Books read, things seen: May – September 2016

A big, brief, catchup post, but here are some Cold Comfort Farm sketches to brighten it up. Also, I’m starting to keep track of books read on Goodreads as well.

kjennings-coldcomfortfarm

Books

  • Crusade – Peter M Ball (part 3 of the Flotsam Trilogy omnibus)
  • Bone Swans – C. S. E. Cooney: Such beautiful novellas. I wept. I drew fanart.
  • Tempting Mr Townsend – Anna Campbell
  • A Few Right Thinking Men – Sulari Gentill
  • Madensky Square – Eva Ibbotson: I had not read this Ibbotson and it is enchanting! A romance of pre WWI Vienna.
  • Winning Lord West – Anna Campbell
  • Pawn in Frankincense – Dorothy Dunnett
  • Q’s Legacy – Helene Hanff: So charming! So tiny! The follow-up to 84 Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. Has influenced my driving.
  • The Ringed Castle – Dorothy Dunnett. Suffocated sounds of distress.
  • The Foundling – Georgette Heyer: Perhaps a new favourite.
  • Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons: The first time I’ve read it, and I finally read it due to being presented with it at breakfast as a fait accompli by my landlady at a Devon B&B. I read it as a science fiction novel set in the world of The Fantastic Mr Fox, which was certainly memorable. I love her sheer disregard for agriscience.
  • The Tree – John Fowles
  • Stranded with the Scottish Earl – Anna Campbell
  • The Summer Bride – Anne Gracie
  • A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald – Natasha Lester
  • [Can’t tell you about it yet but very good]
  • Cotillion – Georgette Heyer
  • The Devil’s Delilah – Loretta Chase
  • Marked for Death: The First War in the Air – James Hamilton-Paterson: Fascinating WWI aviation history.

Movies & theatre

  • Captain America: Civil War
  • The Nice Guys
  • The Hunt for the WilderpeopleThis is really, really good, people, I highly recommend it.
  • Something Rotten (musical)
  • Shuffle Along (musical)
  • Fun Home (musical): Helpless crying.
  • Ghost Busters 
  • Love & Friendship: A remarkable study in telling only the connective tissue between big events, which works because it is all about the main character’s continuous, inventive self-justification and repositioning.
  • Sully
  • Star Trek: BeyondSuffered for being seen between Sully and Deepwater Horizon, in both of which people try to actually do a headcount of surviving passengers and crew.
  • Bridget Jones’ Baby

A Dalek for Summer

A Dalek for Summer

This instalment of the Dalek Game is for Eva Ibbotson’s charming A Song for Summer.

I knew of Eva Ibbotson first for her fantasies, like The Secret of Platform 13, which has already been a Dalek. I loved her for her non-fantasy fiction. Of these, A Song for Summer was the first, and the worst, and my favourite.

Saying it is not the best Ibbotson novel does not, of course, mean it is a bad novel! The fact it is an Ibbotson novel elevates it above many others. It simply means that you should read it first, and love it, before you read those. The characters in this go through a little more, and grow up a little more, and are a little more bruised and wiser by the end (in that it is like I Capture the Castle, which I love a little closer to the end of the story with each passing year).

But it is an Ibbotson novel – a fairytale set between the wars, about the domestically inclined daughter-and-niece of militant suffragettes, seeking her fortune and employment as a housemistress in an eccentric English boarding school in Switzerland, populated by paralysed tortoises, mysterious musical gardeners, Marxist theatre troupes, and featuring war, intrigue, daring escapes, missed understandings, missed connections, love, loss, patience, boarding schools, evacuees, violins…

Intriguingly, Eva Ibbotson’s non-fantasy fiction seems to come in pairs – adult and children’s/YA. This is the adult parallel to The Dragonfly Pool, as Journey to the River Sea is the counterpart to the ethereal, Amazonian A Company of Swans. All are complete, perfect fairytales without fairies, fantasy without magic, hard without bitterness, enchanting without being too sweet.

In other news: I have finished the first, enormous, amorphous manuscript of the work-in-progress! That’s… about all that has happened in the last month and a half.

