “Horse Girl” it was preordained that I would fall for Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. I love everything about this series, from the atmospheric writing and the fictional rural British Isles-inspired setting, to the characters and the details of life on the island. I especially love that the horses themselves have personality and are as much characters in the book as the human figures. The idea of the dangerous but beautiful water horses and a high-stakes race immediately grabbed me, and I thought the stakes were raised enough for both of the main characters that I was tense and worried throughout about the outcome. This is one book that I will be re-reading for the rest of my life and I encourage any other horse girls, present or former, to do the same.

2014 (Age 28): Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner

SwordspointI have a strong suspicion that I picked this up because the author, Ellen Kushner, is an open admirer of Dorothy Dunnett’s work. I’m glad I did though, because Swordspoint is a wonderful novel. While it’s a sad commentary on the state of the SFF genre a few years ago, I remember reading about the student, Alec, and the swordsman Richard, and thinking through the first several pages that although it was not explicitly stated, it felt like there was a romantic relationship between these men. I was so conditioned by how rarely this occurs in mainstream literature that even though the dialogue and their interactions made me think the men were together, I didn’t fully believe it until the connection was more explicitly demonstrated. Fortunately even in the last few years I think the genre has made progress towards diversity, but Swordspoint, with its two male bisexual protagonists, is still a wonderful example in the genre. I ADORE Richard and Alec, they are an otp of mine for the ages, and Kushner creates an interesting world of manners and politics for them to inhabit.

2015 (Age 29): The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (pen name for Sarah Monette)

179100482014 was a fabulous year of reading for me, and there were a few choices I considered for my book of the year. Ultimately I went with Swordspoint not because I liked it more, but because I wanted some variety for my list and didn’t want to put the same author for two years in a row. I loved Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths series (which I read in 2014 for the first time), but I was also taken with The Goblin Emperor, a novel published under the pen name of Katherine Addison. The Goblin Emperor is unlike anything I have ever read before. A suspicious accident leaves Maia, the half-goblin youngest son who has been exiled from the court for most of his life, the rightful heir to the throne. Isolated and abused for most of his life, it would be so easy for this to be a story about getting revenge for those years. It would be easy to make Maia an anti-hero or an hier who instinctively knows what to do. Instead The Goblin Emperor is about a young man who is just trying to do the right thing. Lonely Maia tries to make friends with his staff, he listens to the desires of his subjects, he tries to understand the baffling political machinations of the court. Faced with an opportunity to take revenge, he forgives. I love an anti-hero as much as the next person, but it was so refreshing to read about someone who is just nice. The world building is also excellent and the book wholly unlike anything I have ever read, but it’s the characters and the kindness that make this a book I will thrust into just about anyone’s hands.

Have you read any of these? Let me know what you think of my choices in the comments!

Stage: King Lear (Shakespeare in High Park)

Lear

Shakespeare in the Park feels like a summer rite of passage. Every major city has at least one seasonal production of the Bard’s works, performed in an outdoor theater under the stars, and Toronto is no exception. Celebrating its 35th anniversary this season, Canadian Stage’s Shakespeare in High Park is a local institution. So it may be surprising to learn that until this year I was a Shakespeare in High Park virgin!

I’ve lived in Toronto for five years now and I’m still slowly working my way through essential Toronto experiences. I’ve visited the Island, the Beaches, waited in line for instagramable food, trekked out to Scarborough to see the Bluffs, and visited the Christmas Market in the Distillery District. Shakespeare in High Park has always been on this to-do list, but it took a female-fronted production of King Lear for me to finally make it to a performance.

Canadian Stage sets Shakespeare in High Park’s Lear loosely in the 1600s, drawing inspiration from the reign of Elizabeth I, but its selling point is definitely the casting of a woman, stage veteran Diana D’Aquila, in the role of Lear. Her performance itself was transcendent, but the casting of a woman also allows this Lear to explore issues of what it means to be a powerful woman in a traditionally male-dominated role. Of note is the fact that, according to a director’s note, the play was originally approached with the thought that the audience would experience a female Lear in the context of a Hilary Clinton presidency. Instead, President Trump’s vision for the United States has brought misogyny in the Western World into sharper focus.

