Tuesday, December 31, 2013

book list 2013

The annual list of new books read in 2013! My New Year's Eve celebrations are sooner than anticipated, so this post is a bit curtailed- but here they are! I read 88 books in 2013, a personal best, which I am putting down to a long commute, and maybe the number of graphic novels. There are some good books in here (and some not-so-good) which hopefully I will get to post about another day!

ETA: Now added links to books that I've blogged about.
The High Window - Raymond Chandler
The Lady in the Lake - Raymond Chandler
Little Sister - Raymond Chandler
The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky
The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov
Year of the Griffin - Diana Wynne Jones
Art in Nature - Tove Jansson
French Milk - Lucy Knisley
The Minority Council - Kate Griffin
Purple Hibiscus - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Carnet de Voyage - Craig Thompson
Embroideries - Marjane Satrapi
NW - Zadie Smith
In the Last Analysis - Amanda Cross
The James Joyce Murder - Amanda Cross
Poetic Justice - Amanda Cross
Howards End is on the Landing - Susan Hill
The Theban Mysteries - Amanda Cross
Life after Life - Kate Atkinson
The Question of Max - Amanda Cross
Death in the Faculty - Amanda Cross
The Silver Bough - Lisa Tuttle
The Jade Peony - Wayson Choy
Sunshine - Robin McKinley
The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman
Stray Souls - Kate Griffin
Cold Steel - Kate Elliot
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher - Kate Summerscale
The Christ Files - John Dickson
Damaged in Transit - Mary Manning
Our Man in Havana - Graham Greene
The Game - Diana Wynne Jones
Rose Daughter - Robin McKinley
The Long Goodbye - Raymond Chandler
Beauty - Robin McKinley
Serpent's Tooth - Robert Swindells
The Quiet American - Graham Greene
The House in Paris - Elizabeth Bowen
The Greatcoat - Helen Dunmore
Women of Letters - ed. Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire
The Glass Castle - Jeanette Walls
The Palace of Curiosities - Rosie Garland
The Norseman's Song - Joel Deane
A Gathering Light - Jennifer Donnelly
In the Skin of a Lion - Michael Ondaatje
Beloved - Toni Morrison
Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro
Nervous Conditions - Tsitsi Dangarembga
Crossing to Safety - Wallace Stegner
The Lovely Ladies - Nicholas Freeling
Black Maria - Diana Wynne Jones
A Long Silence - Nicholas Freeling
Clear Light of Day - Anita Desai
Eight Days of Luke - Diana Wynne Jones
Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn
The Crying of Lot 49 - Thomas Pynchon
Train to Pakistan - Khushwant Singh
Blue Nights - Joan Didion
Sugar and Other Stories - A.S. Byatt
The Opposite House - Helen Oyeyemi
The Sisters Brothers - Patrick deWitt
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist - Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Confessions of a Shopaholic - Sophie Kinsella
Snuff - Terry Pratchett
A Mind to Murder - P.D. James
Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic biographer - Richard Holmes
How to Fall in Love - Cecilia Ahern
The Killing Moon - N.K. Jemisin
The Shadowed Sun - N.K. Jemisin
Inherent Vice - Thomas Pynchon

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas!

I'm ready for Christmas over here

Merry Christmas all! By the time you read this I will likely be on holidays (finally!) and enjoying some time off. It's been an exhausting year and I'm looking forward to a break. But although the blog has been quiet, it has been a year full of plenty of reading, so I'll be back sometime soon to write up my reading list of 2013.

In the meantime, I hope you're all having some wonderful holidays and have many books waiting underneath the Christmas tree!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Castle of Otranto - Horace Walpole (1764)

Slowly slowly working on my reading challenge this year- reading more books written before the 20th century. It looks like we're slowly going further back in time, from the 19th Century (The Moonstone) to the 18th, with The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, and sticking with genre fiction so far, from the detective story to the Gothic. As The Moonstone is known as one of the earliest examples of detective fiction, so The Castle of Otranto is an early Gothic novel. And how! A brief summary: the prince of Otranto (Manfred) is obsessed with carrying on the male line, and when his son dies unexpectedly just before his wedding to Isabella, best friend of Manfred's daughter Matilda, this obsession grows, as he tries to avoid the family curse. He is clearly concealing a family secret, and is horrified at the giant coat of armour which appears to haunt the library.

I thought what would stand out about this book is its part in the history of the Gothic, but what really stood out for me is its status as an early example of the novel, full stop. Well, that's what I was planning to say, and then realised it may have more to do with the fact that this is trying to masquerade as a much earlier novel (Walpole explains in his introduction how he 'found' a '16th century' 'Italian' manuscript, and then 'translated' it (one of the oldest tropes in fiction?). So I will settle for saying that, by accident or design, this definitely feels quite unpolished. It reads very theatrically somehow- there is lots of dialogue, the characters occasionally make asides that you can imagine them speaking to the audience and it seems less interested in the internal workings of people's minds than in how they play out in front of us. In fact, it reads mostly to me like a Jacobean revenge tragedy (or what I imagine one to be like). 

It's interesting to think of this book being inspired by these plays, and going on to inspire the later genre of gothic fiction. It casts a new light on it, for me anyway. I just decided to do a little background reading on The Castle of Otranto, and the first article that I decided to read says "Shakespeare's influence on the early Gothic was varied and profound."* There you go, it is apparently a long established connection. To my mind, though, the idea of 'gothic' conjures up the thought of a more atmospheric novel, full of dread and psychological horror, while The Castle of Otranto has more of a moustache-twirling villain feel to it. But the elements are there- the family secret, the haunting, an old castle, secret passageways, a romance. 

So maybe I was wrong. I have learnt something new about the Gothic genre, and mostly I have learnt how much more there is to know (why is this so often the case?).

