Friday, 29 August 2014

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan


A Natural History of Dragons is the story of a young woman trying to overcome the prejudices of her age in order to become a scientist. It's set in a fantasy world similar to Victorian England (but with the inclusion of dragons) and follows a fictional memoir format, with Lady Trent looking back on her early life and first scientific expedition.  Isabella (Lady Trent) recounts her childhood and how her fascination with her father's library led to her passion for science and dragons.  After a chance encounter with a dragon as a young child, she is keen to devote her life to studying them.  But in this world, the role of a young lady is to act politely ignorant and find a husband, something Isabella finds herself chafing against.  It's only when she meets a man who is a scientist himself, and supportive of her radical-for-the-times ambitions, that she is able to make contacts and secure a place on an expedition to the dangerous mountains of Vystrana, where she hopes to catalogue and understand dragons of all species.

I really enjoyed A Natural History of Dragons.  It's set in a Victorian-type world, and the writing style harks back to that era too.  It reminded me a lot of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in this regard, and it's something I definitely appreciated.  Isabella's voice felt authentically Victorian, and I loved the slower pace, although this is something that might not be for everyone.  I've read quite a bit on the history of science and I loved the little echoes of this process in Brennan's book, it felt as though this all could have happened, if only dragons were real.  We get to read about the 'scientific' reason why dragons can fly, despite being so heavy, and what their wings are made of.  Little details like this can really make a book for me.

Of course, I loved the theme of a woman overcoming the prejudices around her, and it was interesting to see the contrast between Isabella at an early age, and Lady Trent writing her memoirs, sometimes reflecting on the naivety of her younger self.  A Natural History of Dragons is the first in a series, and I can't wait to read the next installment.  The only problem with the book, and the reason it wasn't a 5 star read, was that the secondary plot involving smugglers and deception in the village felt a little bit forced to me and didn't engage me.  I wanted to read about dragons and science, not worry about who wanted Isabella out of the Vystrani village.  Still, I'm very much looking forward to getting my hands on the next volume.

Source: Library
First Published: 2013
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Read Alongside:

  1. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke - A story of magicians set in Regency England, where everything is the same but magic exists.  This one has a similar writing style and is one of my favourite books, I really need to revisit it soon.
  2. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier - Historical fiction centred around Mary Anning, who discovered dinosaur fossils along the Dorset coast of England.  This has similar themes of a woman trying to break into science, and is an excellent read.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Sam Sunday #58


Another week gone, and we're now heading into the last week of Tom's summer holiday.  It's been a busy week, as we've been catching up with friends as much as possible.  Giles is still at the easily portable, doesn't require much equipment for naps stage, so it's nice to get out as much as possible.  We've also had to do a bit of shopping as he's outgrown all of his 0-3 months clothes at only 2 months, and I wasn't prepared for it! He also had his first check at the doctors this week, and it seems like he has reflux, which explains a lot (his crying, fitful sleeping, being sick, grunting).  It's not a severe case, and he will eventually grow out of it, but it means he can be harder work than other babies, mainly as the most comfortable position for him is sitting up, which requires assistance at this point.  The doctors visit also meant his first lot of injections, which did not go down well!

I haven't been reading much this week.  I'm slowly but steadily working through Moby Dick, which I'm actually really enjoying in small doses.  Apart from that, I haven't really picked up a book at all.  In the small bits of time I get when I'm not holding Giles, it seems like there's so much to do that I just don't get a chance. I've always been resistant to audiobooks but I'm considering trying again as they don't require hands!  My blogging has also fallen to the wayside - I managed to get up two reviews but I've not had much time for commenting.  Hopefully normal service will be resumed in the next couple of months.

I have however finally joined instagram, which I'm intending to use for bookish and personal photos.  If you love endless photos of babies and books, please feel free to follow me (and I'll return the favour) here.

How was your week?  What are you reading at the moment?

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette by Mary M Talbot



A suffragette in the early 1900s was the name given to a woman in the UK who was campaigning fiercely for the right to vote.  Before reading this graphic novel, I knew a little bit about the suffragette movement, having learned about Emily Davison's death under the hooves of the King's horse in school, but I wasn't familiar with how the campaign started  or the politics behind the different decisions made.  I knew enough to be grateful and to always exercise my right to vote, but until reading Sally Heathcote, I had no idea how hard-won that right actually was.  Talbot uses the fictional character of Sally, who starts out as a maid to one of the leading suffragettes, to explore the different factions in the movement and uphill struggle they faced.