A female Lear allows for some fascinating commentary on how women are viewed by others, and how they choose to present themselves to inhabit traditionally male roles. Following in the example of Elizabeth I, Diane D’Aquila presents Lear as a once-powerful ruler in decline. Although I thought the opening scenes of the play, in which D’Aquila enters as a frail older woman in a white chemise and is dressed on stage, fitted into the black corset, hoop skirt, and ruffled high collar that show her to be a Queen, went on too long, I liked the concept and symbolism behind this ceremonial dressing.

Diane D’Aquila is the number one reason to watch this play. As Lear, she is captivating, portraying the mental decline of this once powerful woman, the anguish of loss and regret, and the tyrannical fits of fury expected from a woman who has never been denied in her life. At times she displays physical tics and tremors, as well as lapses in concentration that indicate a descent into senility, but these are subtle choices and never feel over-the-top. I couldn’t take my eyes off her whenever she was on stage, and I held my breath as she staggered into the audience, climbing the outside arena’s stairs into the storm. D’Aquila admirably balances fragility and strength in her portrayal of this ailing monarch and it’s an incredibly sympathetic performance.

This masterful performance is just one more reason why a female Lear is such an interesting choice. While King Lear is one of the greatest roles a classical male actor of a certain age will play, it’s that much more difficult for older women to be cast in leading, or at least major, roles. Seeing a woman take on Lear, and do so with such success, was incredibly powerful to witness.

King Lear is perhaps not the most well-known of Shakespeare’s tragedies – Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet are more commonly cited as favourites – but I adore this play. For those new to King Lear, the play tells the story of an aging monarch, who plans to divide her kingdom between her three daughters, Goneril, Regan, and her youngest and dearest daughter Cordelia. Before issuing them each a parcel of land, she demands a declaration of love and devotion. While the eldest daughters extol Lear’s virtues and are rewarded, Cordelia speaks honestly and is banished. Goneril and Regan soon reject their mother, casting her out into a raging storm. Meanwhile Edmund, a bastard son, schemes to supplant his half-brother Edgar as heir to their father’s earldom.

At the heart of the play is the fraught relationship between Lear and her daughter Cordelia. The last actress I saw play the role of Cordelia was inexplicably wooden, and it threw off the whole dynamic of an otherwise solid production. Fortunately Amelia Sargisson is an excellent Cordelia. She is honest and compassionate in the play’s early scenes, creating a character who is likable and wronged by Lear’s ego. A highlight of the play was seeing Cordelia appear on the second level of the set, backlit, and surrounded by billowing smoke. I had chills watching this armor dressed Cordelia, a sword in her raised hand, rallying her troops. Seeing this scene in a play where Lear is portrayed by a woman adds a feminist undertone to the story, and I loved that Cordelia had this grit and determination without losing her compassionate nature.

The other performances were generally solid, particularly the sarcastic Fool (Robert Clarke), and Earl of Gloucester (Jason Cadieux). I liked Michael Man’s Edgar, but in this shortened version of the play it felt like the “B” story, featuring Gloucester, Edgar, and Edmund, had less time devoted to it so we saw comparatively little of his Edgar.

My one complaint is with Edmund (Brett Dahl). I can’t say whether it was an actor’s choice or a case of direction gone wrong, but Dahl played Edmund as stereotypically gay, complete with a lisp and an inexplicable costuming choice where he was the only character wearing an open shirt (or no shirt at all!) for most of the night. I’m of two minds about the choice to play Edmund as homosexual. It does add an interesting element to the scenes between Goneril and Regan as they fight over Edmund’s nonexistent affections, because Edmund is all the more coldly calculating while he clearly plays the women for power/ambition. My problem with it is that the portrayal was just so over the top! Subtlety, thy name is not Edmund. There have been so many cases of the stereotypically gay or coded-as-gay villain in film and other mediums that it’s murky enough territory to wade into, but particularly with such an insensitive portrayal.

The costuming is also a little hit-and-miss. Shakespeare in High Park uses black-and-white costuming that melds the modern with the Elizabethan. This is most effective in Lear’s period black gown, which evokes Elizabeth I with her high ruff collar, and in the simple white chemise she wears underneath. I was less impressed by the more modern gowns worn by Goneril and Regan and the men’s costuming, which had a contemporary feel to it, despite the swords. Since Canadian Stage runs two Shakespeare productions in rep (this year Twelfth Night was the other play), set design has to work for both. This lead to a fairly sparse two level set, brought to life mostly by lighting (which I thought was well done) and a tall throne, which acts as an anchor for the production. The throne design is reminiscent both of a medieval torture device (there are straps for the ankles and wrists) and of the Iron Throne, an interesting commentary on the cost of power.

