Gratitude and Harvest

I may not be reaping the bounty I sweated over in the Spring and Summer but my life right now is rich with loving family and understanding friends and intellectual pursuit. Lest it be too utopian, all this is fraught with tension and exhaustion (the good, end-of-a-productive-day-kinds) and anxiety to keep it real. But let me offer thanks to all and every who have made it possible for me to write these words today.

On: Being a HSP

It is morning. I get up from my bed, pad over to the living room to draw the curtains aside. Sunshine bursts into my flat. The bright sky and gently swaying trees lighten my mood as I prepare my breakfast. A cup of tea, two slices of toasts, an array of fruits. I don’t have anywhere to go today, which means I can stay at home and read, write and do household chores. It is a simple, quiet day, and I couldn’t be happier. I will cook something delicious today. Maybe I will take a walk in the woods. A volume of poetry collection, or perhaps my favourite novel? There are letters to write and laundry to do. I hum and get ready to tackle all these homely, joyous tasks.

The church clock chimes ten as I step off the bus. Even in my weary state, I am glad to see the familiar surroundings. I’ve been up since six in the morning, and out of the house since seven. Two hours of commute, ten hours of classes and three hours of meetings later, I am finally at home. My ears are still ringing with all the voices and music and chatters in the bar the meeting/socialising took place at. I am exhausted, it is cold and I am too wired to sleep. Even though I know I have to get up eight hours later, I can’t fall asleep until one in the morning. My mind is too busy analysing all the impressions I got during that day: people’s facial expressions, their voices, choice of words. The flood of information in five different subjects. What I said to whom, and how I said it. Have I offended someone? Was I too quiet during the meeting? Why couldn’t I think of anything witty to say? I try to mute this voice by occupying my concentration with some mindless tasks until I literally can’t keep my eyes open and I tumble into a blissfully ignorant exhaustion.

The first time I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I wrote about my experiences of being an introvert. Now I am doing the same with being a highly sensitive person (HSP) after finishing The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine N. Aron.

I was very lucky to be born into a country that appreciates sensitivity, or rather the characteristics of a HSP. I do not know whether South Korea (or any other (East-)Asian countries) has more highly sensitive people than other parts of the world. Almost all of my family members display some characteristics of being a HSP but at the same time, some of them seem to have an average threshold for stimulation, so I’m not sure.

As I was born in South Korea and grew up there, I did not associate my traits with being extra sensitive. At kindergarden I was a quiet, serious child with an uncanny ability to concentrate. I don’t remember this but apparently I took fellow kindergardeners, who would cry when they arrived in the kindergarden, ‘under my wing’ by comforting them and showing them around the building. At home I could wrestle around with my sister and shriek with laughter (that was often quieted by our strict, children-should-be-seen-but-not-heard father). But often, I think, we played games we made up by ourselves like ‘being adventurers’ for which we would drag all of our prized possessions into the living room (‘the ship’) with snacks and comic books and sketchpads (for my sister). My sister loved to draw and invent new worlds for her characters to live in. I loved to read her manhwa and doodle around.
My parents were very busy and with my sister being too young herself, I was often sent to my grandparents after kindergarden. For about two to three months every year, I’d sleep over at their place, too. My grandparents delighted in having their granddaughter with them, but they didn’t know what to do with me, so I was often left alone or my grandmother took me along to markets or gardens. I had a good sense of imagination, now that I look back. I’d pretend to be a spy and flit around the house, hiding behind the bed or wedge myself in the small space between the wall and a wardrobe. Sometimes I’d even stop my breath, certain that the invisible enemy was upon me. Or I’d read easy books for kids or write simple sentences, or draw a picture. At nights, however, and sometimes by day, too, I’d miss my mother and cry and cry silently in the dark beside my snoring grandmother. It was inconceivable that I’d throw a tantrum in front of my grandparents or even cry in front of them and thus embarrassing them. Behaving badly before elders and thus disrespecting them was simply not done.
By the time I entered second grade, I was deemed old and responsible enough to stay alone at home after school, so I did not have to go to my grandparents’ or sleep over there. I still associate those afternoons with dark, silent home and loneliness, even though I’m sure I must have had some happy days too. I didn’t spend that many hours alone each day – perhaps two, or three before my sister came home.
When I was in the fourth grade, I was old enough and my parents busy enough that they did not care or worry when I came home (I had to come before them, of course, but otherwise it was a fair game), so I often spent afternoons at school with my friends – some days with the girls whose mothers volunteered for the school sickroom, which was great because there was seldom any sick student resting in one of the three beds, so we could romp around all we wanted. Other days I stayed in the school library until its closing time with my best friend whose mother volunteered as a librarian every Wednesday. Or a friend and I would buy some snacks, find some remote spots, sit on the steps and talk for hours. These are all great memories that I cherish.

