What I’ve Been Reading, October 2016

kindleI’ve been reading. (Surprise, surprise!)

Mostly on my Kindle, mostly free fiction I pick up from my Book Bub subscription (also free, and you can subscribe for e-book bargains here, and btw I’m not affiliated but I’ve been pleased). Also books from the library. By the way, most of the links in this post are to Goodreads, except the one to Book Bub, the one to IMDB, and the one to an author page. Not pushing you to buy anything. 🙂

I told you how I finished The Wheel of Time recently, but I also read Room and Bastard out of Carolina (both heartbreaking, both worthy).  I started Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, whose prose can sing when she’s not flat-out hectoring people, but she began to hector, and I stopped reading.

Kingsolver’s technique reminds me of the story about the minister newly installed in a church in Virginia horse country. The first Sunday he preached a sermon warning of the evils of alcohol, and afterwards was greeted by an elderly churchgoer at the door. “Mighty fine sermon, preacher, mighty fine,” she told him. The next Sunday he warned of the dangerous risks of dancing all up-close-and-personal, the way people do at honkytonks (how shocking!), and his parishioner pronounced his sermon “mighty fine” again. On the third Sunday, he preached against the uncouth and troubling habit of cursing, and again his favorite member of the flock congratulated him on his fine sermon.

On the fourth Sunday, fired up from his success at renouncing ordinary evils, he preached an inspired message against the evils of gambling. He warned against playing cards for money, or gambling on a game of pool, or betting on the ponies. Even those $1 lottery tickets down at the Piggly Wiggly, he claimed, were instruments of the devil, for making people believe they could gain riches from anything other than the word of the Lord, and for taking the bread out of the mouths of babies. He shook hands at the door afterward, already planning his next sermon to address the sin of smoking tobacco and expecting to be congratulated again by this elderly lady.

However, she set her cane close to his toes with a thump and pointed a finger at his chest, and said, “Preacher, you have quit preachin’ and gone to meddlin’, and that’s about enough of that.” He watched her high-dudgeon exit with his mouth open, and it was only then that one of the deacons explained to him that she owned a string of racehorses and had been involved with the racing industry since her childhood, and any criticism of gambling on her beloved horses was bound to meet with stony disapproval.

Am I criticizing Kingsolver for having an opinion on issues and trying to convince people that her view is the right one, through her novels? Nope. I’m not. I am, however, criticizing her for going at it all ham-handed and pretending that she’s “just telling a story,” when she has a thinly-disguised agenda. Her subtext has become her text, and it’s clumsily done, poor noveling, and I do not approve.disapprovalI have also been reading some lightweight romance novels – largely because that’s the genre that most often shows up for free on Book Bub. #sorrynotsorry Some of them aren’t bad. Some of them, are just awful. Unbelievable characters, improbable plots, ridiculously perfect best friends… Sigh. Trouble is, you never know just from the description which ones are going to be good, and which ones clunkers. You have to get at least a couple of chapters in before you can tell. I think I won’t bother to tell you which ones I enjoyed and which were duds; it’s kind of pointless because these books are like popcorn and it’s hard to distinguish between kernels.

The other thing I’ve been reading lately is The Circle of Ceridwen, by Octavia Randolph. This is a four-book series set in Angle-land (England) of 871, a time of war and politico-cultural upheaval on this island that would become so powerful centuries later. Ceridwen, aged 15 when we first meet her, is the acknowledged illegitimate — and only — child of a Saxon thegn (thane, a minor lord) in Mercia. Her mother was Welsh, enslaved through war, and Ceridwen thinks she might be dead because she has never met her. Her father died a few years before, and the local priest seized his lands on the grounds that he was a heathen, devoted to his Saxon gods. Ceridwen came of age in the priory, having been taught to read and write, as well as to perform tasks expected of a highborn wife and hallmistress: spin, weave, direct servants, and oversee a household. As the book picks up, she has decided to refuse both of the choices for husband the prior has offered her, and to run away to find a situation more acceptable to her. On the road, she meets Ælfwyn, daughter of a higher-ranking Saxon lord who has promised her as peace-making bride to one of the most powerful Viking raiders now gaining a foothold in the country, and proposes to serve her as friend and companion in the Norse town where Ælfwyn is bound.

The four novels cover the next 12 to 15 years of Ceridwen’s life, which not only involves the marriage and childbearing that would have circumscribed the life of a typical woman of her time, but some extensive travel, war experiences, and changing circumstances. She’s an enjoyable character — quick to take sides and make judgments, brave, resolute, and warm-hearted. Sometimes that warm heart and impulsive judgment gets her into tangled situations, but her deep desire to improve the lives of those around her allows her to salvage much. 

The mixing strains of Welsh, Saxon, and Norse cultures point out how much of a “melting pot” England itself was, back in the day. Interesting. Much food for thought.

The series was recommended to me thusly: “If you love Outlander, you’ll enjoy The Circle of Ceridwen.”  It’s not a terribly valid comparison, except that they’re both historical novels that also have elements of romance, everyday life, battles, and strong heroines. I can see them appealing to the same kind of reader, but it’s more a Venn diagram thing; there will be people who like one and not the other, as well some who have overlapping tastes. You might try if it you liked Karen Cushman’s YA historical novel-in-journal-format, Catherine, Called Birdy. Bookworm had to read it for class in middle school, and liked it so much that she bought a copy at the book fair, and then she made me read it too. How do you not love a teen novel that begins, “Corpus bones! I utterly loathe my life”?

(I do love Diana Gabaldon’s massive Outlander series, now comprised of 8 giant enormous main novels, 3 shorter emergency backup novels, 6 tangential novellas and a short story. Very highly recommended, but only if you don’t read slowly.)

So what have you been reading lately?