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.
November: In which I traditionally read short fiction instead of novels
Suburban Glamour – Jamie McKelvie: Graphic novel – a simple, slightly dark, fun modern fairy tale, with beautifully clean art which doesn’t look flat.
The Enemy – Lee Child: I started this in October, which is why it appears in an otherwise novel-free zone. Set early in Jack Reacher’s career, it is military police procedural/murder mystery/thriller set on and around New Year’s Eve at the end of the cold war and the consequent reordering of priorities in the armed forces. I like Child’s straightforward plotting and style and the noir-ish narrator’s voice, and the setting was interesting and effective although suffered (for me) from the old contrast between a book set in a particular era and a book written then – so, Reacher is no Jack Ryan, but then who is?
Dreaming Again – Jack Dann (ed.): This is a very good anthology. It is a large selection of short speculative fiction stories by Australian authors, and necessarily I may appreciate many of them without falling in love with all of them – this isn’t meant to be faint praise by any means, but it has a wide range of styles and genres, some of which hit my buttons and some of which didn’t. I was struck, reading them, by the general high quality of the stories (over my scattered, unreviewed short story reading of the year), and there were many individual stories and elements of stories which really appealed to me. Memorable mentions include: Richard Harland’s “A Guided Tour in the Kingdom of the Dead” which I actually read last year and remember primarily because that was when I realised that of all the authors I’ve heard, Richard’s writing is the closest to how he speaks – it’s like having him sitting in my head talking; Adam Browne’s really quite attractive handling of tricky territory (Michael Jackson) in “Neverland Blues” – lovely colours in this one, too; a world of railways and crossroads which I’d like to see more of in Sara Douglass’ “This Way to the Exit”; the demonstration by Cecilia Dart-Thornton that an Australian setting could be combined with a rich and romantic style of storytelling; Jason Fischer’s peculiarly apt description of his own story “Undead Camels Ate Their Flesh” as “George Romero meets Mad Max”, although few of the reviews of this story mention the Danish invasion; the decayed richness of Peter M Ball’s “The Last Great House of Isla Tortuga”. And many more – there are some fabulous authors in this book, and it goes a long way towards redressing my irrational but recurring concern that all Australian speculative fiction is bleak, hot and post-apocalyptic (well, some of it is).
Dr Horrible one-shot comic: Great backstory for the main character of Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog (which, if you have not seen, you should track down!), and endearingly recognisable characters. Missed the one-liners and the music.
The Comical Tragedy or Tragical Comedy of Mr Punch – Neil Gaiman, ill. Dave McKean: Family history or fantasy, unless the two are necessarily co-existent. A very slow, elegant, unsettling comic/heavily illustrated story of decayed seaside arcades, family stories lost and changed by time and memory, and the rich dark world of Punch and Judy shows.
Phonogram – The Singles Club 2.1-2.4 – Kieron Gillen, ill. Jamie McKelvie, et al: I’ll probably do a more thorough review at some point in the future, when all issues are out and read, but I really like the structure of this – each issue retelling the same evening in the same club from the point of view of different characters whose stories overlap and illuminate each other – and McKelvie’s clean, graphic art as well as the glossaries of music and musicians referenced in the comic (after each episode I would sit down and educate myself on YouTube).
The Faery Reel: Tales from the Twilight Realm – Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow (ed.): An anthology of short stories drawing on tales of the fae from many countries – English, celtic, Japanese, Australian, Brazil… I loved this from the header illustrations by Charles Vess right down to the author summaries. Wild and tame and beautiful, heart-rending, ridiculous, many-coloured. Highlights included (but are not limited to): Delia Sherman’s personification of the NY Public Library catalogue system in “CATNYP”; Kelly Link’s tall, fabulous tale of second hand clothing stores and hidden kingdoms in “The Faery Handbag”; the terrible imprisonment of the denizens of Peter Pan’s island in Bruce Glassco’s “Never Never”; the hapless eponymous narrator of Patricia A McKillip’s “The Undine” (a story which managed to be at once tragic, hopeful and hysterical); the beautifully matter-of-fact main character of Gregory Maguire’s tale of age and war and home in “The Oakthing”; and the intense gentle nostalgia of Jeffrey Ford’s day-long “The Annals of Eelin-Ok”
Flight #1: Anthology of short comics acquired for educational purposes: with widely varying styles and some genuine beauty and humour.
