When there are nine

When there are nine

Last year the hubby was reading the same books by the same authors. In an attempt to get out of his comfort zone, I encouraged him to read more female authors. When he then asked me how many, I was reminded of the Notorious RBG when she was asked how many females on the Supreme Court would there be for it to be acceptable to her. Her answer: “when there are nine”

So in 2021, that was the challenge set to the hubby: to read nine books in a row by nine female authors. Challenge accepted and challenge completed – he did it! Nine read in eight months. These nine books, in order, were: 

  1. The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan
  2. Circe by Madeline Miller
  3. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
  4. Normal People by Sally Rooney
  5. The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins
  6. The Phone Box at the Edge of the World by Laura Imai Messina
  7. The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell
  8. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  9. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanne Clarke

And this post will be informed by the hubby on why those nine books and how he found this challenge. 

 

The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan

 

Reason behind the selection

“The intention was to always read an Amy Tan book, and it helped that this was already on the bookshelf. People online stated this one and The Hundred Secret Senses were her best books and I read the blurb and thought it was interesting”. 

Blurb

About an Asian American woman, second generation immigrant, having to deal with the superstitions and irrationality of her mother. When her mother’s memory starts to deteriorate, the daughter discovers essentially a memoir written in Chinese.

As she gets it translated, her mother’s story is revealed, changing her perception of her mother forever and revealing the reality of the Precious Auntie – a figure who has been haunting her mother for as long as she could remember. 

Hubby’s thoughts

The hubby appreciated the mother-daughter relationship, apparently because of my relationship with my mother and what I have had to deal with. The hubby said “it was interesting, as not being part of that world, seeing the clash between first and second generation immigrants which is exacerbated by the mother’s mental health issues in the background.

“On the passages of the daughter’s voice, the prose is better written. Tan tries to give the mother a less fluent/ educated voice, which makes it interesting but not as pleasant to read. The daughter’s voice is more Tan’s voice. I initially found it a weird decision to break up the book, expecting chapters to oscillate between daughter then mother, but the mother’s section is put in the middle.

“But when you get to the end of that section, you appreciate why it was ordered that way – you see a contrast between how the daughter views the mother before and after the mother’s narrative. The reader’s perspective is the same as the daughter (as the mother’s story is revealed) and the reader and daughter can better interpret the mother this way”.

Would hubby recommend

“Yes, wholeheartedly. There has been some criticisms on Tan’s portrayal of Asian American males, which might put some readers off. But personally, this did not affect me or put me off. In fact, on recollection, there aren’t many Asian American males in this book”. 

Yay! I’m glad the hubby enjoyed this one. I love Tan and included this book in my undergraduate dissertation and raved about it years ago. There are mysteries and revelations in this book, and I was quite pleased to be reminded of them when the hubby was reading. 

 

Circe by Madeline Miller

 

Reason behind the selection

The second book of the challenge was because “we had seen this in book stores and the cover looks amazing. I used to love Greek myths as a kid, so knew it would be interesting. I’m aware that there is a fashion at the moment of female viewpoints of Greek myths.

“But Miller has the chops: her first book was The Song of Achilles which was really good, but she also has a classical background so obviously understands the stories and knows them well”. 

Blurb

This is a female perspective of the great witch of ancient Greek mythology, Circe, her life and how she came to occupy her position in the various myths she appears in. Giving a more in depth perspective and alternative take, whilst also brushing past many recognisable Greek myths. 

Hubby’s thoughts

“Enjoyed it a lot. Very well written but not overwritten. Not incredibly a poetic writer, but still well written prose. Enjoyable and characters are very well realised. The fact that there are so many myths packed in means a very interesting world is built. You can feel for characters that you don’t often feel with myths, which can be quite factual. Because you know what’s going to happen to these characters, you feel for them. 

“Circe is portrayed as the ultimate victim and underdog throughout the majority of the book. Constantly taken advantage of, constantly abused by pretty much everyone, including her family. Initially Circe rarely stands up for herself, and when she does, there are catastrophic consequences for her.

“Later on Circe does comes into her own, but it is still a struggle with so many people against her. This can be a bit of a slog to get through; a lovely character with undeserved ill treatment can get you quite down. Circe manages to come into her own and the ending is a beautiful ending – worth the pay off, for Circe and the reader. This does match the general consensus that Greek gods are dicks”. 

Would hubby recommend

“Yeah, really would. It was incredibly enjoyable to read despite Circe’s ill treatment. There may be some people who are fed up with women portrayed as victims. That being said, she is not a victim because she is a woman, she is a victim because she has too much in common with the mortals, and therefore the other Greek gods look down on her. The book presents how immortal people view mortal people and how there is a lack of empathy there and the inherent value of mortality”. 