I loved school. Later all my schools became places of stability, of structure. In my Korean elementary school, I was not academically the best in my class but I had many close friends, was friendly with almost everyone and could talk easily with teachers (another common theme – me making friends with teachers). I could be goofy until my desk-mates howled with laughter, but mostly I was quiet, studious and authoritative student who did all her homework.
I never felt self-conscious unless I was standing alone in front of the class (when we had to make a speech or something). Being bookish and ‘nerdy’ was something to be admired for. I was the vice president for my class for two terms and whenever I was put in the position of a group leader, I tried to be a role-model and to minimize disputes within my group.
I wasn’t a saint by any means. I could be hypocritical, judgmental, absent-minded  and jealous. Above anything, I remember being ‘mismatched’ inside and outside the best. I wasn’t being my full self when I was at school, hiding my ‘bad’ sides whenever I could. However, I wasn’t unhappy with being a slight hypocrite as I would later come to be.

Why am I telling you all this? To (hopefully) show you that I never considered myself to be abnormal or weird when I was in South Korea. I was one of the normalest kids in the country. Being called a serious, mature ‘little-adult’ was one of the best compliments you could get as a kid.

Enter Germany. I was 11 years old when we moved to Germany. On the first day of the school, I felt for the first time that I was a quiet person. All the kids (So many bright colors all at one! (My Korean elementary school had uniforms.) So many voices speaking all at once! So many faces that all look exotic to me!) stared at me like I was some rare animal in the zoo (there was no other East-Asian kid in the class) and began whispering. I could hardly speak two words in German, so my mother (who was with me, thank goodness) translated the questions my head teacher asked me. They were meant to put me at ease, I suppose. I only remember my voice being so tiny that even my mom, who was standing right next to me, could not hear me.
My new classmates weren’t mean or anything. They were young, and as such prone to impatience or carelessness. Most of them were curious enough to stare but not interested enough to actively help me out every day. And they were loud. Holy moly, the way their voices echoed around in the school building! Or the shrill rings that signaled the end of a period or break!

For the first time in my life, I was painfully aware of how much I stood out. So I tried my best to blend in by not attracting any notice; in short, by being quiet and as invisible as I could get. I hated when teachers showed extra attention to me in classes like asking me ‘Do you know what this word means?’ because then everyone would swivel around and look at me get red in the face and mumble something.
I couldn’t speak German, so I didn’t talk much. Many kids interpreted this as me having a boring personality. Or maybe they didn’t know how to talk to a kid who couldn’t speak their language. But I learned the language quickly and made some friends, too. In retrospect, I was surprisingly open to new experiences, like going to a friend’s house or visiting a carnival. As long as I was a part of a group, and my friends were there to ‘protect’ me, I would go anywhere. But what I still liked to do at home was to draw or to read. I even liked doing homework because it gave me a sense of accomplishment. (When my teachers learned that I did two to three hours of homework every day (duh, language problem!), they were horrified and urged my mother to let me go out to play instead of being at home so much! Maybe this was the first time I realized that being a ‘home-person’ was not as good thing as it was back in Korea.)
I still liked school a lot even though I felt self-conscious and just plain foreign. I liked my classmates, my teachers and learning something new. What I loved most of all was the occasional feeling of being a part of a big group.

Starting middle school wasn’t easy. Because I went to a school a bit far away from my home, I was again the new kid and didn’t know anyone. The school was large, there were hundreds of students (from 7th grade to 13th grade), the building was foreign (even though I’ve been there twice before) and this time, no one was there to accompany me to my first day of classes. And of course my unusual name attracted every single teacher’s attention, and that led to all of my classmates staring at this Asian girl with the weird, unpronounceable name. I was at the center of attention again when I didn’t want to be. Making friends was a despairing business. I was nice and helpful and a good listener, but I wasn’t funny. I couldn’t make a flippant, witty remark. I couldn’t think of any interesting anecdote to tell. I didn’t have the natural confidence that some possess even at the age of 12. I wasn’t bold or interested in fashion or shopping for clothes. I learned the painful lesson that answering the question ‘What do you like to do in the free time?’ with ‘Reading’ was a bad bad bad thing. It made you boring. I wasn’t interested in sports; I didn’t have any pets or unique hobbies; I wasn’t musical or artistic. I just liked to read and write. Likewise, I also learned the lesson that answering the question ‘So what did you do at the weekend?’ with ‘Nothing much’ or ‘I was at home reading and doing homework’ was a terrible, terrible, terrible idea. It made you a nerd, a grind, a teachers’ pet. It was worse than being boring. I took a bus every morning and I would dread the moment a fellow classmate would hop on, take a seat next to me and ask that horrible question. It was as if everyone was in constant competition about doing the Most! Exciting! Thing! and I always came out as loser.