Some mixed results with the costumes and set and a portrayal of Edmund that didn’t work for me personally are minor complaints though in a production that feels so fresh and interesting. Diane D’Aquila’s performance alone was worth the trek to High Park, and there’s a lot here to admire, from a strong yet kind Cordelia, to the commentary on what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated role. This was my first trip to Shakespeare in High Park and if the quality is generally this high, it certainly won’t be my last.

King Lear
wrapped its summer run in High Park on September 3rd.

Photo of Jason Cadieux & Diane D’Aquila, by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The Unpopular Opinions Book Tag

I was tagged by my book book blogging partner-in-crime Rachel, who is eloquent, and honest, and has recommended some fabulous books, so if you’re not already following her blog, definitely check it out!

1.) A popular book or book series that you didn’t like.

28881There are definitely a few classics that fit this category, although I’m not sure how popular Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller really are…

It takes A LOT for me to DNF a book. I’m one of those people who will stubbornly persist, even when I’m not enjoying something. Part of that is the fact that personally I don’t think it’s right to rate on goodreads, mark as read, or review books that you haven’t, in fact, read (I’d argue it’s more acceptable if you’ve made it through more than half of the book and DNF, but before that I don’t think personally agree with rating/reviewing). Part of it is optics and wanting to finish as much as possible for my goodreads challenge, and even it comes to reading a book with other people as part of a book club I’m even more stubborn. I DNF-ed Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Friend. I made it halfway and was getting absolutely nothing out of it. I found the humour juvenile, I know at least some of the religious references were going right over my head, and I didn’t care for any of the characters. Even Jesus. I have friends who RAVE about this book though, so it’s clearly a to each your own kind of deal.

2.) A popular book or book series that everyone else seems to hate but you love.

11516221I sorted my read shelf on Goodreads low to high and compared the average goodreads rating against books that I gave four or more stars to. Surprisingly one of the two books tied for lowest was The Scorpio Races by Erin Bow! I’m actually really shocked that the book only has a 3.43 on goodreads. Sure in the wake of The Hunger Games’ popularity the YA dystopia genre has been overrun, but I found this book fascinating. Basically a ruling AI prevents war between nations by making it mandatory that each ruler have a child, an heir under the age of eighteen who is held as a hostage to ensure good behavior. Whenever a nation declares war on another, the hostage’s life is forfeit. The book has a bisexual protagonist, a snarky AI character, and is set against a world where water rights are paramount. I did think the second book in the 7025002duology, which focuses more on questions of what it means to be human, was more engaging, but I really enjoyed this book.

The other book, the first in Arlene C. Harris’ Pont-au-change books is not exactly popular, so it doesn’t fit this category. Still, even though I get that it’s basically published fanfic (what if Javert and Valjean didn’t die) I think it’s really good published fanfic and I enjoyed this (unfinished) series a lot.

3.) An otp that you don’t like.

20s6hdvDoes it have to be a canon endgame otp? Because look, I know Mal is kind of a safe, boring match for Alina, I can see why the fandom would look elsewhere, but I really don’t understand the Alina/The Darkling shippers. He quite literally kills people!!! I know I’m in the minority here, but I just never ‘got’ the appeal of The Darkling as a character. He’s an interesting enough villain, but I feel almost as strongly about not understanding the appeal shipping him with Alina as I do about the idea of shipping Rey with Kylo Ren. Weirdly enough I don’t have strong feelings about who to pair Alina with though, just who NOT to pair her with! Although, if I were in her shoes, I would definitely have picked Nikolai.

4.) A popular book genre that you hardly reach for.

I love fantasy but I don’t have any interest at all in the Paranormal Fantasy/Urban Fantasy genre (magician or werewolf or demon hunter in a contemporary city kinds of books), let alone Paranormal Romance. I’ve tried reading paranormal fantasy books before and every time I’ve found the book disappointing, so I’m throwing in the towel unless it comes highly recommended by a reader and/or blogger I trust!