The hubby didn’t reveal too much to me about this book, because he knows I’ll like reading it when I get round to it. And I concur that the cover looks amazing. I also love anything about Greek gods and their hubris and treatment of mortals. I look forward to reading this one soon.

 

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

 

Reason behind the selection

The third book of the challenge was selected as “it was winning lots of awards and displayed proudly in Waterstones, catching my eye. I also like Shakespeare so it was a given”. 

Blurb

“There once was a playwright many centuries ago who got married and had three children. One of those children died, four years later he wrote a play.” Short and sweet – I would also like to add that the main character is Agnes, the playwright’s wife, and that the book is really from her perspective. 

Hubby’s thoughts

“It is quite possibly one of, if not the most, beautiful books I have ever read. The reviews online are not kidding when they state that the book will “wreck you”. It is incredibly well written, O’Farrell is a beautiful writer, her prose is so elegant, poetic, and readable. It should be understood that O’Farrell is a literary fiction writer and this is not her standard type of book, she doesn’t write a lot of historical fiction. 

“Agnes is an incredibly powerful and well described character, she alone can draw you into this book. It’s just so amazing to take a person who is in the back streets of history, who is only known for her association with someone else, and be able to turn her into such an amazing figure. To draw attention away from the events and focus on Agnes and the kids. O’Farrell makes interesting choices to not refer to the playwright by name. The words “William” or “Shakespeare” are never written, if I remember correctly. 

“A lot of the book is concerned about their earlier history: how they met and fell in love. This helps with the pay off of the history, helps understand their emotional history together, fleshes things out, and gives more impact to what happens later.

“The last third of the book is one of the most heartbreaking and amazing portrayals of grief. In the time where there is so much grief at the moment, it might resonate with people. Similar to Circe, perhaps even more so than Circe, the ending is just perfect and it will completely break your heart”.

My thought being that these events are history – there are no spoilers. The hubby replied: “Oh, but you won’t see the ending coming. But when it happens; it’s perfect”. I am now totally intrigued! 

The hubby continued: “This is about fleshing out the bones of history. We know the bare events, the blurb is known, nothing else is known – like the emotions. The best historical fiction makes you empathise with people in history and makes you realise that we are as much people of history as they are. They have the same reactions, pain, suffering, and love as we do”.

Would hubby recommend

“Oh God yes!”

I thought it was apt as during a pandemic the hubby would be reading a book set during a plague. I also appreciate Shakespeare and recall the hubby reading this and being quite excited about making me read this one too! So I’ll definitely add this to my list. 

 

Normal People by Sally Rooney

 

Reason behind the selection

The fourth book of the challenge was this. “I was aware the TV show was a hit last year, but we have not seen it. This is probably the book most far out of my comfort zone, what I would have read back as a teenager, but unlikely to read now. But I wanted something modern, set in modern times with real people and real situations”. 

Blurb

About two people living in Ireland and how their lives intertwine and intersect with each other over the course of a few years and we get to see what’s going on inside their heads each time they meet. Every point in the book is when they meet up together or run into each other.

Hubby’s thoughts

“It was a very relaxing book. It’s so chilled. The writing style is very internal, you really are inside these characters’ heads, everything is through their eyes. Not much going on, not much of a storyline, so made it somewhat meditative. Kept going back to reading this as it was so relaxing. 

“The leads are well fleshed out characters, though the other side of that is that the other characters are not fleshed out at all as it’s so internal to them. Not really a romance, a lot of reviews don’t like the book as SPOILER they don’t end up together. But I feel they’re not meant to end up together in the end.

“It’s more about how they improve and impact on each other’s lives rather than any actual romance. At points they are in a relationship together, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are meant to be together in the long run. It’s interesting to see how their relationship initially starts out as negative, as she starts out as his secret girlfriend. But by the end of the book it turns out to be something positive where they are helping each other”.

Would hubby recommend

Short pause for thinking.

“Yes. But, as mentioned before, it doesn’t have much of a plotline. So if you want a story, this is not the book for you. There is also no speech marks, which some people find jarring – but if you like James Joyce, eat your heart out. The lack of speech marks did not bother me as much as I thought it would, but I hate James Joyce”.

It was quite interesting hearing the hubby’s thoughts on this one. I recall after he had read some powerful passages that he would comment on how well it was written and how well Rooney describes thoughts and emotions. I won’t add this one to my list of books to read just yet – mainly due to the James Joyce comparison. 

 

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

 

Reason behind the selection

The fifth book of the challenge was selected when the hubby was perusing a book shop and this book was just there. But “I had heard of it before as a recommendation for reading women of colour and the storyline sounded interesting”. 

