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bookish posts monthly book list

April 2022 Reading

We have moved! It’s been really nice settling into our new house and working on the garden, etc, but I didn’t do as much reading this month. Anyway, here’s what I did finish! A lot of Agatha Christie, because my brain flat out refused to take in more complicated stories for a while.

Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie, read by Hugh Fraser
Novel
4/1/2022, eaudio, reread

Third Girl by Agatha Christie, read by Hugh Fraser
Novel
4/3, eaudio, reread

Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott, read by Natalie Naudus
Novel
4/10, eaudio, first read

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie, read by Hugh Fraser
Novel
4/13, eaudio, reread

Jade City by Fonda Lee, read by Andrew Kishino
Novel
4/17, eaudio, reread

Premeditated Myrtle by Elizabeth C Bunce, read by Bethan Rose Young
Novel
4/18, eaudio, first read

Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells, read by Kevin R. Free
Novella
4/19, eaudio, reread

Dead Man’s Folly by Agatha Christie, read by David Suchet
Novel
4/21, eaudio, reread

Lorraine Hansberry: The Life Behind A Raisin in the Sun by Charles J Shields
Biography
4/24, print, first read

The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay
Novel
4/25, print, first read

The Thousand Eyes by A.K. Larkwood
Novel
4/26, print, first read

Thorn by Intisar Khanani, read by Shiromi Arserio
Novel
4/27, eaudio, first read

Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie, read by David Suchet
Novel
4/28, eaudio, reread

Merci Suarez Can’t Dance by Meg Medina
Novel
4/30, print, first read

April round up

  • Books finished: 14 
  • Favorites: The Thousand Eyes, Merci Suarez Can’t Dance
  • Format: 4 print, 10 eaudio / 1 biography, 1 novella, 2 novel
  • Reading: 7 rereads, 7 first reads
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bookish posts reviews

Recent middle grade reads

One of my current reading goals is catching up on some recent middle grade releases. Here are four I’ve finished recently!

In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall

Novel, Harry N. Abrams, 2015
Read 3/1/2022, print, first read

“Through stories of Lakota leader Crazy Horse, a boy learns about his heritage and himself in this American Indian Youth Literature Award-winning novel from acclaimed author Joseph Marshall III” (Storygraph) 

The story interweaves historical stories of Crazy Horse with a boy and his grandfather visiting the sites associated with his life. While I think this is a valuable book, I wished that the present day story had been developed a little more. Still a great recommendation for any reader interested in identity or Native history. 

Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Lien

Novel, Henry Holt & Company, 2018
Read 3/5/2022, print, first read

“As the first students from the rural country of Shin to attend Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword, Peasprout and her little brother Cricket have some pretty big skates to fill. They soon find themselves in a heated competition for top ranking.” (Storygraph)

Peasprout is a delightful main character and I enjoyed her voice a lot–it’s drily funny and sometimes melodramatic in a way that felt realistic. This is the first book in a series and I’ll definitely be recommending it to kids who are looking for an exciting adventure in a fantasy setting. 

The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon read by Sullivan Jones

Novel, Penguin Random House, 2018
3/11/2022, eaudio, first read

“Caleb Franklin and his big brother Bobby Gene have the whole summer for adventures in the woods behind their house in Sutton, Indiana. Caleb dreams of venturing beyond their ordinary small town, but his dad likes the family to stay close to home.

Then Caleb and Bobby Gene meet new neighbor Styx Malone. Styx is sixteen and oozes cool. He’s been lots of different places. Styx promises Caleb and Bobby Gene that together, they can pull off the Great Escalator Trade–exchanging one small thing for something better until they achieve their wildest dream. But as the trades get bigger, the brothers soon find themselves in over their heads.” (Storygraph)

Kekla Magoon is just a fantastic middle grade writer, and I loved the way she captures that time between being a child and being a teen. Caleb wants so badly to be grown up, to be free to make his own decisions, and we really see how that impacts his choices throughout the story. 

At some points it’s a tough read, but there’s a kindness and generosity to the treatment of all the characters. They’re all three dimensional and I thought this gave a real richness to the plot and the story. I appreciated the way Caleb and Bobby Gene’s relationship unfolds, and how they both react to the first challenges of their young adult lives. 

Also, the Children’s Museum shout-out was nice! 

My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich by Ibi Zoboi

Novel, Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2019
3/17/2022, eaudio, first read

“Twelve-year-old Ebony-Grace Norfleet has lived with her beloved grandfather Jeremiah in Huntsville, Alabama ever since she was little. As one of the first black engineers to integrate NASA, Jeremiah has nurtured Ebony-Grace’s love for all things outer space and science fiction–especially Star Wars and Star Trek. But in the summer of 1984, when trouble arises with Jeremiah, it’s decided she’ll spend a few weeks with her father in Harlem.”

(Storygraph)

I listened to the audiobook edition of this one, which is narrated by the author! Zoboi has a really nice reading voice and it was neat to hear her interpretation of her own characters. I appreciated the depiction of Ebony-Grace’s inner life a lot, and there were also points when I just wanted to give her a hug and tell her it was going to be okay. Her slow journey to finding her own place, both in Harlem and Alabama, was challenging at times, but it was also rewarding. I loved that she doesn’t compromise on the core of who she is, but does start to see the richness and culture of her Harlem neighborhood and the other kids her age. 

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bookish posts monthly book list

February 2022 Reading

February was a busy, intense month around here, but it had some very wonderful moments and I got a fair amount of reading done! I didn’t quite get two reviews up, but given that we went on a big trip to see my mom and brother and spent most of the month looking at houses, I’m giving myself a pass on that one.