5.) A popular/beloved character that you do not like

j6n48zPeople seem to either love or hate Severus Snape, and I definitely fall into the latter category. I definitely don’t condone bullying and I can see why he would carry a grudge against James Potter, but I don’t think it’s right to inflict punishment on Harry for the sins of his father. Much like in ‘nice guy’ syndrome, Snape is not, in fact, a nice guy. He sides with the Deatheaters and makes racist comments, including against Lily herself. No wonder she doesn’t choose him! Sure Snape does covertly protect Harry, and he does end up on the right side of things, but I don’t think it’s enough to make amends for his past actions or to justify his treatment of Harry throughout the books.

6.) A popular author that you can’t seem to get into.

20518872I don’t know that he counts as mainstream popular, but certainly Cixin Liu is popular in his native China and the translated versions of his series have all been nominated for Hugo Awards so I think he counts. As my co-worker said, when I asked her how she was finding The Three-Body Problem, “I feel like the author hates women”. There’s some interesting ideas in his work, especially for those more mathematically inclined, but there’s also a deep thread of misogyny that’s hinted at in the first book and hit me full force with The Dark Forest. I didn’t even attempt the final book in the series because I didn’t need another 500 pages of this level of misogyny where the female characters are all 1) evil, 2) make poor choices and doom humanity in the process, or 3) exist only as love interests/sexual objects for the more fleshed out male characters. Stay away from this series folks!

7.) A popular book trope that you’re tired of seeing.

I am really, really over love triangles. Not only is it a YA cliché, I feel like it’s almost an easy out for the author. Need some conflict in your novel? Add a love triangle! Earlier this year The Love Interest was one of the more anticipated books because it looked like it would satirize and/or invert the classic love triangle trope, but it sadly fell flat leaving readers right back at square one. Personally I’ve never understood the prioritization of romantic love over other types (platonic, sibling, etc.) I would love to read more books that put friendship front and center (The Raven Cycle), or at least books where romantic subplots have their time in the spotlight but also have to take a backseat to group dynamics (like Six of Crows). If you have to include a love triangle, at least mix it up a little! Where are the bisexual and/or same-sex love triangles, or at least the ones that don’t obviously set the characters involved up as contrasts right down to their physical appearances (fair vs. dark)!!

8.) A popular series that you have no interest in reading.

Like Rachel, I have no interest in reading anything written by Cassandra Clare or Sarah J. Maas. Cassandra Clare because honestly I don’t trust an author who has once been accused of plagiarism, and Sarah J. Maas I’ve heard really conflicting opinions on, but her books just don’t look like something that would appeal to me.

9.) The saying goes “the book is always better than the movie,” but what movie or tv show adaptation do you prefer more than the book?

6737961I haven’t read the series (see above), but I do enjoy Shadowhunters as a guilty pleasure. From what I’ve heard, it seems to do better by its characters than the book series does, plus it’s filmed in my city!

Also, like Rachel, I enjoyed the movie version of Brooklyn by Colm Toibin more than the book. I found the pacing of the book to be really off, the main character of Eilis fairly wishy-washy and hard to understand, and I didn’t like one of her love interests at all. The movie was such a bright presence visually, Saoirse Ronan was really likable as Eilis, and seems to have more agency than she does in the book, and her love interest was actually really sweet, so the triangle was a true triangle.

What do you think of my choices? Leave a comment and let me know!

I’ve seen this tag around a lot so I won’t tag anyone in particular, but if you think it looks interesting and would like to give it a try, please link back to me so I can read your answers!

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Are Worth The Work

When recommending some of the books and television shows I love the most, I often find myself advising a friend to ‘stick with it, it gets better’ or that a particular book might be challenging to read, but the effort pays off in the end. I’m a little bit short for my take on this week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic, Books That Are Worth The Work, but here are 9 books I really enjoyed but found challenging to read for one reason or another.

Want to join in the fun? Head on over to Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and Bookish.