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*Yael Shapira, 2012, 'Shakespeare, The Castle of Otranto, and the problem of the corpse on the Eighteenth-Century stage', Eighteenth-Century Life, 36(1), 1-29


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

burial rites - hannah kent

I NEED to write about Burial Rites by Hannah Kent- it's a book I was very much looking forward to (see my last post), and yet I ended up feeling a bit ambivalent about it, so I have been itching to discuss it with someone since finishing it. It would be ideal for a book group, but unfortunately we didn't read it in book group, so blog it is!

Burial Rites has an intriguing set-up- a woman (Agnes Magnusdottir) is condemned to death for murder but, since she is living in Iceland in the 19th century and there are no jails, so until her execution she is lodged in a remote farm with with the family of a local official. During her stay she is able to talk to a priest, who is instructed to prepare her for death. To him, and to us, she relates her story. So interwoven with the story of Agnes life at the farm, living with a family who are apprehensive abot hosting a convicted murder and facing her impending death, is the story of Agnes life up to this point, leading to the answer the the all-important question- is she guilty or is hse innocent? Of course, it doesn't turn out to be that simple.

So far, so good- so why was I so ambivalent? Well, mostly the answer lies in the writing style. To me, it felt a bit like the first novel it is. I want to describe it as 'overwritten', but I don't really like that as a criticism. It sounds like 'trying too hard', and what is wrong with trying? What is wrong with using writing that is more than just functional? I feel like I don't have the words to really pick it apart properly, the best I can say is sometimes her turn of phrase would trip me up, jerk me out of the story. It didn't feel as smooth as it could be. Better, though, to just quote some of it, to let you make up your own mind:
"I ought to leave now, I think," Toti announced.
His father looked up from the boiling fish and nodded.
"I'm expected to arrive early in the evening to acquaint myself with the family at Kornsá, and be present when... Well when the criminal arrives." His father frowned. "Go then, son."
Toti hesitated. "Do you think I'm ready?"
A bit of dialogue that seems fairly functional, but committing what some would say is a cardinal sin: too many synonyms for 'said'.  OK, technically most of them are actually other actions but the effect is similar, it seems a bit stilted to me. The same page also features 'muttered', 'called out' and 'whispered'. Then there's this:
"He silently mouthed the word to himself. Murderess. Morðingi. It slipped through his mouth like milk."
The last sentence annoyed me at the time, but I don't know why" it seems fine reading it now. Maybe it is the broader context that made it incongruous, or maybe my mood at the time? It is all so subjective I suppose.

Spending so much time trying to figure out what my problems with the writing style were makes it seem like they were more problematic than they were- this is definitely not a badly written book, I just felt it could be better. And there were moments of writing that I really liked, like this one (though again- why? I think it just seems to capture an idea so well):
I will hold what I am inside, and keep my hands tight around all the things I have seen and heard, and felt... I am sinking all I have left and going underwater. If I speak, it will be in bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves. They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say 'Agnes' and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.
The character of Agnes is also a difficult one. The narrative voice is very different in Agnes' (first person) passages and the third person shifting perspective of everyone else. In a way it felt like Agnes was more dramatic in her own head than in others' perceptions, and there were times when her character felt quite disjointed because of it- more mysterious when there should be more insight. But I can't really fault the book for presenting a disjointed picture of her character, after all, as the passage I've quoted suggests, that theme of identity and story-telling is an important one in the book. Ultimately Agnes is able to tell her story twice- to the other characters in the book, and directly to us. The differences in the way Agnes sees herself and the way others see her can be unexpected- it often feels like the other characters are aware of her humanity while Agnes sees herself as a cursed, doomed figure.

There was a lot here that was thought-provoking, and in the end it was a very moving story, with most characters ending up more nuanced than I feared they might be in the beginning. The book followed up on its promise- and yet... I felt it could be more. Maybe it was simply a case of too high expectations that kept me from loving it. I did like it. I still have to figure out how I feel about it. So please, tell me if you've read it and if so, what did you think?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

books to look forward to

At the moment, I seem to be aiming for around one blog post a month on here. Poor sadly neglected blog! I have been reading as many books as ever, but haven't really felt inspired to write about any of them. So instead, here are some books I'm looking forward to reading:

A Brief History of Montmaray - Michelle Cooper
A girl and her family living on the small (and crumbling) island of Montmaray find their eccentric way of life interrupted by the onset of WWII. This has been compared to I Capture the Castle, and, while I'm sure it can't live up to that standard, it does sound very appealing! The weather is getting pretty hot right now, and I'm getting pretty tired, so this sounds like just the thing. My hold has just come in at the library, so I get to read it soon!

Burial Rites - Hannah Kent
Based on the story of the last Icelandic woman  sentenced to death by beheading, this book is set during her last days, staying with a remote Icelandic family. This has been getting a lot of buzz, so much that I thought it had been on some prize lists but it seems like it hasn't? In any case it's a book to inspire envy- the author is Australian, one year older than me, and she's managed to write this AND co-found a well known literary journal (Kill Your Darlings). What have I been doing with my life again? But really what caught my attention is the Icelandic setting, and the interesting premise. This is a book that sounds likely to inject some cold into this summery weather. I've just borrowed it, and looking forward to reading it soon.

Untold - Sarah Rees Brennan
I read the first book in this series, Unspoken, earlier this year and really really enjoyed it. A kind of Gothic young adult fantasy about a girl who has had a telepathic connection all her life with a boy she'd never met. Add in a mystery, some romance and a group of friends it was really just my cup of tea. The next book in the series is apparently out in September, but is it out yet? I'm not sure, but I am excited.