Sabriel by Garth Nix
Novel, HarperCollins, 1995
Read 2/2/2022, print, reread

Sabrielllll. I hadn’t reread this one in a very long time and I really enjoyed revisiting this story.

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
Novel, Tor, 2019
Read 2/4/2022, eaudio, reread

I loved this book when it came out and liked this even better as a audiobook; woof, it’s an intense story but so good!

A Marvelous Light by Freya Marske
Novel, Tor.com, 2021
Read 2/4/2022, print, first read

This was a very enjoyable story, although I have to say that I thought we’d have a few more answers about the central mystery by the end of the book.

Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh
Novel, Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2020
Read 2/4/2022, print, first read

my post here

All Systems Red by Martha Wells
Novella, Tor.com, 2017
Read 2/6/2022, eaudio, reread

Murderbot, Murderbot, it’s gonna murder your freaking butt. (Our household’s Murderbot song.) It was fun to revisit the first book and see how far everyone has come later in the series.

All the Feels by Olivia Dade 
Novel, Avon, 2021
Read 2/11/2022, print, first read

I had very mixed feelings on this story. I liked the point of view experience of adhd, which felt very natural and organic. But I felt an emotional distance from the main characters, and the solutions felt simplistic.

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho, read by Catherine Ho
Novel, Macmillan, 2021
Read 2/11/2022, eaudio, first read

Ooh, I love Zen Cho and I loved this book! I was genuinely not sure what was going to happen throughout the story and the resolution worked very well for me! Also, I loved Ho’s narration, which really brought the story to life. 

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine
Novel, Tor, 2021
Read 2/16/2022, eaudio, first read

Great follow up to the first book, taking a turn into very effective body horror. There’s some compelling ongoing tension between the main characters that works well within this world. Also, I love 8 Antidote! 

The Wizard Hunters by Martha Wells
Novel, HarperVoyager, 2004
Read 2/18/2022, print, reread 

I love Tremaine so much and I enjoy the Ile-Rien books a lot. I like revisiting them every few years and I always find them rewarding.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Novel, Del Rey, 2020
Read 2/19/2022, print, first read

A deliciously creepy story! I loved Moreno-Garcia’s take on the Gothic genre, set in 1950s Mexico.

The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien, read by Andy Serkis
Novel
Read 2/26/2022, eaudio, reread

All in all, I found it pretty satisfying to reread this one! The audiobook was so-so; while I didn’t love all of the interpretations, there were some nice narrative choices too. 

February round up

  • Books finished: 11
  • Favorites: Sabriel, Every Body Looking, Black Water Sister, A Desolation Called Peace, Mexican Gothic
  • Format: 6 print; 5 eaudio / 1 novella; 10 novels
  • Reading: 6 first reads; 5 rereads
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bookish posts reviews

Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh

Novel, Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2020
Read 2/4/2022, print, first read

When Ada leaves home for her freshman year at a Historically Black College, it’s the first time she’s ever been so far from her family—and the first time that she’s been able to make her own choices and to seek her place in this new world. As she stumbles deeper into the world of dance and explores her sexuality, she also begins to wrestle with her past—her mother’s struggle with addiction, her Nigerian father’s attempts to make a home for her. Ultimately, Ada discovers she needs to brush off the destiny others have chosen for her and claim full ownership of her body and her future.

Description from Storygraph

Novels in verse can be a hard format for me, but when they click, they’re magical. Every Body Looking is a great example of a novel in verse that embraced the form and that I can’t imagine being written in any other way. 

Weaving back and forth across Ada’s life, from elementary school through her exploration of her own identity and choices in her first year of college, the story allows the reader to slowly unfold the moments that influence Ada’s life and direction. 

At the beginning of the book, she’s very much alone, shaped by the expectations and desires of the people around her. Over the course of the story, we see her begin to take the first steps towards connecting to other people and owning her own interests and boundaries. Her developing interest in dance is beautifully written and I think will resonate with any creative young adult. 

Ada herself is a lovely character and her voice springs off the page. Iloh’s sense of rhythm and imagery really make the poetry sing and bring Ada herself to life. I also appreciated that the story is clear-sighted about the adults in her life and the impact of their choices on Ada, while not villifying any of them. Ada’s desire to connect with her mother while also knowing how their interactions are likely to end was especially powerful. 

While I did wish that the book spent a little more time on the resolution, Every Body Looking is an engaging story that deals thoughtfully with many of the questions that young adults face in terms of identity, family, and making big decisions about your life. 

Other reviews:

Joshunda Sanders at Teen Vogue

Kirkus

Candice Iloh’s website

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bookish posts monthly book list

January 2022 reading

It is February! I know it seems a little weird to be excited about the month that’s basically 1) the dregs of winter and 2) the shortest month. But R and I are supposed to visit my mom & brother and it will be the first time I’ve seen either of them in two years!

Anyway, I’m trying to get back into the groove of both reading on a consistent, focused basis and writing about what I’ve read. These are both activities that were absolutely second nature to me at one point. But the last–good grief–six years have been one doozy after another, personal and not. I don’t want to be 2015 Maureen again, exactly, but I do want some of that energy.

So! Here’s my January round up.