1120771. The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett
It will surprise exactly no one that the top of my list are the six books that make up historical fiction epic The Lymond Chronicles. Set in the mid-sixteenth century, Dorothy Dunnett’s debut novel sees Francis Crawford, an intelligent, insufferable, polyglot, rogue returning to his native Scotland. Accused of treason, Francis and his band of outlaws attempt to reclaim his reputation while also protecting the country from the threat of English invasion. It took me a good 50-100 pages before I knew I was going to finish the book and enjoy it, and until the last third before I knew I wanted to read the rest of the series, but by then I was head over heels for these books and have since re-read the entire series twice! The Lymond Chronicles are not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination. Dorothy Dunnett is the kind of writer who likes to throw the reader in head first and trust that you are able to keep up, so she throws in obscure foreign language quotations and references, and there is a subtlety to her work that can require close reading. The books are also dense, with each trade paperback coming in at about 500 pages. The first book is the most difficult to tackle though, and those who stick with it will be rewarded with a main character who is definitely a bit of an asshole, but you can’t help loving him too, especially since he gets put through the wringer! Also there’s prose that sometimes makes your jaw drop, fabulous female characters, a well-researched setting, and an action-packed plot.

My advice: Skip the foreign language quotations the first time through. Francis is a bit of a pretentious asshole of a character (I love him dearly, but he is) who tends to throw Latin, Greek, or French expressions as well as obscure medieval poetry into his dialogue, and the author does not provide a translation. There are a few companion books out there that contain the meaning of the quotes (or you could google them) if you’re determined, but honestly you’re better off ignoring the foreign quotes altogether on a first read. The first book in the series, The Game of Kings, is the worst offender for this, Dunnett lightens up on the obscure references in subsequent novels.

242802. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
As a long-time fan of the musical, Les Miserables was the classic I most wanted to tackle but it’s also incredibly intimidating: My Signet Classics translation comes in at a whopping 1460 pages! I made it my goal to read the unabridged translation of Hugo’s masterpiece in 2011 and succeeded. The verdict? It’s one of my favourite books, but I definitely think Hugo could have used a few more edits. Fondly known as “The Brick” to fans for its physical resemblance to, well, a brick, it’s definitely a challenge, but the reading pays off. This is a novel that very nearly made me cry a few times, while other scenes like the courtroom, where Valjean decides whether to send another man to prison in his stead or to give himself up and leave behind the comfortable life he has built for himself as owner of a prosperous factory, had me on the edge of my seat.

My advice: Set a reading schedule of a certain number of pages (25? 50?) that you’re going to read per day and stick with it. This determination makes it easier to get through Hugo’s infamous digressions, including his 50 pages on the Battle of Waterloo, and other slower parts of the book.

JonathanStrange3. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Set during the Napoleonic Wars, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a fabulously creative novel about two very different men who emerge as ‘practicing magicians’ in a world where magical theory is all that remains and the practice has been lost for centuries. The two men join forces in the war against France, but their opposing views on magic strain the partnership and threaten to risk everything. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is admittedly not for everyone. It’s long, there are long periods where it’s not particularly action-packed and very little happens, and the book is packed with invented footnotes adding historical context or providing information on the history of magic. Depending on your background, this is either a plus or a minus – personally I enjoyed the footnotes. Despite these deterrents, it is a fabulous work of historical fantasy different from anything I’d ever read before, and I loved the wry sense of humour that’s almost Austen-esque in the way that it’s deployed. I was hooked from the first page and it’s still a favourite book of mine.

My advice: The biggest obstacle to reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is its sheer length (1000+ pages), so commit to sticking with it and perhaps, like with Les Mis, stick to a minimum number of pages to read per day.

7277984. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Like many people of my generation, I was inspired to pick-up Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece when the movies were released. Spellbound by the movie version of The Fellowship of the Ring, I needed to know what happened next and read the entire series before The Two Towers was released. As much as I love the movies, I have an equal respect for the books behind them and there are some great book moments or characterizations that only make it into the extended editions of the films, or that are removed completely. Lord of the Rings is definitely a commitment and, like many fantasy properties that followed, it’s difficult when balancing multiple perspectives to make sure it all holds our interest. There were definitely storylines I cared for less, and I really struggled to get into the first half of the first book (it’s just so BORING!), but the series is 100% worth it for fans of the genre.

My advice: Very little happens in the first half of Fellowship of the Ring. Stick it out if you can, but if you need to skim that part of the book it’s totally understandable. In my opinion, the introduction of Strider is where the book picks up.