December: In which Dickens slowed everything down
Canal Dreams – Iain Banks: Apparently the author doesn’t know quite what to make of it either. It was short. It was intriguing. It did make me want to read another of his books. And being able to describe it as a “literary novel with ninja cellists in Panama” is probably adequate justification for reading it.
The Fantastic Mr Fox – Roald Dahl: I bought this for one of my nephews and reread it on the train. It was my favourite Dahl growing up, and my mother disapproved (she says she didn’t care to support Dahl because his personal life was not consistent with being promoted as a family man, but for some reason I remember her taking against this book particularly). Now – it’s still problematic and fun and over-the-top, but mostly I was struck by how much David Tennant’s portrayal of Doctor Who reminds me of Mr Fox.
The Dragonfly Pool – Eva Ibbotson: This is the childrens/YA counterpart to Ibbotson’s adult A Song For Summer (as Journey to the River Sea is the counterpart to A Company of Swans) and so the setting (pre WWII England and Europe) and characters (mysterious brooding naturalists, stunning artist model/cooks, intense kind girls who want to mend the world) and the eccentric school will be familiar. I did not love it as much as A Song For Summer, but it was charming and fun and although it is a very recent novel it has, like so many of her non-fantasy novels, a wonderful early-modern, 1930s, I Capture the Castle, Enchanted April, sweet, slightly amoral, English feel, which fascinates me. Also, like DWJ, Ibbotson’s books always make me want to go outside and do things.
The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold: I was surprised that I enjoyed this – it was so popular that I expected not to. But it was well-crafted, I liked the structure, the characters were enjoyable, it was interestingly a-religious in imagery and it explored some very intriguing viewpoints – by which I do not mean the murder-victim-point-of-view, but rather the exploration of the characters of her family as people beyond (or trapped by) the stereotypes of mother, father, sister (etc) of the murdered girl. It reminded me strongly of Dürrenmatt’s Das Versprechen (translated as The Pledge, I haven’t read it in English or seen the Sean Penn film, but the book is excellent), particularly in relation to the ending which in both books wasn’t traditionally happy, but was still satisfying. It’s not perfect (and the title is come by awkwardly) but very readable and enjoyable. The movie, however, managed to be nominally faithful to the book while completely abandoning the sense, internal logic and character development of the novel.
Adventures in Two Worlds – A J Cronin: Autobiographical, but not dry facts and memories – so far to the other side that at times it was like fiction and at other times maudlin. But while the beginning and end tended towards the overblown, the rest of the chapters were beautifully written scenes of life as a doctor in Scottish villages, Welsh mining towns and the wealthy and poor streets of London: entertaining, romantic, endearing and occasionally reminiscent of James Herriot. I read a few chapters – about the district nurse and her bicycle, daft Tam and his houseboat and the widow on her farm – to my parents and predictably we all got choked up.
White Rabbit – Bruce Marshall: A biography of Wing Commander F F E Yeo-Thomas, of whom I knew a little from his appearance in the pages of Leo Marks’ Between Silk and Cyanide. Cloak and dagger adventures in occupied France during World War II, parachute runs, double agents, escapes in and from p.o.w. and concentration camps, fleeing through Germany – fascinating and gripping, though with too many French phrases for me to attempt reading it out loud with anything like confidence.
A Room with a View – E M Forster: Gentle and very enjoyable, although the end takes a sudden literary turn and all the characters change their apparent character which although Meaningful isn’t necessarily Fun. But I love the slightly erratic, slightly socially-misplaced, loving and expansive Honeychurches, and their difficult relatives.
The Road – Cormac McCarthy: A father and his son’s journey on foot through the ash of a long-burned-out America. Bleak, occasionally frightening, occasionally hypnotic, with a placidly mundane streak of horror. Literary science fiction which is a genre that is usually like an unsettling dream (and, if you are used to the other sort, leaves you wanting detail of exactly how the disaster took place, and the science behind all the after-effects – but plenty of post-apocalyptic nastiness and survival on the edge of everything). Neatly and elegantly worded.
