I’ve recently completed three enjoyable if slightly flawed books. If they fit your interests, one of them could be worth a try!
Weave a Circle Round – This YA book had the promise of being full of quirky oddness. I was expecting something like a Kate Racculia book, or perhaps a more satisfying version of The House on the Cerulean Sea (am I the only blogger in the world who didn’t care for that book?). Instead, around the 30% mark, it took a hard left turn and introduced two different topics that were not promised anywhere in the book description. I almost gave up, but I’m glad I didn’t. While I found some elements of the story awkward and the ending mildly unsatisfying, this book was still enjoyable and fun, reminding me more of the fairy-tale magic of Far Far Away. For anyone who enjoys seeing story, magic and myth brought into the real world, and who has a high tolerance for first-time author quirks. Here is a more detailed review from Tor.com, although it contains my 30% spoilers.
Death Comes As Epiphany – Abelard and Heloise each have a student, and those students come together in twelfth-century France to solve a mystery. The restrictions of their society create some interesting extra drama, and if the author is fond of sudden and awkward POV changes, well, it’s something I was able to overlook for a fun, light read. I especially loved reading it alongside the next book…
A Place for Everything – I read a LOT of Judith Flanders last year, and so naturally I was excited about her new release on the history of alphabetical order. Unfortunately, this book was slower going than some of her others, and it took me over two months to finish. I’m still glad I persevered, because I keep finding ways to relate other books I’m reading back to it.
10. The Making of Home by Judith Flanders – reviews the concept of home through time and how it influenced the development of various societies. 9. Fire Logic by Laurie Marks – three friends join the resistance in a fantasy world where people have different magical elemental powers (fire, water, earth, air). Note, I loved the first book and couldn’t get into the rest of this mature series. 8. A Royal Experiment by Janice Hadlow – nonfiction on the family life of King George III. Fascinating and full of dramatic tension as the royals lay out a path to avoid their parents’ mistakes and then train-wreck their way through life. 7. Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett – Fantasy novel with a steampunk feel – magic is used to imbue everyday objects (like carriages) with the sentience to perform a simple task over and over again. Our heroine must fight the industrial overlords who are searching for a more powerful object to consolidate control over the city. 6. Beach Read by Emily Henry – Two writers next door to each other at their lake houses ignore each other. Extremely fun (and funny) romance – and I don’t read a lot of romance. I gifted this book this year. 5. A Golden Thread by Kassia St. Clair – The history of fabric. I got a lot of ribbing from my husband on this one – and then I read it out loud to him in bed. 4. The Four Graces by D.E. Stevenson – wartime story of sisters finding love in an English village – as funny and high quality as Miss Buncle’s Book by the same author 3. A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine – A space exploration saga focusing on an ambassador that is dropped into a new society without the hardware implants that would normally help her understand it. Really clever and once I got into it, fascinating. 2. The Other Bennett sister by Janice Hadlow – Of all the Pride and Prejudice retellings I read this year, my most favorite. Hadlow focuses on Mary, the dorky middle sister. She moves beyond the P&P timeline to show Mary learning to own her power as a woman. 1. The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie – If I had written a 2019 Best List, this author’s science fiction book Ancillary Justice would have been on it. The Raven Tower is her one fantasy book and it is even better than Ancillary Justice. That’s all I’ll say. No spoilers.
Note: because it’s been such an odd reading year, I’ve also composed lists of favorite series, nonfiction, and gentle reads that I read and enjoyed in 2020.
I really have no idea what I’m going to do with my Top Books of 2020 list this year. Maybe I won’t do one. It’s been such an odd reading year – I’ve read my way through several series, done a lot of Pride and Prejudice retellings, dug into an unusual quantity of nonfiction, and enjoyed an assortment of quiet, nonthreatening reads.
