What I Read in July

What I Read in July

Finally getting around to posting my reading notes from July. Now that August is almost over.

1. The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright

A story of four siblings, two brothers and two sisters, who live in New York at the beginning of the Second World War, before the US has entered the war. They decide to pool their allowance money so that each has a chance to do one really big thing once a month, on a Saturday afternoon. So the book follows the adventures of several of these Saturdays.

I like stories about siblings who do things together as a matter of course. Sure they might have some other friends hanging about occasionally, but for the purposes of the story they’re all in it together. It’s how I hope my children will relate to each other, but a dynamic that seems much less common in more recent children’s literature. And these siblings act as a team even if they don’t always get along perfectly. They’re also funny and quirky and lovable.

The first chapter didn’t really grab me, though. Four kids, a rainy day, a plan. But chapter two when we follow Miranda on the first Saturday adventure, that was a delight. Miranda chooses to go to an art gallery and is captivated by a painting. And then she meets the little girl who sat for the painting long ago. And makes a new friend. Oh it’s really, really a delightful story and I can’t wait to read it to my own crew.

2. Uprooted by Naomi Novik

This was the first book of hers I’ve read. Dom really liked the Temeraire series, but I read the first paragraph of the first book, cringed, and never read any further. It was a first novel and I suppose one should make allowances, but I wasn’t in the mood at the time, having just come off a Patrick O’Brien binge, if I recall correctly.

So I was a little dubious when Dom handed this one to me, but I figure she’s had time to mellow as a writer and this is a stand alone, so why not?

The beginning reminded me a little of Cruel Beauty, a beauty and the beast retelling. But it departs from that template to do it’s own thing after a while. And I think what it does is by and large successful. The ending felt a bit rushed, though I was reading it in the hospital while a little distracted by a sick and cranky two year old. Of course the last big battle is the place where most books lose me. I start skimming, eager to find out what happens next, and I think I tend to miss crucial details. But I also think most writers tend to be less generous with the details as they near the end, trying to keep the pace moving along. And I usually wish it was a little ore deliberate.

Still, on the whole, I liked the characters. I liked the way magic worked. It felt consistent and rule bound. I liked that certain spells cost more and that the magicians had to hoard their resources and not be profligate. I liked that a big battle would knock our heroine out and leave her sleeping for days. And I liked that the villains were complex and had room to change and grow.

3. The Golden Princess by S. M. Stirling

I think this is the latest in his Change series, though there might be a newer one out. And I might have actually skipped a book or two before this one. I got a little bored with the series and sort of gave up. But this one was sitting on the Kindle and I decided to give it a go.

So far I think I like the new characters pretty well. Rather, I like the really new characters, the Japanese empress, the Australian king, the Jewish sea captain. I’m less enchanted with the grandchildren characters, who are now the third generation post-Change that we’re following. I feel like the story telling has a got a bit lazy and that I’m only supposed to care for them for the sake of their parents and not for who they are in themselves. There was some really painful exposition dialogue in a few places that made me cringe, most notably with the introduction of the Ranger characters. I wish the narrator had just told me who they were. Or better, let me find out later in the story. I wanted to get to know them on their own terms and the narrative didn’t let that happen. Too bad. I don’t like it when characters who have known each other all their lives suddenly start rehearsing their family history and explaining relationships to each other in a way that feels like it’s merely window dressing to give the reader some information. While people do frequently talk about history and relationships, it’s usually more elliptical and would usually be harder for an outsider to follow because so much is usually understood as going without saying. When characters need to say those things, ugh.

This novel is clearly the first in a trilogy or more. The pacing is slow, we have all the time in the world to gather all the characters who are going to make up the Quest and, sigh, we’re going to take all that time. I’d rather have broken out of the LOTR model and jumped in to the middle of the Quest and figured it out as we went along.

On the other hand, I do like this world. Being in post-Change America is like putting on that old comfy pair of jeans or the well-worn shoes. It’s not challenging, in fact it’s cozy. But what I like about it is slowly eroding with each book. I liked the new and exciting and the old and worn is boring. This is demoting the Change books from gotta read thrillers as Dies the Fire. Now they’re more in the popcorn and bonbons P.G. Wodehouse camp. Fun to read, light and frothy, but too much the usual ho-hum to really get worked up about.

4. The Change: Tales of Downfall and Rebirth an anthology of stories edited by S. M. Stirling

Most anthologies are uneven, but there were quite a few excellent stories in this one. Expanding the horizons of the Change world, exploring odd little pockets of survivors outside the scope of the novels’ narrative. Several stories really begged to be expanded to novel length.

5. A Damsel in Distress by P.G. Wodehouse

The two Stirling books were on my Kindle and once I was reading on the Kindle I went to see what else was there and I found some very agreable, very fluffy Wodehouse, which was just the thing I was in the mood for. Damsel in Distress is the usual, delightfully frothy Wodehouse romance with minor nobility, a country estate, mistaken identity and the obligatory uneven course of true love.

Wodehouse is easy and fun, but unlike other light reading, he’s got literary merit. I think he’s one of the under-appreciated English greats.

6. The Gem Collector by P.G. Wodehouse.

More Wodehouse on my Kindle. I didn’t love this one as much, but Wodehouse is always fun to read and never takes that much time. Frothy and refreshing.

7. Rumer Godden: A Storyteller’s Life by Anne Chisholm

Rumer Godden is one of my current favorite writers. I’ve read her autobiographical books and therefore much of this one was treading familiar paths. But there was enough new material and perspective to make this biography worth reading. It’s a slightly dangerous thing to try to get to know the person behind the stories, but Godden had an interesting life and was prone to using her own life story as the raw material for her fiction and for perhaps having a tendency to turn her life story into a work of fiction. Chisholm tries to untangle fact from fiction but also to highlight Godden as storyteller. It’s not just what she did, it’s who she was.

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  • I first read “The Saturdays” in the late 1950s as a child; it was absolutely memorable and I was thrilled to find a recent reprint to read to my own children years later. I still know bits of it by heart!
    P.G. Wodehouse = always excellent fun and so beautifully written.

  • The sequel to the The Saturdays is The Four Story Mistake. I read both in the early sixties, my children read them in the late eighties and I fully expect my grandchildren to love them any day now.

    PG Wodehouse – especially the Bertie and Jeeves stories, although the Blandings stories are also a lot of fun; and then there are the Uncle Dynamite stories – is always my go to when I need a laugh or inspiration to make my writing just that tad bit breezier.

    For what I have come to think of as a very thoughtful, yet breezy new blog, take a look at (forgive me for not knowing exactly how to link to it. I am older than dirt.) Mrs. S dishes up a nice mix of family life, books and literary thoughts, all overlaid with a delightful Catholic sensibility. I wouldn’t normally promote another blog in a combox, but I just finished reading one of her literary posts and it was fresh in my mind after reading your Books in July one.

  • Oooooh…the Melendy family!! They are old friends of mine. I hope you continue their adventures in the Four Story Mistake and the other two books in the series. I spent a whole summer reading and rereading Spiderweb For Two.

    • They’re on my wish list. I’m hoping to read The Saturdays to the whole family. Maybe after Peter Duck. Though I think Bella just read it on her own. It’s getting impossible to keep up with her.