This was around the time it became clear that pursuing ‘boring’ hobbies such as reading or making up stories was considered juvenile and unhealthy. You had to go out more! Meet more people! Take up new sports! Teachers were concerned that while my written tests were good, I didn’t raise my hand enough, or I was too cautious with my choice of words and my opinions.

Because no one had questioned my temperament for so long, I thought everyone perceived the world as I did: jangled nerves when I was over-aroused; analyzing how she said what and why he did that; letting people’s off-hand remarks or airs of disinterest slice deeply into me; being on a permanent emotional roller-coaster. It was slowly becoming apparent that not everyone was like this. That not everyone liked discussing intense and thought-provoking topics such as meaning of life or the current social trend or the social structure of high schools. That not everyone was exhausted after a day of field trip.
My mother and sister couldn’t understand most of it, either, especially my emotional roller-coaster. I could be happy one day because I felt like I was an accepted member of my class and sulky the next because ‘hardly anyone talked to me’ (I diligently wrote down all of the happenings, too). In due course, I made friends, and some of them were probably HSPs, too, but we never talked about it because we didn’t know it was a thing.
I found the only comfort and solace – where else? – in books. Wonderful, funny, interesting books that made me feel understood.
There was a time in my adolescence when my turbulent feelings got so bad that I decided to ‘turn off’ my feelings and grow indifferent. I tried to ignore my conscience and my desire to please others and to be liked by them. It made me even more miserable than feeling too much. Plus, my mother complained that I was becoming ‘too cynical – it’s not like you!’ (But she didn’t like me overly emotional, either, so there was no pleasing her.) Then there was the guilt about having all these privileges and lucky stars and the unfairness of it all. I couldn’t live with the guilt, so I made myself miserable in order to ‘be fair’. How could I dare to be happy when so many couldn’t meet their daily needs? And why wasn’t I doing anything about it, like helping people rebuild their houses after a natural disaster?

Reading The Highly Sensitive Person has explained quite a few of my past experiences, including developing fast and intense crushes. Or the conflict between knowing I had to become independent and wishing to succumb to a traditional marriage so that I wouldn’t have to confront the real world. All the while calling myself weak and stupid that I would think like that in this enlightened age!
New experiences and surroundings are still not easy for me. I dread them due to my past negative experiences, which doesn’t help. Replacing the dread with positive affirmations and outcomes from the past is a slow process, and I often don’t have anyone to guide me the first time around as all my family has left Germany.
School is still the only social place I feel more or less secure about. Despite my two rather negative years of my first university experience, I am equally eager and weary to start over again.
I hate to admit it but it is important to be out there in the world. Given the choice, my first instinct would be to become a hermit and interact with the world only occasionally. But even I know that being in my head-world for too long has a negative impact on me. I need the fresh inputs of ideas and impressions of the outside world and, as my sister reminds me, the people who need my help – all of our helps – are outside, too. Plus, the longer you stay in, the harder it becomes to venture out.

It is weird, but I feel like I developed my high sensitivity as I got older. The signs were there since I was a baby, sure. But it wasn’t until I came to Germany that I had to confront the different treatments of my traits. I was a mass of feelings and perceptions when I was in Korea. In Germany, I developed logic, strong conscience and thinking. I never would have picked up The Highly Sensitive Person if I had stayed in Korea. I am more – dare I say it? – well-rounded because of my experiences, and I am glad about it.
But it wasn’t really until I entered the university that I became aware of how much all this meeting new people and being out of home for twelve hours exhausted me and made me anxious. It is good to know why so that I can prepare.