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette is simply a stunning book.  It's impeccably researched and brings this period of British history to life. We have a tendency to take our right to vote for granted, and to see women being franchised as a historical given, but this book gives the suffragette movement some immediacy.  I admit that I tended to think of it as a genteel, middle class movement, so I was surprised at the amount of violence in the novel.  There's lots of protests where the women are beaten (or worse) by the police and public, and Talbot doesn't shy away from the brutality of the force feedings in prison, when the suffragettes went on hunger strike.  We see the violence of the tube being forced down their throats and the injuries that could occur afterwards.  Sally's stay in prison is one of the most powerful sections of the book.  We all talk about rights today, but there's something so inspiring about this group of women, who were willing to get arrested, beaten and starve themselves in order to endure someone forcing a tube down their throat so they could be the equals of men. When did we become so apathetic in comparison?

Talbot also manages to show the complexity of the movement, with the different factions disagreeing on how best to achieve their aims - should they be entirely peaceful, or is targeted violence to be permitted?  At one point, Sally becomes involved with a more radical group who set fire to a politician's house and are considering the use of bombs.  This kind of debate is still relevant today - do the ends always justify the means?  Sally eventually decides to move away from this kind of campaigning, but I'm glad that Talbot included it.



On top of the wonderful content, Sally Heathcote: Suffragette is a simply beautiful graphic novel.  I loved the style of the images, with the flashes of colour set against the grey drawings.  Lots of the original posters and newspaper articles are reproduced, and the time period is evoked very well.  I'm a bit fussy about graphic novels, and this is one of the best in terms of style that I've read yet.

As you can probably tell, I just loved this book.  It combines fantastic historical research with a powerful story, and the medium of the graphic novel just makes the story more impacting.  It's a book to inspire, and a book that should make every woman reading it grateful for their right to vote.  The very ending of the book, which deals with modern apathy, was extremely thought-provoking, and I don't think I'll every be able to take my right for granted again.  Highly recommended.

Source: Library
First Published: 2014
Score: 5 out of 5

Monday, 18 August 2014

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo


"London, by appearance, so noble, respectable, but when I follow these Alis, I find London a refugee camp."

Z is a recent migrant from China to London, sent to the West in order to learn English and make contacts to help build her parents' manufacturing business.  She's keen to immerse herself in British culture, but finds that things aren't as she was expecting, as her finances force her to live in run-down areas and she struggles to express herself.  It's not until Z meets an older English man and starts a relationship that she starts to get to grips with her new life.  But the man she has fallen in love with is a free spirit, something completely outside Z's sphere of understanding, and she finds their relationship as tricky as the new language.

The absolute best thing about A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is the way it is structured and written.  Each chapter is titled with a new word that Z has learned, and a dictionary definition for each word is included.  Z's narration starts off as very choppy, with her language skills improving as the book goes on.  I just loved that - it really helped me get inside Z's head and appreciate how difficult it must be to move to another country by yourself when you aren't fluent in the language.  Z's mis-communications and observations about British life and culture are remarkably perceptive and one of the strengths of the novel.

There's also a lot of commentary on the nature of language.  Z struggles with the tenses and grammar of English, and the way that English as a language is more 'individualistic' than Chinese, with the subject being the key element of a sentence.  Guo uses observations like this to explore whether your language can affect who you are and your culture - does language mirror culture or shape it?  I studied the development of language a bit at university, so I found it very interesting to reflect on questions like these.

So what I liked about A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers was the voice of Z and her experience of moving to London and learning English.  However, I didn't particularly enjoy the way her relationship with the older English man was written, and this was one of the main elements of the novel. There was no explanation of why she became so attached to him, it was something that just seemed to happen without any feelings being involved.  Similarly, it was very convenient how Z seemed to find a man wherever she went on her European trip, and these experiences felt a bit forced.  I would have liked more focus on the migrant experience, and less on her relationships.

On the whole, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is a good book that's well written.  The immigrant experience is handled perceptively and the structure of the book is interesting.  I enjoyed it, but it didn't exactly set my world on fire.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2007
Edition Read: Vintage, 2008
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Read Alongside (links to my reviews):
  1. The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger - A Bangladeshi woman moves to America to live with her new husband.  The issue of culture clash is dealt with fantastically here, and I ended up giving this book 5 out of 5.
  2. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok - The migrant experience told through the eyes of eleven year old Kim, who moves to America from Hong Kong with her mother.  This isn't a happy book, but it is a powerful one.
  3. The Good Children by Roopa Farooki - The story of four siblings who spread out in the world in an attempt to get away from their overbearing mother.  Lots of contrasting experiences here.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Sam Sunday #57: Summer Holidays Update


We're still in summer holiday mode here, as Tom has two more weeks before he needs to return to work in September.  It's been great having him home for the past month, and we're trying to make the most of being able to spend so much time together as a family of three.  Giles is eight weeks today, and we're starting to be able to get him into a bit of a routine, which makes things easier.  He naps at the same time every morning now, and is able to go longer at night without needing to eat.  I'm hoping to keep on working on his routine whilst Tom is home to help, so that things are in place for when I'm at home on my own in September.

