Saturday, February 27, 2021

February Wrap Up


So, February was not the most successful reading month I've ever had. I ended up finishing four books, reading a bit more of Les Misérables, and made it through a chunk of Our Mutual Friend. While I did like most of what I read, most of my selections for the month weren't quick or easy, and I ended up going through a bit of a reading slump as a result. I still read every day, but I wasn't getting through as many pages as usual and I actually struggled to stay awake many days. Here's the breakdown of what I read:

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens - In progress

My favorite book of the month was...none of those, actually. I didn't dislike anything I read, but I didn't love anything either. If I had finished Our Mutual Friend, that would be the top book of the month. It's very funny and clever so far. I'm liking it a lot. It's 800 pages though, so it's quite slow going.

My least favorite of the month was...none of those again. There were things I didn't like about all of them, but none of them were "bad." 

What a bland month of reading! I am hoping that I have better luck in March. This is what I have planned so far: 

Finish Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
At least two books chosen from my owned-not-read list based on my mood
At least 100 pages of Les Misérables

I'm happy for the fresh start that March will bring. I'm ready to try and find a book that I will truly get lost in! Hopefully I'll have better luck than I had this month.

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

This review will contain some spoilers for the first book in this series, The Bear and the Nightingale

For my next read, I decided to carry on with Katherine Arden's Russian folklore-inspired Winternight Trilogy, which I started earlier in the month. The Girl in the Tower is the second book in the series. I liked the first book, The Bear and the Nightingale, and I already owned the other two sequels, so I figured now was the best time to continue the story. I started my reading off hoping the enjoy this one a little bit more. One of the things I was hoping to see more of in this series was romance, and since Vasilisa is older in this installment, I thought that I might get my wish.

This novel picks up directly after the events of the previous book. Vasilisa, having saved her village from the bear demon, sets off on her own to escape the expectation of marriage and to explore the world. She disguises herself as a boy and travels on horseback through the Russian wilderness. She enjoys her explorations until she stumbles across a terrible situation. Villages are being burned down all throughout the countryside by a mysterious and unbeatable groups of bandits. Aside from torching everything, these bandits are murdering scores of townspeople and kidnapping young girls. Vasilisa feels called to try and help, and her involvement brings her all the way to a palace in Moscow, where she is plunged into another fantastical situation with a dangerous demon. This time however, court politics are in play, and Vasilisa must untangle the complex schemes and power plays in order to save the city.

I think I ended up liking The Girl in the Tower a little bit more than the first book in the series. There was a more romance in the storyline, and I thought that the plot moved along at a pretty good pace. While the story was still quite serious in tone, it didn't feel quite as heavy to me as the previous installment did, which I appreciated.  I was consistently engaged in the story and I liked it enough to want to continue on with the final book, so overall, I had a good time with it. 

I still didn't love this novel though, and much like with The Bear and the Nightingale, I was disappointed by that. It just didn't grab me on a deep level. I liked the story and I read the book pretty quickly, but that's all. I'm finding that I don't have much to share about it here. No big observations, compliments, or issues to explore. It's kind of rare for me to feel so uninspired to write about a book, but I can't force feelings I don't have. It makes me wonder what I'm missing though, because so many people absolutely love this series and rate it very highly. I'm just going to chalk that up to the old "not every book is for every reader" idea and move on.    

In any case, I am glad to have read another book from my shelves. This one will join my donate pile along with its predecessor. I'm still going to read the final book in the trilogy to finish out the story. Who knows? Maybe I will feel more interested to write about that one.

Challenge Tally
Clear the Shelves 2021: 7/50 (donate)

Total Books Read in 2021: 12

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Iola Leroy: Shadows Uplifted by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper


One of the categories in the Back to the Classics Challenge this year is to read a novel by a BIPOC author. I didn't have anything that was old enough to count as a classic for this category sitting on my shelf that I hadn't already read, so I had to do a little research to find something that qualified. I found a great list on Book Riot of BIPOC classics, and I ended up choosing Iola Leroy by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. I'd never heard of this book or this author before, but I was intrigued by the fact that this it was one of the first fiction novels published by an African American woman. Hoping to broaden my literary horizons, I started reading last week.

The plot of the novel follows a handful of characters, but it mostly focuses on Iola Leroy, a young woman who is a slave on a South Carolina plantation. At the start of the story, the Civil War is ending. The Union army is has fought its way into the area and has set up came near her town. Slaves are running away in droves to join the Union army, and one of these slaves mentions Iola's situation to the Union commander. He immediately orders her release, and she is brought to the camp to work as a nurse for wounded soldiers. Her appearance initially surprises the commander, as she looks completely white. Eventually, she shares her story with him.

