Archive for ‘Books read in 2010’

January 4, 2011

Not the best books of 2010

As with last year I’m not going to do a “best books of 2010” list because I’m sure I’d think I was horribly wrong no matter what I wrote. So this is more of a most memorable to me personally list:

Edit: I knew I was going to miss something embarrassingly important. Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House was absolutely gorgeous and I can’t believe I didn’t put it on this list. (I blame the bout of food poisoning that has kept me home, awake, and oddly productive today.)

Skippy Dies, Paul Murray: This may not be a best books list, but if it was this book would still be on it. It’s certainly my favourite new book in a very long time. Partly because I know and love school stories so well, partly because it is just brilliant. It’s an Irish school story, but it’s also got science fiction and science science and drugs and love and druids and priests all thrown in, and it’s funny and over the top and always just about on the verge of collapsing under the weight of itself, and it makes me quite incoherent with glee.

Light Boxes, Shane Jones: I bought this purely on the basis of how pretty the cover was. I did worry that it seemed a little smug, but then I read it and adored it anyway. Strange and lovely and fable-like (fablesque? fabulous?) and gory and quite wonderful. Review here, and also a signal boost to the amazing Raven Books where I picked up my copy.

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983, Jai Arjun Singh: If this was a “best books” list I don’t know if this book would be on it. Certainly I’d feel a little odd about it, since Jai is a friend and I am obviously biased. But this is the first time someone I know has published a long work that is nonfiction and non-academic, and I was fascinated by how recognisable the person I know was; how his voice and the sort of things that interest him and concern him, came across in the book. Of course this is all a very personal reading of the book, but it was a new feeling to me, and so thoroughly enjoyable.

Jaclyn the Ripper, Karl Alexander: I started reading this on the last day of 2009, could only manage a few pages at a time (though it provided some drunken entertainment on new year’s eve) and eventually struggled to the end in 2010. I was supposed to review it, but after a long struggle finally gave up (I’m sorry, Niall!). In a year when I read multiple Indian 100 rupee novels and the occasional essay by an undergraduate, among other things, this book stands out as not only the worst thing I read all year, but the worst thing I have ever read full stop. Most memorable books of the year? I suspect this one is seared into my brain forever.

In Great Waters, Kit Whitfield: I bought this because a bunch of people with reliable opinions had said good things about it. As ever they were proved correct. This is an incredibly smart, atmospheric, historical novel. With mermaids. It has things like politics and court intrigue and a plausible history, but with all that it never gets worldbling-y, and it keeps that strange, elusive feel that is one of the reasons I first loved fantasy. The author also has an excellent blog, here.

Christmas Stories, Various: Brought out by Scholastic India – and here is a disclaimer: they employ me and that is why I don’t talk much about children’s books here anymore. This collection isn’t so much on this list for literary merit (though it has stories by some pretty great writers, including Mridula Koshy, Payal Dhar, and the epictastic Kuzhali Manickavel) but because it has a story by me in it. The story is about black magic, brothers and bicycle theft. It’s the first thing I’ve ever written for children, and I’m quite proud of it. I had another (for grown-ups this time) story accepted for publication this past year for an anthology with another publisher. Hopefully that will come out sometime in 2011 – but this is my first and it’s special.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, E. Lockhart: As I said above, I don’t talk much about children’s books here because of possible conflicts of interest. But I have loved E. Lockhart ever since I read The Boy Book a couple of years ago. If I could make one book compulsory reading for teenagers (which would utterly defeat the purpose) I think Frankie Landau-Banks would be it. It’s got intelligent teenagers, and Bentham, and Foucault, and sexual politics, and sexual attraction and an ending that isn’t happy. I hurtled through it through the night, only stopping every few chapters to dance around the room.

All About H. Hatterr, G.V Desani: I ended up writing an entirely separate post about this one. But this was revolutionary – a bizarre, funny epic that made a point of not taking English seriously. I’m embarrassed I’d never read it before and thrilled that I finally have.

The Etched City, K.J. Bishop: A friend had been telling me for a couple of years that I needed to read this. When I finally got down to it this year my mind was quite thoroughly blown. Here’s a link to Paul Smith’s piece on it.

Kumari Loves a Monster, Rashmi Ruth Devadasan, Shyam, Jagan and Pritham K. Chakravarthy: I’m not sure what to say about Kumari… apart from actually describing it – it is a series of pictures of tentacle beastthings romancing pretty girls from Tamil Nadu. With a few lines of poetry in both English and Tamil for each scene. This should be enough, but Kumari Loves a Monster doesn’t just rest on the cool idea; it is actively adorable. It is also hot pink.

Wolfsangel, M.D. Lachlan: This book is two books. One is a huge Viking werewolf fantasy – it’s massive in scale, and feels meaty and real and generally good. The other is a quiet, thoughtful, dreamlike meditation on gods and magic and human interaction with myth. One book felt like The Long Ships (which I am reading), the other felt like The Owl Service. Wolfsangel was startlingly good, and I look forward to reading Lachlan’s next.

The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules, Manohar Shyam Joshi: I wish I’d read more translated work this year. I picked this book up for its marvellous title. I’m not sure what I was expecting; certainly not something quite this. A playful, postmodern romp – I wrote more about it here – and as far as I can tell, a very good translation.

The Thing Around your Neck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: An author I’d been planning to read for a long time, and a collection of short stories. The Thing Around Your Neck was as dense and layered as I’d been led to expect, but I was unprepared for how direct and strongly felt it seemed. I will be reading her novels this year – and if you have not read her and need convincing, her wonderful TED talk ought to be enough.