Serena – Sylvia Andrews: I brought this on myself, but I was out of Heyers and there were two regency romances in the 50c bin out the front of the Annerley community bookstore and – I still hurt a little bit, although not as much from this one as the other (which caused me to wish physical injury upon myself, of which more next month). This had all the requisite melodrama, hijinks, disguises, passion, rage, betrayal, compromised innocence &c, &c, but… it was about the romance, and written to that end (whereas Georgette Heyer is like DWJ – her stories are fabulous and cumulative disasters, of which an occasional romance is only one of the many unlikely by-products). Anyway, back to Serena: Beautiful (of course) young (white) woman from the West Indies (non-slave-owning!) who thinks she is plain (she isn’t) and old (she isn’t) escorts her younger (sillier) niece to London to give her a London Season (because you’re worth it) and while they are in boot camp in the country she isn’t allowed to ride alone so she dresses up as a boy and meets a man who finds out she is in disguise but they like each other so they keep meeting and then they meet in London but he gives her the cold shoulder when he finds out her name because his brother went to the West Indies with his wife when Serena was 14 (remember this) but Serena’s brother stole his wife and the wife told her husband she didn’t want him and so he committed suicide and then Serena’s brother told the wife he didn’t want her so she went back to England and told everyone that Serena had led her husband astray and then jilted him (I told you to remember the 14 years old part) and then had a baby who is actually Serena’s nephew but our hero (who naturally is brooding and cannot trust a woman) thinks is his nephew and is raising but his (evil, Irish) mother is convinced he is sickly and won’t let the boy walk anywhere and his terrified that Serena will expose her secret and so she enlists help (from evil! Irishmen! and our hero’s sometimes-jilted mistress) and then there are kidnappings and faked compromises of virtue and…
Worldshaker – Richard Harland: A steampunk novel, set in the claustrophobic, stratified, artificially-maintained Victorian society of the great steam-powered juggernaut/mobile city Worldshaker, which rolls across the countries. A coming of age story, and a what-is-humanity story, an above-and-below decks story, a British Public Schoolboy story and a story of revolution, violence and retribution. I would have liked to have been a bit more convinced of the feasibility of the juggernaut and the whole system and society, but this wouldn’t have bothered me at all if I hadn’t been aware of the juxtaposition of the two rival sides of the genre: the Victorian-inspired, cogs&gears fantasy on the one hand, and the questions of class and imperialism and colonialism and very real violence and death on on the other. I know Richard Harland is very aware of those two aspects, and so I suspect that dissonance was deliberate. I am keen to see how he rebuilds in the sequel what was torn down in this story (but still wanted more of the nuts & bolts of how the cogs & gears worked).
The Hidden Art of Homemaking – Edith Schaefer: I’ve seen one edition titled simply The Hidden Art because the original title is the worst thing about the book. It limits both audience and scope. The book is about the right, duty and the joy of using inclinations or talents in little ways every day. It has chapters on music, art, cooking, reading, writing – and argues graciously and appealingly for the beautification of life and the world in little ways, using desires and gifts to make wherever you are home, for everyone. It was written in the ‘70s and although that shows (hanging mobiles, anyone?), it is one of the few books written by a Christian woman I have read that wasn’t about being married and having children. She writes about people living alone, married, in share houses, in flats and tents, staying in hotels or student accommodation, pursuing careers and giving them up, building things with their hands and their minds, being of service without being servile. It speaks about people who have only inclination as well as those who have talent. Nor was it focussed solely on the self or on other people – one of the lines I liked best was how “you are the environment in which other people live.” It was simple and broad-reaching and lovely and I find myself remembering and applying little things.
A Civil Contract – Georgette Heyer: One of her regencies, but not a comedy and not entirely ‘romantic’, it is a novel about a marriage of convenience between two people of very different backgrounds, and about learning to be content with a situation which is less than ideal, and yet far more practical and real than the ideal. I’m not sure entirely how successful it was – I find myself liking it for the themes it attempted rather than the success of the execution. Don’t read it expecting one of her mad, break-neck, light, melodramatic tales, but it was pleasant enough, and different and a little sad.