Blurb

Frannie Langton born a slave in Jamaica finds herself accused of the murder of her mistress and lover in London many years later. This book basically explains how she gets to that point. 

Hubby’s thoughts

“It’s an interesting book. I didn’t think it was as well written as the others. Mainly interesting because of the perspective, the fact that this very unashamedly takes the perspective of a black person and is not apologetic for the behaviour of white people. It condemns the anti slavery liberals who essentially fetishized the suffering of black people, just as much as it condemns the racists who sought to condemn black people. It paints a portrait of a very complex main character, which is good, it doesn’t make her wholeheartedly good or pure.

“She has issues and problems, her relationship with the mistress is complicated. She is fleshed out and 3D, it’s very easy when writing a diverse character to make her better and put them on a pedestal. This does not do that, this does not put anyone on a pedestal. There’s also no white saviour stuff going on in this book. A book about black people failing to save themselves as white people look on and do nothing or actively stand in their way.  

“The prose was good but not mind-blowing, especially after reading Hamnet and Normal People, which were particularly strong in their prose. The writer would skip details or jump around a bit, so you would lose track when reading. It felt like the writer would skip a few sentences, there would be a jump in logic or missing details to help you appreciate what is going on. For example relationships were implied, but not implied enough”. 

Would hubby recommend

“Um, kind of. Would recommend, but not at the top of the list. Compared to the others in this challenge, I wouldn’t rave about this as much. Not a book to yell from the rooftops as a suggestion, but if someone asked if they should read it, then sure.

“If looking for alternative perspectives and to diversify your reading, then this is a good book in that respect as it presents black people in history and contradicts the myth that black people did not exist in the UK until a few decades ago”. 

I thought this was an interesting choice by the hubby, but I’m aware he has read historical murder/ crime fiction before, like Poirot. I also knew how the plot was going to pan out before the book was even placed by the bedside table – I feel the blurb was a dead give-away. 

 

The Phone Box at the Edge of the World  by Laura Imai Messina

 

Reason behind the selection

The sixth book of the challenge was translated from Italian and written by an Italian who lives in Japan. “I was really determined at the time to get a romance book, so when browsing the romance section in Waterstones it caught the eye as it had a striking cover. I had also heard about this from This American Life podcast episode and was interested”. 

Blurb

About a woman who lost her daughter in the tsunami, who discovers the existence of this telephone box that someone sets up in their garden on the cliff edge on this coast for people to speak to those they have lost. Through this telephone box she gets to connect with other people, including a man who lost his wife. 

Hubby’s thoughts

“It was nice. It’s not the most mind blowingly amazing book ever, but it was just nice. Not as intense as Hamnet, but certainly portrayed the impact that grief can have on your life. I think it’s wrong that it was in the romance section, as I did not consider this a romance book. It was far more preoccupied with grief. And it shows a lot of different people and during a lot of different kinds of grief, for example other people lost their partners or parents.

“In some cases, some people weren’t even dead, but people had lost them in other ways. Also shows how people move past the grief and how this phone box is part of that and helps them gain some sense of closure. A pretty little book, it’s nice and gentle and good to read”. 

Would hubby recommend

“I’d say so, yeah. Not going to go around raving about it, unlike Hamnet or Circe. But will get a lot more out of it than you think you will”. 

I also remember listening to the This American Life podcast episode, so was intrigued. Interesting to learn that this was not a romance, even if it was in the romance section. And interesting to learn that there are a lot of books out there about grief, but never actually advertise themselves to be. 


The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell

 

Reason behind the selection

The seventh book of the challenge, another Maggie O’Farrell book, and simply “Read this as I enjoyed Hamnet so much”. 

Blurb

In the present day a man and his girlfriend learn to adapt to the arrival of a new child. As the woman recovers from the impact the birth had on her, the man discovers the birth brings back memories from his own childhood that were previously lost.

“Meanwhile, decades before, a woman flees her ordinary lifestyle in the country to pursue a more extraordinary life in London with an enigmatic older man. As the book continues, these two tales eventually intertwine. 

Hubby’s thoughts

“It has a very similar structure to Hamnet in that the first 2/3rds of the book fleshes out characters and the last third of the book is where all the action happens. But where Hamnet has the historical aspect and the knowledge of what’s happened to keep you hooked, this book does not. So it really emphasises the kind of writer that O’Farrell is – that she is a literary fiction writer. 

“I found the first half of the book quite heavy going. It was very beautifully written, but particularly sections of the past, I did wonder what the point of these sections were and whether anything interesting was going to happen. The thing that I found most interesting about the first half of the book was the mother in modern times and how she was coping with the aftermath of severe blood loss after the birth – this is a minor plot point that resolves itself.