The Dalek of Platform 13

The Dalek of Platform 13

This instalment of the Dalek Game is for the late, wonderful Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform 13. I went to King’s Cross Station in 2000, at the end of a two month course in Germany. There were several Harry Potter books out by then, but I don’t recall even thinking about Platform 9 3/4 – it was the proximity to Platform 13 and its gump which thrilled me.

The point of similarity between the books has been much-noted (Platform 13 is earlier than Harry Potter), but is hardly surprising. Railway stations as places of arrival and departure, as jumping-off points, as portals, as doors to other places, lives, worlds – this is a very natural progression in children’s novels (their use in adult literature is rather different). You can catch trains to Hogwarts, cross to the Island, be pulled to another island where Cair Paravel stands in ruins, go back or forward in time, meet small Peruvian bears… Heh, I just looked back at the bibliography to my honour’s thesis (in which I appear to have referred to Ibbotson’s little-known sequel, The Secret of Platform 23, and am remembering how much fun I had, even though my supervisor made me use “liminal” and “quotidian”. I can’t remember how I convinced her that the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer was relevant to railways.

In other news: I recently designed a wedding invitation for friends with certain fannish tendencies. It has hit the streets and I will put an image up as soon all the hard-copy recipients have spotted the Doctor Who references.

 

November and December very short reviews

November: In which I traditionally read short fiction instead of novels

Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #41: :)

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.

January Short Book Reviews

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

January Short Book Reviews

Bellwether – Connie Willis. This was a reread, aloud to my parents. It’s just a good book – small and light but entertaining and endearing, with scientist and statisticians and sheep and iced tea and 1920s haircuts. I tell people (if they ask) that it isn’t science fiction, because they won’t notice. To science fiction what What’s Up Doc is to musicology, with many laughs and a little romance.

Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi. I thought I’d finished this, but I hadn’t read the last two chapters. This is an autobiographical graphic novel about growing up in Iran and Austria, with a simple, likeable style and covering an emotional range between the very humourous and the very tragic, both rendered more so by the everyday depiction of what (to me) are circumstances very difficult to imagine. My mother had never read a graphic novel, and she cried when she read this one. I laughed aloud, then cried in the bookstore.

Vanishing Acts – Jodi Picoult. Not my style – I was embarrassed to read it on the bus because it might detract from my image : ) An odd book, the settings and styles seem to belong to two different novels which don’t really mesh. The mystic elements intrude rather than complement the rest of the plot, the flowery language used in the depiction of life in gaol jarred and made the attempts at gritty realism seem insincere and unlikely, and the attempts to explore shades of grey sat oddly because it seemed so obvious which way the reader was supposed to read them (a good example of shades of grey is the characters of the adoptive parents in Juno).

The Sunday Philosophy Club – Alexander McCall Smith. Undecided, although I liked the fact that the eponymous club never actually meets. I have decided that Alexander McCall Smith’s books are a Good Thing solely on the basis of their titles, and I am happy that books called The Kalahari Typing School for Men and Morality for Beautiful Girls exist, so he gets a free pass.

The Rum Diary – Hunter S. Thompson. My first encounter with the gonzo journalist. Still not sure what gonzo means (although I am convinced Gonzo comes from Tatooine), but I enjoyed the book more than I thought I would and from my limited experience with journalist the volume of rum consumed rings about right.

The Princess Diaries – Meg Cabot. A reread before consigning the books to Karen. Meg Cabot is very light, but with a hyperactive humour that I enjoy, and The Princess Diaries is a well plotted, enjoyable novel with a story that seems like it was just waiting to be written. The later books hold up (mostly because of Lily and the characters’ many Top 10 Lists), but I don’t like them as much, because they start to become Issues books and part of the charm of The Princess Diaries is that the central issue is one which most people are unlikely to every have to deal with directly – I appreciate outrageous premises, a great glorious What If at the centre of the fiction.