The Glass God - Kate Griffin
The second in the Magicals Anonymous series, about a group of magical misfits led by Sharon the shaman, who must band together to save the city. Kate Griffin is one of my favourite urban fantasy authors, I really liked her Matthew Swift books. This series feels a little different, and I'm still deciding how much I like it. I thought that the magic system in the first books was reminiscent of Terry Pratchett (though I don't think he's the only one to have used that concept), and this new series seems to be a big lean towards the Pratchett-ian. The sense of humour, the band of misfits, the magic system... That's not a bad thing, but it feels a little strange to me. Still, I love her work and I'm interested to see where she takes this. I didn't even realise this was out until I tried to search for a book of short stories she has a story in, which is apparently out soon.

Broken Homes - Ben Aaronovitch
The latest in Ben Aaronovitch's urban fantasy/mystery series featuring PC Grant, apprentice wizard. It's a fun, light read, with humour and magic etc. I do feel it is a bit patchy in places though, and I didn't really like the introduction to the long-running, through-plot in book number 2, so I tend to approach new additions to the series with a bit of trepidation. The main character has been described as an 'everyman', but sometimes he just comes across as a bit dumb. Not always, though, and the third book was definitely enjoyable, so I have hopes that this series will just keep getting better. Apparently this came out last month and I didn't even realise!

So there you go, some books I'm looking forward to reading. I tend to only anticipate books that are part of a series, I don't have a very good radar for what new books are coming out. It impresses me that some people are really across it, so tell me, what am I missing? Do you keep an eye out for upcoming new releases, and if so, how do you find them? I love a bit of book anticipation.

Edited to add: I've just found out there's a new Phryne Fisher out in October! Murder and Mendelssohn by Kerry Greenwood. Couldn't leave that one out! Not to mention Hyperbole and a Half  by Allie Brosh.

Friday, August 23, 2013

fairies and folk

Just some rambling thoughts on fairy tales and folk ballads today! I recently found some great fairytale related links- so I thought I would share them with the internet. They are all from D.L. Ashliman at the University of Pittsburgh, and you could get lost for ages wandering through them. Among other things you can find in this linked set of pages are a directory of tale types, comparisons of different editions of Grimm (for selected fairy tales) and links to other folk- and fairy-tale sites. Here are the pages:
Directory of folktales
Links and overview
Brothers Grimm 

Recently though I've been most interested in the story of Tam Lin, which has gotten me interested in other Scottish ballads (or other British ballads generally as well). There's an online version of the Child Ballads which is interesting, since Child collected some variants of common ballads as well, and I've had a look at some of the versions of Tam Lin, which is interesting.

I love Tam Lin, but I don't think I'd ever heard of it before I read Pamela Dean's Tam Lin- set in a college in America, this book is as much about the charms of college life as it is about more magical, elvish charms. But the ballad itself is fantastic, with a headstrong heroine, shape-shifting, seduction and an elvish court. I highly recommend it. Recently I read The Perilous Gard be Elizabeth Marie Pope, which I had found somewhere on the internet but only just found in the flesh. I couldn't remember why I'd put it on the to-read list, so was pleasantly surprised to find it is another retelling of Tam Lin, this one in an historical setting and minimising the supernatural elements. I'm now going on a bit of a Tam Lin jag and reading another adaptation, Thursday by Catherine Storr, from the 1970s.

Reading up on Tam Lin also reminded me of a ballad, which is apparently Child #4 but which I know as 'The Elf Knight' by Steeleye Span. In a sense it's a similar scenario to Tam Lin, there's an elf knight and a lady, but the outcome is quite different. Lady Isabel pines for the elf knight, but when he comes he tries to kill her in almost a Bluebeard-like scenario (he claims to have killed several other women before her), only to be outsmarted and killed himself. I think Steeleye Span does a great adaptation of this, when the elf knight says "if you'll not go, I'll cause you to ride" it's full of enough menace to send shivers up your spine  I couldn't find the album version on YouTube, so I'm hoping that live recording does it justice! The ultimate triumph of Lady Isabel is so satisfying as well. It got me thinking though, that while it seems that traditional ballads are less well known than traditional fairy tales, they have their ways of creeping into popular culture. I'm keen now to read up on my ballads, and see what other adaptations I can find.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

talking about genre

The other day at work I was telling a co-worker that I didn't have anything to read, and asked her to recommend me something. "What do you like?" she asked. I answered "Literary fiction, like A.S. Byatt, crime, like murder mysteries, and fantasy, like Kate Griffin..." And from there we got to urban fantasy (but not paranormal romance), and all the genres, sub-genres and genre traits that appeal or repel. It is like a secret handshake, finding someone else who enjoys the same genre as you do. Saying you like reading fantasy can be like asking someone to condescend to you or adopt an air of puzzlement, but being able to talk about the fantasy genre brings an air of freedom. Here, you think, is someone who understands! But this is not always so. After all, there is that multitude of subgenres and other preferences to face. There are large gaps in my knowledge of genre that could encompass someone's entire favourite reading matter- talking about genre is not always easy, and I hadn't been reading as much of it in the past few years as I used to. I almost got a bit snobbish about it, though I always thought of myself as a fantasy reader.

This year, however, I've been getting back into reading fantasy in a big way. I was very excited to get my hands on the last volume of the Spiritwalker trilogy by Kate Elliot and the new Kate Griffin book, as well as trying some new things. I'm looking forward to Sarah Rees Brennan's new book coming out in September (I think?). I used to read tons of epic fantasy, now I lean towards urban fantasy and things that strike me as unusual in some way. My relationship with the genre is always changing.