“Then a certain event happens in the book. At that point, it grips the reader a lot harder. It builds and gets more interesting and the stories start to intertwine and you try to figure out how the characters are connected. And when you eventually do realise and when it eventually comes to its stunning conclusion, then it has a similar devastating impact as Hamnet. Not as powerful as Hamnet, but still impactful. It’s a book that pays off in the long run”.

Would hubby recommend

“Um, with reservations. O’Farrell is clearly a very good author, and if you’re ok with reading stuff that’s often more sedate and character focused (she fleshes out her characters very well) then yes. But if you need a plot to hook you in on the get go, then you would struggle.

“The last part of the book is so good. And there is still stuff to like in the first half, particularly the characters, and how well written they are, especially babies. There’s a lot to get out of it and it’s a good book, but one of the books I struggled through the most”. 

I remember the hubby telling me about the baby scene and how adorable it was. I can imagine reading passages of the book and getting hooked in, but from what the hubby recounted to me when he was reading, there wasn’t really any plot at all. I do remember, however, that after this “certain event” the hubby was very eager to read the book as quickly as possible to find out how everything connects. 


Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

 

Reason behind the selection

The eighth book of the challenge: “I felt like reading something a bit more horror orientated. I don’t know a lot about Mexican culture and found it intriguing”. 

Blurb

About a beautiful young socialite living in Mexico who gets a disturbing letter from her cousin who is married into a strange English mining family living in Mexico in the middle of nowhere. She goes to visit her cousin, only to slowly find that things going on in the house are not quite what they seem. 

Hubby’s thoughts

“The worst of the lot basically. Not necessarily a badly written book, she is obviously a good writer, and I enjoyed the book to an extent. But didn’t really get out of it what I wanted to get out of it. I would say it was neither horrifying nor scary. And also it did not tell you a lot about Mexican culture.

“Instead of Mexican gothic, it felt more like British gothic: dark creepy house that just happens to be in Mexico. There were some undertones of colonialism, and maybe that was the point the author was getting across – but it wasn’t particularly strong”. 

Would hubby recommend

“Not really”. 

I was wondering why the hubby had selected this one. I felt the cover image wasn’t particularly Gothic or scary, but the blurb did inform otherwise. Maybe gothic has changed over the decades? I was intrigued by some plot points as the hubby was recounting the story to me, but the hubby was not too impressed – there was a large expectation gap after all. 


Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanne Clarke

 

Reason behind the selection

The ninth book of the challenge was because “Neil Gaiman, one of my absolute favourite authors, recommended it thoroughly. And Gaiman liked Clarke so much that he helped her get published. On top of that, it’s very associated with fairy tales.

“As I get older, fairy tale fantasy is something that interests me more and more – and also something that Gaiman is associated with as well. So I was already aware of this book and aware that I would want to read it at some point. So as the final book in the challenge it was selected, going back to comforts”.

Blurb

Set in the 1800s in an England where magic once reigned supreme but has now dwindled to something that is studied theoretically. Suddenly out of Yorkshire appears a gentleman named Mr Norrell who claims to want to bring back English magic and astounds London by performing great feats such as resurrecting a beautiful dead woman and sending ghost ships to terrify the French.

Then equally suddenly appears another new magician, the young brilliant Jonathan Strange. While initially these two form a partnership, their opposing views on magic lead them to conflict that will change the very foundations of English magic and England itself. 

Hubby’s thoughts

“It’s a great book and properly my kettle of fish. It’s very long, but you don’t feel it, it’s very readable. The writing style is very evocative of that kind of late 18th century/ early 19th century wit that you see in authors like Jane Austen. The characters are fun, though not on the whole particularly likeable.

“Incredibly good at world building, and sneaks in this history of magic in England right underneath the story with little tidbits here and there. Brings back traditional English folklore like fairies as malevolent and mischievous creatures – more Puck from A Midsummer Nights Dream and less Tinkerbell”. 

Would hubby recommend

“Heartily recommend it, especially to someone who is after something cosy and magical.”

Now we are currently watching the televised version of this book of the same name. I’m intrigued by the book, but probably won’t read it, as it’s 1,000 pages long. I feel the TV show might do me fine, and it is really good so far. Though, I am intrigued by the apparent “late 18th century/ early 19th century wit” that I do like to read. 

 

Conclusion

Some good finds and some really good recommendations. So far I have only read one in the list, but aim to read a couple more. I’m proud the hubby pushed himself to read out of his comfort zone, and actually more pleased that he has some decent recommendations and even a TV show to watch after this challenge! 

What have been your reading challenges and do you have any recommendations? 

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