Lud-in-the-Mist, Hope Mirrlees: A classic that I had (for reasons unknown) never read before. Outwardly very delicate and pretty and fable-like, but then it turns out to be full of murder and addiction and other unexpected things.

Glass Coffin Girls, Paul Jessup: I like stories, and therefore I like stories that think about stories. Jessup has very much the same sort of approach to genre and how it works as I do myself. This is a great, strange little collection of horror-ish stories based on fairytales. There’s an element of dream logic to many of the stories that somehow works really well. This collection (or one story in it) also has the distinction of being the only thing I read this year that made me feel actually, physically ill.

Honourable mentions: Turbulence, Reading Series Fiction, Zoo City, Super Sad True Love Story, Four British Fantasists, rereads of Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar books, Joan Aiken rereads, a Gormenghast reread, and the most recent Terry Pratchett. Adam Roberts’ gorgeous, ludic Yellow Blue Tibia was a joy to read, and I’m told that New Model Army (I have exercised great discipline in not buying it yet) is even better. Under My Roof, Nick Mamatas’ smart, hilarious post-9/11 novel. My gorgeous, Australian edition covers of Celine Kiernan’s Moorhawke books (along with Light Boxes these are the prettiest additions to my shelves in 2010) are tempting me to reread the first two as soon as possible. Alan Garner’s The Voice That Thunders and Catherynne M. Valente’s The Habitation of the Blessed were both started in 2010 and will be finished in 2011 – both are promising to be pretty memorable.

Things I am looking forward to in 2011:
Anna Carey’s first book, The Real Rebecca. Anna is a good friend (disclaimer again) and a really good writer and a generally lovely person, so I’m expecting this to be amazing.
New Adam Roberts book, again with a three-word title. This man is alarmingly prolific.
The Popcorn Essayists, a collection of film essays by Indian writers. Apart from the fact that it’s edited by Jai, it’s got Manil Suri talking about being a cabaret dancer and Musharraf Ali Farooqi talking about (I think) foot-fetishes.
New China Mieville book. I was a bit disappointed in last year’s Kraken, but even Mieville’s more disappointing books tend to have plenty of meat to them. I’m hoping that this shift to what looks like a more traditionally genre-ish book (as much as that is ever likely to be the case with this author, anyway) will eliminate a number of the flaws I perceived in the last book.
Karen Russell’s Swamplandia. St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is one of the best collections of short stories I’ve read in recent years. I’m very keen to see what Russell does with the novel form.
A Dance With Dragons. I read very few fantasy series, and this is probably a good thing. I am one of those awful people who cannot rest till I own the set – regardless of whether I actually like the books. At this point (this is probably very unflattering to GRRM and I beg his pardon) I’d be quite satisfied if someone would just give me a bulletpointed list of the major plot points till the end of the series. This is unlikely to happen. I shall read A Dance With Dragons and hop about impatiently for the next book instead.
Russians: I am reading them. It struck me this year (in part because of Elif Batuman’s The Possessed) that I had not read enough of the writers of whom she spoke. Since this is clearly something that needs remedying, I am making Russian literature something of a project this year. Suggestions for what I should read and when are more than welcome.

January 4, 2011

2010 Books

A complete list of everything I read up until June is available at the 2010 Books tag. Then work and life got a little overwhelming and now the thought of doing a detailed review of everything I read in the second half of the year is intolerable. But here is a list, at least.

M.D Lachlan – Wolfsangel
Julia Quinn – Ten Things I Love About You
Karl Kesel and Terry Dodson – Preludes and Knock Knock Jokes
Kit Whitfield – In Great Waters
Gwyneth Jones – Imagination/Space
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan – Confessions of a Listmaniac
Vishwajyoti Ghosh – Delhi Calm
K.J Bishop – The Etched City
Shane Jones– Light Boxes
Celine Kiernan – The Rebel Prince
Rama the Steadfast
(Penguin edition)
George Orwell – Books vs Cigarettes
Brian Lee O’Malley – The Scott Pilgrim series
Tishani Doshi – The Pleasure Seekers
David Foster Wallace – Consider the Lobster
Tom Shippey (ed) – The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories
Searle and Willans – The Molesworth books
Margo Lanagan – White Time
Terry Pratchett – I Shall Wear Midnight
Gail Carriger – Blameless
Jai Arjun Singh and Nisha Susan (ed) – Excess
Adam Foulds – The Quickening Maze
Pradeep Sebastian – The Groaning Shelf
Francisco X. Stork – The Last Summer of the Death Warriors
Richard Marsh – The Beetle
E. Nesbit – The Enchanted Castle
E. Lockhart – The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
Wrede and Stevermer – Sorcery and Cecelia, The Grand Tour and The Mislaid Magician
Loretta Chase – Last Night’s Scandal
John Mortimer – Rumpole and the Angel of Death
Ian MacDonald – The Dervish House
Mervyn Peake – Gormenghast
Victor Watson – Reading Series Fiction
Michael de Larrabeiti – The Borribles
Sarah Caudwell – The Shortest Way to Hades
P.G Wodehouse – Ice in the Bedroom
Samit Basu – Turbulence
Kate Lawson – Mother of the Bride
Salman Rushdie – Luka and the Fire of Life
Paul Jessup – Werewolves
Walter Moers – The Alchemaster’s Apprentice
Suzanne Collins – The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay
Zoran Zivkovic – 12 Collections and a Teashop
Kate Bernheimer (ed) – My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me
Gary Shteyngart – Super Sad True Love Story
Lauren Beukes – Zoo City
Mark Gatiss – The Devil in Amber
Edmund Crispin – The Moving Toyshop
Josephine Pullein-Thompson – Pony Club Cup, Pony Club Challenge and Pony Club Trek
Rick Riordan – Heroes of Olympus: The Lost Hero
Jeff Vandermeer – Finch
Talbot Baines Reed – The Fifth Form at St Dominic’s
Antonia Forest – Autumn Term
JoSelle Vanderhooft – Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories
John Masefield – The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights

Also odd chapters from academic works, a bunch of regency romances by various authors, Pamela Cox’s sequels and fill-ins to the Malory Towers and St Clare’s books, and I lost the notebook where I list these things for a while in between, so I think I may be missing something. Probably not anything important, since I’d remember it if it was.