In this post, my gentle pandemic reads have a few things in common: most are romance or at least have romantic subplots; all have a strong sense of place, often centered in an English village; and most importantly, all were readable and comforting for me in this difficult year. “Readable” and “comforting” are really the main criteria. If you find yourself needing gentle reads to get through the winter of 2021, I hope one or two of these help you too. In no particular order:
Or, normally I’m not. 2020 isn’t a normal year. Reflecting back on the books I enjoyed most in 2020, in addition to a lot of series, I’m seeing a long list of nonfiction. Mostly narrative nonfiction, but still.
I’m contrasting this with other “best of” lists from favorite bloggers. So many are talking about what a great reading year this was for them, how many books they read, how many favorite books they found. So I’m just going to say it, right now: THIS WAS NOT A GREAT READING YEAR FOR ME.
It was long, and hard. For about six months, I was providing full-time care for my daughter while assuming housecleaning duties and working a more-than-full-time managerial job from home. This was more than a split shift. This was 5 AM to 10 PM work in crazy 10-minute attention-splitting increments. It affected my health and inflamed an existing health condition, so that about the time my daughter went back to school, I was shifted into invalid mode following surgery.
I’m not saying this to complain or top anyone else – I’m grateful to have a job, and good health care, and a safe home and a family that I love being locked down with (if I must be locked down). Many people had similar experiences; many people had worse. I am just realizing it is important context for why I read so darn much nonfiction. I think it’s something I could consume in small bites- sometimes VERY small bites – unlike novels where I might lose interest if I take a week to get through a chapter.
I also think, given that most of these books are rooted in history, that it helped me to read about other people going through bigger struggles, and put my own in context.
I read The Splendid and the Vile very early in the pandemic; the Britons before the U.S. stepped into World War II were really almost screwed. We are not screwed here, okay? We’re a little scared and a little pent up. Likewise, I read The Last Days of Night and A Royal Experiment as I watched some of the people around me (not my family, thankfully) tear each other to shreds and generally behave poorly under stress, and realized that this isn’t new; it’s human nature.
I was making unusual substitutes for toilet paper, but at least I wasn’t cutting up magazines and threading them onto string to hang in the bathroom for wiping, as revealed in Inside The Victorian Home. I might get frustrated with mask noncompliance, but overall we’re managing sanitation around the pandemic brilliantly, unlike The Victorian City. In Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, the narrator had similar health issues to mine, and plus she was just funny (I needed that). I was struggling to get eggs and rice and tuna, but still my food supply was amazing compared to depression-era America in Food of a Younger Land.
And finally, I can’t keep this going for The Golden Thread; I just enjoyed sharing interesting bits with my husband after he scoffed at me for reading a book based on the history of fabric.
How about you – did you find your reading shifted significantly in 2020?
I feel that I’ve hit the end of my year already in so many ways.
After medical leave in October-November, I had pretty much read all the books on my TBR list that I genuinely wanted to read – because you know there’s always those “should-read” titles that keep getting pushed to the bottom. So, I cleared most of my TBR, and donated/traded many books that had been lingering on my shelves for years. My library holds list was nearly empty for a couple of weeks.
Then came Christmas crafting. I’ve posted here about all the stuff I made, but not posted about were the patterns I tried and deleted out of my queue. I also used up a LOT of stash yarn, starting with the chunky stuff. My yarn drawers are oddly not stuffed to the brim. Most significantly, while on leave, I got to make all of the projects that were on my heart to make for my little girl while she’s still little, including some sewing projects. So while I do still have a lot of yarn and things in my queue, it feels like a clearing-out in the crafting quarter of my life, too.
I’m ready for goal-setting; I’ve been playing with my morning routine to incorporate more spiritual practice and trying to fit more exercise and sunlight into my work days. 2021 will be the year of self-care for me. But books have always been a huge part of that. So what the heck am I going to read next?