Her history is a complicated and tragic one. Her father, Eugene Leroy, was a wealthy slaveholder. Years ago, he was stricken with a serious illness and was nursed back to health by one of his slaves named Marie. Marie had a white father as well, and appeared white herself. He fell in love with her, freed her, sent her away to be educated in the North, and married her. They had three children together, one of which was Iola. Eugene made the decision to keep Iola's true heritage a secret from her, so she grew up thinking she was white. When she came of age, her father sent her and her older brother to school in the North. He subsequently died, and even though his marriage to Marie was legal and his will stipulated that she and the children should inherit all of his wealth, his family managed to find enough loopholes to legally disregard his wishes. They took over his estate and Marie, Iola, and her siblings were all split apart and sold into slavery.

The rest of the novel follows Iola and her brother as they try to reconnect with each other and put their family back together after the Civil War ends and slavery is abolished. Most of the pages in the novel follow their discussions as they share their thoughts and feelings about the role the African Americans should play in the post-war era and the potential they have to become equal members of society. Iola Leroy is an interesting exploration of the issues newly freed slaves had to grapple with in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, and a heart wrenching look at the pain and suffering slavery wrought upon their families.

After I finished reading, I was curious to learn more about Frances Harper, and to see how connected she was to the subject matter of this book. I learned that she was born free in Maryland in 1825. She published Iola Leroy in 1892, and in addition to writing, she was a teacher, an abolitionist, a suffragist, and a public speaker.  So, although she was never a slave herself, she did live through the time period depicted in the novel and spent a lot of time working against slavery. As such, I found this story interesting in a historical sense. Harper's writing, while perhaps a little overly sentimental, was a good example of what some African Americans and other abolitionists were thinking at the time. In that way, it was a bit of a window back to a different time that I don't know that much about.

I also enjoyed how Harper discussed so many different social issues relevant to the time period. Topics such as biracial children, interracial marriage, temperance, "passing," and reconstruction were all explored. I found it pretty disheartening to see how little some of the injustices and stereotypes people of color have to face have changed over the years. Many of the comments and problems the characters talked about still exist in some form today. For its perspective on social issues alone, Iola Leroy was a worthwhile read. 

As a work of narrative fiction, however, the text itself was not very entertaining. The story is dominated by character discussions, with almost all of the action taking place off-page and being described afterwards. Conflicts also seemed to be resolved too easily and unrealistically. There wasn't really any sense of suspense or tension throughout the story and the writing was quite fussy and proper. This was more of a chance for Harper to put her ideas about race and inequality out there - the actual plot of the novel felt secondary. 

Obviously, it's awful to be critical of this novel. It was a huge accomplishment for Harper to be one of the first published African American female authors and her characters' views on social issues of the day were an interesting look at the past. At only 220 pages, Iola Leroy isn't too much of a time commitment, so any readers interested in expanding their knowledge of the African American literary cannon would probably enjoy checking this one out.

Challenge Tally
Back to the Classics 2021 (A classic by a BIPOC author): 3/12

Total Books Read in 2021: 11

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden


After my last, super-dense read, I was in the mood for a lighter fantasy novel. While searching my shelves for the perfect match, I stumbled across The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. I picked this book up last year on the recommendation of basically everyone I watch on BookTube. The story is based on Russian folklore, and set during a harsh, icy winter. As I love fairy tale retellings and am currently living through the harshest winter of my life, I figured that now was the perfect time to give it a try. I went into my reading hoping to get lost in a magical tale and hopefully find a new favorite.

The plot is set in medieval Russia and follows Vasilisa, a young girl living in a small, isolated settlement in the wilderness with her father and siblings. Her mother died giving birth to her, so she has mostly been raised by her older sister Olga and her elderly nurse Dunya while her father, leader of their village, handles his many responsibilities. As the novel begins, Vasilisa has spent most of her childhood exploring the woods around her home, sneaking freshly baked cakes from the kitchen, and listening to Dunya tell old fairy tales around the oven at night. Her family is Christian, but they still pay homage to the old gods, leaving little sacrifices around their hearth for the spirits that keep their house safe. 

Vasilisa has always been a bit different from her brothers and sisters. She's a little more mischievous, a little more wild, and seems to have an otherworldly quality about her that she inherited from her late mother, a woman with a mysterious (and some say magical) past. As she begins to grow into womanhood, Vasilisa's father decides to remarry. He is hopeful that having another woman in the house to guide his youngest daughter will help her shed some of her wildness and improve her chances of finding a husband. The woman he settles on, however, ends up bringing nothing but trouble to his family.

This new wife, a devout Christian, is determined to turn Vasilisa into a proper woman or send her to a convent, and her methods become increasingly aggressive as time goes on. She also insists that the family stop paying tribute to the old gods, an act with bigger consequences than anyone imagines. Soon, things out of fairy tales start becoming real before Vasilisa's eyes. An old evil has been waiting in the woods for a chance to rise again, and now that the old gods' influence has been weakened, he has an opportunity to strike. Vasilisa, with her strange connection to this spirit world, is the only one able to see what is happening to her family and her town, and she must break all the bounds of convention to try and stop it.