Flying Nurse – Robin Miller: A cheerful, eventful autobiography by the ‘Sugar Bird Lady’. Robin Miller trained as a nurse before obtaining her pilots licence, and this is an account of her early flight experience, of ferry flights from Europe and America, unusual patients, the early days of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, adventures in Western Australia and the air. She has an ear for anecdotes and for the small adventures that other authors tend to glide over, such as what provisions are made for relief on long solo flights. It was full of laughs, but also a fascinating portrait of a time and woman who although in a ‘man’s job’ refused to make concessions on that basis and undertook aircraft maintenance in short dresses, delivered babies midflight, talked rooms full of deeply suspicious miners into taking a pink medication served on sugar lumps, and who loved the huge isolated, conflicted, changing areas that she served. Robin Miller – Wikipedia. Royal Flying Doctor Service – Wikipedia.
Beasts in my Bed – Jacquie Durrell: Jacquie Durrell was the first wife of Gerald Durrell (author of My Family and other Animals among many other things – September 2008 review). This picks up with their first meeting, their hasty marriage, the painfully-written, immensely successful books (Gerald did not consider himself a writer), travelling in Africa, South America and Australia, travelling by ship with menageries, starting a zoo, beginning to make wildlife documentaries for television. It lacks the effortlessness and beautiful detail of Gerald’s own writing (although he keeps a running commentary in the footnotes), but it is interesting and light-hearted.
Book Chains: I’ve been rabbiting on to people about how I love accidental chains of books (it has to be at least semi-accidental, otherwise it’s a course of study). Flying Nurse, a garage sale acquisition, features in the longest so far: I read Nancy Bird’s autobiography My God, it’s a Woman earlier this year (January review); she talks about someone called the ‘Sugar Bird Lady’ and had her first flying lesson with Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and was married by John Flynn who founded the Royal Flying Doctor Service; I picked up The Southern Cross Story (March review) which was by Kingsford Smith, and happened to be bundled with HC Miller’s Early Birds about early Australian aviation (also in the March review); reading Flying Nurse I realised the author was not only HC Miller’s daughter, but she was also the Sugar Bird Lady (she flew the polio vaccine, which was given on sugar lumps, around Western Australia) and flew for the RFDS; I then discovered that her mother was Mary Durack Miller who wrote the Australian classic Kings in Grass Castles about the Durack family; while telling my sister this, I flipped through the book and found out it had either been signed by or belonged to Mary Durack Miller.
Wikipedia: Robin Miller; Nancy Bird; Kingsford Smith; John Flynn; HC Miller; Dame Mary Durack.
Writing and Nonfiction: I’ve been wondering lately about that divide – indistinct but definite – between non fiction which is merely interesting, and non fiction which rises above a mere recount of events and becomes… a story on its own terms, I suppose. It’s something to do with texture and richness, the techniques (but not the sole preserve) of fiction writers – not necessarily of ‘plot’ as it is known at any given point in time, but colour and scent and thought and flavour. Gerald Durrell’s My Family and other Animals (review) is so rich you can close your eyes and see Corfu, the haze of bees, the olive trees, the ocean, the crumbling villa, the antics of the animals, the hysteria of the household. Jacquie Durrell’s writing contained interesting accounts of endearing animals and intriguing people (I did like seeing the glimpses of Gerald’s family through the eyes of another!), but it was always just an account. Isabella Bird makes you intensely aware of the miseries of being cold and damp and fleabitten in Japan (October 2008 review), of the sensation and sights and smells of standing on the rim of a lake of lava at night in Hawaii. Dickens, except when observing the small comedies of shipboard life, gives an account of America that is intellectually interesting, but not compelling on another level. M. M. Kaye’s The Sun in the Morning is richly coloured as a box of paints, while A King’s Story is the most desperately dull piece of writing I have persevered with only because I knew it was meant to be interesting (he was at war! he crossed Australia in a train that turned over! he fell in love and caused a constitutional crisis – how do you make that dull?). I read a biography of L. M. Montgomery that was awful, but blessedly short, and am reading one of Yeo Thomas that feels like an espionage thriller (although I wish the author would translate the French quotes more often). So… no conclusions yet, just observations.
iWoz – Steve Wozniak, Gina Smith: I really enjoyed this. I think it was mostly the voice – it was written based on taped interviews, and that shows in many little verbal tics and idiosyncracies that made the memoir endearing as well as interesting. I’d quite like to hear Steve Wozniak speak one day.