Mid January TBR stack

Books I finished

The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg
Novella, Tachyon Publications, 2020
Read:1/1/2022, print, first read

my post here

The Hermit of Eyton Forest by Ellis Peters read by Roe Kendall
Novel, Blackstone Audio, 2000
Read: 1/1/2022, eaudio, first read

As a mystery, this is one of the more complex Cadfael books, although the characters felt very much like a copy-paste of her usual types.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett read by Stephen Briggs
Novel, Harper Audio, 2004
Read: 1/4/2022, eaudio, reread

Tiffany is always a delight, but I forget how young she is in the first book!

The Crown of Dalemark by Diana Wynne Jones
Novel, Greenwillow Books, 1993
Read: 1/7/2022, print, reread

Whewwww, the age difference! But I like the time travel bits and the way the different pieces of the series come together. It’s satisfying but also has that lovely dream-sense that runs through all the Dalemark books.

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
Novel, Baen, 2001
Read: 1/11/2022, eaudio, reread

I love the way this story focuses on those who have been disregarded for some reason. But in this reread, I also struggled with the pervasive fat shaming and the treatment of infertility.

Lavinia by Ursula K LeGuin, read by Alyssa Bresnahan
Novel, Harcourt, 2008
Read 1/16/2022, eaudio, reread

As a note, I really loved the narration for this audiobook! It was a lovely interpretation of the text. Lavinia is one I hadn’t reread, I think since it first came out, but remembered liking. There were a few things I wasn’t wild about, but overall it rewarded another read. The interplay between everyday life and the numenous rituals gives texture to the world and the characters. There’s a fascinating look here at what is remembered and what is forgotten in history and stories.

Notes from the Burning Age by Claire North
Novel, Orbit, 2021
Read 1/22/2022, print, first read

my post here

House of Shadows by Rachel Neumeier
Novel, Orbit, 2012
Read 1/26/2022, print, reread

I think I’ve reread this one since I bought it in 2012, but not for a while. It’s one of my favorite Neumeier books, with a lovely fairy tale quality to it. And–granted the genre typical attitude towards monarchy–I found the resolution satisfying and hopeful.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Novel, Bloomsbury, 2004
Read 1/26/2022, eaudio, reread

Ahhh, my beloved! I really noticed this time how Clarke makes the fairies in this world almost incomprehensible to the humans, and yet they have what feels like a very consistent internal logic. It makes me want more stories set in Fairy!

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan
Novel, Tor, 2021
Read 1/30/2022, print, first read

Oh, I loved it! A fascinating look at the historical period, and the tension between choice & fate, the determination of characters vs their expected paths!

The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Novel, Tor, 2017
Read 1/30/2022, eaudio, first read

This is a lovely entry into the novel of manners genre, with exquisitely observed characters and an interesting look at the boundaries of choice. On a personal level, I didn’t find it particularly emotionally engaging, but did appreciate what it’s doing.

January round up
Books finished: 11
Favorites: The Four Profound Weaves, Lavinia, House of Shadows, Jonathan Strange, She Who Became the Sun
Format: 5 print; 6 eaudio / 1 novella; 10 novels
Reading: 5 first reads; 6 rereads

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bookish posts reviews

Notes from the Burning Age by Claire North

Novel, Orbit, 2021
Read 1/22/2022, print, first read

Image from Orbit

Ven was once a holy man, a keeper of ancient archives. It was his duty to interpret archaic texts, sorting useful knowledge from the heretical ideas of the Burning Age—a time of excess and climate disaster. For in Ven’s world, such material must be closely guarded so that the ills that led to that cataclysmic era can never be repeated.

But when the revolutionary Brotherhood approaches Ven, pressuring him to translate stolen writings that threaten everything he once held dear, his life will be turned upside down. Torn between friendship and faith, Ven must decide how far he’s willing to go to save this new world—and how much he is willing to lose.

Description from Storygraph

I haven’t read North’s earlier books, so this was my introduction to her work. Having read this one, I’m still left unsure of whether I actually liked it or not. Not all books need to be liked, I think. Some challenge the reader instead, and some go out of their way to alienate the reader. Similarly, not all books have or need an argument, a philosophical or moral through-line. 

But in the case of Notes from the Burning Age, there’s something about the seriousness of the themes and occasional archness of the narrative which made me feel that this book is one that wants to be liked and wants to put forth an argument. I’m not sure it quite does either successfully. 

Then again, maybe I’m not the best reader for this whole genre. Near future fiction is not as interesting to me as other types of speculative fiction, because the mirror of our era is often too obvious. The themes and even cultural references are more about 2021 than they are about representing another culture. Where are the references to things that haven’t happened yet? The history that comes between our time and theirs? 

This kind of setting can be done well (I do love LeGuin’s version in Always Coming Home, and Connie Willis’ historian books). Unfortunately, here it felt a bit haphazard in terms of what has survived to Ven’s age. 

At the same time, I was gripped by the plot and Ven’s almost accidental careening from one disaster to another. In some ways, he’s a rather passive main character, but the banked fires of his dedication and belief are compelling nonetheless. North pulls off an interesting sleight of hand trick with his character that I’m still thinking about. 

Other reviews
Jason Sheehan at NPR
Gary K Wolfe at Locus
Armed with A Book

More on the book
Claire North in conversation with N.K. Jemisin

Previously
Recovery Reading: Sarah Caudwell (2018)
A Spark of White Fire by Sangu Mandanna (2019)

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bookish posts reviews

Blog Tour: The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu

About the book

If no one notices Marya Lupu, it’s likely because of her brother, Luka. And that’s because of what everyone knows: Luka is destined to become a sorcerer.