About ten months ago, I was ‘too out in the world’ and that made me physically sick (I just didn’t understand why I was sick). I needed the past five quiet months to recover from the ordeal. I also had to confront the fact that my chosen major wasn’t making me happy and that I was terrified of following my vocation.
Armed with the new knowledge about my sensitivity, I try my hand at balancing out my two opposite needs (although I take relieved comfort in the fact that my need for ‘being in’ is greater than ‘being out’).

Some of my friends casually mention how they hate inactive people, or how being at home all day makes them restless. Maybe it was aimed at me, maybe it wasn’t. Either way, I am done letting others dictate what I need and – even worse – what I should want.

Classics Club Challenge #10: The Merry Wives of Windsor

The Merry Wives of WindsorThe Merry Wives of Windsor
by William Shakespeare

first published around 1597 – 1598first read September 15th – 16th 2015

A destitute, fat and old knight (who, by the way, also appears in Shakespeare’s historical plays such as Henry IV) – Sir John Falstaff be thy name – arrives in Windsor and hatches a scheme to woo a married woman so he can gain access to her husband’s fortune. Wait, why not kill two birds with one stone? Let’s seduce two married women, at the same time! The two women, who also happen to be friends/neighbors, are smart and prudent enough to see right through his smarmy letters and vow to have their revenge. Speaking of which, it seems the town of Windsor is full of people who must avenge themselves on someone for something. Falstaff’s servants have some grudge against him, so they seek to ruin his plot. The local parson and doctor want to get back to a tavern host because he prevented them from duelling each other (really, too much goodwill, sir!). And so on.Anyway, with all these vengeful souls going ’round, one would think The Merry Wives of Windsor would be anything but merry. But merry it is, indeed! The revenges are not the blood-thirsty kinds à la Hamlet. They are petty and humorous – and just, in case of the Mistresses Page and Ford (they are the two women Falstaff sets out to woo).

I did not ever expect to really enjoy a Shakespeare play just by reading it. Admire it, yes. Feel intimidated by it, maybe. Confused by it, heaps! But The Merry Wives of Windsor had me cackling away from the beginning. The funniest thing, for me, was all the mispronounced words – ‘abused, hacked, frittered English’ – by the ‘foreigners’, that is, the local parson Sir Hugh Evans and the French doctor Dr. Caius. Especially the latter’s exclamations “By gar!” got really hilarious! Then there’s Mistress Quickly, who looks after Dr. Caius, and she bungles the words so often and in so wrong a context! Slender, the nephew of the country justice of peace, is so dense that whatever comes out of his mouth is bound to have a comic effect on the reader. The two women’s revenge is risky and a great fun, and funnier still is Falstaff’s reaction to those revenges.

I read The Merry Wives in preparation for the FutureLearn course ‘Shakespeare and his World‘ starting on October 5th. I still have Henry V, The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest to go through, so enjoying The Merry Wives as heartily as I did sets up a good precedent, I suppose!
My edition of the text contributed a good deal towards the merriment. It is the Penguin Shakespeare series and all of them has a short General Introduction and a longer Introduction about the specific play. The Introduction points out the main themes of the play, so if you’d rather not spoil yourself, better skip it. I understand the importance of a first impression free of any expectation but since I tend to take every written word so damningly seriously, it helps me to understand the general plot and characters before I read the play. This way, I know who’s being sarcastic, dumb or earnest. This edition also has an extensive commentary as a crutch to muddle through the Shakespearean language.

I will leave it to you to find out about the ‘merry, and yet honest’ wives and their revenge! (Note: ‘honest’ here means ‘chaste’.)

August Wrap-Up

I read 11 books in the month of August 2015. The funny thing is that I read five of them in the last three days of the month. Anyway, here’s an overview:

August 2015 wrap-up(You can’t see Haunting Violet because I read it on my tablet.)

The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski
The Bad Queen by Carolyn Meyer
Bloom by Elizabeth Scott
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Sea Swept by Nora Roberts
Rising Tides by Nora Roberts
Inner Harbor by Nora Roberts
The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side by Agatha Christie
A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland

 

