October Short Book Reviews

Life through Cellophane – Gillian Polack: It was described on the cover as “part horror & part gentle love story”, but I’d rephrase that as “part gentle horror and part love story”. It’s about growing up in middle age, about being alone when surrounded by people (and vice versa), and about how, even when your family is made up of friends, you can’t always choose them or how they’ll behave. Also ghosts and ants and lots of food and Canberra and escaping from the public service. I really liked it.

The Impetuous Countess – Barbara Cartland: I mentioned in my review of Serena last month that there was another Regency to come. I was reading this book on the train and wanted to hit my head against the window in rhythm with the train because the writing. had. a. paragraph. break. at. the. end. of. every. sentence. and it drove me batty. It also made it difficult to assess the book beyond that, but it was in some ways closer to what I should have liked – innocent, flamboyant, melodramatic. And yet it was thin and silly, and I have a theory that this is because it concentrated on just the romance and the erratic behaviour and missed what make Heyer’s and Jones’ and Bujold’s romances so much fun: that those books aren’t primarily about the romance, that while what romance there may be is inevitable it’s almost a bonus. Plot: Young girl running away from home falls in with dour but handsome count, carriage is overturned, she tells the people who takes them in they are married, forgetting they are in Scotland and that means that now they are married and then they… go to France, I think, and there are balls and misunderstandings and Napoleon and rooftop escapes and pretending to be servants to escape from Paris and then getting smuggled back to England and finally realising they love each other. It could have been fun if it wasn’t *so* cringe-worthily over the top (and the heroine so hilariously naive). Or maybe if it had just had longer paragraphs.

The Two Pearls of Wisdom – Alison Goodman: My diary says “It was sort of like… Prince and the Pauper meets chinese chequers meets The Grinch who stole Christmas. All in a good way. (P&P for opulence, deception & protocol, CC for world buildng & border decoration & Grinch for the denouement).” All of which is true, but not necessarily helpful, because regardless of how that sounds it is a good book, with a strong formal structure (which suits the world), a very ordered world (which suits the story), lots of elegant action, complicated politics (both government and gender), beautiful description of trappings and action (both fighting and smaller actions – a lovely way with the folding of hands), and dragons. My personal tastes trend more towards fairy tale retellings and chaos-with-a-heart than such beautifully thought-through worlds and systems of magic, and while I don’t have the background to do it myself I’d like to see a take on this looking at the cultures that inspired the world, but I am looking forward to reading the sequel.

Fables 10: The Good Prince (issues 60-69) – Bill Willingham, et al: My note on this simply says, “Gentle, for all the fighting”. James Jeans’ cover painting still makes me sad. Old enemies, new heroes, baseball in the Frog Prince’s lands, foresworn knights and families slowly growing. The individual issues of Fables form a much more discrete storyline than the enormous mythology of Sandman, for example (a large part of their respective charm) but I am still blown away by the ease with which mood changes to model itself to each episode – fun and childlike, austere and tragic, heroic. It’s a beautiful series, and my copies have been in fairly high rotation.

The Pipes of Orpheus – Jane Lindskold: This was like the Famous Five in Dante’s Divine Comedy written by a late 19th century fantasist and Christian Anderson, but with a dash of PL Travers, more human sacrifice, and a strong dose of Stoker in the last third. It was – I’m not sure. It had the same effect on me as a lot of late 19th century fantasy, which is admiring puzzlement, and I think this is because the story doesn’t neatly fit the modern structure of such stories. Essentially, it is the story of the surviving children the Pied Piper in his madness lured away, and of their journeys through Hades, Transylvania and Olympus to free the spirits of the dead. It features a gorgeous description of a tenuously existing world being rolled up, and some Muses who appeared to be Welsh. The relevant entry in my diary reads “I finished Pipes of Orpheus on the way in [to work]. I am still puzzled”. It is, however, one of those books I will recommend because I would like to discuss it – don’t, however judge it by its cover!

Four and Twenty Blackbirds – Cherie Priest: I have not read a great deal of Southern Gothic fantasy, but I think I might like it. Tor gave out some free books at… Conflux last year, I think, and I finally read this one. It is gripping from the beginning, full of ghosts and family secrets and murderous cousins, swamps and alligators and monks in disguise, blood memory and old murders, the lies of those we love and the occasional kindness of enemies (such a small part, but it stuck with me). But I particularly liked the heroine, Eden, who is… kind of awesome, not because she is Feisty(TM) or Strong(TM), but because she just does things. She’s not superhuman, she knows which fights not to pick, she’s physical but not exceptionally powerful, not angsty (!), not polite or relying on hints, prepared to do something, even if it might not be wise, rather than do nothing. It is such a relief to read a story which appears to be shaping up to be an impenetrable web of untold family secrets and have the main character give up on being polite and just ask the questions outright. I’d like to read more of the stories about Eden, but also some more of the genre because it interests me not just for the books in it, but for the sort of fairly location-specific genre, and because of recent conversations about whether parts of Australia have or could support something similar.

