Archive for January 1st, 2018

January 1, 2018

December Reading

So much of December is ritual reading. I read A Child’s Christmas in Wales out loud on Christmas day, and started a reread of The Dark is Rising (along with about half of twitter) at midwinter. I read the Christmas play section at the end of End of Term. And as I explain below, I’ve been rereading various things set in fairylands. Here are the other things I read, before I ignored the pile of newish books I’d been half planning to read in favour of a bunch of murder mysteries.

 

Jeannette Ng, Under the Pendulum Sun:  I just spent four years writing about the relationships between fantastic and imperial other spaces, and decided, sensibly, that I should give myself a rest and not think about those subjects for a while. So naturally, I read this book, which is about missionaries who go to Arcadia/Elfane/Faerie. It’s also: a sustained piece of Bronte fanfiction that engages with their lives, their published works and the Angria and Gondal stories; a book that quotes extensively and makes genuinely interesting use of its intertexts; quite a traditional fantasy about weird fairies; a book in which characters argue theology for a good portion of their lives (though a lesser chunk of the book itself than other reviews had prepared me for; as a result I felt a bit let down that there wasn’t more). This is all a bit much–even though I’m willing to forgive a lot when a book does so many things I like, it’s all a bit too much to sustain itself. Which is in keeping with the general Gothic excess of many of its source texts, and I might be complaining only because it’s the particular threads that I am most interested in that get dropped. (The other thing about Ng’s book is that I’ve also ended up spending much of my holiday season slowly rereading Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist and Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter; and I’m planning to start the year with Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin, so we’ve got a theme running.)

 

N.K. Jemisin, The Stone Sky: I’ve been enthusiastic about this series before, so this will be nothing new. The Stone Sky continues to be stylistically ambitious, and continues to portray relationships in this hellworld (the Stillness, but also this hellworld) as inherently broken, but still potentially tender; but it also (and this is the bit that is amazing) continues to do things that, a couple of years and several hundred pages in, make me think oh, clever. This book gives us what the previous two have denied us–context (a word that has some significance within the text as well, because these books are nothing if not self-aware), for the history of the world and the weird tech it has inherited as well as its bizarre climate. I was a bit dubious about this at first–in the earlier chapters dealing with this long-past time I suspected a more compact infodump would work just as well–and I’m still not entirely convinced by it even though what it adds deepens the main (?) plot. But it feels fitting that the first book should first focus our understanding of its world by shifting from three perspectives to one, and that the second and third should subsequently widen our focus in perspective and time. (A possibly trite thought I had while reading–I haven’t seen detailed discussions of this series’s worldbuilding, and in the wake of this book I want to; I get the feeling that much of traditional Worldbuilding Discourse tends to ignore precisely the questions of what worlds are built on that this series takes as fundamental to understanding its world.) (This has been another thought about Empire, probably.) And in the book’s present we’re given some of the possibility for rebuilding that the previous books have of necessity denied us; I don’t think this was precisely missing (these books are ruthless and they need to be), but it felt the more precious for that.

 

Charles Keeping (illus.), The Christmas Story: Keeping’s the only person credited by name on the cover, but the opening pages add that this is “as told on Play School”, and the inner flap explains that it has been produced to be legible to the youngest children, that it was originally told by Roy Castle, and that it’s based mainly on the gospels of Luke and Matthew. None of this matters (I wasn’t reading it to the youngest children); I bought this book for its illustrations, particularly one. During a talk on Keeping  several months ago, Brian Alderson showed an image of this book’s endpapers–just the star over Bethlehem, blazing white light over what I thought at the time was sepia, but in my copy is black and white and a greyish green. The star shows up in several of the images that follow–all monochromatic, with only hints of earthy pinks and greens, but full of light. (Some examples here, but not of the endpapers.)

 

Georgette Heyer, Envious Casca, Death in the Stocks, A Blunt Instrument, Detection Unlimited, They Found Him Dead, No Wind of Blame, Duplicate Death and Behold, Here’s Poison: I bounced off Heyer’s detective novels several years ago, and it was Christmas and I wanted some golden age-y murder. I don’t think these are anything like as delightful as her regencies (and the regency that’s most obviously a crime novel, Regency Buck, is also not great), but this time around I found them solidly enjoyable examples of exactly the sort of thing I wanted to read.

However: I have a question about monocles. In Detection Unlimited we meet an elderly spinster who “invariably wore suits of severe cut, cropped her grey locks extremely short, and screwed a monocle into one eye. But this was misleading: her sight really was irregular.” I assumed that the thing that was “misleading” here was a reference to the character’s sexuality–apparently wearing a monocle was just something cool lesbians did in the 1920s. However, in A Blunt Instrument we meet another monocled woman–this time, a “slim”, “young” journalist, who (spoiler, possibly?) ends up in a relationship with a young man. Does Heyer no longer know about lesbians; is her understanding (and, indeed, the contemporary understanding) of queerness more fluid–is this character closer to what I’d think of as bi; are the charms of a rich upper-class Englishman just too impossible to resist? A Blunt Instrument was published fifteen years earlier (1938, while Detection Unlimited is 1953) and is also earlier within the books’ internal chronology–but I’m not sure what to make of any of that.