A Little History of Literature1. A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland
From Ancient Greeks to E. L. James, John Sutherland guides the readers through the history of literature, starting from myths, touching on epic poems, plays, the King James Bible, poetry, novels and e-books. There are also chapters that are book-related but that do not focus on a certain literary period, genre or author; such as the rise of the printing culture and censorship. Although the title does not specify the literature as the English literature, it pretty much remains within its geographical boundaries as far as the authors go (some authors do go outside of the Great Britain, which becomes relevant in topics such as colonialism), although Sutherland ventures to other European or sub-Saharan or formerly colonized countries. One chapter is devoted to the American literature and some references to it made afterwards in other chapters.
The only consistent feature in the structure of this book is that it is roughly chronological. Some periods are explained through one defining work; others through famous authors during those times; and yet others through literary movements (e.g. modernism). There are chapters devoted to literary periods that were created through external (i.e. (trans)national politics, economy and wars) circumstances. These bite-sized chapters are of course too short to fully satisfy the readers’ curiosity; but it does a great job at whetting their appetite and gives an overview.
I personally learned a great deal about the (past) English culture and biographical details about certain authors. All these information become very useful when I read books from that period or by those writers. For example, why those men were rehearsing a play in the beginning of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or what I should look out for when I read The Fearie Queene, or why Thomas Hardy’s books are so pessimistic. Some chapters, I found, skimmed only the surface – like Jane Austen and the Brontës chapters. But for the most of the time, I was like a child visiting a bookshop for the first time. Fascination, curiosity, and a whole lot of fun! Now, the 20th century generally doesn’t hold my interest (I’m not sure why), so the chapters on modernism, Plath and Kafka were kind of lost on me. But there’s no guarantee how my taste will change.
I wouldn’t recommend A Little History of Literature to be your very first foray into the subject because the book mentions about a hundred different titles and authors, many of them only fleetingly. So unless you already have heard about the majority of them, all the name-dropping might get frustrating. However, if you already have a vague outline of the English literary periods in your head along with their major writers/poets, then I enthusiastically encourage you to pick up this book.

Come As You Are2. Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski
Provocative title, tagline and cover aside (love ’em, though!) Come As You Are offers a detailed, scientific yet easy-to-understand guide to understand your sexuality and to improve your sex lives (if you are so inclined, of course). My apologies to transgendered readers as I have no idea how useful this book will be to you. Come As You Are is primarily targeted at cisgender females but I’d recommend this book to everyone even if they are not a woman or dating a woman.
While reading the book, I felt like as if Emily Nagoski had figuratively taken my hand and led me through the topics of her book, all the while being warm, open, funny and insightful. Indeed she tries to establish a writer-reader connection by telling us about her personal life, addressing us directly and telling us we can contact her about questions or our own experiences.
Come As You Are guides us through: 1. the female anatomy; 2. the dual control model (this also applies to males) – we have both sexual excitation system and sexual inhibition system that can be differently sensitive -; 3. the importance of context in regards to emotional context and cultural context (this can be applied to anything that our culture “teaches” us); 4. what arousal is (especially important: nonconcordance!); 5. what desire is (= arousal in the right context); 6. the orgasm; and 7. the meta-emotions (how we feel about how we feel).
Read this book if you feel more or less ready to learn more about your body, embrace your body and be open and honest about your body.

Sea SweptRising TidesInner Harbor3. Sea Swept, Rising Tides and Inner Harbor by Nora Roberts
I had arrogantly forgotten how much it hurts on the first day when you have your wisdom teeth pulled out. I had all four of them removed in the month of August, one side at one time and the other side at the second time. I weathered the first time better than the second because I was braced for something much more horrifying but the recovery turned out to be pretty smooth (smoother than I expected, anyway). So by the second time, I was more relaxed… and underestimated the discomfort of the first few days. To distract myself, I dove into the world of Nora Roberts’ Quinn brothers.
In Sea Swept, we have open, honest and force-of-nature Anna Spinelli and hot-headed and protective Cameron. Rising Tides centers around the quiet and thoughtful Ethan who is the master of hiding his past pains, and the level-headed and loving Grace Monroe with her toddler Aubrey (so cute <3). Emotionally more intense than the two previous books is Inner Harbor, in which we meet observe-rather-than-participate Sybill Griffin and Phillip – whose sophisticated and at-ease exterior hides a violent and tumultuous source of emotions deeply buried inside. A lost boy, Seth DeLauter, brings all these people together; the three brothers Cam, Ethan and Phillip, who promised their dying father to look after Seth. They themselves had been runaways and lost boys when Ray and Stella Quinn had saved them and given them a family.
The Chesapeake Bay quartet is about family, friendship, and love. The Quinn family is quite a special kind of family – open, loving, openly loving, loud and crowded and sometimes pushy. But they always have each other’s back and their love for each other makes them who they are. It is also about the small community in St. Christopher, Maryland, and the lives of people who make their living from the Bay.
I used to be a huge Nora Roberts fan for years until I realized that I wasn’t anymore and got rid of the most of my collection. I kept only the books that have a special place in my heart (mostly her trilogies and quartets), and the Chesapeake Bay series is one of those. It was a re-read for me this time and Inner Harbor is still my favorite. There is of course the fourth book, Chesapeake Blue, a Seth story after he has grown up (I think he is in his late 20s or early 30s) but I didn’t re-read it this time.

