Between the Bookends, Image: Sophie Brown

Between the Bookends: 6 Books We Read in May 2020

Between the Bookends Featured Columns
Between the Bookends, Image: Sophie Brown
Between the Bookends, Image: Sophie Brown

As our “new normal” continues on, Sophie, Corinna, and Sarah share six books they have been reading during May. 

Please note: This post contains affiliate links.

The Cat and The City, Image Atlantic Books
The Cat and The City, Image Atlantic Books

The Cat and the City by Nick Bradley

Sophie’s first book of the month was one she picked up to satisfy a prompt in this year’s PopSugar Reading Challenge – a book set in Japan. The Cat and the City by Nick Bradley is a collection of interwoven short stories all set in Tokyo as the city prepares to host the 2020 Olympic Games and yes, it does feel slightly odd to read this knowing those games are now postponed for a year.

Although each story is unique in both genre, style, and more, all the stories connect to one another with characters repeatedly showing up. In one story a character may take a taxi or visit a convenience store and in the next, the taxi driver or the convenience store clerk will be the new protagonist. It’s almost a literary Love Actually but with better writing. There is romance, science fiction, comedy, and tragedy to find here, and the only unifying element is a calico cat who winds in and out of every story. Sometimes the cat is a key character, in other stories she merely passes through for a moment, but she is always there.

Sophie wasn’t sure what she expected from this book but it certainly wasn’t the discomforting prose she found in the opening story “Tattoo” which really got under her skin (ironic for a tale set entirely in a tattoo parlor), the science-fiction heartbreak of “Copy Cat”, or the unexpectedly sexual “Autumn Leaves”. The odd mixture of styles and genres reminded her strongly of Neil Gaiman who is one of her favorite authors.

Sophie is sure she will be picking up more from Nick Bradley in the future because there’s nothing she likes more than unexpectedly falling in love with a book she merely hoped to like.

The Fan Fiction Studies Reader, Image University of Iowa Press
The Fan Fiction Studies Reader, Image University of Iowa Press

The Fan Fiction Studies Reader, Edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse

The Fan Fiction Studies Reader serves as a primer to the world of fan fiction studies by excerpting eleven essays by academics in the field. These essays are grouped into four thematic areas: Fan Fiction as Literature, Fan Identity and Feminism, Fan Communities and Affect, and Fan Creativity and Performance.

Sophie took away a huge amount from these essays, most importantly a new way of looking at media texts which is worlds apart from what she was taught at school. Many of the choices made by female slash writers also became more understandable when viewed through these lenses, although Sophie often ended up with more questions than she did answers, “that’s all very well but what about these types of stories?” She was particularly intrigued by the assertion that fan fiction is better explained as a form of theatre than of literature.

Two criticisms Sophie had were with the choices of essays selected. First, many of the essays dated from the early years of modern fandom and the very beginnings of fan studies research in the early-mid eighties. While she appreciates the value in looking at the subject at its beginning, many of the issues raised are no longer relevant in the vast majority of fandom today. For example, many of the essays discuss the way fanfiction is shared through edited zines at conventions, these days an almost unheard-of method of distribution.

Secondly, while fanfiction itself is broad and global, the essays here are focused on a very tiny subsection of the practice as a whole. In fact, you could get away with calling this the Star Trek Fan Fiction Studies Reader given that ten of the eleven essays mention the show to at least some degree. While modern fanfiction does, of course, share its roots with the stories shared in zines in the late 1960s, they are now worlds apart and it was hard to see much exploration of the way the medium has evolved.

 

A Wizard of Earthsea, Image Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
A Wizard of Earthsea, Image Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin

Corrina has carried this slim book – A Wizard of Earthsea – and one of its sequels, The Farthest Shore, around since her teenage years but hadn’t been moved to re-read it until just now. The book is labeled as a young adult because it’s the tale of young, nearly-feral wizard Ged learning about his humanity and accepting the flaws within himself.