Teen Idol – Meg Cabot: I didn’t mean to sound like I was Cabot-bashing last month. I don’t mind her, and this book hit all the things that I really like about her books – the voice that was catchy without being annoying, the highschool-is-hell set-up, the nice person learning to be better (if not as “nice”), a few subverted expectations. Over-the-top and sweet and fun with one of my favourite forcible-makeover scenes (she does do these well).
Size 14 is not Fat Either – Meg Cabot: Light, fluffy, the voice got a bit irritating at times. I wanted the protagonist to take control a bit more, like in Teen Idol.
Underfoot in Show Business – Helene Hanff: So much fun – the story of how Helene Hanff didn’t become the next Noel Coward. New York and Broadway and playwriting and creative retreats and hand-to-mouth artistic existences and the beginning of television and a bad experience with Lord of the Rings.
Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens: The BBC miniseries of this is my favourite BBC miniseries, so I did know the outlines of the story going in (sometimes this helps). This book is now my favourite Dickens to date. So rich and complex and interwoven, so funny and sad and beautiful, it is difficult to pick a plot to call the main one. The mysterious character of the kindly but shadowy Rokesmith? The rise of the dustman and his wife, come to an unexpected fortune? The predicament of beautiful, poor, grasping Bella, willed to a man who died before she met him. The moral quandaries of the lovelorn taxidermist drawn into a web of deceit by a scheming ballad seller whose amputated leg he bought? Strong, capable Lizzie, who saves her brother and cannot save her father and must keep saving herself? The myriad of smaller backstories? Is it the loves – dangerous, sweet, murderous, unfaltering? The friendships – of the pawnbroker with the dolls-dressmaker and the factory worker, of Bella with her father, of the Boffins for all those less fortunate than them? The hatred and the paths paved by the love of money, or the paths shaped by the river? I love the book for all of these, for the mistakes and misteps and hard decisions, for the repeated references to Little Red Riding Hood, for the unexpected physicality of relationships, for the dear humanity of clerks in dingy offices, for the heroines who cannot wait by their lover’s sickbed because they have to go to work at the factory, for the descriptions of shops and of rusting chains, for the girl who rescues a victim of violence and carries him to safety, for the sharp tongue of the dressmaker and the many buttons of the false foreman, for the comeuppances and the happy endings, and the bittersweet ones.
Once on a time – A. A. Milne: A short fairy-tale novel. Oh, read this if only for that wonderful, terrible woman, the Countess Belvane. And the army of Amazon(s) marching round and round a tree. And the recommendation that poets wear green when the muse is upon them (as inspiration or warning). And the conclusion that the Gladstone bag has killed romance. But mostly for Belvane, that enchanting, scheming villainess, who keeps a diary and in it writes sadly that today, she became bad.
Devil’s Cub – Georgette Heyer. This did not suffer at all from my not having read its predecessor (These Old Shades) and was improved by the parents of the main characters all having their own extremely lively backstories which, while often only alluded to, made everyone more interesting and twice as large as life. Abductions, compromising situations, concealed identities, everyone defending everyone else’s honour with a different understanding of what that means, character A shooting character B (non-fatal) after B says A won’t (this reminds me of my family – never dare my mother to do something, by the way). Lots of fun.
The Corinthian – Georgette Heyer. Not as outrageous as Devil’s Cub, but with occasionally startling, how-can-this-not-be-intentional subtext (and having now read some of her non-historical fiction I think it was intentional), theft and murder and assumed identities coming back to bite the people who thought they were a good idea to start with.
The Talisman Ring – Georgette Heyer. I didn’t expect to enjoy this little murdery/theft/mystery/romance as much as I did, but then the second-fiddle silly heroine turned out to be deliberately pretending to be silly, which led to some hilarious asides between her and the people who know she hasn’t really fainted, etc. Also, smugglers and secret passages and hidden cellars and daring adventurers.
The Narrow Road to the Interior – Bashō. A quiet little pause of a book, in the midst of all these others – the tranquil, poetic account of the author/poet’s journey through 17th century Japan.
Space Train – Terrence Haile. I posted extracts and initial thoughts here. It was an experience. A consistently horrific experience.