Quiet4. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Another non-fiction and another re-read undertaken by me in August was Susan Cain’s Quiet. The first time I read it, about two years ago, I wrote this quite angry post about my experience of being an introvert. I initially took the book as an excuse to be on my own and to avoid parties. I still prefer a night in with me curled up with a book than a night out partying. But for a long time after reading Quiet, I still lived under the Extrovert Ideal mantra. I still felt like I was inadequate and criticized myself for not being as out-going as I “should” be. So I stayed in, citing introversion as my (silent) excuse, but I still wasn’t happy. When I re-read it after two years, I was ready to accept myself for the way I am. In the end I have the impression I learned more about myself and how I operate, and how I can stretch my boundaries when I need to. But most importantly, I know now that there is nothing wrong with me.
I wish more extroverted people read this book so that they can understand. There is also a chapter of this book about the communication between introverts and extroverts that I found helpful.

 

The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side5. The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side by Agatha Christie
I’m going through Miss Marple books in the recommended reading order this year, and The Mirror Crack’d was next up! Incidentally, this is the first ever Agatha Christie book that I read (or was read to) two years ago. I knew who the killer was, of course; but that’s not why I re-read Miss Marple’s stories. I read them for the pure coziness it radiates – it’s the little details of Miss Marple’s breakfast, Mrs Bantry and her garden and the walking through The Development, and so on. The investigation itself wasn’t as dull as I’d remembered, either. It really makes a difference whether you read it yourself or whether you were read to. It seems I’m too impatient for audio books!
The thing that left me curious and dissatisfied at the end of 4:50 From Paddington has been answered in The Mirror Crack’d! It turns out Chief-Inspector Craddock is still single (p. 147, or Chapter 10)!
Anyway, in regards to the Miss Marple books: Miss Marple does appear in The Moving Finger, A Murder Is Announced and A Pocket Full of Rye but her appearances are short and towards the end. Just a warning not to get your hopes up! My favorite Miss Marple books (so far) are The Murder at the Vicarage, 4:50 From Paddington and The Mirror Crack’d.
Just a brief excursion to Monsieur Poirot while we are at Agatha Christie: I’m going through the Poirot books chronologically and so far I really enjoyed them all! And I’ve become quite fond of the small detective with huge ego <3 Next Poirot for me is The Mystery of the Blue Train.

Haunting Violet6. Haunting Violet by Alyxandra Harvey
As I mentioned above, I read this as an e-book. I got this a long time ago and it was a spur of the moment decision to read it, a I-need-a-book-to-read-for-half-an-hour-before-I-go-to-sleep kind. Well, any book that keeps me up until 3 in the morning gets a nod of acknowledgment from me. They also tend to stick in my memory.
Haunting Violet is set in the Victorian era England, and I mostly read for the historical setting of the story than the plot, actually. Violet’s mother runs a con as a medium – a trick that has been kept secret for some time and has allowed her to rise to a semi-fame. She has recruited two other then-children, Colin and Marjorie, and along with her daughter Violet, they have been helping her run the con. Now they are all invited to Lord Jasper’s manor so that he can entertain his guests with the medium. What none of them factors in is that Violet is a real medium… and her powers awaken just before they arrive in the manor. Confused and disoriented, Violet learns that a tragic accident had happened a few years ago near Lord Jasper’s manor. A tragedy that Violet now knows to be a murder.
Haunting Violet could have been another mediocre YA novel with a love interest thrown in and a half-hearted attempt at investigation – and a dramatic revelation. What I really like about this book is that the story is actually a blend of creepy and normal historical fiction. I also love Violet’s friendship with Elizabeth, her cautious respect for Lord Jasper and her situation of being courted by a rich tradesman’s son and not being sure whether she likes it! Even her dysfunctional relationship with her mother was quite interesting. Oh, and she loves books. Really, a girl after my own heart! The only thing predictable about Haunting Violet is the choice, or opportunity, offered to them at the very end. I would have preferred sheep-keeping.