Fantasy is often derided as 'escapist', and its defenders point out that good fantasy writing is also about the real world, and just as edifying as good writing in other genres. I agree with this, but I also think there is a place for escapism in the world. Facing reality constantly just sounds wearing, and exercising your imagination just for the sake of it seems to me to be good for the soul. I know I need some time for dreaming in my life. In a way, I think that these are things all fiction has in common. Fiction has also been criticised for telling stories that aren't true, people still wonder why anyone would want to read about things that aren't real, and think it's a waste of time. But there is so much truth in fiction, and anyway, what could be more boring than spending all your time thinking only about things that are real? Helen at a gallimaufry recently linked to an article by Jeanette Winterson that had, I think, an excellent quote about fantasy, so I'll finish with that:

There’s been a fashion, thankfully going out of fashion, that if you are not writing Social Realism you are wasting time. I am sure that so many adults read Harry Potter because they wanted some magic back. The huge success of books like His Dark Materials, The Hobbit, and Coraline, or movies like Up, and Shrek, is down to our imaginative need for a world within a world. Part of us is wired to sit round the fire telling stories. And truth is often easier to bear when told at a slant.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

victorian mysteries

At the beginning of the year I said that my challenge this year was to read pre-20th century books. So far, this reading challenge has not really gotten off the ground, but recently I did manage to read something published before 1900, so I thought I would count it and blog about it here. The book that kick-started my challenge was The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, a book I have heard of often but never read. A short summary: during the wars in India, a British soldier steals a fabulous diamond from a Hindu temple. This British soldier being something of a disreputable type (see stealing Indian diamonds and murdering their guards) he is cut off from the rest of his family, but leaves the diamond to his niece, Rachel Verinder, in his will as a birthday present. Whether this is an act of reconciliation or revenge is unclear to the family, seeing that the diamond is said to come with 3 Indian assassins set on reclaiming it. When the diamond goes missing from Rachel's room the night after her birthday all the members of her house try to reclaim it, but they are also suspects- her two cousins both vying for her hand, the maid with a shady past, potentially even the neighbourhood doctor, her mother, and Rachel herself. It's hard to summarise the rest because I don't want to give away the twists and because there are so many points of views and events and misunderstandings that it's difficult to condense it down. That's half the fun of reading a mystery novel, right?

Image From Goodreads
The main appeal of The Moonstone is that it is described as an early prototype of the mystery genre, which I like, and I like the idea of reading books from different stages in the development of the mystery genre. Also, for some reason I thought that Wilkie Collins was a woman, and I was interested in seeing what women were writing in the early days of the mystery novel. But apparently Wilkie Collins was actually a man, so that idea was quashed. 

Still, it's always interesting to read early mysteries- if unpredictable. I read Edgar Allen Poe's Murder on the Rue Morgue a while back (it's often cited as one of the first detective stories and an inspiration for Sherlock Holmes) and it definitely felt like an early example- a bit rough and not quite finished, unsure of how it should pace itself or present its characters. Because of that, I didn't really know how The Moonstone would go, but in the end I found the experience very different to the Murders on the Rue Morgue. Maybe because The Moonstone is also part of the fairly established genre of Victorian sensation, it was published more than 20 years after Poe's story and seems broader in scope than a simple detective story or murder mystery. In fact, in many ways it hardly is a prototype detective story- its about a theft rather than the more common murder, there are multiple narrators and there is no clear 'detective'- the head servant Gabriel Betteredge alternatively helps and hinders the great detective Sergeant Cuff, and proves more consistently helpful to Rachel's cousin, Franklin Blake. It reads very much like a serial, and I think it was originally serialised by Charles Dickens- which tells you a lot abut the way it reads I suppose, with its multiple narrators, cliffhanger chapter endings that read much less impressively when the next chapter follows immediately on and just its sheer length, number of characters and plot turns. 

Still, while The Moonstone in some ways doesn't feel like a detective story, there are many ways in which it does. Much is made of it as a 'locked room' mystery (more like a locked house mystery really), and Wikipedia even goes so far as to list the number of detective story tropes it uses. But what really ties it to other detective stories for me is the introduction- the use of India and a flashback to set the scene and create a sense of mystery and of history as a kind of portent. Reading the first chapter I had an immediate memory of watching an episode of an Agatha Christie mystery, I think a Miss Marple. It's hard to trace since I can't remember which one it was, but basically this contains a flashback to the theft of a diamond in India which was the catalyst for the murders. I think this turns up again in G.K. Chesterton somewhere (really I know I should look this up) and an Indian treasure is involved in at least one Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Sign of the Four (I have a fairly bad memory for plots and have done only a little Wikipedia searching, but I would be interested in knowing how many Indian treasures feature in Golden Age detective stories. If you can think of one, please mention it in the comments!). A while ago I read a book written by 'The Detection Club', The Floating Admiral, a mystery with each chapter written by a different author, including such names as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. The prologue, written by G.K. Chesterton, is set over an altercation in Hong Kong. I've been focusing on India here, but China (and Hong Kong) also features as a backdrop.

Basically, 'the East' is often a source of mystery and danger in detective stories, with events there often belonging to the past, a past that haunts a character (or object). There is a strong Orientalism pervading the genre in the Victorian era, and even beyond into the twentieth century. When translated, as in the 'Blind Banker' episode of BBC's Sherlock, they can be a bit uncomfortable. But it's interesting to me how colonialism is treated in these books. It's quite an uneasy relationship, I feel, and that unease is certainly present in The Moonstone. The Indians of the book are seen as a threat, and no-one seems to seriously consider giving them back the diamond, but the original actions of the uncle are characterised as theft, and murder as well. The English soldiers in the preface are depicted as getting out of hand and behaving badly, but the war itself is not questioned.