Not the most challenging year, judging by the quantities of fluff I read, but I think it was a good one.

July 7, 2010

June Reading

Looking over this list I realise I read less SFF than I usually would last month. This is interesting, I guess? I didn’t read half as much as I wanted or expected to; especially considering how much of this is fluffy bedtime reading. I am forced to blame the world cup.

Hope Mirrlees – Lud-in-the-Mist: This is such a classic that I’m mildly embarrassed about never having read it before. It turns out it’s utterly gorgeous. Plot-wise it’s incredibly simple (middle class townspeople threatened by the smuggling into town of fairy fruit – I’m tempted to describe it as a crime thrille) and I wondered when I started reading if it was going to be pretty and insubstantial. It’s not, it’s gloriously ambiguous and lyrical and full of light and shadow. I’m very tempted now to reread The King of Elfland’s Daughter (published a couple of years before Mirrlees’ book) and see how it compares.

Sarah MacLean – The Season: I didn’t enjoy this one at all. I suspect this is in part because I’m used to reading Regency mystery/romances for grown-ups, who are expected to be familiar with the setting. Having things explained for young readers (and heroines who are modern teenagers in empire line dresses) really put me off.

Kate Hewitt – The Greek Tycoon’s Reluctant Bride: Read because someone at work thought my reaction would amuse them. This proved to be the case.

Elif Batuman – The Possessed: I reviewed this for the Indian Express and talked a little more about my reaction to it here.

Tom McCarthy – Tintin and the Secret of Literature: I’m still not sure what the big “secret” turned out to be, unless it was that ‘popular’ literature is as fruitful a ground for literary criticism as capital L Literature. This was still tremendous fun to read; McCarthy bombards the Tintin books with multiple sorts of theory and in the process succeeds in writing a book whose main point seems to be look, look, theory can give you so much to play with. Which it can, of course, and this is one reason why I like it, but I suspect if you’re the sort of person who likes that sort of thing you already know this.

Samit BasuTerror on the Titanic: Nothing I say about this book could possibly be unbiased – not only is Samit a friend but the book is published by my employers. So you might want to keep that in mind when I claim that this book is funny and smart and utterly silly, and that the Morningstar Agency series looks to be a strange (and hilarious) mixture of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the Bartimaeus trilogy. But also I’m right.

Stephenie Meyer - The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner: I’m not a fan of Stephenie Meyer, as this old, desperately trying to be fair, post probably makes clear. Still, I’d read all four Twilight books, and thought that this novella, removed from the main story of the series, might avoid some of its major flaws. Plus someone on Twitter dared me.
I’m sure I came to the book prejudiced against it. Still, it was remarkably bad. Meyer continues to be unable to create a real, flawed, likeable character for her narrator, and if she has gained in self-awareness since writing the first of the books (I’m choosing to believe that certain choices she made were deliberate) her prose is still frequently cringeworthy.
I did giggle at the “Hulk smash!” bit though.

Edmund Crispin - Holy Disorders: This was my first Gervase Fen book, though I’ve had friends accost me and read out bits of others in the past. It made me accost people and read out bits. I was rather alarmed by the ending (basically, some people are just evil. and it might be genetic.) but it was a fun read.

John Mortimer – The Antisocial Behaviour of Horace Rumpole/Rumpole Misbehaves: I’ve read only a few of the Rumpole books. I was surprised to see how comparatively recent this one was (2007). I know Mortimer died last year and I think this may have been his last book, but iPods in Rumpole are a bit jarring. Still, it was extremely funny.

Susan Stephens – The Italian Prince’s Proposal: Discussed here.

Julia Quinn – To Catch an Heiress and How to Marry a Marquis: Lumped together because they are a duology. I love Quinn. She’s utterly reliable; likeable, frivolous romances with plenty of witty banter. These two books, involving aristocratic agents of the Crown and the women who love them, aren’t her best, but they’re still fun. How to Marry a Marquis is better because it involves Lady Danbury (familiar to readers of other Quinn books) and a woman dressed as a pumpkin.