173333245. The Imperial Radch Trilogy by Ann Leckie
A more recent edition to my list, the Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie is undoubtedly brilliant, but I think I spent a good chunk of the first book only half aware of what was going on. Admittedly I don’t read a lot of Science-Fiction, but I found the world very different from our own, there was an awful lot of complicated politics, and Leckie throws the reader in headfirst, allowing little time to adjust. There’s also the matter of adjusting to a book where the predominant language doesn’t distinguish gender and refers to everyone by the same default pronoun, rendered she in English. This is both jarring to adjust to and makes it difficult to form a picture of each character in your head! This series is smart, science-fiction that, at unexpected times, tugs on the heartstrings. It may take some time to get used to, but it’s well worth continuing!

My advice: Accept that it’s going to take some time to get used to the default She gender pronouns, and that you’re probably going to miss things on a first read.

thefifthseason6. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
I found Obelisk Gate easier going, but in N.K. Jemisin’s fantasy novel The Fifth Season, the world and its rules and the characters are all new. The story is told from three perspectives, Essun, a middle-aged mother, Damaya, a young frightened girl, and Syenite, a rebellious young woman. The Fifth Season is set in a world where devastating but sporadic climate events have resulted in a system of closed communities rather than cities and nations. A marginalized group of people called orogenes, can quell the shakes, but they are oppressed, feared, and discriminated against by the “stills”, humans who don’t have this ability. The biggest issue I had with adjusting to The Fifth Season was the jarring switch to Essun chapters, which are told in second person compared to the third person of the other P.O.Vs, The worldbuilding, while strong, is A Lot to take in initially, which can also cause confusion. It’s an engaging book that I loved reading and think deserved the Hugo Award for Best Novel that it won, but it’s not easy at the start.

My advice: Try to adjust to and accept the second person in the Essun chapters.

88107. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
It’s been more than ten years since I read A Clockwork Orange (for a university class), but Rachel’s recent review reminded me of how much I enjoyed the novel and of how challenging it is to read. To start with it’s written in “nadsat”, Anthony Burgess’ invented Russian-influenced English language, which makes adjusting to the first-person narration difficult. There’s also the fact that, from what I remember, the book is brutally violent, which may be off-putting to some readers. If you can take the violence and adjust to the dialect though, this is a fascinating dark look at a dystopian society that examines themes of good and evil and free will.

My advice: Adjusting to the language was the hardest part for me, but it gets easier to read as you go on!

261184268. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
This summer I read Ninefox Gambit for my Hugo challenge. Part of the military science-fiction sub-genre, I didn’t know how I would feel about this one, but I wound up really enjoying it and gave the book 3.5 stars. The plot focuses on Captain Kel Cheris, who uses heretical tactics to save her teammates from death in the opening chapters of the book. The plan backfires, but Kel Command gives her a chance to redeem herself by taking part in a plot to retake the Fortress of Scattered Needles from the heretics. The only hurdle is that it requires her to ally with the undead Shuos Jedao, a man who went mad in his first life and murdered two armies. With Ninefox Gambit I often felt like I had no idea what was going on. Never have I read a book that needed a glossary more! This sheer confusion reigned over much of the first half of the novel, but once I got the hang of it, I found the book very engaging and plan to continue the series.

My advice: Honestly, just try to figure out as much of the book as you can and pray that future editions will include a glossary!

63079649. A Song of Ice and Fire series by G.R.R. Martin
With Tolkien already on the list, it makes sense that Martin’s life’s work, the ASoIaF series, is here too. As someone who reads a lot of fantasy and historical fiction, I wasn’t put off initially by the similar names of some characters or by number of characters, but with each new book the world is explored a little more and additional characters are introduced. Over the course of the series it has become more and more difficult to determine which characters are located in each place and who knows what. With two more books to be published, readers have some time to get caught up though! What awaits you is a richly imagined world with fabulous complex characters who embody a variety of different moral compasses, experiences, and motivations.

My advice: Since Martin does provide a glossary, consult it often when you can’t quite remember which character name is which. Although I haven’t personally, I know there are people who skip or skim certain perspectives (especially the Iron Islands ones) so if that makes it easier going for you, I say go for it!

What are some books you’ve read that may make you work for it, but are worth the effort of reading?