Books and Movies – April and May 2015

Books

  • Trouble in Triplicate (“Before I Die”, “Help Wanted, Male”, and “Instead of Evidence”) – Rex Stout: More Nero Wolfe (but mostly, more Archie Goodwin). Very enjoyable, although they don’t stand out particularly in my memory.
    • I continue to be charmed and amused by the women in these stories, particularly seen against current discussions on representation in shows and stories written now but set then. While not unproblematic, there are a LOT of them, and very different, even if Archie is judgemental. I spend a lot of these books going, “Oh, ARchie!”
    • I love too how Archie’s point of view, even though he is the first person narrator, is not uncritiqued by the author.
  • Middlemarch – George Eliot: I read this to do an illustration of it for Litographs! Some of my thoughts on it are in that post (Middlemarch illustration). It’s a study in the gentle weight and power of cumulative, well-written volume. I really, really liked it, and am not sure I can fully distill my thoughts yet. Three aspects I’ve been referring to frequently, of late, are:
    • the *smallness* of society in the book;
    • the way it captures how consequences in life frequently seem inevitable and acceptable when you experience them even though a bland description of them would be melodramatic; and
    • how Eliot doesn’t pretend not to be writing a historical novel, and alludes at times to events “then” or “in those days”, etc.
  • My Antonia – Willa Cather: After Middlemarch, this was beautifully slim (pages) and crisp (the sentences). Not a criticism, just a contrast! A fascinating view of a predominantly immigrant culture, of a world moving between raw survival and ‘civilisation’.
    • Really interesting to read only a few months after Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, because it is set perhaps 50 years later and the lifestyle, landscape and some events resonate (I also just realised Burial Rites takes place the same year as Middlemarch, speaking of small societies and consequences).
    • And speaking of small societies… oh, the agoraphobic smallness of prairie towns!
    • It is also roughly contemporaneous with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood (and Seven Little Australians, although written earlier than the first and later than the second), and it is fascinating to think of these frontier childhoods happening at a time when Alcott and Coolidge’s comparatively urbane stories would have been out for several years.
    • Basically, it was a book I liked far more than I expected to: adventurous, charming, intriguing, awful, vital, gentle, uncompromising, and with plenty of story.
  • A Certain Justice – P. D. James: I… neither loved nor hated this? Possible I have been spoiled by the Sarah Caudwell novels. I could appreciate the masterly writing and observation, but I didn’t want to get into the world, so it wasn’t quite my brand of murder mystery.
  • Pegasus – Robin McKinley: Not my favourite McKinley, either – too much beginning. I had a similar issue with A Darker Shade of Magic, so your mileage may vary. It was interesting to compare McKinley’s deliberate, patient, pearl-like building of the world with the all-show-no-tell-no-time-to-explain-get-in-the-war-rig approach of Mad Max: Fury Road (shut up they are both stories which in their own ways are entirely of and about the world created).
  • Black Dove, White Raven – Elizabeth Wein: Goodness, everything suffered from comparisons in April, at least at first. In case it isn’t clear, this is a recommendation.
    •  Black Dove, White Raven was not as violently, sense-assaultingly stunning as Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire. It skews younger and is paced slower, and I was expecting to be picked up and dumped by it like the other books. But once I realised what a different book it was, I did really enjoy it.
    • I fell in love with Ethiopia, and never realised how little I knew about it, or about the late years of the ’30s. And the fact it is a war novel tied to the currents which would become the Second World War, but before that war happens makes the politics fascinating and the tensions unpredictable. Mostly, though, I just want to know a lot more about Ethiopia!
    • Also of note: Wein does not write her characters as being particularly extraordinary (although they are!). Momma’s unconventional life and marriage is never presented as such, Teo and Em use other people’s expectations but never fight against their own perceptions. These aren’t “girl power!” books, they are just books about girls (and now Teo) who happen to be doing things. In planes. In war.

Movies

  • Dior & I – Charming, fascinating, human, unglamorous documentary of people management and fashion. I could watch people working competently indefinitely. There is something very beautiful about people who look normal, and think of themselves as normal, but who are doing fascinating things well as a matter of course (see Black Dove, White Raven above) and due to the little choices they have made, working in the milieu in which they find or put themselves (see Middlemarch).
  • Fast & Furious 7 – I was looking forward to this as much as Cinderella (last month) and for very similar reasons. These are such winsome films, and the found/made family so endearing. Also: cars and stunts.
  • Age of Ultron – Not hugely disappointing, but a little bit.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road – Not disappointing at all. I was sitting in the cinema grinning wildly, thinking, “stylish and classy are not words I expected to apply to this film”. Many, many people have written about the movie, and I recommend Tansy Rayner Roberts‘ thoughts as a starting point. My enduring impressions are:
    • It is a marvellous example of consistent, wildly inventive, contained, restrained story design. Lots of people have said there isn’t much story there, but there is. Most of it, however, isn’t spoken.
    • More than one of anything is powerful. Having more than one woman takes the pressure of representing (yet standing apart from) all women off a solo character, and means they can be individually awesome, weak, human, furious. But having more than one good man does the same for him. Neither Max nor Nux represent all men. They’re just… them, flaws and all. (I mentioned Rex Stout critiquing a character from within that character’s first-person viewpoint, and he largely does this by having two very different detectives).
    • This is the third (but most extreme) recent example I can think of, of people just deciding to love something loudly on the internet, and that is so much fun.
    • The thundering, crazed poetry of certain lines.
  • San Andreas – Exactly what you’d expect. Exactly what I paid to see.