Julia Quinn – What Happens in London: I said I liked Quinn. This book, though, deserves a seperate entry, because nothing else will demonstrate. It has spies. It has possibly evil Russians. It has couples who bond over reading bad books to each other. This is entirely similar to my own romantic life except for the spies and possibly evil Russians. It is the most delicious piece of froth since Loretta Chase’s The Devil’s Delilah. Also:

There were really no words to describe it.
She stood in the doorway, thinking this would be a fine time to create a list titled Things I Do Not Expect To See in My Drawing Room, but she was not sure she could come up with anything that topped what she did see in her drawing room, which was Sebastian Grey, standing atop a table, reading (with great emotion) from Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron. If that weren’t enough—and it really ought to have been enough, since what was Sebastian Grey doing at Rudland House, anyway?—Harry and the prince were sitting side by side on the sofa, and neither appeared to have suffered bodily harm at the hands of the other.
That was when Olivia noticed the three housemaids, perched on a settee in the corner, gazing at Sebastian with utter rapture. One of them might even have had tears in her eyes. And there was Huntley, standing off to the side, openmouthed, clearly overcome with emotion.
“‘Grandmother! Grandmother!’” Sebastian was saying, his voice higher pitched than usual. “‘Don’t go. I beg of you. Please, please don’t leave me here all by myself.’”
One of the housemaids began to quietly weep.
“Priscilla stood in front of the great house for several minutes, a small, lonely figure watching her grandmother’s hired carriage speed down the lane and disappear from view. She had been left on the doorstep at Fitzgerald Place, deposited like an unwanted bundle.”
Another housemaid began to sniffle. All three were holding hands.
“And no one”—Sebastian’s voice dropped to a breathy, dramatic register—“knew she was there. Her grandmother had not even knocked upon the door to alert her cousins of her arrival.”
Huntley was shaking his head, his eyes wide with shock and sorrow. It was the most emotion Olivia had ever seen the butler display.
Sebastian closed his eyes and placed one hand on his heart. “She was but eight years old.”
He closed the book.
Silence. Utter silence. Olivia looked about the room, realizing no one knew she was there.

The sequel-of-sorts, Ten Things I Love About You, was out this month, and I should be getting my copy any day now. The Booksmugglers do not seem to be bowled over, but I can trust Quinn to at least be amusing.

P.G Wodehouse – Young Men in Spats: Wodehouse. Short stories. Idiotic young men, love, nudity, Tennyson, animals, and that one story where Uncle Fred breaks into a random house and furthers the cause of young love. I’ve read them all before, but they’re still delightful.

Chris Lavers – The Natural History of the Unicorn: Leavers traces the various possible origin stories for the unicorn – not just the physical features of the animal (and how they change over time) but all the other bits that go into making up the myth. And then he looks at all those bits in the contexts of the societies that added them to the myth, and…I tried to explain what this book was to a colleague and baffled her completely. I really enjoyed it – it’s clever, frequently very witty, and I like fantastic beasts. Leavers doesn’t come to any solid conclusions, only suggesting directions to think along, and I appreciated that. It was excellent, and I think I’ll be using it in the future; not for anything specifically unicorn-related, but as a pointer to how myths come into being.

Robert Holdstock – Avilion: Holdstock’s last book affected me in much the same way as the first one I read did. It’s a more direct sequel to Mythago Wood than Lavondyss was (I have not yet read The Hollowing or Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn). In the past I’ve always had to read Holdstock books twice – once to feel them (he is an incredibly sensual writer) and once because the being caught up in the feel of the book means that I don’t engage with the intellectual aspect that he also brings. On a first read, this is beautiful, though I don’t think it quite lives up to Mythago Wood. On a second – we’ll see.

* Edit – I’m not sure how Chris Lavers ended up being credited as David. Wtf, brain. Sorry Mr Lavers!

May 31, 2010

May Reading

My reading this month included a number of books I’d read before and quite a bit of fluff (these two mostly overlapped). In addition to the books mentioned here, I’m still dipping in and out of Helen Merrick’s wonderful book The Secret Feminist Cabal. I’ve also just gotten hold of Gwyneth Jones’ Imagination/Space, also published by Aqueduct (here’s a good review). And I’m in the middle of a reread of Mark Charan Newton’s Nights of Villjamur. I’ll be reading City of Ruin when I’m done. Other books I’m hoping to finish in June include Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist (I started it today and love it so far) and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, which I first heard of a few months ago when Batuman wrote this gorgeous piece for the Chronicle. Assuming that her writing is generally of this calibre, this looks like being a remarkable book.

And so on to the books (in no particular order).

G.V Desani – All About H. Hatterr: I started reading this in April. I loved it; it’s challenging and playful and generally wonderful. I wrote more about it here.

Jesse Bullington – The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart: I wanted to like this a lot more than I ended up doing. It’s incredibly smart, frequently very funny (the brothers’ theological debates in particular), and I absolutely love the cover art. And yet somehow it just did not click for me. I may be missing something obvious, since most reviews I’ve read of it have been overwhelmingly positive. I can’t pinpoint anything that the book did wrong (except maybe the cod academic framework which felt wholly unnecessary) so clearly we were just not meant to be. I will say this for Bullington, his writing is effective. He managed to make me feel rather queasy on two occasions. There’s one particularly unpleasant rape scene, and another scene that I do not wish to spoil for anyone, but between this and Paul Jessup’s “It Tasted Like the Sea” I may never eat fish again.

O. Douglas – Olivia in India: Someone on a mailing list that I read mentioned O. Douglas and I looked her up. I was rather surprised to find that she was John Buchan’s sister. A couple of her books were available on project Gutenberg, and I picked this one to start with. I was a bit wary of a book written in 1912 about an Englishwoman’s travels in India, but found myself charmed anyway. The book is a series of letters from a young woman (who is travelling to India to meet her brother) to an unnamed young man. The colonialism is inevitable, but for the time surprisingly not offensive. Olivia actually engages with India, which is rather nice. Occasionally the attempt to be charming and quirky gets a bit much, but on the whole this was very likeable indeed.

Rick Riordan – The Percy Jackson series: I finally watched the Percy Jackson movie and while it was pretty good I felt that the pacing was off and it was a lot less clever than the books. This made me reread all five books in the series as well as Percy Jackson: The Demigod Files, a slimmer volume containing three short stories and some mock interviews of characters in the series. The series is fantastic; The Demigod Files is insubstantial.