Bloom7. Bloom by Elizabeth Scott
Another re-read! I had fully intended to give this one away and I thought to myself ‘I’ll just leaf through it before I do’ and ended up reading it cover to cover. Bloom is, in a way, a classic study of the high school structure and the arbitrary rules of “popularity” and the self-esteem that goes with it (for many students anyway). Lauren is the narrator of the book and she’s the girlfriend of the most popular guy in the school – a guy who is smart, caring, rather quiet and nice. Lauren is honest about how she feels about Dave: “grateful” that he chose her, wondering what he sees in her, enjoying the fringe benefit of being the “average” girlfriend of the most popular guy, and all the while knowing that she won’t be broken-hearted if he breaks up with her. She likes Dave, and she feels safe with him. And feeling “safe” is very important to Lauren. Of course there’s another love interest that causes her to feel all the feels.
What makes Bloom better, in my opinion, than other YA books with similar topics (and believe me I read a lot of them over the past six years) are Lauren’s difficult relationships with her father and her “best friend”. She loves her father and knows he loves her, but at the same time she’s very careful not to let him affect her too much. She tries very hard not to be like her parents (her mother left them when she was five or so, and her dad has become a serial dater ever since), as if separating her identity from theirs will prevent her from making the same mistakes. Lauren’s “best friend” is Katie and here is how Lauren describes their friendship in chapter 1: “When we first met we used to talk endlessly about how we’d get boyfriends and what we’d do when we had them, and it was only when we actually got boyfriends that I realized without the acquiring of them to talk about, we had absolutely nothing in common. And that sucks, because [she’s] my best friend.” This dynamic changes a bit throughout the novel but nevertheless there is no Big Realization Moment in which Lauren realizes that she can actually have deep, soul-searching conversations with Katie and she’d been just prejudiced and now they’ll be BFF forever ever.
Lauren’s life, in a way, is rather average. And that’s what makes it so relatable. Most of us don’t have a soul-sister or soul-brother as a best friend in high school. We don’t usually meet our life’s companion in the concrete box of education, either. (Although it could be argued that is exactly what the ending of the book implies.)
Oh, and Lauren plays the clarinet. I am, for unknown reasons, fond of characters who play an instrument.

The Bad Queen8. The Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-Antoinette by Carolyn Meyer
The sixth book in the Young Royals series (although they don’t have to be read in order!) takes us to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and to the young Antonia just as her betrothal to the French dauphin (later Louis XVI) is being considered. We see the willful and rather awkward 13-year-old girl undergo a painful physical transformation and instructions in French and the French etiquettes. We see her marriage to the dauphin Louis-Auguste and how she learns to tread the treacherous water of the French court. (We also see her unable to manage the inaction in the bedroom with her husband.) Death of Louis XV, becoming the queen, one expensive project after another (Petit Trianon, Le Hameau, the theater, etc.), Axel von Fersen, becoming a mother, scandal and gossip (always scandals and gossips), rising unrest, July 14th 1789, death by guillotine.
Going against the title of the series (Young Royals), Carolyn Meyer accompanies Marie-Antoinette until her death. She did the same thing with Anne Boleyn in Doomed Queen Anne, and Duchessina wasn’t young either when Duchessina ended, but the sheer length of this volume (414 pages compared to 228 and 258 pages, respectively) still stood out.
I usually read historical fiction to get acquainted with that particular period in the particular country. It often piques my interest in the era and country, and I find myself looking up additional information afterwards. Historical accuracy isn’t my main motivation although I haven’t found Carolyn Meyer to be an exaggerating type (aside from some romantic sidelines). Her other books in the series include Bloody Mary, Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn, Catherine of Aragon and Catherine de’ Medici. Some of these women have gained notoriety in their later life. The author’s aim, I understand, is to explore the difficult and often life-threatning childhoods of these young royals and how they might have shaped their adult lives. I found I could empathize with these teenage girls in all cases except one (I just don’t like Anne Boleyn) – and now Marie-Antoinette. I have no sympathy for her disinterest and ignorance in the public life, and that clockmaker husband of hers is no better. Did she deserve to die? No. Was I moved by her ordeal of dealing with the court fashion, distrustful French people, pouring heaps of money on renovating buildings, enjoying card games and theaters? Nope. The author’s ability to create details and atmosphere, however, was impeccable as usual.