2016 in Books | March

I read three books this month: incidentally, two lesbian novels: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, and Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown (sapphically suggestive titles all round…) as well as a science-fiction classic, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters ★★★★☆

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Still from the BBC miniseries, which I need to watch!

This is a long-un but it’s a good-un. It’s a drawn out, twisted lesbian novel set in the 19th century, the story focusing around two 17 year old girls, one who becomes the other’s maid under false pretences, as part of a larger plot to steal the other’s fortune. The beginning is
slightly slow, and all a bit Oliver Twist, which isn’t really my taste. However, it slowly builds up to the end of part one where there is a shocking twist – and I mean shocking. From that point on it becomes darker and more complicated, and I couldn’t stop reading. It’s all about betrayal, trust, unreliable narratives and second guessing your original thoughts. The narrative is not realistic…but if you’re looking for escapism I think Waters sets the tone and paces the book really well. Persevere through part one, it is worth it!

If you’re looking for a classic lesbian romance, this might not be the book for you; it doesn’t really focus on the characters’ identities, and their relationship is mostly overshadowed by the wider narrative arch. However, I liked it and made me want to read more of Sarah Waters – I have put Tipping the Velvet on my to-read list.

Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown ★★★★★

165395I loved this book! I read it in two sittings, on the train to and from Newcastle to London. Really easy to read. The protagonist and narrator is Molly, and we follow her from tomboy childhood to early adulthood, and her adventures on the East Coast of the USA. I thought it was an accurate and relatable depiction of queer female sexuality, the growth of it, and how it is tied up with identity. I actually found it pretty empowering. A lesbian book where the lesbian is not a victim! Or dies at the end! She is self-sufficient and happy! There is an uplifting ending!

It is definitely a coming-of-age novel, and I like that. It’s funnily written, and I would totally recommend it to any lesbian, bi, or pan women. Actually, any women I think would enjoy it – it’s really accessible fiction about queer sexuality, friendship, and growing up.

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem ★★★★☆

Wow. This was intense. I actually felt quite unsettled a lot of the time while reading this. I knew about the premise of the book before reading it; a man travels to a space station orbiting an ocean planet called Solaris, only to find that flesh-and-blood replicas of his dead wife keep reappearing. The protagonist, Kelvin, is a psychologist, sent to the station to analyse the other members of the team, who are suffering from the same affliction, which he initially assumes to be hallucinations. After proving to himself that he is in fact not in a dream nor hallucination through complex calculations, he and the other members of the crew have to work out what to do about the figures from their respective pasts who have appeared on the ship.

What I didn’t know was how Lem creates this concept of the alien which I’d never considered; the oceanic surface is in fact some kind of life form, and humanity attempts to ‘make contact’ with it over a number of years. However, its responses seem unreliable, and its true nature remains elusive. Is it conscious, sentient, intelligent? Is it similar to a gigantic amoeba, or is it more like a multi-celled fluid creature? Is it a god? The difference between the ocean and any form of life we recognise on Earth is vast; Lem made me reconsider the commonly assumed idea of an alien being some variation of plant or animal.

Solaris definitely doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test; the only female character who speaks is Rheya, the reincarnation of Kelvin’s deceased wife. For the most part, she is vulnerable, confused and dependent. However, from a male author in the 1960s, it could be worse. Lem is no Ursula Le Guin when it comes to progressive attitudes to gender, but I didn’t have a massive problem with the book. Overall I found it an intense and compelling read, very original and a great work of sci-fi.

Some book covers from the 60s which I really like – much cooler than my George Clooney film edition!

2016 in Books | February

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This month I didn’t manage to read as much as I’d liked, due to a looming dissertation deadline (I am writing this a bit late, and have since finished — hooray!) I did manage to get through two Tove Jansson books though, using them as lovely Finnish escapism from the pressures of academia.

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson ★★★☆☆

Reading Tove Jansson’s writing makes me want to be a writer. When I read her prose I can tell how much her childhood, being around her artist parents, and adventures on the Finnish archipelago affected her. This book is a lot of beautiful and simple short stories. My favourite was The Squirrel, towards the end of the book. It features a writer living temporarily on an island by herself, and her peace (?) is disturbed when a squirrel drifts onto the island and seeks shelter there. I thought Jansson conveyed the anxieties of isolation and the rituals it produced really well. The protagonist of this story reminded me of the neurotic Fillyjonk character from the Moomin tales!

Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson ★★★★☆

This Moomin book surprised me! This year I am aiming to read all the Moomin books I
haven’t read yet, and this was first up on my list. I expected it to be lighthearted, like Moominsummer Madness, but it definitely had a deeper, darker tumblr_m3xajufmhl1qib250o1_500tone,
which reflected on themes of (again) isolation – both physical and emotional. Tove really likes writing about lonely islands! It was interesting reading about how the different characters’ neuroses affect them as their time on the island wears on – Moominpappa becomes absorbed in his work, Moominmamma uses painting and gardening as escapism and longing for home, and Moomin tries to make a nest in the undergrowth of the island. Jansson’s stories, even though they are written for children, often have a melancholy undertone.

Moominpappa at Sea also features The Groke, a gigantic creature who has been described as the “personification of Nordic gloom”. I really like her though – everybody is afraid of her because she freezes everything she touches, but she isn’t malicious; she just wants to be warm. At one point she does a dance for Moomintroll which I found really amusing, and the part near the beginning where she “flies” across the sea by freezing it was a really beautiful and strange idea.