The Lupus might be from a small village far from the capital city, but that doesn’t matter. Every young boy born in Illyria may possess the rare ability to wield magic, to protect the country from the terrifying force known only as the Dread. For all the hopes the family has for Luka, no one has any for Marya, who can never seem to do anything right. But even so, no one is prepared for the day that the sorcerers finally arrive to test Luka for magical ability, and Marya makes a terrible mistake. Nor the day after, when the Lupus receive a letter from a place called Dragomir Academy — a mysterious school for wayward young girls. Girls like Marya.

Soon she is a hundred miles from home, in a strange and unfamiliar place, surrounded by girls she’s never met. Dragomir Academy promises Marya and her classmates a chance to make something of themselves in service to one of the country’s powerful sorcerers. But as they learn how to fit into a world with no place for them, they begin to discover things about the magic the men of their country wield, as well as the Dread itself — things that threaten the precarious balance upon which their country is built.

Why I read the book

Anne Ursu has been one of my favorite middle grade writers since Breadcrumbs, and I was really excited for The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy. So I leapt on the chance to be part of the blog tour! 

My thoughts

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy is a great middle grade fantasy, set in a world inspired by Eastern Europe. It’s a nice example of empowering feminist fiction for a middle grade audience, especially because of the complexity and nuance portrayed.

For me, the first quarter or so of the story was a fairly harrowing read! Poor Marya keeps trying to do what’s expected of her, but something goes wrong every time. In the end, she’s sent to Dragomir Academy for Troubled Girls. The book doesn’t shy away from the feelings of loss, isolation, and grief that Marya experiences as her home, her family, and her future are ripped away from her. 

One of the early notes I made was about the portrayal of Marya’s mother.  Her expectations for Marya drive much of her daughter’s lack of self-worth. In that sense, she’s an antagonist for much of the story, but we also see that she’s driven by genuine concern for Marya’s future. This is a world in which girls have very, very few approved choices and she knows that Marya doesn’t really fit into any of them. 

At the same time, the story counterbalances Marya’s absent father and overbearing mother with Madame Bandu, a kind neighbor who tries to offer Marya a way out in the form of an apprenticeship. Madame Bandu is an expert tapestry weaver and she teaches Marya a secret language that’s hidden in plain sight. I can’t tell you how much I loved this! So often feminist books for young girls denigrate traditionally feminine arts, such as needlework and cooking. In this case, Marya isn’t truly drawn to create tapestries and embroidery, but she respects the skill and the history of the art. 

As I read, I really felt that all of the characters and Marya’s relationship with them were considered with care and nuance. While as an adult reader, I sometimes winced at her hopeful trust that a particular character would listen to her, I also understood why she made the choices she did. And that was true, not only for Marya, but for the people around her. In larger part, this story is focused on the way that systems force people into unhappy choices, rather than blaming other girls for what they do. 

Without wanting to give away too much, I also very much liked the way that Luka, Marya’s brother, changes over the course of the story. Their relationship feels impossibly set in the roles that they’ve been assigned at first. As they break out of the mold and discover who they really are, they also have the opportunity to reach out and support each other. 

Don’t miss it! October 26 at 6 pm CT Anne Ursu will be in conversation with Kelly Barnhill, hosted by WILD RUMPUS BOOKS in Minneapolis.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Please click here for more information. 

About the Author:

Anne Ursu is the author of the acclaimed novels The Lost Girl, Breadcrumbs, and The Real Boy, which was longlisted for the National Book Award. The recipient of a McKnight Fellowship Award in Children’s Literature, Anne is also a member of the faculty at Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. She lives in Minneapolis with her family and an ever-growing number of cats. You can visit her online at www.anneursu.com.

BLOG TOUR STOPS

October 12 A Nerdy Bibliophile in Wanderlust

                     Unleashing Readers

October 13 Read Wonder

October 14 Nerdy Book Club

October 15 A Library Mama

October 16 Maria’s Mélange

October 17 By Singing Light

October 18 Bluestocking Thinking

October 20 Insatiable Readers

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bookish posts

Saturday Reflection: October 9

Wimsey, snoozing with cutely tucked paws

September Books

I actually read a few books in September! 

First, Sanity & Tallulah: Field Trip by Molly Brooks, the second in the juvenile graphic novel series. I very much enjoy Sanity & Tallulah’s chaotic adventures. This time, they visit a planet and of course everything goes very wrong! 

I am very torn about the idea behind Secret Spy Society by Veronica Mang. On the one hand, gathering the women spies of history into a fictional secret society as an introduction for kids sounds fun! On the other hand, I can’t help but feel that it does a disservice to the complexity of the lives of Christine Granville, Josephine Baker, and so on. I think I’d rather recommend the Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson biography of Baker, for example. If you’ve read this one and have thoughts, I’d love to hear them. 

Witness for the Dead by Katherine Addison is the long-awaited sequel to The Goblin Emperor, focusing on Thara Celehar. Thara was one of my favorite side-characters in the first book, so I had an extra level of excitement for this story. It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, but I did very much like it. Instead of the court, it focuses on Thara’s appointment in Amalo and the problems he solves (or attempts to solve). The stakes and the world are smaller, but I really liked the everyday details of the world and the way Thara slowly begins to open to relationships with others. 

I also finished rereading Diplomatic Immunity by Lois McMaster Bujold, but it’s one that doesn’t produce a strong reaction for me. 

Currently Reading

I am rereading Gaudy Night! I started earlier this year, got distracted, and have now picked it up again. Peter is about to actually arrive on page for the first time since early in the book. I’m also rereading Fire and Hemlock and enjoying it quite a bit. 