The omniscient point of view puts the reader a little outside the action and Corrina suspects this is why she didn’t connect to the story strongly as a teenager, her tastes running more to stories with intense emotions. However, reading it as an adult, it’s clear the themes of confronting your worse self, of accepting that you are not the center of the universe and that actions have consequences that one can’t always foresee, are even more relevant now.

At heart, it’s a hopeful book and one that contains a great deal to consider in these turbulent times and it’s definitely one of those young adult titles that is relevant to all readers.

Chosen Ones, Image Hodder & Stoughton
Chosen Ones, Image Hodder & Stoughton

Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth

This was the first time that GeekMom Sarah had read anything by Veronica Roth, having skipped the Divergent series. The premise of Chosen Ones was appealing, what do you do ten years after “the event” when you are the chosen ones of prophecy. Like Harry Potter after the Battle of Hogwarts, or Thor after Thanos got rid of half the population, overweight and lazy. While she was expecting a psychological tale or something in the style of The Umbrella Academy, it really was more of a sequel to an unwritten book, a lot more action than reflection.

Chosen Ones is being advertised as her first book for adults, but apart from one sex scene, it should not be described this way. It is really a YA book, the young adults in question just happen to be in their twenties instead of late teens. They have all the emotional maturity of teenagers, and the book has more in common with The Hunger Games than The Lord of the Rings.

So it was not at all what was expected, but that does not however mean that it was bad. It was a compelling tale, with enough twists and turns to remain engaging. The characters were well thought out and continued to develop well. The introduction of the multi-verse was interesting, and it is possible to see more tales coming from this. The concepts of magic explored in this book are thoughtful and provoke new ideas. There is of course homage to all of your favorite chosen one stories within this narrative, nothing artificial, but it does all feel like coming home to a favorite place rather than landing somewhere brand new. This book is thoroughly recommended, and a great way to pass a few hours in quarantine.

When I Hit You, Image Europa Editions
When I Hit You, Image Europa Editions

When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

(Editor’s note: Trigger warning for domestic violence).

When I Hit You was Sarah’s second book this month and is based on the author’s own experience of marriage. After leaving an all-consuming love affair, a young Indian woman marries the first idealistic man she meets. After their marriage, they move to a remote town in India where he is a professor. His kindness soon evaporates and every day a piece of her identity is stripped away from her through words, violence, or sex, he is a multilingual abuser. As she plans her escape in a culture that is accepting of marital violence, she thinks back on past loves fictional and otherwise, whilst pondering the situation she finds herself in.

This book explores not just physical abuse, but the social and intellectual isolation that is forced on this bright young woman. The story is hard, it is not for the faint of heart, yet Kandasmy brings poetry to her situation, writing in a funny and tender way of the path she has chosen, and the one that is being beaten out for her. It is engaging in a way that was not expected from a story of domestic violence, Kandasamy manages to portray a woman holding onto herself whilst everything is stripped away from her. Her relationship with her parents is particularly interesting, as is the brief look at the culture she was raised in. A thoroughly engaging read.

Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom, Image Faber&Faber
Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom, Image Faber&Faber

Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath

GeekMom Sarah’s third and final book for this month was Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom. This short story by Sylvia Plath is presented in a standalone series from Faber & Faber highlighting the short story. In this case, the story was written by Plath when she was 20, and only recently published.

At the end of the journey, Sarah wanted more, far more from Mary Ventura. A feminist tale of course, but with undertones of dystopia. This story is very much in the vein of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The titular Mary leaves home on board a train heading for the ninth kingdom, she meets a peculiar character aboard and hardly seems to understand the world in which she lives. ‘But what is the ninth kingdom?’ she asks the peculiar lady in her carriage. ‘It is the kingdom of the frozen will,’ is the reply. Something dark and sinister lies on the train tracks, as Mary ponders her limited choices. Why she could not stay at home is a constant source of tension, where she is going, a constant source of fear and trepidation. If only Plath had been granted the time to revisit and expand on this world.

GeekMom received a copy of some titles in this collection for review purposes.

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