February Short Book Reviews

10+ books this month, and since that obviously makes too short a post, I have added features – where the book was acquired and what I thought of the cover. If I think of any more categories (or there are any suggestions which amuse me sufficiently) I may eventually be able to reduce these monthly reviews to a formulaic checklist which would at least make it more likely for me to get them out early in the month.  Next months’ review post will be shorter, with the unfortunate consequence that you won’t get to hear about Regency gentleman fighting with anacondas in Ceylon (for real! published before Pride and Prejudice! How have I gone this long without Gothic horror!) until after April.

Gentlemen of the Road – Michael Chabon: A lively, swift tale of two rogues who find themselves in deeper than they expected when they stumble into local politics by the Black Sea. With elephants. Gary Gianni’s wonderful illustrations put it so squarely into that school of old, swashbuckling adventure novels that it is difficult to judge the book in the (very recent) context in which it was actually published.

  • Bought new at a cheap book store – I feel sullied.
  • Unrelated to the content, the cover on Amazon is not the one I had, which was a little hardcover in pine-green paper with a swashbuckling picture in black and gold. Striking, accurate to the feel of the book and sold me on it.

Passage – Connie Willis: Brilliant, of course, but also manages to be simultaneously compelling and slow – as in, I thought the middle was agonisingly paced and yet read the book in two sittings. On reaching the end, I decided this pacing was necessary – the book is about frustration and failure to communicate and thwarted communication. Without the building of tension and communication the book could have been as light and entertaining as Bellwether, and it needed not to be. It’s about near death experiences, and hiding in stairwells, and inexplicable architecture, and the politics of hospitals and research, and disaster movies and movie nights and memory.

  • Bought new at an independent bookstore, having been was erroneously informed that Blackout was the sequel to it. Je non regrette rien.
  • Cover: No, a bit too spoilery/dull, but I’m not sure what the alternative would be.

The Ugly One – Hermione Ranfurly: The memoirs of Countess Ranfurly from her childhood until the start of World War II. Charming, acerbic, scattered – a really lovely, loving, sometimes surprising view of an alternately privileged and disastrous childhood in England between the wars: love and loss and ghosts and selling gas stoves with no prior cooking experiences and climbing over the gates of the lodge of the Governor of New South Wales in long evening dresses and learning secretarial skills from friendly old women whose coats smelled of armpits. Far too short (although her tendency to go off on tangents mid-paragraph might be distracting in a longer book).

  • Borrowed from my mother.
  • Cover: Sweet vignette which suits the cover, complements (without matching) the watercolour on the cover of her published diaries and fits well with other mostly gentle books of somewhat eccentric midwar English lives. Could be too sweet, but the title helps.

Seventeen SecondsIvan Southall: Don’t write this off just because you’ve had a bad Southall experience – his Ash Wednesday novel (well, his and everybody else’s) gave me nightmares for years, and I now forgive him freely.This is the true story of two Australians who went to England to join the Royal Navy during World War II and were sent to defuse mines on land. It is a very, very short book – Southall wrote a longer account of the same events called Softly Tread the Brave which my father has read but I have not, and I’m not sure I could have taken the tension for many more pages. It is thrilling and lively and often entertaining.

  • Lifeline Booksale purchase.
  • Cover: Two painted figures running away from an unexploded (but, presumably, not for long) mine with a stop watch overlaid. Not misleading, but of-its-era-ugly and unlikely to reassure those whose childhoods were traumatised by Southall experiences.

An Awkward Truth – Peter Grose: A history of the bombing of Darwin in 1942 by the same force which struck Pearl Harbour (with a greater number of ships, bombs and civilian deaths). I read this out loud to my father in two instalments (and about 3 sittings), and it was both readable and fascinating and occasionally touching. This is a part of Australian history which has been clawing its way out of obscurity and obfuscation for some time. I was, however, particularly delighted by the “Where are they now” chapter – something which is suited to an event so relatively recent and with a small central cast, and which contained a few surprises.

  • My aunt gave it to my dad for Christmas.
  • Cover: Clearly marks this book for what it is, but the book was more about the civilians, administrators and volunteers than the military. On the other hand – bonus points for something marginally upbeat.

Enchanted Glass – Diana Wynne Jones: Too fast, but enchanting. It’s a DWJ, so I’m happily biased, but I enjoyed the setting of a character discovering their own abilities when for a large part of the population of the book magic is so very ordinary, and the English village setting, and the difficulties of combining magic and computers, and the alternating middle-aged and childish points of view, and the passive-agressive furniture removal.

  • Bought new – brand new…
  • Cover: Eh – didn’t work for me. Too gaudy, and I wanted something more beautiful. Still, consistent with the branding and it seems to be working.

Ordinary Thunderstorms – William Boyd: This would probably make a very watchable movie, but felt (to me) as if it was written with too great a consciousness of that fact. I kept wanting to hit the protagonist on the head with the book to make him act sensibly, I found most of the characters more or less unpleasant and there was too great a need to include the unrelated sexual proclivities of the characters.

  • Lent to me by my previous supervising partner
  • Cover: Okay, fits the genre.