Books and Movies – March 2015

Cinderella

Books

  • Burial Rites – Hannah Kent: A historical novel about Agnes Magnusdottir, the last woman executed in Iceland. Such a small, slow, bleak, beautiful book and history. Also some interesting Anne of Green Gables parallels, which is not at all to say that if you like Anne you should read this (you should read it, just not for any similarity!). I’m curious, however, to know if anyone else thought this.
  • A Darker Shade of Magic – V E Schwab: (One of several I grabbed from Tor based on the cover) The structure of the beginning of this novelreminded me of Diana Wynne Jones. It didn’t unfold or particularly explain, just… started, and then went on, so the whole book felt on the cusp of Telling You What The Plot Is And Tipping Into The Middle. This gave it a sustained, off-balance momentum which I always find both puzzling and enjoyable (it’s something that’s usually discouraged but high on my wish list). Schwab also starts with the point of view of someone not of our world looking at our world (or something like it) and just assumes the divided state of the worlds is normal. This is something else DWJ trained me to like.
  • Thus Was Adonis Murdered – Sarah Caudwell: The first and, as I read them out of order, the last. Alas. Such a delightful balance of classic mystery/comedy, and unexpected, understated messing-with-stereotypes.
  • Am I Black Enough for You – Dr Anita Heiss: Part memoir, part musing on identity (and how others perceive it, particularly the Aboriginal identity of an academic city girl), part story of the growth of an academic and author. Both this and Palmer’s book (below) had some interesting intersections on the themes of (a) speaking up and (b) listening.
  • The Art of Asking – Amanda Palmer: I really enjoyed this, and have recommended it to people for very different reasons: as an account of controversy (whichever side of several you fall on), as an artistic memoir, as biography, as a bohemian fantasy, as a crash-course in creative business, to read as a novel, for some unexpected Sayers parallels in the themes of growing up and negotiating adult relationships.
  • Gobbolino, the Witch’s Cat – Ursula Moray Williams: A classic. I may have cried at the end.

Movies

  • Cinderella: Just nice, in the nicest way. Terri Windling pointed out this review by Grace Nuth, “Have courage and be kind”, which points out the charming kindness and politeness. It sounds like a small thing, but as KHR Smith pointed out, we didn’t realise until we came out of the cinema that we’d been missing it.

The little gouache Cinderella painting above is available as a print on RedBubble.

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.

March Short Book Reviews

The Fourth Bear – Jasper Fforde. Alright. I laughed at some of the puns (the Oddly Familiar Deja Vu Club) but it wasn’t as sparkling as the Thursday Next books. The threats weren’t threatening, the comedy sometimes felt forced. I really like fairytale retellings, but I think Fforde handled retellings of literature better. I liked Jack Spratt – I have a soft spot for hard-bitten, even noirish, policemen with complicated pasts – but he was a bit too affected by his past and I didn’t like the way his ex-wife was portrayed.

The Pinhoe Egg – Diana Wynne Jones. Another “meh”, but within the context of the rest of DWJ’s books, so that’s a pretty good “meh” : ) Although Magicians of Caprona was one of my earliest favourites, I don’t rank the Chrestomanci books as a whole among my favourites of her books. I like the characters and the world but they often leave me feeling as if there is something more behind the background, some part of the story I can’t quite get at or which is still waiting to be told. But it has a cat who walk through walls.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon. It was an odd experience reading this, because the subject matter and milieu belong to genres I am used to (comics, graphic novels, magic realism, slight surrealism) but the book itself is a Novel, which does things differently, and is a genre which seems obliged to have more gritty sexuality in it and less satisfying endings than the genres I’m used to (although, as Novels go, the ending of this one wasn’t bad). A similar thing happened with Year of Wonders which I would have liked as an Historical, Fantasy or Alternate History novel but really took against as a Novel. I liked Chabon’s style, I really liked that he anchored the characters in history and made their fictional fictional creations (The Escapist, et al) seem so real I wanted to be able to pick up one of the comics and look at Joe’s drawing, or look for references to the characters and their creations in the anti-comic literature of the time. Usually this would bother me – I often feel cheated by reading historical fiction, but this fictionalised history paralleling the real rise of the comic book hero was excellent, interesting, entertaining, helpful and gratifying. I liked the faint elements of the fantastic and can’t decide if I wanted them explained or not. I’d have a hard time lending it for reasons of certain scenes.