When R saw that I was reading Louise Penny’s Still Life, he said, “Isn’t that a book for seniors?” I honestly am not sure who the intended audience is, but it was on my TBR list and I was in a mystery mood, so here we are. I’m not sure yet if I’m going to finish it or not. There’s a kind of detachment from all of the characters that I don’t always enjoy. 

I’m also reading Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon. I’ve tried to read The Deep multiple times and have never gotten through it, but Sorrowland grabbed me from the first page. It’s a hard read in many ways, but I’m really intrigued by the story!

Finally, I’m reading The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu. The opening is pretty intense, and I’m curious to see where the story goes from here. 

Life

I made apple spice cake last weekend and that was a great choice. I combined a couple of different recipes and it actually worked! This week has been a long, tough one, including buying a new phone and finding out that Wimsey needs surgery. But I hope to do a little more baking this weekend and spend some time reading and writing. 

I hope you have a restorative weekend too, and if you feel like sharing what you’ve been reading, I’d love to hear about it! 

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The Perilous Gard Read-along Week 4: Chapters 9-11

The Perilous Gard Read-along

Hello everyone! Welcome back to the second-to-last week of the Read-along. This week we’ll be spending our time underground, talking about Kate’s experiences in the Hill.

Chapter 9: The People of the Hill

Once again, I have to mention how much I love the way Pope creates an atmosphere. For instance, this amazing description of the cavern where Kate is brought at the beginning of this chapter:

It was not high enough to suggest the carved arches of a hall or cathedral: rather, it appeared as if the stone were sagging under the pressure of some enormous weight that might bring it down at any moment.

She’s passed off to another one of the People of the Hill, whose name is Gwenhyfara. I have a nostalgic fondness for Gwenhyfara, so I was a bit surprised on this read-through to realize that she doesn’t actually have that much to do in the story.

I also love the description of the ritual that the People follow. “They circled around the cavern one by one in a beautiful curving line–all their movements were beautiful–and finally came to rest ranged in two exactly spaced rows down the walls along the whole length of the room.” It’s incredibly effective at evoking a kind of alien beauty, in my opinion. There’s also the way the room is described as being emptier than it should be, a sort of decayed grandeur that–in my mind at least–feels a bit like Tolkien’s Elves. The ending of an age, with all that entails.

Kate continues to exhibit her stubborn resistance to having the Lady “take away her mind” like the other serving women. It’s an interesting thread, and I’ll talk about it a bit more, but it does at the same time reinforce that sense of Kate not being like the other women. The other mortal women are also consistently referred to as both animals and slaves, which is really awful and inexcusable.

We do get a Clue here, as the People use wooden bowls and utensils, the servants use gold, and someone (who could it be?!) has a bronze bowl and spoon. As one of the other servants reveals, it’s “Gold for the maids, and wood for the masters, and one bronze one for the King of the land, at his death-time.”

The other big strand that runs through this chapter is the weight: the psychological effect of living underground, which Kate experiences as first a fear of being crushed. And then “suddenly all that she knew of the place as it really was came rushing over here. The earth and the stone; the blind passages worming their way under the ground; the slippery paths with the slime underfoot; the cold air and the darkness; and always, everywhere, pressing about pit and cavern and passage, the incalculable weight of the rock. Her breath was coming quickly now, in light shallow gasps, as if she had no room to draw it.” On a technical level, this sentence is just incredible–the way that the clauses pile on top of each other in a more and more staccato rhythm, like the shallow gasps of air which come too fast.

I also find the way Pope describes the weight to be a really fascinating and visceral way to talk about anxiety. Whether or not she meant this depiction, it works very well here. Later on, Kate thinks that “her misery and revulsion against the land piled up in some inaccessible region of her mind until the accumulated pressure became too great for it to bear any longer…” Eventually the underground world comes to have a kind of depressive effect on her as well, “life was only a timeless, endless, monotonous round that was broken by nothing but the attacks of the weight.”

This point in the story is also when Kate discovers the secret signs that run through the passages and allow the Fairy Folk to find their way. The rhyme that Randal sings earlier in the book comes back and turns out to be extremely relevant: “Go out by the oak leaf, with never a bough.” She uses these signs to explore and, just at the end of the chapter, manages to find another part of the cave and a familiar voice. I have to admit to loving Christopher’s reaction when Kate announces herself: “‘No!’ said Christopher–and then, like a man driven beyond all endurance: ‘Oh, good Lord! What are you doing here?’”

Chapter 10: Neither Sun nor Moon

This chapter shows us Kate’s changing relationships with Gwenhyfara and Christopher through a series of short montagey scenes. I continue to enjoy Christopher’s reaction to Kate’s appearance: “What would you do if you met your best friend in hell? Say you were happy to know he was there too, and isn’t the pitch hot?”

There is an interesting way in which, as Kate’s experience of the weight echoes the physical and mental effects of anxiety, Christopher’s experience of the gray creature’s training seems to echo a kind of depression resulting from gaslighting. As Kate thinks, “surely his voice as she remembered it had never been so–so–what was the word she wanted? Lifeless? Colorless? Empty? Remote? It sounded almost frighteningly like her grandfather’s during his last illness…”

One of the few things that brings Christopher back to himself is talking about the manor in Norfolk which he dreams of purchasing. I really like this bit, as Kate starts to see him in a new light–more connected with the everyday world that she’s used to dealing with.