Image from Goodeads
What has always fascinated me is that 19th century India and England seem worlds apart- the travel time between them was immense, and the cultural differences too. But my imagination is faulty I think, because as a Colonial power England was very involved in India. Early mystery novels are full of retired Colonels with mysterious pasts from abroad, they range from harmless and dull, to eccentric, to hiding wicked secrets and so on. While I was reading The Moonstone I was also reading a book about the honeymoon in the Victorian period (Victorian Honeymoons: Journeys to the conjugal by Helena Michie) which included one couple who lived (and honeymooned) in India. I feel like India as a setting in Victorian times was both more familiar and more exotic than it is today. At any rate, I'm sure the average Victorian reader would have had a better grasp of the history that unfolds in the backdrop of these novels than I do.
So to mind the most strikingly typical mystery feature in this book was the colonial background- which you would think would make it quite dated, but in fact it does turn up occasionally even today. I mentioned the new series of Sherlock before, but I also saw this trope recently in a Christopher Fowler novel- Seventy-Seven Clocks *spoilers*. As in The Moonstone, the source of danger in this book was assassins from India targeting a particular family, including, if I remember correctly, the obligatory retired Colonel. In this story, however, it turns out that *ok really massive spoilers now* the Indian assassins are being controlled by a piece of Victorian machinery designed by an Englishman- using intimidation he had set in motion a system to control Indian workers he had influence over, and used this to gain influence over business associates and rivals. Long after his death, the system was still running amok. This book clearly brings a more modern perspective on colonialism to this trope, but it still made me slightly uneasy to read it becuase it is so steeped in this orientalising tradition. For all that, I think that the way this trope presents an unease about hte events of the past, and about the relationship between different countries, is very revealing and still relevant.

There is still a lot more to be said about The Moonstone (I feel like I've actually hardly said anything about it), but I think that will have to do for now- before I get too carried away. Anyway, I enjoyed reading it, partly because it has a fun mystery plot, and partly beause I was reading a Victorian novel at the same time as a book about Victorians, and I felt fairly immersed in the period. That seems like a good approach to me- maybe I'll see what I can find on other literary periods now. One of the perks of working in an academic library is that these sorts of books are always close to hand! If you have any other early mysteries you can recommend, or any other books with a similar plot point please let me know- I'd be interested to see what's out there.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

eaten alive

Regular readers of this blog (if such an irregular blog can be said to have regular readers) may know that I am a big fan of A.S. Byatt- I've loved her books ever since I read Possession at the end of high school. Despite this, there are still a lot of her books that I haven't read, and I just recently read her first book, The Shadow of the Sun. The Shadow of the Sun is about a young girl, Anna, in her late teenage years and trying to figure out what she should be, while at the same time feeling overshadowed by her father, a famous author. Enter Oliver, a family friend and academic, who agrees to tutor Anna to help her get into university, and becomes increasingly convinced she needs to decide what she should do with her life, and that he knows best what that is. When Anna successfully gets into Cambridge she continues to (somewhat listlessly) wonder about her purpose in life. Eventually she runs into Oliver again and, almost accidentally, they start an affair.
Image from Goodreads

I wouldn't say I loved this book, for one thing all the characters were maddening, and I took such a strong dislike to Oliver that I almost couldn't bear to continue reading. But it is an interesting book, it's often interesting to read a writer's first book because it illuminates some of the themes they go on to explore more in later books. In this case, Anna Severell is a pretty clear predecessor of Frederica Potter (from A.S. Byatt's later books
The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman). Both are interested in English, both go to Cambridge, neither are particularly likeable (though not exactly unsympathetic) and both get involved with men who are fairly controlling. It's this last point that I find particularly interesting, because I think that is definitely a recurring theme in A.S. Byatt's work. Not that men are controlling, but that relationships can be stifling and consuming. It plays out somewhat ambiguously in her novels. In The Shadow of the Sun, Oliver comes to define Anna's personality, her future and her limitations. In Babel Tower, Frederica Potter's husband is physically and emotionally abusive, as well as unfaithful, but what troubles her the most is that he doesn't let her work- thus robbing her of some of her identity and independence. Interestingly, they are supposed to be very sexually compatible, at least to begin with, which is the basis for their relationship. Possession has a very ambivalent attitude toward sex, with Roland and Maud both feeling somewhat stifled and constrained by their relationships or sexual entanglements at the beginning of the book. The idea of 'possession' in a romantic sense encapsulates this ambivalence fairly well, I think.

What I really find interesting is how these ideas play out in culture more broadly. Earlier this year I read Marina Warner's
From the Beast to the Blonde, which is about fairy tales and their transmission. In her chapter about Bluebeard, she writes "in myth and fairy tale, the metaphor of devouring often stands in for sex: ogres like Bluebeard eat their wives, we are told, even though the story itself reveals their bodies." The metaphor of devouring seems to fit so well into this idea of relationships. I actually like the idea of A.S. Byatt, who often weaves fairy tales into her stories, writing Frederica Potter's husband as a sort of Bluebeard who seeks to devour her, he even has a locked suitcase (full of only the pictures of the bodies of women, and if not dismembered, at least restrained). It's also a nice summing up of Angela Carter's Bluebeard story, which is both erotic and disturbing. As Marina Warner says, "[Bluebeard's] castle possesses the allure and dread of the strange". In Carter's story, at least, there is a happy ending- the heroine is not, in the end, devoured, and Bluebeard is defeated.
Wilson, Romer, editor. Red Magic: A Collection of the World's Best Fairy Tales from All Countries. Kay Nielsen, illustrator. London: J. Cape, 1930. From Sur la Lune.