At the moment, it seems like Giles is learning something new every day.  We're getting lots of big smiles, as well as coos and even the beginnings of giggles.  He has discovered his hands, and spends a lot of his waking time trying to figure out how to get them into his mouth, though without much luck yet.  I think I have adjusted to how much life has changed, although some days are easier than others.


In terms of reading, I've made a start on my classics club spin book, Moby Dick.  I did have a cheap edition that I've had for years, but I decided that I needed the motivation of a beautiful copy and splashed out for the Penguin drop cap version, and boy is it a beautiful book.  The only problem is, now I want the whole set! I'm finding Moby itself surprisingly pleasant at the moment; it's very wordy but not at all difficult to read and I'm enjoying Melville's writing.  The pace is extremely slow - I'm 100 pages in and Ishmael's only just decided what boat to get on - but I'm not bothered by this yet.  Hopefully I'll keep on enjoying the book for a while more, although I have a feeling the pace will get to me eventually.

How was your week?

Monday, 11 August 2014

In Which I Am an Unlucky Spinner...


So the Classics Club Spin Number was posted this morning, and it's number 17.  Which means Moby Dick it is for me, the one book on an otherwise excellent list that I was dreading!  I'm starting to feel like an unlucky spinner - a few months I got the monster of a book that is Les Miserables and now this.  On the positive side, at least I am being forced to knock these sort of books off my list!

What scares me about Moby Dick is that it's not just a story, I'm dreading all of the diversions about whaling and the technicalities of running a ship.  The blurb on my copy also describes it as a 'hymn to democracy', which again makes me think it might be more of an ideas book than a plot book, which is one of my bookish pet peeves.  I'm expecting the pacing to be glacial at best.

But I do want to read it, as it's so loved, and so I can understand a bit more about American classics.  I've had a copy for around ten years, but I've never been able to pick it up and read it, always selecting something 'easier' at the last minute.  I put it on my classics club list to give myself a deadline to try it, and now the spin has just forced that deadline ahead a bit.

As it's such a big book and as I have a newborn son, making me prone to sleep deprivation, my plan of attack is little and often.  My copy has 135 chapters, I'm hoping to work through a few a day until I get to the end.  That way I can continue to read other books alongside it.  Wish me luck!

Did you take part in the spin?  If so, are you happy with your book?

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte


When a young, single woman and her child move into one wing of the derelict Wildfell Hall, the local people are bursting with curiosity.  Who is she?  Why is she living on her own?  One farmer, Gilbert Markham, strikes up a friendship with Helen and soon finds himself developing stronger feelings for her.  But Helen's reclusive behaviour makes her the target of suspicion and vindictive gossip, and it's only when she allows Gilbert to read her diary that he discovers the reason behind her arrival at Wildfell Hall.

I just love the Brontes.  I've been saving this one for a few years, as I knew it would be one I would love, and my stock of unread Bronte novels is growing perilously low.  I was particularly attracted to this novel as it caused quite a stir, with Charlotte preventing it's publication after Anne's death, as it deals honestly with the topics of alcohol abuse, adultery and abuse in marriage.  But the real controversy came because the main character Helen eventually leaves her abusive husband, defying the social conventions of the time.  And even more shockingly, she is shown to be able to cope on her own and support both herself and her son, going on to handle her own affairs with regard to property and her income.

I was pre-disposed to love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and I really did enjoy it.  It's the second novel by Anne Bronte I have read, and I was struck again by how different her writing is to that of Charlotte and Emily's.  In both this and Agnes Grey, Anne writes with realism about life, whether it's  a governess facing difficult children, or a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage.  Emily and Charlotte's books have their share of misery too, but Anne's writing feels more like it deals with the grittier aspects of life, and there's less romance.  At the beginning of her diary, Helen is full of romantic ideas of reforming her husband and living happily ever after, but she eventually has to face reality.

There's so much to love in this novel - the fantastic portrayal of a woman slowly coming to terms with the fact that she can't change someone else, no matter how much she loves him, Helen's independence, the open discussion of adultery and the realistic depiction of how anyone who defies social convention becomes a target for gossip.  The only stumbling block I had was Helen herself - at times she seems too good and too moral, and this puts up an emotional barrier between her and the reader.  I felt like Helen was telling her diary all about her marriage, but I couldn't really feel it.  I recently read Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady, which has some similar themes, and I felt the emotion much more in that novel.

Still, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a fantastic novel, and an important one too.  I would most definitely consider it a feminist novel, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in women's rights and gender issues. Charlotte remains my favourite Bronte though.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1848
Edition Read: Penguin, 2010
Score: 4.5 out of 5


The Classics Club: Book 29/72
My list of classics to read can be found here.