Young Miles – Lois McMaster Bujold. This is an omnibus (‘by, to, from, for or with everybody’) of two novels and a novella: The Warrior’s Apprentice, ‘The Mountains of Mourning’ and The Vor Game, so I’m claiming it as two novels for the purposes of this year’s book count. I had been evading Bujold and regret that now. They were wonderful – adventure/mystery/detective/military-procedural/comedy-of-manners/jurisprudential/concealed-identities/missing-emperor/clash-of-cultures/clash-of-eras/cumulative-disaster stories which move at a flying pace, full of wonderful characters, irresistible forward momentum, hope, disappointments, reverses, surprises – they were like Hornblower and Jack Ryan and Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer, but with space battles and situations which make the thought of writing an SOS in macramé seem plausible until 3 weeks after finishing the book when you realise it is brilliantly ridiculous.
The Amazing, Remarkable Monsier Leotard – Eddie Campbell and Dan Best (graphic novel). Self-indulgent, but not in a bad way. I felt like I was reading something the author and illustrator had made not with ‘the audience’ in mind, but for their own pleasure. A gentle, episodic, odd, humorous, sad series of vignettes of circus life and adventures and aging and fading, with beautiful soft sketchy images. Also with fortitudinous bowels, unlikely deaths and a cameo by ‘Lord’ George Sanger, whose autobiography I have just started reading.
Penhallow – Georgette Heyer. The only reason I wanted a happy ending for any of these appalling characters was so that I didn’t have to close the book thinking of them living out their horrible lives in self-inflicted misery. The cover billed it as a murder mystery, but it wasn’t a who-done-it at all. It was a why-haven’t-they-done-it-yet. When the victim was murdered, at last, I knew who had done it (you saw it happen, and also the blurb was completely wrong) and didn’t really mind if the murderer was caught. The characterisation was very thorough (I often enjoyed the descriptions) – I just disliked all the characters.
Flowers for Mrs Harris – Paul Gallico. The only Gallico novel I had read was heart-rending, lyrical The Snow Goose: A Story of Dunkirk. I only realised when the last movie version came out that he also wrote The Poseidon Adventure, which was… unexpected. Flowers for Mrs Harris is like neither. It is a short, cheerful, hopeful and unlikely story of Mrs Harris, a cleaning lady, who saves to buy a Dior dress and goes to Paris to buy it. It tips between characterising some things as having particular appeal to the feminine brain (I think that may have been Terrence Haile’s term rather than Gallico’s), and praising an unvarnished, unromantic life of hard work and independence. It is sentimental, comic and lightly tragic but always pragmatically so (it reminded me a little of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which I have seen but not read), and is a short, cheerful read.
Also: Genesis, Esther, Mark and Romans.
Bath Tangle – Georgette Heyer. I enjoyed the characters in this novel – the headstrong (of course), beautiful & independent heroine and the contrast to her much quieter, gentler, younger widowed stepmother who, while reticent and shy and loving a very different life from her stepdaughter, is not disapproved of for that; the magnificent and self-aware vulgarity of the fabulous Mrs Floor, who uses her family’s opinion of her to further her own ends; the silly young lovers, the unwise decisions of older couples, people who were once in love realising slowly that the person they thought they remembered has changed, or never existed. Heyer does write characters very well, and although I wish they weren’t all so unmitigatedly beautiful, quite frequently I end up liking them in spite of that.
Regency Buck – Georgette Heyer. I like the setup of this – brother and sister making their way to set up life in London in spite of the advice of their guardian cross paths with an arrogant and offensive young man on their way and arrive in London to find out that he is their guardian. Enjoyable, although not my favourite (possibly because I did not find Judith, for all her capability and enterprise, as much as some of Heyer’s other heroines) and containing the excellent piece of advice that if you cannot be beautiful, you should be odd. I have noted that Georgette Heyer does seem to have a rather low opinion of brothers. They often turn out alright in the end, but they don’t usually seem to be very admirable characters for most of the book.
Life Expectancy – Dean Koontz. Aimee told me to read this because the family of bakers, web designers, and pet-portrait artists, living their eccentric night-time life, beset by crazed clowns and scheming dynasties of trapeze artists, reminded her of my family. And she was quite right – their dinner time conversations were not at all unlike ours. One line contained in the book, prelude to an account of the perils of unrestrained flatulence, was “Grandmother Weena had a relevant story…” and the day after I read that passage to my parents, my grandmother called and, over speaker phone, actually said, “That reminds me of a relevant story…” and began a tale about being discovered on the wrong plane during WWII. But the book reminded me a of Gaiman, in the accounts of small desperately peculiar lives which appear so normal to the characters in the story.