I always like following the thread of my interest as the year goes on, but here are some books newly added to my library holds list for now. I was so stuck that I found these in two ways: First, I wrote an email to my local librarian to describe books I liked, one book I hated, and I’d been reading lately. I don’t know if she recognized the What Should I Read Next? format, but she played along and gave me some recommendations. Here’s what I added to my queue as a result. It will be interesting to see if these pan out, as I haven’t had the best luck with this method in the past – I think the librarian often uses readalike database searches and I am not necessarily looking for readalikes.
The Invisible Woman – Nonfiction work on Charles Dickens’ love affair with an 18 year old girl, Nelly Ternan. It is both described as “a thrilling literary detective story” and “a view of women who were excluded from the warm, well-lighted parlors of Victorian England”. Also from the same author, a Jane Austen biography. I got the sense from the librarian’s email that the author of these two books, Claire Tomalin, was the only truly personal recommendation she had for me.
Eminent Victorians (pub 1918) by Lytton Strachey – I’m curious to see what an “expose” of High Victorianism written in 1918 looks like.
The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes – this one is an obvious readalike for Enola Holmes, and just for the record I am NOT obsessed with all things Sherlock. But why not, I’ll give it a try.
To continue filling up my holds list, I browsed my library catalog in Libby, clicking on attributes of books I’ve enjoyed recently. That got me a list of books that, at the very least, had fabulous covers and descriptions. No worse than wandering through the library and picking things off the end caps – though that’s usually my least productive method of picking books. Still, I am reading one already, Weave A Circle Round, and loving it.
Finding Baba Yaga – A novel-in-verse about finding your own voice AND about fairy tales.
A Queen in Hiding – As I try to write a summary description, I’m realizing this does NOT have a fabulous description – in fact, it’s quite generic: epic fantasy coming-of-age story about an exiled queen who must learn magic and fight for her kingdom. It’s a debut novel with the full series already published so I can binge it if it’s good.
I have more, but they’re either checked out or close to coming in off my holds list, so I’ll wait for a future libary loot post. Also, I’m really looking forward to end-of-the-year book lists to further refill my TBR.
Have you read any of the above books? I’d love your input.
All of my projects were stashbusting, which is why the yarn is perhaps swankier than necessary, but it made for a lovely experience overall.
Books lately have been hard. I read Gone Away by Hazel Holt in an evening, and found it to be a less funny readalike to Excellent Women, but I didn’t continue the series. I didn’t care for any other Library Loot books from last week (except Songs of Jesus, but that is structurally not a binge read). So I pulled a reread off my shelf and it is getting the job done. Sorcery and Cecilia
I’ve started many more books, but just couldn’t sink into them.
I took a look at my 2020 reading history – including The Prairie Thief – and realized I have been wallowing in the Victorian era in one way or another for most of the year. Even The Golden Thread spent a lot of time there.
I’m one to follow my interests in reading, rather than force challenges or other reading programs. So I looked through my very thin library TBR on the Libby app, and found:
My Dear Charlotte by Hazel Holt (currently reading): Epistolary novel from the viewpoint of a woman in Lyme in 1815, writing to her sister in Bath. Heavily based off Austen letters. I first checked out Gone Away, first in a mystery series by the same author, then quickly returned it in favor of My Dear Charlotte. Looks like I may have found some kind of library / Kindle loophole?
Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley: 19th-century novel following the lives of several female friends. Critique of social conventions and strictures.
Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson: Humorous 1920 novel, first in a series. A little outside my Victorian theme, but should fit into my other rut, early 20th century English village life. I’m super boring…. As a side note, I keep getting teased for requesting crochet hooks “with comfy handles” for Christmas.
Premeditated Myrtle by Elizabeth C. Bunce: New release middle grade novel about a young sleuth in Victorian Swinburne, England.
The Songs of Jesus by Timothy Keller – the author breaks the Psalms up into a 365-day reading exercise, with short, encouraging commentary and a little prayer.
As usual I have not recorded where I got these recommendations originally, but if you’ve read any of these books, I’d love to hear from you!
Most years, my TBR list is too long and my ambitions too high to commit to reading 3, 6 or 12 books by one author with a single setting and cast of characters. Who wants to do that when there are so many other worlds waiting to be read?