Georgette Heyer – Frederica: I read Heyer when I’m tired, which is why some of her stuff seems to pop up here every month or so. Frederica is not her best, but it is quite good and has a hot air balloon and steam engines. Which makes it practically steampunk, right? Right?

Lisa Kleypas – Suddenly You: This was recommended by a friend who thought I would enjoy a Victorian publishing romance. It was nice and started off very well indeed. But I felt it threw out a number of lures for places that the story could possibly go, and then went nowhere. It’s a little unfair to judge a romance novel for not being more than a romance novel so I can’t really blame it for failing to take up the publishing angle, or the child abuse angle, or… (there were quite a few such angles). But I would have liked a better structured plot, at least.

China Miéville - Kraken: My review is here. My reaction was largely positive, but with a few caveats. Watching Miéville having fun and being a geek was nice.

Mark Mellon – Napoleon Concerto: I’m supposed to review this for someone so I won’t say much here. This is an alternate history steampunk novel set in Napoleonic France. I’ll be linking to my review when it is up.

Nick Mamatas – Under My Roof: I am a bit of a Mamatas fangirl, for various reasons. This probably means that I am biased, but I loved this book to pieces. It’s a hilarious, slim book about a telepathic 12 year old whose father has built his own nuclear weapon (it’s inside a garden gnome on the lawn) and declared independence from the United States. It’s very smart and very political and entirely lovable and I’m surprised more people have not read it.

Julia Quinn – The Bridgerton Series: I did not reread all of the Bridgerton books this month. I read four; The Viscount Who Loved Me, An Offer from a Gentleman, Romancing Mr. Bridgerton and To Sir Philip with Love. There’s not much to say about these – none of them was a particularly strenuous intellectual exercise. But I love Quinn and I’m really looking forward to Ten Things I Love About You (review here).

Jon Courtenay Grimwood – Pashazade: Another alternate-history novel. Ashraf Bey arrives in Al Iskandriya and is immediately embroiled in a murder mystery. Fast paced and clever and massively entertaining. I suspect I’d need a second read to attempt any sort of critique (and I think there are aspects of it that could do with some examining) but I found it extremely enjoyable.

John Gardner – Grendel: I recently confessed on twitter that I had not read this, though I’d meant to for a while. The recommendations of a couple of people who had read it convinced me not to put it off any longer. I’m glad, it’s stunning. There’s not enough space here for anything like a review – and since I finished it only a couple of days ago I think I’d like some time to think about it and possibly return to Beowulf - but it’s a glorious book.

Georgette Heyer – Lady of Quality and Black Sheep: These two books are the same book: discuss.

May 8, 2010

April Reading (II)

And we’re well into May.
April was a really busy month workwise, and I found myself reading quite a bit of fluff. May is likely to continue in the same vein, though I do have the new China Mieville book, and I’m also planning an Iron Council reread when I’m done with it. Here is the rest of what I read in April, anyway:

Victoria Alexander – What a Lady Wants and A Visit From Sir Nicholas: I’ve mentioned reading some of Alexander’s books over the last few months, and it’s probably obvious that I’m susceptible to light fiction that appears in series form. A Visit From Sir Nicholas is interesting that way, in that it’s historical romance, and it’s the same family, but is set a generation or so later, in the Victorian age. It also makes lots of references to A Christmas Carol and was in general quite entertaining and fun (and won a Romantic Times Viewers Choice award). What a Lady Wants on the other hand felt a bit pointless – I spent most of it wondering what the two lead characters were whining about.

Amanda Quick – Mischief: The title (which really put me off the book) turned out to have nothing to do with the story. This is a romance set in alternate-History Regency England, where the craze for Egyptology (I’ve mentioned before that Imperial Britain’s fascination with Egypt is something I love reading about) is replaced because some British explorers found an island kingdom called Zamar with an equally fascinating history. Both main characters are obsessed with the island – he is the man who first discovered it, and she analyses the facts he reports and publishes papers under a male pseudonym. It was great fun to read, though the plot (they are investigating the truth behind her best friend’s death) was less entertaining than the setting. I spent quite a bit of time wondering if the alt-hist aspects of the book meant that I could classify it in my head as Spec Fic. I have decided that I can.

Georgette Heyer – Arabella: Old favourite. There is a comical dog, there is the recognition that Regency England also contains lots of un-picturesque poor people, and there is a hero who actually recognises that he has been an arse and apologises for it.

Elsie J. Oxenham – The Girls of the Hamlet Club: As some of you know, my Masters’ thesis focused on school stories, and I’ve grown up reading a lot of Girls’ Own literature. This is the first of the Abbey Girls books – a series that is absolutely massive. I’d read The Girls of the Hamlet Club a few years ago and have only read the later books in the series since. Coming back to this one, I was surprised at how different from the others it was – there’s a half-written post on this which will be published soon.