December Short Book Reviews

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman. I grew up on The Jungle Book and I really liked the nods Gaiman gave to Kipling’s story in the structure of this book, the echoes of Mowgli’s childhood in that of Nobody, though this is not a retelling. It’s an independent story of a boy brought up by ghosts in a graveyard, and it charmed me. I found myself annoyed that the story didn’t go further or deeper, but although it was the sort of annoyance that reflects well on the book I really wish this could have been a much larger story – a book that starts and ends in the same place but covers much more ground, just like The Jungle Book does, where Mowgli’s story is only part of a much larger world full of stories, some of which link and others of which do not. Gaiman can do this  – he does in Neverwhere and American Gods – and it can be done in (so-called) childrens’ books too. I just bought a copy of T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone for my nephews, The Hobbit spins off into a bigger world all over the place, even little books like The Book of Three (leaving aside the series) have the feel of being a much bigger story than they are. So I was disappointed that The Graveyard Book was just a little book on its own. It was a very good little book on its own, but knowing what Gaiman and the genre are capable of I am feeling a bit sad for what it might have been.

Size Twelve is not Fat – Meg Cabot. An ex teen pop star working as a deputy dorm supervisor in a college in New York investigates a series of student murders. This was very, very, very light read: fast paced and enjoyable, with Cabot’s breezy first-person style in full evidence, but in retrospect a bit cloying, like something too sweet eaten too quickly. I’m saving the sequel till I’ve recovered. (Aside: My favourite Cabot is still All American Girl – mostly for the horse shampoo).

Fables 9: Sons of Empire – Willingham et al. The art and story both picked up from volume 8. I really like how at times you can see threads that are going to be woven into a larger pattern, or suddenly realise that a consistently minor character is about to become (or always has been) very important. A nice mix of dark and light and mystery in this volume.

Cryptonomicon – Neal Stephenson. The Hacker Revolution crossed with The Hunt for the Red October meets Little Brother crossed with Between Silk and Cyanide (and I strongly recommend all four of those books to you). With helpful diagrams on the effect sexual activity has on the mathematical ability of cryptographers. Although unrecommendable to mothers, etc, for many passages associated with the last comment (although I read extracts to her), this was an odd, entertaining, elaborate, glittering monster of a book, and I tore through it. It covers codes and the development of computers, programming, hacking, the fall of Singapore, the Kokoda trail, earthquakes, insurance, data havens, data cables, Brisbane during WWII, the role of a glockenspiel player during an air strike, the practicalities of burying treasure and dealing with it once you dig it up, the correct way to eat cereal, how to repair a pipe organ and the idiosyncracies of small fictional British islands.

August Short Book Reviews

Dealing with Dragons – Patricia C Wrede. When I visit Karen, she puts me in the Spare Oom, which is cruel, because it is a tall, thin room with a tall, thin bookcase full of all the books I’ve ever wanted to read but haven’t been able to yet. Last year I started pulling out books that I was interested in, only to find more books behind, and I had the distinct feeling that if I kept going I would find more books behind those and behind those just maybe someplace else altogether. So I stopped, because I didn’t want that not to be the case. Anyway, this year I went down for the Faithful Writer Conference (reviewed last week) and over two evenings read Dealing with Dragons which I have only known because of the more recent cover art featured in Spectrum. It was a fun book, light-hearted and enjoyable, with a touch of “The Ordinary Princess” and “The Paperbag Princess” and “Farmer Giles of Ham”. I liked that the tongue-in-cheek lightness of it never dropped away, and I do like practical heroines.

Fables volume 8: Wolves – Willingham et. al. (graphic novel). I perhaps got my hopes up a little high because of the title. Although I enjoyed this, I did not enjoy it as much as the earlier volumes. The art wasn’t as consistent and it felt very light, with characters I hope become relevant later because they added little here. It was a bridging volume, a breather, and hasn’t diminished my hopes for the next volume.

Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen – Joanne K. Rowling. (That’s the Philosopher’s Stone). I had so much fun reading this. I’m pretty familiar with the original (having read it, read it out loud, written a research essay on it, written part of my thesis on it, etc), so it was an ideal book to read in German because I knew the story well enough that it helped me guess vocab I didn’t know. Although one evening I was running around my house asking, “Does anyone remember the name of the street the Dursleys live on?” because the name had been translated. (It was Privet Drive, translated Ligusterweg which means Privet Way). Rereading a book in another language is enjoyable because you get to enjoy it again almost for the first time, and have the added pleasure of getting some jokes for the first time, discovering new ones, and just laughing at language in general – words in German which are literally the same as English and force you to realise what the English word is, words in German which sound funny or charming: undursleyhaft for instance, or the word to describe cats weaving between people’s ankles: hindurchschlaengelten. It was also very interesting to see some of the characters again for the first time, knowing what they will become and do – hints and clues and foreshadowings fulfilled six books later.