The key is that though these stories have a sense of horror about them, and a cautionary air, they also have a certain allure or appeal. I've heard it said that Perrault's Bluebeard was meant as a way of preparing young women in the 17th century for marriage, and acknowledging their expectation and fear. Though it can't have been a very encouraging story for this audience. But this kind of story is not always told with a warning about Bluebeard as a moral. Many people have noted that Edward, from Stephanie Meyer's
Twilight, is a very controlling and possessive hero, and not a great role model for young women to be looking for (or for young men to aspire to be). But maybe that is to miss the point- Edward is a kind of demon lover (he is a vampire after all)- and that level of possessiveness has a certain fascination I think, which clearly has appeal for many. Of course, for Bella, Edward is the happy ending, she doesn't end up happily free of him like Bluebeard's wife. But he does endanger her- particularly through her pregnancy to him (I haven't actually read that far in the books, but I have read summaries, so that's all I'm going off here). For Marina Warner, too, pregnancy is a likely source of dread and danger to fairy tale heroines- considering that most fairy tales were written in times of high maternal mortality. This is one of the reasons sex, and marriage, was a cause for trepidation- for both Bella and Perrault's audience. And maybe one of the reasons  Twilight was so successful, however much we might disapprove of it, it that it taps into this cultural narrative of love and obsession, of power and control, that is such a force of fear and fascination. When I start looking for themes, I start to see them everywhere, and sadly a line in the xx song Islands- "I am yours now, so now I don't ever have to leave"- which I always felt was so romantic, has started to sound quite sinister. But which is it really? Maybe the lesson here is that the answer isn't so clear cut. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

life and books

Well, every time I plan to get into the swing of regular updates I seem to fail! So sorry about that... I do have some exciting news though. I got a new job! I'm now working as a librarian at a university. I'm really happy to be there, but it means I'm no longer working part-time and I have a longer commute, so recently things like writing (and even reading) blogs have fallen by the wayside a little. Hopefully this will change once I've settled in a bit more.

Happily, I have had time for reading books (in fact, lots of time on my commute) and I've been reading a few things that I've really enjoyed. I've been in the mood for fantasy and fantastical books lately, which has been helped by a couple of book group picks- the magic realism of The Master and Margarita and the sci-fi of Inverted World (which was quite strange, and a lot of us found the ending fairly unsatisfying). My two most recent reads have been Among Others by Jo Walton and Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan, both of which I liked so much I wanted to talk about them a little bit.

From Goodreads

Among Others is about Morwenna (Mor), a teenage girl from Wales in the 1970s, whose life is set in disarray when she and her twin sister, with the help of the fairies, foil a plot by her mother to magically take over the world. The story is set in the aftermath of this, with Mor living in an English boarding school under the care of her father, who left when she was young, and her twin sister dead. It's a strange fantasy book, with the details of the magical confrontation never really clear, and the magic itself so peripheral and, as Mor puts it, "plausibly deniable", so that you could argue that it is not really fantasy at all. But it is a book about fantasy, as Mor is an avid reader of fantasy and sci-fi, and writes about the books she is reading regularly in her diary. 

On the one hand, this book frustrated me- occasionally Mor's reflections come across as fairly moralising, and there was a distressing incident with her father that is kind of brushed aside quickly. Also, it is written as a teenage girl's diary, and that is a form of writing that can be annoying. But it also really charmed me, maybe not least because I was once a teenage girl living in a boarding school, avidly reading fantasy (though not so much sci-fi). I think a lot of readers will probably relate, at least a little, to the character. It's also a lovely coming-of-age (with books) type story, and the way that magic is included so subtly but as such a strong influence on the heroine's life was well done. It did, however, make me feel really inadequate in my reading- there are so many classic sci-fi books and authors listed here, and although I recognise the names I've read hardly any of them (like Heinlein, Zelazny, Arthur C. Clarke). Though it is a bit of an inspiration to read some of those books!

From Goodreads
I've come across Margo Lanagan's Sea Hearts in bookshops often, but though it looked interesting I never got around to buying it. Then I realised I could borrow it from the library! Genius.

Basically, Sea Hearts is a story about selkies. On a small island, a girl called Misskaella discovers she can bring women (and men) out of the seals that visit the rocks. Feeling badly treated by the people of the island, she decides to bring out seal-women for the men who ask her- for a price- partly for the income, and partly for revenge.  The seal-women are so enchanting that soon all the men on the island want sea wives rather than land wives, and upheaval follows.

The story is told from a number of different perspectives, but never by a sea wife. It's a story that made me frustrated for a long period- not because the book is bad, but because the idea of selkies is so sad. They are always so quick to pick up their seal skins and return to the sea when they have the chance. In this book, everyone suffers- the selkies, the men who love them and the women. But it's beautifully told, and I loved the island- the descriptions made me think of the Hebrides, but it might be meant to be more based on the islands near Ireland. In any case, it is a small community where life is centred around the sea, but the sea is so many different things. In the end, a satisfying story. And selkies are sadly underrepresented in fiction I think.

I think I'll keep looking for fantasy for a while- any great books that have come out lately?

Monday, March 18, 2013

three links

It feels like there have been a lot of distractions around lately, so I thought why not share some of these distractions with the world?

Firstly, a list of books mentioned or read on the Gilmore Girls! This is a fun reading challenge idea as well. For fellow Gilmore Girls fans- enjoy! I found it through Book Dirt.

Secondly, Ronni's boyfriend has started a blog with another medievalist friend about the Anglo-Saxon riddles, called The Riddle Ages. Since uni ended I haven't been reading much Old English at all, and I miss it, so I'm hoping that this blog sticks around. The riddles are largely found in the Exeter Book, a manuscript which also contains most (all?) of the poems known as the elegies- which are my particular favourites- and some riddles have similarities with the elegies. They can be very poetic, and there is the added fun of trying to solve the riddles. I'm looking forward to reading a discussion of the possible solutions. So far there is an introduction to Old English riddles and Old English text and translations of three riddles. Definitely worth a look, especially if you're interested in Medieval literature.

Thirdly, and perhaps my favourite, is this blog about Sydney- particularly its history, its hidden and forgotten spots. I found Mirror Sydney through a tweet about this post on 'memorial stores': "shops that are no longer open but remain a part of the street, quietly anachronistic." It's a chronicle of pyschogeography, urban exploration and history. The author, Vanessa Berry, also has a blog called Biblioburbia, a blog about Sydney libraries.