The Morning Gift – Eva Ibbotson. I like Eva Ibbotson. I used several of her fantasy novels (The Secret of Platform 13, etc) in my honours thesis, but only discovered her adult, non-fantasy novels last year. I bought A Song For Summer at a Lifeline Booksale and was very impressed and entertained (and also suspect the book was written around the word defenstration). I lent that to my mother and sister, the precedents manager, another solicitor, and two friends. In America, I bought The Secret Countess (a.k.a. The Countess Downstairs) and it has also done the rounds. I am banned from buying The Star of Kazan because the precedents manager wants to buy it and lend it to me. And then I was delighted to find my little sister, whose tastes in books rarely overlap mine, had bought The Morning Gift. I was third in line. It is not my favourite (that remains in order of reading) but it has the same marvelous light humour, an insight into the situation of the exile, endearing secondary characters, admirable main characters, handsome archaeology professors, musicians and communities being rebuilt. The good end happily and the bad get what they deserve. I wish someone would make miniseries of these novels.

March of the Wooden Soldiers (Fables Vol. 4). The lands of legend and fairytale have been overrun by the mysterious Adversary, and the refugees maintain a community in exile in the middle of New York: Fabletown, where the mayor is King Cole, his deputy is Snow White (my favourite graphic novel heroine at the moment, and the prettiest) and Bigby (as in B.B. Wolf), in human form, is the police department (and shares much of Vime’s appeal). In this volume, the forces of the Adversary reach our world, and there is blood in the streets. I remembered how much I liked this series when I saw how the version of Robin Hood in the battle in the first episode acted exactly like Robin Hood should – cocky and cheeky and arrogant and ultimately bested by Britomart and getting a taste of his own medicine. The losses were heartrending, the characters further developed, and one major relationship outed with a minimum of fanfare.

They’re a Wierd Mob – Nino Culotta. This novel was published in the early ’60s and is the story of Nino Culotta’s arrival in Australia as an Italian journalist, his inability to understand Australian (although his English is excellent), his employment as a brickie’s labourer, his many misunderstandings, friendships and eventual settlement as an Australian with an Australian wife who tries to eat spaghetti with a spoon. I read it out loud to my father and we both enjoyed it a great deal. It’s the Sydney of his childhood and my history lessons, and an Australia that is recognisable but vastly altered (for one thing, non-canned spaghetti is no longer considered an exotic dish!)

Also: Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habbakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.

Questions? Comments? Disagreements? Serious objections to my style of review?

Books I did buy in America:

Wicked – Gregory Maguire. Very well written, but I’m not sure what I think about it yet – possibly because it looks like fantasy but is actually ‘literary’ and so reviewing it as fantasy (my genre) is like trying to review Unbreakable as a superhero movie. That’s what it’s about but not what it is.

Countess Below Stairs (a.k.a. The Secret Countess) – Eva Ibbotson. Sigh…. The precedents manager and I are having an Ibbotson bookswap, and what can I say but that these books are pretty much perfect?

Ready or Not – Meg Cabot. Just not as good as “All American Girl”. Which was just *fun*.

Maus – Art Spiegelman. I haven’t read it yet, but I do have the Strand/Art Spiegelman book bag to use once I have. Second hand with dodgy (im)perfect binding.

The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation – Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon. A fascinating and good idea, but more emotive than I have come to expect from illustrated books (from which you can probably tell the sorts of graphic novels I have read). Worth the (second hand) purchase price just for the time line.

My Crowd – Charles Addams. Confession: Before I went to the Museum of Comic Book and Cartoon Art I did not know about Charles Addams – only the Addams Family. But… hehehe. Werewolf in a planetarium. Snrrk. :)

Amphigorey, Amphigorey II and Amphigorey Again – Edward Gorey. If you don’t know Gorey, think of Lemony Snicket as the lovechild of Gorey and Nesbit. At his wierdest, I adore him. Then there are the parts that would be excruciatingly crude, rude or gory if they actually happened on stage or you could work out what the heck *was* happening. For the record, my favourite Gorey is The Doubtful Guest. And no, I don’t know what it is. Possibly a beakless penguin-aardvark in tennis shoes.

Up and Down New York – Tony Sarg. Not a lot has changed.