White Tiger – Aravind Adiga. More mainstream/literary than I usually read, but an intriguing and entertaining book and told from within a culture I’m not familiar with, as all of the books I have read about India have been written from a British perspective. Education, class, murder, entrepeneurship and a series of letters dictated late at night to the prime minister of China.
A Company of Swans – Eva Ibbotson. One of Ibbotson’s adult novels, this is the story of Harriet who escapes her dull and loveless family in Cambridge by running away with the ballet to perform in Manaus along the Amazon River. Although it is not my favourite of her books, I enjoyed it, the beauty and melodrama and exotic scenes, and the fact that although the ballet itself is portrayed as very beautiful, the life and effort of the ballerinas is not completely glamorised. The morality of this, as in other of Ibbotsons books, is a little peculiar – seemingly amoral and then retreating into fairly traditional endings. I haven’t worked out my thoughts about that yet.
Journey to the River Sea – Eva Ibbotson. A gratifying little book, with more depth than some children’s and YA novels I’ve read recently. By depth I don’t mean “layers” or “themes”, just… meat? A book that’s more like stew than soup? Something to sink teeth into? It’s quite charming and very much in the way of A Little Princess or Little Lord Fauntleroy (the latter features directly) and set again along the Amazon River (a year or two before A Company of Swans but written 16 years later) – it has English governesses and boats and wicked relatives and charming Russian families and giant sloths and museums and opera houses in the middle of the jungle and traveling theatre troupes and missing heirs and oppressed orphans. Great fun.
Ella Enchanted – Gail Carson Levine. I’ve only seen the movie once, and a few years ago now, but it put a big block in front of my enjoyment of the book on its own terms. Also, I was trying to read it as a Diana Wynne Jones sort of story and as Aimee pointed out later it is more of an Eva Ibbotson tale, even though it’s in a fairytale setting. I did enjoy it, and I liked the characters much better than in the movie (Ella more put-upon and more capable, Char not at all annoying), but I wanted it to be a little deeper (although that is very likely a hangover from the blithe superficiality of the movie).
My God, It’s a Woman – Nancy Bird. Not an autobiography to read for its literary quality, but one which related a fascinating time and lives. It is not so much an account of Nancy Bird Walton’s life as a survey of the early years of aviation in Australia and around the world and is full of accounts of planes found nose down in Chinese vegetable gardens, of pilots navigating through bushland by telegraph lines (because if you got into trouble you could land on the cleared strip, climb a pole, cut the line and wait for a technician to come and rescue you), of hair-raising landings, of lives and loves lost without a trace over oceans, of thrilling air-races, planes that were known to fly backwards during sandstorms, the forgotten women pilots of WWII, of Thai princesses smuggling persian kittens into the planes of pilots, of pilots lost and found in New Guinea, of the surprise of a farmwife at having two women land in her paddock and come up to the house for morning tea, of heroics and politics and a young woman trying to make a living as a charter pilot in outback Qld and NSW during the 1930s. It did not have an index, which would have helped a lot as the structure of the book is sometimes confusing, but it did have an excellent bibliography which I am tempted to read through.
Tender Morsels – Margo Lanagan. I’m surprised at how controversial this book has been, particularly given the novels of Sheri S Tepper, McKinley, etc. I think a distinction can be drawn between Horrible Books in which Things Happen, and Books in which Horrible Things happen, and this was one of the latter, although unlike some in that camp I would still recommend it (with caution) to those I know who are particularly sensitive to those things. I thought it was a beautiful book, inspired by the strange weirdness of the fairytale of Snow White and Rose Red and spinning that into a weird and poignant story all of its own which reminded me of Tepper’s Beauty in the uncomfortable edges of it and the way Lanagan made something wholly separate from and yet true to the original tale, and of McKinley’s Deerskin in the way the wonder and sorrow and beauty and love grow from something terrible, and (surprisingly) of Diana Wynne Jones or Hayao Miyazaki by the end in the strength of the characters which emerge and the way people must learn to make lives in spite of, and because of, being human and in a broken world.
Also: Ezra, Nehemiah, Matthew, Acts
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.