She had always somehow, in her secret heart, never thought of him except in a world of knights and ladies, the sort of world that one read about in the old romances, where…champions rode out to slay dragons from high turreted castles–not the sort of castles that would ever go to ruin because the scrub had not been cleaned out of the water meadows and there was no money for the ditching and the drainage.

I really love this, in part because it connects back to the Arthurian romance thread that has run through the whole book, but also because I think it does give us a better sense of who Christopher is when he’s most himself and least the tragic hero. Kate is such a practical, sensible person that this aspect of Christopher builds their relationship in a new way than we’ve seen before.

There’s also a moment which sums up the darker side of how Kate sees herself, and sets up some of what will happen in the last two chapters of the book. It’s an odd bit of a scene, in that Kate wishes that anyone else was there with Christopher: Master Roger, Alicia, because she thinks of herself as so inept at comforting him. “But when she thought of herself, all she could see was herself, Kate Sutton, that first day up at the Holy Well…pelting him with questions and arguments, rummaging with her great clumsy hands through his pride and his grief and his dignity…” While it’s a bitter note in the middle of this chapter, it also echoes interestingly with the way she sees Christopher himself in a new light earlier.

On the other hand, I’m really not a fan of the casual mention of domestic abuse in this chapter. Could we just…not, please?

Finally, I’ll point out a bit of important Plot, which occurs when Gwenhyfara tells Kate that, “Not even our kind can form a true circle of power or pay the teind to the gods in a holy place that has once been broken or defeated and they were all driven out of their holy places long ago.” The Elvenwood is the last of its kind, “the most holy of all the holy places: it alone remains as it was, and here alone the true way of the land has never been lost or forgotten.”

So once again, we have the sense that this is the passing of an age. If the Elvenwood is lost, the People of the Hill will be lost as well. Although Kate is to a certain degree opposed to the People of the Hill, we also see the attraction that they hold for her. It’s an interesting split, and one that will be tempted in the next chapter.

Chapter 11: The Cold Iron

Chapter 11 opens with Kate being swept up in one of the Fairy Folk’s dancing nights. This is a really amazing passage, which showcases Pope’s prose abilities. It has an amazing dreamy feeling to the action.

They ran on and on, down passageways and around turns and through arches of stone, so fast that Kate could not tell which way they were going; it was all she could do to keep up with them. She was still dazed with the shock of relief from the terror of the last few minutes, and the insistant rhythm of the music was driving everything else out of her mind….and then the light was flashing on something thin and silvery like glass–not glass, water, a sheet of water falling over an opening in the rock, and then they were running through it, and plashing along the pebbles of a shallow pool and up the bank, and then they were all standing still and the night air was blowing against their faces, alive with wind and the scent of grass and the rustle of falling leaves.

I know that’s a long passage, but I really wanted to give a sense of how Pope uses the description here to build up this sense of tension as the dancers pull Kate with them, and then that marvelous sense of expansion in the last few lines.

It’s also the first time Kate has been outside of the Hill, on the surface of the earth, and I’m going to quote another chunk because it’s just so lovely.

They had come out into a wide level space like a glade in the forest, walled about by dark masses of trees, and with one enormous oak alone in the center of the clearing. The sky was gleaming with stars, and a great globe of a moon, almost full, was just beginning to swing free from the branches that entangled it. But at that first instant all that Kate could feel was the air, the shock of the air after the stillness and the stifling confinement of the Hill. She lifted her face and looked up into it, up and up and up into the sudden incredible heights and vastnesses over her head.

I just can’t get over those last two sentences and the way they convey the freedom that Kate feels after being under the Hill for so long. The way Pope repeats herself a few times–”the air, the shock of the air” and “looked up into it, up and up and up”–is just! gosh! So, so good.

This section ends with the dance reaching a kind of fever pitch, and then an abrupt change back to the everyday world of the Hill. Kate “opened her eyes to find that she was lying on the couch back in the stable, with the mortal women whimpering beside her. Gwenhyfara was just stooping down to rouse them, the branch of candles in her hand and her severe delicate face locked and remote again. The glade, the stars, the oak tree, and the dancers were all gone like a dream.”

Once Christopher and Kate, however, they realize that time has been passing much faster than they realized and it’s now well into autumn. There’s a really haunting image here when Kate decides to talk to Gwenhyfara to try to find out how long they have before the teind.

“What she could not bear were the times when she felt as though she were hiding behind the rocks in the gorge again, watching helplessly as he walked further and further away from her towards the shadow at the mouth of the Holy Well.”

I’ve talked a few times about the ways that Pope seems to be showing a type of depression in Christopher’s mental and emotional state; this moment also works very well as a way to describe what it’s like when someone you love is struggling with mental health.

As it happens, the Lady has decided that she’ll allow Kate to learn how to become one of the People of the Hill. There’s a tension that runs through this whole long scene, and I think it’s one of the moments where Pope really delivers on showing us just how differently the People of the Hill encounter the world. This especially comes to light when the Lady says, “to be least among us is to be greater than any princess of your kind who is alive on the earth. And what more could you wish for?” and Kate thinks that she wishes for “water meadows, and a manor house, and an orchard of green apples, and at least a month’s clear time to herself and Christopher safe out of the Hill.”

I also hadn’t remembered the degree to which Christopher’s dream of the manor in Norfolk has become a shared thing at this point. It’s a nice way to show them as partners: the discussion of the manor is the place where they’re closest to each other in terms of practicality and vision.