Hellblazer: Joyride (graphic novel). I won’t recommend these for all sorts of reasons, but I really enjoy watching how the character of John Constantine is written. They are horror comics, and I was surprised often in this one by how scenes bothered me which wouldn’t have if they were on screen or in a book. I’ve discussed this with a few friends and we think it is because films usually don’t leave much to the imagination: it all takes place on the screen. Books leave everything to the imagination: it all takes place in your head but is constrained by everything else that goes on in your head. The comic gives enough visual guidance to make sure you interpret things the way the artist/writer intended, and then lets your mind take over from there.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu – Susannah Clarke. I really, really liked this book. In spite of its deliberate archaism and modelling after Regency texts, the stories reminded me most of T. H. White and Mistress Masham’s Repose. Elegant, beautifully-crafted, enjoyable, unashamedly fictional tellings of new and old faery-tales in the England of Jane Austen, the Duke of Wellington, the Raven King and Stardust (there is one story set in the world of Stardust beyond the Wall). And it has a pretty cover and Charles Vess’ otherworldly ink illustration.

The House of Many Ways – Dianne Wynne Jones. Dianne Wynne Jones frustrates me, but in a good way. This story of tangled mythological strands, chaotic and legendary families, quests and paperwork was thrilling and yet worse than most of her books in the sense that there was a very tangible impression of vast reaches of even more wonderful stories just off the edge of the page. It’s closest to Homeward Bounders and Eight Days of Luke. My favourite part was the way the mythological strands are mundane closer to earth, and wilder and more dangerous as they snake out among the stars. [ETA: That was actually a review of The Game. Here is the correct review].

The House of Many Ways – Dianne Wynne Jones. A sequel, insofar as she writes such things, to Howl’s Moving Castle  and Castles in the Air. It takes place in the same world, at least, and Howl and Sophie and Calcifer put in appearances, not always as themselves. I enjoyed this, but (obviously) didn’t find it as memorable as the first two. The main characters were a delightful combination of practical and spoiled, yet both aware of their own flaws (and a little more keenly aware of each others’), and the book felt self-contained as if it had told all the story necessary, rather than spilling out all over the place like some of her books.

The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes – Iona and Peter Opie. I don’t usually review reference texts because I don’t usually read them from cover to cover in a sitting (although given a free afternoon and a volume of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica I’m happy to give it a try). I read this in one evening, cover to cover, including the introduction which is written with such a gentle, humorous intelligence that I wish I knew the Opies. It is a slim, fabulous, generous collection of nursery rhymes for personal use – an appetiser for their Oxford Encyclopaedia of Nursery Rhymes which is on my list after Child’s ballads.

The Explosionist – Jenny Davidson. I bought this, unseen, on Kate‘s recommendation from The Book Depository (free! international! shipping!), and it had me at “New Hanseatic League.” I’m not quite sure how to classify it – it is alternate history, set in a 40s Scotland which has split from England, where Spiritualism (a la Arthur Conan Doyle) is influential, war threatens, Scotland’s power is based on its production of dynamite and surgical rationalisation of the emotions is being trialled. The characters are appealling and more than one dimensional, the alternate history is alert but also fun (Oscar Wilde is famous for developing incubators for premature babies and Doctor Freud is a rogue radio operator). I’m quite interested to see where the story goes from here.

Five Books. Times two.

Five books I’ve been waiting to read:

  1. Valente – The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden (recommended in New York, finally arrived at Pulp Fiction, begun!)
  2. Willingham – Fables: March of the Wooden Soldier (on order, picked it up from Daily Planet on Friday)
  3. Chabon – The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Christmas present from Aimee, great first chapter and it mentions de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters!)
  4. Forbes – Return to Labyrinth (discovered thanks to Tansy Rayner Roberts, bought and dipped into with Aimee, much excitement but will be disappointed)
  5. Russell – History of Western Philosophy (part interest, part ‘use it or lose it’ approach to bookcase, chewed by mice)

Five books I’d like to get hold of:

  1. Rieber, Gaiman, Bolton – Reckonings: Books of Magic Vol. 3 (every other volume is still in print)
  2. Kaye – Golden Afternoon and Enchanted Evening (The Sun in the Morning was beautiful and thrilling and heart-wrenching and hilarious, and lauded The Far Pavilions, which covered much of the same territory but in fiction, was very disappointing when read immediately after)
  3. Gilman – The Balloon Tree (I adored this in year one – she had a secret staircase behind the fireplace!)
  4. Griffiths – Consistent Christianity (wonderful, slight, practical, solid book of applying and living out Biblical principles)
  5. A picture book about a family which opens a restaurant and one of the children serves jelly (or maybe peas) while on roller skates? Anyone?