I don't know how interesting this is to people who don't live in Sydney- do I just love reading these things because it's my home? I do love reading about cities- I particularly enjoy urban fantasy set in London with lots of London history and geography wrapped up in it- but I rarely read these more personal and detailed perspectives. The one London blog I really enjoy is Everyone in Dalston is Weird, which kind of reminds me of my own home, but is sadly not very regularly updated. So Sydneysiders, nostalgic ex-Sydneysiders, and anyone interested in having a glimpse into life in Sydney, I highly recommend Mirror Sydney.

Monday, March 11, 2013

recent reads

I thought I was getting onto a roll with blogging, but then February happened and no blogs got written at all! Worse than that, even, is that I got into a bit of a reading slump, though I had to push through to finish my book club book, which has helped. And I haven't even started my reading challenge yet! So what better way to get back into things than a short round-up of recent reading? Here are the last five books that I read:

Image from Goodreads
Unspoken - Sarah Rees Brennan

I ended up buying this because I couldn't get it from the library- and sadly I didn't get this cover, which I like, but the book itself made up for it. I really enjoy Sarah Rees Brennan's blog (I think I first heard about her from Ronni) and this book sounded great to me- it's a Gothic mystery YA book with a small English town, an aristocratic family with secrets and a telepathic connection between a high school girl and her 'imaginary friend' who turns out not to be imaginary. With a dash of romance. 

I have to say that I read The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, and while I liked a lot of it (interesting concept, well-drawn characters) something didn't quite click for me. I'm not a big fan of fantasy about demons, and the writing style was not exactly my thing. I was keen to read the rest of the trilogy to find out what happened, but then I didn't get around to it. So I approached this book with excitement but also caution. But in the end I really enjoyed it! I think the writing worked well here, with the main character being quite bubbly and funny and there's a nice mix of light and dark. And I liked the romance, I know that she is kind of subverting the bad boy tropes of Gothic novels here, but I still got swept up in them because I enjoy them so much, and I really liked the relationship here between the main character, Kami Glass, and the boy in her head. Will definitely get around to reading the second book of these.

Image found on LibraryThing
The Long Ships - Frans G. Bengtsson

Again, I like this cover but it's not the one I read! I got this through inter-library loan, the first time I've actually done that at my local library. I feel like I saw this all over the blogosphere a little while ago, but I have just managed to find it on A Striped Armchair. It sounded very appealing to me- vikings! Adventure! Epics! And it delivered it all with a large sense of humour. This book was written in the 1940s but it definitely feels like you're stepping back into the past reading it- the characters and their attitudes feel very of their time. But while the characters' attitudes to women and slavery (for instance) are very foreign, they also manage to be quite likeable. I think Eva sums it up well in her blog post: "it manages to ‘feel’ medieval without being at all musty, upbeat without romanticising the period, and most of all very, very funny..." Plus it wins points in my book for having a chapter on the Battle of Maldon. 

Image from Goodreads

Wildwood and Under Wildwood - Colin Meloy illus. Carson Ellis

I'm lumping these two together because they are in the same series and I read them right next to each other. Not quite sure what I think of these though- I mean yes, again I do love the covers, I saw them in the bookshop and wanted to read them- and who can resist a magical wood sitting just outside the town limits? At times these feel like Joan Aiken, especially with the orphanage in the second book, and I found the political situation of Wildwood interesting, if unexpected. I love the underground tunnels in Under Wildwood  and there are some great moments with the bandits in particular. 

But then there were times when it felt too allusive, a bit too knowing, like the writer was winking at the reader. There were times when it was missing not as child-like or wonder-inducing as I could have hoped (it is a children's book). I'm not a child anymore, so I don't know how it would read if I was. Mostly I enjoyed it but occasionally it grated a little.

Inverted World - Christopher Priest

I'm not going to write too much about this because it is a book club book, and I'm saving it to discuss on Saturday. This is a sci-fi novel about a town which is always on the move, winched along on railway tracks, co-ordinated by a strict guild system, though tensions build between the guilds and those who stay inside the city. The concept reminded me of China Mieville's Iron Council (though of course this pre-dates it)- if you're looking for books about societies that move on railway tracks, these are two I would recommend.

Inverted World feels very sci-fi, with a focus on a concept rather than a character, though maybe that's unfair since it does concentrate on one character and it does talk a lot about perception. I'm sure I'll have some more interesting things to say about it after book club!


So there you go, all fantasy/sci-fi/adventure novels, a lot of children's or YA books and a lot of fun reading. At the moment I'm switching it up a bit and reading some non-fiction, though it is about fairy-tales- From the Beast to the Blonde by Marina Warner. I've heard a lot about this and have been meaning to read it for ages, so far it has talked a lot about the transmission of fairy-tales and about their tellers.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

outside of experience

Today I was struck by a post over at a gallimaufry about reading things set in unfamiliar places- and how to visualise them- I wonder whether we can familiarise ourselves with different cultures by reading about them, or will we always miss something when we read about things we don't already know? Like when we figure out the meaning of words from their contexts, but sometimes find out years later that we've gotten them wrong (at least, I have done that).

Then I came across this post on facebook, which is a piece of writing memories of childhood in South India, and I was reminded of that idea again. Because in the piece I can recognise the nostalgia, even if I can't recognise the things the writer is nostalgic for.

This feeds into a lot of different ideas I guess, like the concept of the other, or maybe the subjectiveness of language and meaning sometimes, but I just thought maybe it was some interesting food for thought.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

1990s - miss smilla's feeling for snow (1992)

Finally, and belatedly, my 2012 reading challenge comes to an end, with Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg representing the 1990s. It's a book I've been meaning to read for ages, but have somehow never made it past the first page. But while on my beach holiday, accidentally without a book, I found a copy in a second hand bookshop and it seemed the perfect opportunity to finally read it and to finish off my Century of Books challenge at the same time.