Unfortunately, the Lady then reveals that they do not have a month. The teind will be paid that night, on All Hallows Eve. The passage that follows directly after this is absolutely amazing at conveying the effects of this revelation on Kate:

Absolute shock has sometimes a curious power of both numbing and clarifying the mind. Kate did not even move. She could tell that she had not moved because she could see her own hands, clear and still and flat like hands in a painting, resting against her knees. The hands were clasped lightly over the weight of the coiled chain, and the brown leather robe fell away under them in stiff motionless folds to the floor.

I know I’m a bit obsessed with The Queen of Attolia at the moment, but I could not help but think of one of my favorite passages in that book, which circles around this image of stone, coming back to it in every sentence. Pope uses the same trick here with Kate’s own hands, even moving from “her own hands” to “the hands.” I love the details, and the way the weight of the coiled chain and the stiff motionless folds add to the image of being frozen in place.

Kate then spends a long time arguing theology with the Lady, which I won’t quote here. It’s another moment which shows how different the Lady’s belief system is, and I love how Kate thinks she has convinced her only to have the argument turned around against her.

Eventually, the Lady attempts to hypnotize Kate with her bracelet after realizing that Kate loves Christopher. Kate is quite literally saved by the cross here–she uses the broken cold iron cross that the red-headed woman gave her to keep the Lady from putting her to sleep. I love this moment, which is just so extremely Kate: she “had a sudden furious impulse to rise to her feet and announce that she was not a seed in the furrow or a leaf on the ground.”

Tam Lin also shows up here, with the Lady admitting that the story is based on a real event and that there is a way for Kate to claim Christopher, although she very prudently won’t tell Kate how.

Once she’s left alone, Kate tries desperately to find Christopher, because they are out of time. She doesn’t have a plan any longer, but thinks that “all that would have to take its chance now. Any chance was better than none.”

But when she arrives in his cavern, the door is open. And then, in a truly Frodo was alive but taken by the enemy moment, the chapter ends with this passage:

Christopher?’ she said questioningly.

There was no answer.

AND ON THAT NOTE, that’s all for this week! Next week, we’ll be discussing the final two chapters and some wrap-up thoughts.

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bookish posts

The Perilous Gard Read-along Week 3: Chapters 6-8

The Perilous Gard Read-along

Hello once again! Welcome to week 3 of the Perilous Gard read-along. We’re over halfway done with the book now! These are some very pivotal chapters, as Kate enters a new world and has to navigate some difficult situations.

Chapter 6: The Leper’s Hut

Towards the beginning of this chapter, we encounter Randal again. As I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t love his depiction, and perhaps especially the way he’s used for exposition and little else. Here he drops several hints by singing “Tam Lin,” mentioning the teind, and then dropping the big bombshell of the chapter. However, through all of this, he remains mostly a distant and pitiable figure. The one moment of his that does really shine through is when he describes how sometimes the People in the Hill will allow him to join them for a dancing night, “and when I awake I am lying out on the cold hillside again.” I wish that Pope had leaned into this emotion more, and given us a sense of how Randal actually feels as a human being.

Once again, we see the way Kate has very little patience for Christopher’s tendency towards the melodramatic. At the same time, I don’t want to discount the very real pressure and trauma that Christopher is living with here, and particularly the way it echoes his terrible childhood. It’s a delicate balance to portray and I think that overall Pope does a fair job of reminding us why he reacts as he does.

Anyway, Randal reveals that Cecily is actually alive and living with the Fairy Folk, in what is a pretty marvelous scene, in my opinion. I really like how Pope trusts the reader to understand the subtext of what’s happening with Christopher’s reaction to the news and his interactions with Kate and Randal. (Kate’s response is, “Of course she’s alive!…What did I tell you!” Amazing. I love her.)

Last week I noted the description of the valley, with the loneliness of the landscape and the single hawk overhead. Here we get an echo of that just as Randal reveals that Cecily is alive: “The sun was now nearly overhead and the whole valley lay in clear light from the archway in the distant wall to the dark mouth of the cave among the rocks.” I love the way the clear light and the sunshine contrast with the earlier description! It’s also a nice little tie-in to the description of Christopher a little bit earlier: “His eyes were still wet, but they looked as though they had seen the Resurrection itself, and his whole face was dazed and radiant.”

Parsing this out a bit, I don’t think it’s at all an accident that the Resurrection is brought up here, or that the radiance of Christopher’s face (tying in again to the story of St. Christopher) and the sunlight in the valley are linked. And also, I think, there’s an echo of the Resurrection in the “dark mouth of the cave among the rocks.”

Of course things aren’t quite that easy, and Christopher is primed and ready to be self-sacrificing. Cecily was stolen to pay the teind on All Hallows’ Eve, and he immediately decides that he’ll take her place. Kate knows exactly what he’s doing, but she can’t find an immediate way to stop him, despite arguing about it furiously. (Perhaps my least favorite Christopher moment is when he sends her back to the castle “like a good girl.” Come on, man.) She settles for letting him get rid of her for the moment so she can write a letter to Sir Geoffrey.

Chapter 7: The Evidence Room

And then Kate has to go back to the castle and get through dinner and a whole evening without revealing that anything is wrong, knowing Christopher is out there being his dramatic and self-sacrificing self. It’s so tense!!! I do love how Pope weaves in the everyday details of meals and sewing and how to get hold of ink and paper. The description of the meal also helped me make sense of something that has puzzled me for a long time–why meals in big households like this were so massive. I mean, it can’t all be just conspicuous consumption, right? As it turns out, the food is offered to the high table before everyone else gets it, which means that it’s feeding the whole castle! Anyway, I found this detail pretty delightful.