I was doing NaNoWriMo and decided to read only short stories, partly to catch up on the large pile of anthologies acquired at conventions, and partly because I thought it would suit my concentration reserves. I read and write short stories but am still working out exactly which sorts and structures I like (I’ve worked this out with novels and poems, but my short story reading has been more scattered and interstitial) and this went a way towards helping me solidify my ideas, although I am still structuring them.
Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #37. Dirk Flinthart’s ‘This is Not my Story’ was probably my favourite, because it reminded me in good ways of Bridge to Terebithia and Peter Pan, and in spite of some darkness and loss of chances and potential had an innocence and hope to it. Eilis O’Neal’s The Unicorn in the Tower also stood out, not so much for the story as for the writing, because it still feels in my head like a tapestry. Jason Fischer’s Rick Gets a Job was exactly the sort of short story I like, structure wise, and the sort of story that really bothers me because I want to know people can fight back and have a chance of succeeding in some small way (this is why I prefer Fahrenheit 451 to 1984, for example) – the combination of deeply depressing story of enslavement and chatty Australian working-class feel also weirded me out (in a good way as far as writing and a bad way as far as my mental calm :).
The Grinding House – Kaaron Warren. Brilliantly written and deeply disturbing. The structure/feel of many of her short stories aren’t in line with what my personal preference is developing to be, but the images – the clay men, the bone flowers (oh, and the entirely fused skeletons of ‘The Grinding House’) – are extremely compelling and lingering. Her short stories do what good short stories can and should do, just not always what I want them to do. This isn’t a criticism – just me working out my personal preferences.
Magic for Beginners – Kelly Link. I should dislike Kelly Link’s story structures because she tends towards open-ended and ambiguous endings which would usually bother me, but she does it like Dianna Wynne Jones does them (i.e. I know there’s an answer there if I just keep rereading the ending) and she writes so beautifully and the stories spin off into so many other stories in my head that I love them all, even the ones that leave me frustrated and puzzled. My hands-down favourites are ‘The Faery Handbag’, which is just marvelous and makes me want to spend more time in op shops, ‘The Hortlak’ for its slow hilarious bizarre convenience-store-world, and ‘Magic for Beginners’ which is just weird and odd and loving and full of idiosyncratic and independent individuals, horror writers and avid fans and phone booths and a very remarkable television show which takes place in the World Library where a girl band called the Norns plays in the basement and the main character is never played by the same actor twice. The last story has been compared to Borges, but if it is Borges it is Borges with a larger heart and an understanding of fantasy fans and a keener sense of humour. You have no idea how glad I am that I have now read some Borges and can actually say this – I feel like having wanted to like Borges I have been rewarded by being able to read Link.
Canterbury 2100 – Flinthart (ed). I just love the structure of this. It is a brilliant structure and if the stories were all horribly weak (which they aren’t at all) I think I would still like the book. I am a sucker, in fact, for tales within tales, and characters interrupting each other, and nested stories and ideas which continue through other ideas (why I love Valente and fairy tale retellings and stories by Link and DWJ that spill off the edge of the page). Inspired by the Canterbury Tales, the stories in the anthology are united not by theme but by setting – the anthology takes place in 2100 in the carriage of a train on its way to Canterbury, whose passengers pass the time during a breakdown by telling stories – hard science fiction, social science fiction, medieval feuds and tournaments, love stories, ghost stories (I will never look at a balloon man without thinking of intestines), fighting against corporations, oppression, fate. I really liked the way the supernatural and superstitious threaded through tales of technology and bare-bones survival. It tended to the bleak – the present of the anthology is not a pleasant one – and some of the stories (the events, not the writing) were just nasty (there are a couple of people – you know who you are – I recommend do not read Ben Bastian’s ‘The Doctor’s Tale’), but there were flashes of beauty in the world as well as the stories and the telling. I think I liked Matthew Chrulew’s ‘The Gnomogist’s Tale’ best, because of the sustained joke about the sequins and the wonderful narrator’s voice which could have been precious but never faltered. Laura E Goodin’s ‘The Miner’s Tale’, which was not a fantasy and not a fairytale retelling and not entirely happy nevertheless managed to hit a lot of my other buttons (see comments above re fighting back and having at least the hint of a ghost of a chance).