In some ways this was an odd book to read on a summer holiday, after all the first sentence reads:
It is freezing, an extraordinary -18°C, and it's snowing, and in the language which is no longer mine, the snow is qanik - big, almost weightless crystals falling in stacks and covering the ground with a layer of pulverized white frost. (Note: I lent this book to my sister when I finished it so I had to look this up online and I'm not 100% sure if it's the translation I read)
While I was lying around trying to escape the heat, which was also extraordinary, hitting over 40°C (over 104°F), and watching bushfire smoke in the sky and on the news every night. But in other ways it was a good choice, not only because it's nice to escape the weather sometimes with a book set in a very different climate, but also because it was a very enjoyable mystery/adventure story that kept me reading, and made me read through it very quickly. I can't imagine why I had never gotten past the first page before, it's quite fast paced. 

Starting off as an investigation into the death of a child by his neighbour, Smilla, a woman in her 30s who is something of a loner, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow ends up being something quite different, an adventure with a touch of sci-fi about it. It's set in Denmark, but Smilla herself is from Greenland, and the background to the story is the tension in her sense of identity as a Greenlander who was brought to Denmark to live by her Danish father after the death of her Inuit mother. More than that, it's also a story about the effects of colonisation. On another climate related note, it was interesting to read a book about colonisation in the context of extreme cold, I'm used to reading colonisation narratives in warm climates- that seems like a small thing but it did make it seem fresh and different. In reality there are a lot of cold-weather colonies, so it shouldn't seem so strange. Anyway, Smilla's background has given her an antipathy towards Denmark, but she also has a strong understanding of snow and ice (intuitive and academically honed), a love of Greenland and a dislike of getting close to other people. She's very resourceful and determined, managing to weather betrayal, a long stint at sea with a crew who are mostly trying to kill her and carrying on an investigation against the background of a sinister conspiracy. She's also pretty ruthless, which makes her an interesting heroine.

Being a thriller set in Scandinavia, in parts I was reminded of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (although this book has a lot less sexual violence!). It might just be that I'm not familiar with the broader thriller genre, but the background sense of corruption by a group with entrenched privilege was familiar, along the looming weight of history, including mentions of past links with Nazis. For me as a reader, this created a sense of menace and fascination. The sense of history shadowing the present was not only created through the mentions of past scientific expeditions and wartime activities, but also more personally in Smilla's memories of life in Greenland with her mother, and then as a child and teenager in Denmark.

There's quite a shift in the middle of the novel when Smilla boards a ship which seems to be bound for Greenland in search a a mysterious scientific find, with the detective story giving way to straight up adventure. As I mentioned before, it almost, but not quite, moves into science fiction territory, particularly when they reach their destination. This half of the book also felt less introspective and less political than the first half, though ultimately I think they tied together.

It's interesting how much the weather in this book affected the experience of reading it. It's a book that will make you feel cold, and it's a book in which snow and ice make a difference to events. So I guess it was the ideal book to cool down with on a hot day, and maybe a good book to read in the cold to appreciate the snowy weather? I wonder, is it more fun to read a book that resonates with your surroundings, or one that contrasts with them?

Friday, January 18, 2013

not wisely but too well

I've been reading Book Lust by Nancy Pearl recently and loving it- it's a collection of lists of books on different topics and to suit different moods put together by a booklover and librarian, and though it seems like an ideal book to dip in and out of I've pretty much been reading it cover to cover (it's helping with a small lack of reading inspiration as well). In the introduction she says:
I love to read. And while I may not absolutely agree with the Anglo-American man of letters Logan Pearsall Smith, who said, "People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading," I come awfully close to subscribing to his sentiment.
I was struck by this, and her dedication to her granddaughter "who I hope grows up loving to read, but not too much." It reminds me of the time a friend in high school told me that some day I would have to stop reading and start living. Of course, I immediately dismissed this, because isn't reading part of living (a vital part, even)? But sometimes I wonder, would I choose the world over a good book? Is it possible to love books too much?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

happy new year!

I do realise that it's a bit late to be wishing people a happy new year, but I've been away out of reach of internet for the past couple of weeks, enjoying views like this one:

Looking out over the lake while eating fish and chips

And this one:
South Coast beaches are beautiful, this is near Tilba
And generally enjoying the beach. I hope everyone had some good holidays as well!

Now it's time to face the fact that a new year has started, head back to work and talk about plans for the year. Specifically, reading plans. On my holiday I did manage to read my 1990s book, so I will soon be able to post about that and finish off my 2012 reading challenge (belatedly). For this year, I want to do something a little bit inspired by the Century of Books challenge and read books published before the 20th Century. Mainly because I have quite a few sitting on my shelves that I can't bring myself to start, and I need a little motivation, and also because I sometimes miss studying history and Old English and want to read some Medieval or older things. I'm being a bit flexible with this, because I'm not sure how long it will take me and I want to leave room to read other things, so my current plan is to read at least one book from each of the following time periods over the next two years (please note the time periods are really rough, they're not necessarily exact fits with the dates, but I thought it would be more fun this way):

Archaic - pre-500 BC
Ancient - 500 BC to 400 AD
Late Antiquity/ Early Medieval - 400 to 1000 AD
Late Medieval - 1000 to 1450 AD
Renaissance - 1450 to 1600 AD
Enlightenment - 1600 to 1800 AD
Nineteenth Century - 1800 to 1900 AD

I want to call it 'A Journey through time and space'. If the challenge is too easy I will read more books from these time periods, or add new ones (e.g. the Edo Period, the Mughal Empire)! I'm interested in adding some periods/places that are less based in the Western Canon, but I'm less familiar with them (and don't have as much sitting on my shelves, waiting to be read), so if you have any suggestions or areas of interest, please let me know.

Also late last year I started up a book group, so I'll be reading for that this year as well. The first book we read was The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, and next I have to read The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. The group seems to have pretty diverse reading habits, so it looks like we'll be reading some interesting books.

Apart from that, who knows?