Then Kate follows Christopher back to the valley, leading to perhaps one of my favorite exchanges in the whole book.

“Kate,” said Christopher. “Dear Kate, kind Kate, clever Kate, will you for the love of heaven go away without asking any more questions?”

“No,” said Kate flatly. “You’re planning something.”

Have I mentioned recently that I LOVE HER? Also, why exactly does my brain take this dynamic and circle it and label it ROMANCE? Is it too much Anne and Gilbert at an impressionable age? Please discuss. (There’s another great line from Kate in this section: “‘How can I be quiet when I don’t even know what it is I’m supposed to be quiet about?’ Kate hissed back.”)

Christopher, of course, exchanges himself for Cecily, in a creepy ceremony with the creepy Creature in the Well, which I do not care for at all, nope, no thank you. Also, remember that moment in chapter 2 when Kate gets caught gossiping with Dorothy? Well, Pope pulls off that same kind of tension here when Master John catches her watching the scene and takes her back to his evidence room.

In the first week, I mentioned that I’m still not quite sure to what degree this is a supernatural story, and the Creature in the Well is really the best evidence we have that there is actual supernatural stuff going on, as opposed to hypnosis, drugging, etc. It’s described in such an eerie and almost eldritch way that it’s hard to not read it as something that was never human. (Plus that one moment at the end, but we’ll talk about that later.)

I think the description of the evidence room is a really great one, so I’m going to quote it here basically in full.

“The little room was very plump and clean and commonplace, rather like Master John himself. There was a big table covered with papers and account books; more account books were ranged tidily on a shelf against the smooth whitewashed wall. Under the shelf was a great iron-bound chest. The floor had been polished and strewn with fragrant herbs–meadowsweet, rosemary, thyme. A pleasant handful of fire burned on the hearth…and Master John’s after supper morsel, a platter of cheese and ripe pears, was laid ready for him on a joint stool beside the modest wooden armchair.”

Master John then reveals himself as perhaps the truest antagonist of the story. I love how Pope uses the detail of his eating pears to make the homeiness of the room almost horrific. She was so good at building in tension and atmosphere in these tiny images that are so striking. I remembered this even before I read it–not the specifics, but the feeling of reading it, the way I was horrified but kept reading because I had to.

Speaking of effective and horrifying, here’s a sentence Master John sure does say!

“They have no intention of actually taking his wits away from him, or doing anything else that might weaken or spoil him for the–” he paused to select the exact word he wanted: “ceremony.”

No thank you at all!!

In a certain way, though, I do very much enjoy the back and forth between Kate and Master John. She really wants to fit him into her perception of the world. At one point, she thinks,

The talk was finally moving in a direction where she felt herself to be to some extent on her own ground, away from the dark, alien, mysterious world of the Fairy Folk. She knew better than to take Master John’s word that he was an honest trader…but at least he was a dishonest trader, not a heathen magician dealing in spells and charms and human sacrifice.

Unfortunately, Master John proves to be the wilier of the two. He plans to tell Sir Geoffrey that she and Christopher have run away together, thereby handily disposing of both of them. “Dishonest trading of this scope and quality was something she had never met with before. It had simply not occurred to her it was possible.”

As an aside, here’s another thing Master John sure does say. “‘Don’t blame yourself overmuch,’ said Master John in the kindest way.” GOSH, I HATE HIM.

It is interesting to me to look at Master John and Kate as sort of foils. They’re both incredibly perceptive and practical, but with very different moral codes and loyalties. We see Master John’s perceptiveness when he describes Christopher, “with all his fine talk and his tongue like a skinning knife…He might tear himself to pieces, if you choose to put it so extravagantly, but it would go very hard with him to make a display of the pieces…”

While overall Pope doesn’t put a ton of obvious weight on depictions of sexism in this book, I do think that she uses both Christopher and Master John’s relative social power as ways to compel Kate’s obedience in these chapters. Kate is smart, and thoughtful, and quick, but she doesn’t have authority, and that’s not a small thing in this world.

Chapter 8: The Lady in Green

We left Kate in the evidence room and that’s where we pick up this chapter as well. I have to admit to enjoying the moment when Kate talks herself down from being worried that Master John is about to murder her, thinking, “Master John was the last man on earth to commit a murder with his own hands, particularly a murder in his own private room, overturning the furniture, making a nasty mess of the sweet smelling, herb strewn floor.” She’s just so perceptive and slightly mean in a way that feels very gratifying to me.

She’s also correct! Master John returns with the Lady in the Green, the woman that Kate saw in the Elvenwood way back in chapter 2. The Lady proposes to take Kate as one of the mortal servants for the Fairy Folk, although Kate successfully avoids being drugged into compliance.

Throughout the book, the Lady is described in these slightly otherworldly terms, obviously very much connected with the forest and the natural world. Here, Kate thinks that “the walls and shelves and windows of Master’ John’s room…suddenly looked changed, unreal and grotesque, as if a young disdainful living tree had sprung up by magic through the flat boards of the floor.” Even the Lady’s clothing reinforces this connection with the forest and the trees:

The cloak was woven in varying shades of leaf color that wavered and shifted continually under the light, oak leaf, willow leaf, holly leaf, ash leaf, thorn leaf, elder and hazel, ivy and moss and fern…The fluctuating shapes and tints baffled the eye like the interlaced branches and foliage of a thicket.

And so Kate leaves the castle, and is led down into the Lady’s domain. And that’s where we’ll leave her this time! Next week, we’ll find out what’s going on down in the Hill.