I did end up liking this novel, but it took me a little while to get into it. I'm used to devouring stories like this in just a few days, and that wasn't the case here. I'm not sure why it didn't click with me right away. It has literally all of the things I love in a fantasy novel - deep connections to old folklore, detailed, beautiful writing, and an independent, interesting heroine that you want to root for. I think it might be because the story is so dark and so heavy. Medieval Russia in the middle of an unusually harsh winter is a bleak setting, and Katherine Arden does such a good job describing it that the story often felt quite gloomy and oppressive. The plot was similarly dark, with misfortunes and disappointments happening on many of its pages. It was a good read, but not a light or fun read. 

Once I got used to the dark tone and heavy writing though, I enjoyed it. The story was consistently interesting, if a bit slow in parts, and I was engaged enough in what was happening to want to know the end. As Vasilisa is a young girl for most of this novel, romance wasn't a big element throughout a lot of the story, and I missed that. Fairy tales and romance belong together (for me, at least).  I wish the story had been centered more on her as a young woman so that the romance that does eventually show up would have had a longer time to develop. This is the first book in a trilogy though, so I suppose there will be more chances for that in subsequent books. I already own the other two novels in the series, so I'm going to continue on with them and see if I like them any better than the first.

Aside from my bland, in-the-middle kind of thoughts here, I don't have much more to say about The Bear and the Nightingale. It was good, but not great for me. I'm disappointed that I didn't love it, but it's still a worthwhile read for those that are into fairy tale-style fantasy. This one will most likely land in my donate pile, but I'm not sorry I read it.

Challenge Tally
Clear the Shelves 2021: 6/50 (donate)

Total Books Read in 2021: 10

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin


I decided to kick off my February reading by tackling one of the longer books left on my Classics Club listWinter's Tale by Mark Helprin. This novel was published in 1983, making it one of the youngest books in my challenge. I do think that considering any book out of the 1980's as a classic is pushing the definition a little bit, but when I was researching classic fantasy novels, this one kept coming up. My husband had previously read most of it and enjoyed it, plus we already owned it, so I figured I'd give it a shot. 

Winter's Tale is a magical realism novel set in New York City. The plot is very difficult to describe as it spans across at least 100 years and deals with multiple characters and very intellectual concepts. It starts, however, in the late 1800s with a thief and master mechanic named Peter Lake. As the story begins, Peter tries to rob the home of a wealthy family living in the city. He believes the residence to be empty, but in reality, the eldest daughter of the family, a young woman named Beverly Penn, is inside. When Beverly and Peter stumble across each other, they fall deeply in love. They know that their happiness can't last, because Beverly is dying. However, their short, tragic romance kicks off an intricate story that spans a century and comes to include time travel, magic, and even a flying horse.

It's tough to summarize the story much more than that as it follows a long and winding path through plot events both improbable and impossible. I don't mean that in an entirely negative way either, this is just one of those stories that defies a simple explanation. One of my students saw this book sticking out of my bag and asked me what it was about and I literally had no idea how to answer that question in a way that an 8th grader could understand. The best explanation I could think of was, "It's an epic love story set in a magical version of New York." That doesn't really capture how complex and deep this work is though. The book is about 750 pages long and full of whimsy, lofty ideas, and philosophy. Is it actually entertaining to read though? 

That answer is going to vary wildly from reader to reader.

For me, this was not a particularly fun read. I fully recognize that the writing was beautiful and the work was very ambitious. I enjoyed a lot of the characters and I thought the bits of magic that floated through the text were lyrical and intriguing. There were parts that I really liked and thought were clever and fun. Where I struggled however, was with putting all of these elements together to understand the overall story. I don't think I ever fully understood the central narrative here. Things would frequently happen in this novel and I would have no idea why or where those things would lead. Of course, I know that the hazy plot is intentional. Helprin is writing in a style that requires readers to use their imaginations to fill in the gaps. I've tried several books structured like this over the years, and I've never been particularly satisfied by any of them. I like connections, explanations, and rules. I like fully understanding a plot. A Winter's Tale is just not that kind of book, and 750 pages of a style you don't particularly like is not very rewarding to get through.

I know that the elements I didn't like within this novel are what some people like the most about it. Readers that love wordy, beautiful prose and vague plot points imbued with a sense of wonder will undoubtedly fall in love with this story. I do believe that it is probably a masterpiece in its style. It's just not for me. I enjoyed it at times, but most of the time I was just reading to finish. I settled on giving it three stars overall, because while I know it's well-written, it wasn't a good fit for me. I'm glad to have experienced it once though, and I'm even gladder to be able to cross it off my Classics Club list.

Challenge Tally
Classics Club (#49 on my list): 85/100 books completed

Total Books Read in 2021: 9