C.S Lewis – Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength: Since I’ve had reason to refer to these books a few times lately, I thought a reread might be in order. Result: I still think Out of the Silent Planet is a decent space-travel story. It has some good aliens, some lovely alien landscapes, and it does First Contact rather well. And the religion stuff isn’t too jarring at this point, partly because the greedy businessman and the mad scientist are both pretty obvious villains without our needing much convincing. The book is also made better by the hints about another Martian race who were wiped out by a cataclysm, and who Ransom (the Very Christian philologist who is the main character of this series) is fascinated by.
Perelandra was intolerable. It’s a pretty colour palette, and some of the underground sections are genuinely terrifying, but the long, simplistic theological debates? Lewis seems to enjoy writing “debates” where one of the characters is either a complete strawman or a bit of an idiot – see for example that awful bit in The Silver Chair (which may or may not be based on Lewis’ debate with G.E Anscombe, and I don’t particularly care) – and all they really do is to make their author seem smug, simplistic, and incapable of questioning himself.
That Hideous Strength was the one I was looking forward to because I hadn’t read it in a while and had good memories of it. Evidently I had forgotten the hilarious scene where Jane (the female half of a couple who have been terribly misguided by modernity, education, and all this “gender equality” rubbish) is told by a resurrected Merlin that she’s the wickedest woman in Britain because she and her husband were fated to have a baby who would Save the World but then they went and used birth control! It’s possibly the greatest anti-reproductive rights argument I have ever encountered. What would have happened if the Virgin Mary had been on the pill? Lewis asks us, Had you ever thought of that? Had you?
I cannot say that I had.
Also, what is with Miss Hardcastle? Did Lewis really write a lesbian character?
Having said which. Despite the utterly bizarre/reprehensible politics of this book, I really enjoyed it. It’s dystopic, has sections that feel like classic science fiction (along with classic SF’s cheerful disregard for actual science), and contains Merlin and a bear.

I wonder how Lewis would feel at being included in this post. Other than his own, all the books are by women, and most of them romance writers.

April 29, 2010

April Reading (I)

I’ll be out of town for the weekend and swamped with work for a few days after that, so here in advance is the first bit of my monthly post on books I’ve been reading. Luckily I’ve written about quite a few of these already so links are all that is really needed.

H.G Wells – The First Men in the Moon: I am planning to read (and in some cases reread) all of Wells over the next year or so, because I think I have neglected him. And also because I have obtained some very pretty editions of his books. For this book (which I wrote about here) I read the Penguin Classics edition with an introduction by China Mieville.

Edgar Allan Poe – The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket: I wrote about this here. I loved it; it was shrieky, ludicruous, surprisingly creepy goodness. I’ll soon be reading the Verne book that riffs off it (many thanks to Fëanor for pointing it out to me).

Gail Carriger – Soulless and Changeless: I read and enjoyed Soulless last year, and thought it would be fun to reread it before Changeless came out. It was still good the second time around, and Changeless turned out to be even better.

Paolo Bacigalupi – The Windup Girl: I thought this was excellent. I could have wished the publishers (or the author) had not gone and italicised every Thai word, but well. It was engaging and impressive. I’m just not sure how much I liked it. Jonathan M. has a good review of it here.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – The Thing Around Your Neck: I read this at the beginning of the month and really should have written about it then, when it was still fresh in my mind. It’s too late now, but wow. This is a wonderful collection. It’s thoughtful and restrained and feminist and African and occasionally gutwrenching. I’m reading everything this woman has ever written.

Paul Jessup – Glass Coffin Girls: I reviewed this here. It’s a collection I’ll be returning to often, I hope. It’s dark and rich and gives you so much to think with. Delicious.

Kyla Pasha – High Noon and the Body: I wish I knew enough about poetry to talk about this collection as it deserves to be talked about. I’ve been dipping in and out of it since February and have consisently been blown away. Lovely, lovely book.

Syed Muhammad Ashraf - Numberdar Ka Neela (translated as The Beast by Musharraf Ali Farooqi): Tranquebar are doing these nice little short story/novella editions of Indian fiction, and I thought this one looked good. I was particularly drawn to it because Musharraf Ali Farooqi is a fine translator and did such a wonderful job on the Hamzanama and Tilism-e Hoshruba. The Beast is a satire of sorts about a power hungry zamindar who trains a violent bull to protect his interests. It’s a frequently comical, frequently angry murder mystery, that has lots of things to say about the nature of power. It’s also an incredibly nuanced piece of writing. I hope to return to it and write on it at length, but until then read Roswitha on the text.

The rest of my reading for this month will follow, including whatever I read on the plane tomorrow.

April 1, 2010

March Reading (II)

Other things I read in March:

Jaclyn Dolamore – Magic Under Glass: Nimira is a “trouser girl” and dancer who is hired by a sexy, mysterious man to sing with his clockwork pianist which may or may not be haunted. There are politics, fairies and racism; love happens; there are Jane Eyre references. These things are all good. But I raced through the 200-ish pages suspiciously easily. Stuff happens too fast – it feels like one minute Nimira is trying to figure out how to communicate with the automaton, and the next they’re In Love; one moment supernatural forces threaten and the next they’ve gone away. I feel like Dolamore iss going for ‘delicate’, and runs the risk of veering too close to ‘insubstantial’. There are points where this book is absolutely wonderful, such as the more bittersweet moments when Errin comes to terms with the implications of his situation. But I find myself frustrated at how good it could have been if the plot had just been given a little longer to develop.

Paro Anand – School Ahead!: I speed read this at work so really haven’t got much to say about it, Rather a nice collection of short stories about school, I thought – it could have been less obvious about having A Moral in a couple of places, but there was this one story about running that made me really miss it.

Roald Dahl – Matilda: A reread; I was looking for a specific scene and ended up reading the whole thing in the process. Dahl’s short fiction is amazing, but I hadn’t read his children’s novels in quite a while. Matilda is still good, which is a relief.