But this year, like so many of you, I found myself needing to read easier. It became a comfort to revisit familiar settings and old friends, when I couldn’t visit anything else.
I don’t know what 2021 holds, but here are some excellent (and for the most part, complete!) book series to help you get through the winter.
Jane Austen Mysteries by Stephanie Barron. I enjoy Jane Austen, but I wouldn’t call myself a superfan. For me, this series was enjoyable for its independent, snarky, contrarian sleuth – Jane Austen, of course. I also loved how the books align with specific sections in Jane Austen’s real diaries, keeping them strongly rooted in time and place.
I read the whole series this year, and while I didn’t love every book equally, one of them is on my best books of the year list. (Teaser alert).
Enola Holmes by Nancy Springer. I read this series at the absolute low point of my year, purchasing every single book on Kindle because I couldn’t wait for the library holds to come in. Let’s be honest : this is a middle grade series with some unrealistic stuff going on. The basic premise is that a girl in her early teens makes it as a professional sleuth in Victorian London, with her own lodging-house and office. And this girl happens to be Sherlock Holmes’s much-younger sister.
If you can deal with that premise, the series is amazingly fun. Enola Holmes evades and outsleuths her brothers Sherlock and Mycroft, rides her bicycle and London taxicabs all over creation, and generally asserts her independence and her identity. My inner twelve-year-old was so happy.
Ursula Blanchard Mysteries by Fiona Buckley. Now I’m going from early teen to mature woman as hero. This series follows Ursula Blanchard, a widow in Elizabethan England, as she spies for and protects Queen Elizabeth I. Before picking up this series, I was tired of Elizabethan historicals; I burned out on them about ten years ago, much like I’ve burned out on WWII recently. This series revived my interest. The author (who also publishes as Valerie Anand) has a deep background in medieval and Elizabethan periods and it really gives a lot of depth to the books, but the historical mystery genre keeps the pacing up and the books relatively short. There’s also an element of romance threaded through the series, and Buckley does an excellent job keeping it fresh while staying true to the era.
Full disclosure: I stopped (or paused?) after book 12, when the series slowed down for me. Still, I think 12 books is a great run!
Imperial Radch by Ann Leckie. This is probably the hardest read on my list, but also has the most depth and is probably the most re-readable. When reading the first book in the series, Ancillary Justice, I really had to push through the first fifty pages or so until I understood the world she was trying to build. Once I got into it, however, it was amazing. The point of view is through a ship’s AI who now resides in a single human. The ship doesn’t perceive gender (or indeed many things) like humans would, but has also developed in unexpected ways for a ship. Themes of justice, identity, and gender are combined with space adventure, and I would normally never read a book based on the sentence I just wrote, but I loved it anyway.
Ivy and Bean by Annie Barrows. My daughter’s first binge-read! I’m so proud, and I have to say that after reading this series aloud approximately 47 times throughout the year, I haven’t gotten tired of it yet. It feels like an updated Ramona, but is more focused on an unlikely friendship between rough-and-tumble Bean and head-in-the-clouds Ivy. This got us through the early pandemic and I think provided my daughter with some friendship fantasies while she was feeling very isolated.
What book series would you recommend for me in 2021?
O Wool, noble dame, thou art the goddess of merchants . . . O fair, O white, O delightful one, the love of thee stings and binds, so that the hearts of those who make merchandise of thee cannot escape. John Gower, Mirour de l’Omme, c. 1376-1379
I put the finishing touches on three Christmas gifts this weekend. I meant them to be three SEPARATE Christmas gifts, but now I think the purple hat and purple mug cozy want to stay together. Which means I have to make more things…
I haven’t been reading much, but I did finish The Golden Thread, which was quoted/linked at the beginning of this post. Such a fun history of fabric- I found myself reading it out loud to hubs at night! Thanks to Sharlene from Real Life Reading for the recommendation.