Perdido Street Station – China Mieville: A work of genius and also I really didn’t like it. It’s like – oh, Dickens without soul and Ankh Morpork devoid of comedy and ludicrousness. It’s rich and complex and complicated and every shade of grey, detailed and decadent, spiced and draped and peopled and wired and programmed and full of clockwork and steam, meatworks and organised crime, sewers and mansions and dirigibles, torment and torture and dimensions and terror and a story that kicks into high gear about halfway through and doesn’t let up, and kind mad scientists and artists and underground journalists and dreams and moral compromise. It is not humourless (the scissors!) but it builds up a bleakly indestructible, violent, sullied world where humour won’t save you and there can perhaps never be any promise of renewal or salvation, only grim survival.

  • Bought at a fan fund auction at a convention in Adelaide, I think.
  • Cover: Falls somewhere between the fantastic and the gritty, and appropriately unpolished. Not misleading except for what I think is meant to be Yagharek on top of a tower – everytime I look at it I think it is Gorey’s Uninvited Guest.

Queen ElizabethPenelope Mortimer: Get your hands on a copy of this book if you can. I kept trying to smother my laughter on the train while my sister whispered, angrily, “Are you alright?” It is really one of the most delightful biographies I’ve read – alert, acerbic, entertained by its subject. Mortimer seems to have had a wonderful time writing it, and is quite clear about what she can substantiate and what she imagines (or hopes) might have been the conversation about a given matter. The frequent snide snarkiness is offset by the occasional unexpected affection and sympathy for members of the cast, and the gems of historical summary and foreshadowing. Its charm lies in the portrait of an intense, peculiar family in a small, odd nation over an era when a great deal was threatened and tested and changed, summed up well in the change in the political role of Kings during war time, but at its best for me in the imperceptible slide from the stiff, nannied, formal Edwardian childhoods of Elizabeth, David (later King Edward) and Bertie (still later King George), to David’s fast cars and the young set in the 20s and 30s rolling up the carpets and trying to have a dance in Buckingham Palace after the King had gone to bed, to King George yelling downstairs at Margaret and Lillibet (now Queen Elizabeth) to turn the gramophone down. The contrast to the individuals as seen in David’s memoir, A King’s Story, and Laird’s How the Queen Reigns (reviewed last month) is intriguing, but not inconsistent.

  • Lifeline Booksale purchase.
  • Cover: This had an awful 1980s brilliant-blue and fuschia portrait photograph of the Queen Mother. Very Keeping Up Appearances – and so not that sort of book!

Blackout – Connie Willis: Aargh! Half of a lovely book, gripping (and more tightly paced than Passage) and chaotic and entertaining. But only half a book! This follows in sequence after Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog (although it isn’t necessary to have read those). The second half doesn’t come out until next year and so this isn’t a review as much as an anguished yawp. I will however mention 3 things Willis does well:

  1. Chaos: multiple simultaneous conversations, including telephone conversations; all flavours of communication breakdown; ensemble scenes; cross purposes; apparently pointless (but vigorous) subplots spiralling down to the realisation everything was relevant to the plot. It should confuse the reader too, but doesn’t. (Willis, Heyer and Jones all do marvelous all-in messes of characters).
  2. Time travel and dramatic irony: There is something beautiful in the parallel plots of this story – the tales of the main characters are chronological in relation to each other when they are in Oxford, and in the time-line of their own internal missions. But although the starting point is the same, each has gone to a different drop point, and so those individual parallel plots don’t line up. I spent a lot of time thinking, “[y] is near London! [x] is in London now! No, wait – drat! [x] only got to London in September and [y] is still in August”. It isn’t confusing, but it is incredibly frustrating when you know one character is in trouble and without contacts… so near and yet so far. Also, on the one hand it’s WWII, and the characters know their history and that historians can’t change history – on the other… is this as true as everyone thought?  And just how accurate are the history books and human memory.
  3. The rhythm of the era: I’m not an expert on WWII England, but I’ve been reading a few WWII-era histories and memoirs of late, and to my ear Willis caught the feel of the era (both as experienced and remembered) very well, whether ambulance crews, shop girls in department stores, Dunkirk, evacuated children, train travel . This isn’t all good – since the story DIDN’T END, I have no closure and Blackout is bleeding out into everything else I’m reading.
  • Bought brand new at a local independent after a breathless wait.
  • Cover: Ok – better than the ones I can find on Amazon. Nice dark shot of a woman with a 1940s hairstyle and textured overlay of vortex/time-travel net, but perhaps a bit too ‘WWII family saga’. The cover at the link, however, makes me think it’s either a history of aircraft navigation systems or an analysis of the inherent structural integrity of the dome.

Also, unreviewed:

  • Phonogram, The Singles Club, issue 5.
  • By Gods Word – Jensen.

3 thoughts on “February Short Book Reviews

  1. I’ve read and enjoyed The Enchanted Glass – thanks for reminding me! I’m reading the Jensen one, I’m eager to read the Connie Willis ones, and apparently The Scar (sequel to Perdido Street Station) is a much better book. Also, Bujold does some great all-in chaoses too.

  2. Pingback: March and April Short Book Reviews « Errantry

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