Also, Song of Songs, and if you want to scar your children, read this aloud as a family with parts assigned appropriately.

February Short Book Reviews

Return to Labyrinth, vol. 1. No, no, no, no, no. This isn’t Labyrinth. The Labyrinth is there, and the fantastic creatures, but it has had its heart cut out. The movie had its flaws, but it was wonderful and powerful, and if the main character was spoiled she was also lively and active and if she made mistakes she also made progress and friends. Volume 1 of Return to Labyrinth had none of that. For a moment there was a glimpse of grown-up Sarah, which was like seeing a glimpse of an old friend – heartbreaking because her life now appears to revolve around Toby (who seems to have grown very much into Nick from Deep Secret, but without any of the charm). I enjoyed the creatures and places, some known, some new, some developed (the forest of hat-birds! loved it). But it is, so far, a story of a spoiled and discontented child being led (not enough emotion to be ‘dragged’) against his will into a life of fantasy and privilege, which isn’t the same thing as a spoiled and self-centred child on the point of making a terrible mistake and jumping in feet-first to fix it and travelling through dangers unnumbered and hardships uncounted and loyal friendships and seductive promises and finally growing up. I will read another volume if it comes my way, just to see if the story becomes a deeper story, but it left me cold and sad and wondering if anyone ever can return to Labyrinth. Someone once, long ago, began a fanfiction novel which I found and read unfinished, and it promised so much more than this. On the art: this was my first manga and I do not think, from art I have seen around, that I should judge all manga by the quality of the artwork in this which was sometimes inconsistent to the point of distraction.

The Orphan Tales: In the Night Garden – Catherynne Valente. Fabulous. A filigreed nesting-box of wonderful stories. A thousand-and-one stories each part of the other. A genealogy of delight. The assistant editor at Bantam Dell whose card you can’t quite see on this page of my journal recommended it to me at a function at the Australian Consulate in New York. I could not find it in the days left to us in New York. It subsequently won the World Fantasy award and when I came home I ordered it at Pulp Fiction and – eventually – it arrived. It deserved the award. Now, when I started the book I was not sure whether it would leave me cold, and the first story, the upper layer, the framing story is on its surface a small tale and unfolds only at great intervals across the book. But the tales the girl with all the stories written across her eyelids told were luminous and strange, rendolent of Arabian nights and Norse legends and European maerchen, yet never retellings or rephrasings – always fresh and new and surprising and lovely and shocking and heartbreaking. Lovely monsters and terrible fates, wars and treachery, ambition, love, gold and starlight and foxes and otters, bears and phoenixes and Beasts, creatures of the stars that burn the grass they tread on, creatures of the moon which inhabit and discard cratered bodies, cities of rose domes, of spice, of towers built of ships and bones. And gradually each story feeds into the others, loops back, is threaded through, brushes against the others and builds a world of beauty and dark secrets. And if there were no further book I would be happy in the story – but now I do know and care about the upper layers and am very glad there is a second half, which is on order and I will report back on as soon as possible.

The Fantasy Artist’s Reference File – Peter Evans. I said I might review this. It was – oh, it’s the illustrated version of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland without the self-awareness or deliberate humour. (I think. There were a couple sections where I thought the author must be having a dig at his audience). It is a volume of photo-references of figures poses and costumes, complete with CD of images. The production values are high, the models appear very healthy and there are some unexpected inclusions. And I can’t not laugh. On a pay-per-read it may be one of the cheapest books I’ve bought. It includes poses, costume details, figure reference, facial expressions, ‘classic poses’ and suggestions for illustrating the following: Barbarian Warrior, Warrior Woman, Elven Warrior, Elven Queen, Fairy, Princess, Wicked Sorceress, Warrior Prince, Wizard, Evil Sorcerer, Warrior Dwarf, Cleric, Peasant Boy, Peasant Girl, Norseman and Goblin. And oh the cliches, they burn! And the intricate back stories and descriptions for barely related photographs (did you know: “Elves’ eyesight is far better than that of humans. They have a greater color spectrum and can see in the near dark”)! And the sight of a bearded, wise wizard in his underwear! What is seen cannot be unseen… Some noteable pose titles include: Death to the Dragon! Come forth, my paladins. Get back hordes of chaos. Dragon bait. Midnight abduction (two of these). I will rend your soul. Aaarrghhhh! No, that is not the way to do it. I had it when we left. Notable costume elements: Baggy hose (seriously, if they had not pointed it out I would not have noticed and now I cannot look away!). Puffy gold-lame wristlets. Skullband (as in, a headband on a skull).

I also read several short stories including ‘Tongue before Sword’ which received a longer review here, and Matthew.