Victoria Alexander – The Lady In Question: I mentioned reading a couple of books by this author last month. Clearly I cannot resist the lure of long series about families – the protagonist of this one is the twin sister of the protagonist of The Pursuit of Marriage. This one has spies – why am I reading so many regency romances with heroes involved in British intelligence? This book caused me serious worry. There is a hidden notebook that is crucial to the plot and we do not know where it is. At some point in the book the heroine notices a random slit in her mattress and thinks nothing of it. At this point the reader (me) is thinking this may be the hiding place. The mattress is never referred to again, the notebook is found elsewhere, and I’m left wondering whether this is just something the author forgot to address or she’s being clever and playing with the reader’s expectations. Romance novels are my comfort reads. I expect to understand what’s going on, and I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that in this case I am not sure.

Kathleen O’Reilly – Touched By Fire: This was rather weird. The hero is the son of a criminal who raped his mother, though no one knows this but himself and his father. He’s had a traumatic childhood with a father who keeps telling him that his evil blood will revolt against him and he won’t be able to resist his violent sexual urges. So when he meets the female protagonist he is a) very fucked up indeed and b) a virgin c) obsessed with dragons and how to tame them, don’t ask. Also, there is gambling (not that interesting) and social stigma (likewise, next to the magnitude of the hero’s issues) and child prostitution and an orphanage. And did I mention dragons? The heroine is honestly the least memorable thing about this book. The rest is fantastic.

Charles Butler - Four British Fantasists: Butler examines the role of place and history in the children’s writing of Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, Penelope Lively and Susan Cooper. I will admit I skimmed the Penelope Lively bits as I’ve read nothing by her (which must be remedied), but Butler’s commentary on the books I am familiar with is interesting and assured. I think he stumbles a bit in the discussion of Garner and appropriation in Strandloper (I fumed about this for a while) but it’s a thoughtful, interesting work of criticism on the whole.

April 1, 2010

March Reading (I)

I cannot see any sort of pattern to my reading habits of this past month. That might be a good thing, I think? In addition to the things on this list I’ve started and stopped Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl twice – it’s very good as far as I’ve read it, but I’m somehow just not in the mood for it. Maybe April.

Laura Miller – The Magician’s Book: Apparently Miller loved the Narnia books as a child, broke away from them when she discovered all the religiousity, and (this is the bit the book chronicles) grew back into them as an adult, finding new reasons to love them. It’s part memoir, part biography and part litcrit, and it’s (mostly) really good; the early chapters about children reading (and about Miller discovering fantasy) are especially worth reading. She occasionally tries a little too hard to make Lewis likeable (or maybe I’m just less forgiving) but on the whole it’s a really enjoyable book.

Adam Roberts – Yellow Blue Tibia: Some of my thoughts on this book are here. Briefly, very smart, somewhat problematic book that pushed all my squee-buttons and made me very happy.

Bryan Lee O’Malley – Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life & Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: A friend recently discovered I hadn’t read the Scott Pilgrim books and was horrified. So I borrowed and read the first two. I’m sure I’m missing out on at least half the references since I’m neither a gamer nor a music geek, but so far these books have been filled with moments of sheer, joyful badassery that I can’t not love. I’m really looking forward to the rest of the series.

Sidin Vadukut – Dork: The Incredible Adventures of Robin “Einstein” Varghese: I bought this in February but hadn’t had time to read it till March. I’ve been reading Sidin’s blog on and off for years now, and he is extremely funny. Never having worked in the kind of corporate environment he describes (my own workplace, and I suspect most publishing houses, are nothing like it) the office life he describes is completely alien to me. That he still manages to make it funny and relatable is pretty impressive. My problem with the book, though, is with the protagonist. Robin is an incompetent oaf and that is funny, sure. But also, there is nothing about him that I find vaguely tolerable, and I think I needed that to stay engaged with the book. Reading about his long series of failures is amusing enough (and Sidin said at the launch that he might be causing a diplomatic incident in a later book) but after a point I think I’d have preferred to read of his violent removal from the world of the living.

Arnab Ray - May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss: Another blogger-turned-author book, though very different from Sidin’s. I’m only an occasional reader of the blog (the film posts are frequently hilarious) and clearly not the target audience. Which is probably the reason this really didn’t work for me – beyond a blog-length post the humour becomes rather laboured and repetitive – perhaps if you read one essay a day.

Georgette Heyer – False Colours: Reread. False Colours is very much a comfort read for me. It involves True Love, there are no real villains, there are wacky hijinks involving impersonation, irascible grandmothers with hearts of gold, and the like. I’m amazed that no one has made Heyer movies; many of the books (including this one) would translate to screen very well.

Liz Carlyle – Beauty Like The Night: A romance novel involving a governess (improbably well-read in psychology, for a regency period woman) who is hired to teach the daughter of her former lover. The child in question has been traumatised by various events in the past and refuses to speak. The sections with the kid in them were unusual and well done; the rest was pretty typical. Better than a lot of things, but you could still cut out the entire romance plot and have a decent book. And Byron wrote lots and well, why must we always come back to “She Walks in Beauty”?

Paul Murray – Skippy Dies: I finished this at the beginning of the month and I still haven’t collected my thoughts on it together in any coherent way that would lead to an actual review (here’s the Patrick Ness review though). It’s early days yet, but I very much doubt I’ll be reading anything that could top this book this year. Skippy Dies is a school story featuring drugs, aliens, druids, string theory and seances. It is one of the funniest books I’ve read in a while – Murray’s prose just dances. I’m wary of describing writers as being like other writers (and Irish writers as being like other Irish writers in particular because it taps into so many annoying stereotypes) but if you’re a fan of Flann O’Brien or Robert McLiam Wilson you should probably know that this book exists. It’s also emotionally draining. I was exhausted at the end, but in the best possible way. If you’re in England or Ireland and haven’t obtained this yet, there’s really no excuse for you.

Manohar Shyam Joshi – The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules: Talked about this here.

March 4, 2010

February Reading (II)

And this is the non-romance list. In addition to this lot, I started Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies at the end of the month. I am progressing slowly, mainly because I am enjoying it so much. I have dogeared or postitnoted every other page as having something enjoyable I wish to share.

The non-romance bit.

Alexander McCall Smith – The Comfort of Saturdays and The Lost Art of Gratitude: I love the Isabel Dalhousie books. They are the ultimate comfort read- they make me generally peaceful and in favour of humanity. These two most recent books in the series involve medical fraud, tightrope walkers, bratty composers and a greater role for Brother Fox, but really, I’m just reading them for Isabel.

Francisco X. Stork – Marcelo in the Real World: I love this book. There are plenty of wonderful reviews on the internet that will give you some idea of why. You should read those.

Naomi Novik – Temeraire: I raced through this one. It was surprisingly addictive. It’s set in an alt-universe nineteenth century England with dragons. Will Laurence accidentally comes into possession of a dragon and has to give up his job and fiancée for his new duties. Luckily he discovers in an implausibly short period of time that he doesn’t mind this too much. The love between man and dragon is strong (and worryingly slashy, which would be fine if one of the protagonists were not a giant lizard). I really liked Temeraire, but it is too frequently obvious that it has been written by an American woman in the twenty-first century; sentence constructions like “wished he wouldn’t have done that” pop up occasionally and are a bit jarring. Still, it is set during one of my favourite periods in English history, it mostly gets the tone right, and it has dragons. I am definitely reading the rest of this series.

N.K Jemisin – The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: Reviewed here, so I will not discuss it in this post. Except to say that it is a fine book and deserves your love.

Appupen (George Mathen) – Moonward: Lightning hits a tree, life originates and evolves, and eventually a god, Mahanana is born. Agriculture, cities and capitalism follow. Moonward is a set of loosely interwoven stories about life in Halahala under the increasingly dystopic rule of Mahanana, with the first and last stories dealing with people trying to look moonwards. With very little text all the focus is on the artwork, which does not disappoint. Appupen’s black-and-white artwork is incredibly diverse stylistically, beautiful, and manages to be funny, angry and depressing all at once. The occasional full-page pieces are especially impressive – particularly the illustration for the rat-fable and a piece that depicts a line of people carrying crosses on their backs. There are also the depressed mechanical birds which I (I do not know how the author would feel about this) wanted to pet. As is usual with Blaft books this one is beautifully produced as well. Definitely a keeper – I’m not sure I’ll be reading it at one go again for a while, but definitely in bits and pieces.

Terry Pratchett – The Unadulterated Cat: Adorable and (as far as I can tell) true. I remain a dog person, though.

Suzanne Collins – The Hunger Games: This was an almost accidental reread – I was looking up a quote from the book and got sucked in so that I ended up reading the whole thing. Not that I’m complaining. I loved the book when I first read it last year, and this reread has reminded me that I am still to read Catching Fire, the next book in the series. (Mockingjay, the final book, will be published later this year.)

Hirsh Sawhney (ed) – Delhi Noir: Reviewing elsewhere, so that’ll probably be put up at some point soon. There are some excellent stories in this collection, though, and it’s worth a read.

I forgot, while listing the romance novels I’d read that I’d also reread Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy. I will make up for this by posting an extract.

“I wish you will keep still!” she said severely, patting his arm with a soft cloth. “See, it is scarcely bleeding now! I will dust it with basilicum powder, and bind it up for you, and you may be comfortable again.”

“I am not in the least comfortable and shall very likely be in a high fever presently. Why did you do it, Sophy?”

“Well,” she said, quite seriously, “Mr. Wychbold said that Charles would either call you out for this escapade, or knock you down, and I don’t at all wish anything of that nature to befall you.”

This effectually put a period to his amusement. Grasping her wrist with his sound hand, he exclaimed, “Is this true? By God, I have a very good mind to box your ears! Do you imagine that I am afraid of Charles Rivenhall?”

“No, I daresay you are not, but only conceive how shocking it would be if Charles perhaps killed you, all through my fault!”

“Nonsense!” he said angrily. “As if either of us were crazy enough to let it come to that, which, I assure you, we are not—”

“No, I feel you are right, but also I think Mr. Wychbold was right in thinking that Charles would—what does he call it?—plant you a facer?”

“Very likely, but although I may be no match for Rivenhall, I might still give quite a tolerable account of myself!”

She began to wind a length of lint round his forearm. “It could not answer,” she said. “If you were to floor Charles, Cecy would not like it above half; and if you imagine, my dear Charlbury, that a black eye and a bleeding nose will help your cause with her, you must be a great gaby!”

“I thought,” he said sarcastically, “that she was to be made to pity me?”

“Exactly so! And that is the circumstance which decided me to shoot you!” said Sophy triumphantly.

March 3, 2010

February Reading (I)

Since I read so many romance novels in February I’ve divided this past month’s reading into two posts, romance and non-romance. This would be the romance one.

Stephanie Laurens – The Bastion Club series [The Lady Chosen, A Gentleman’s Honour, A Lady of his Own, A Fine Passion, To Distraction, Beyond Seduction, The Edge of Desire]: I said last month that despite Laurens’ many flaws I was probably still going to read the Bastion Club books. And I did read most of them. While buying The Edge of Desire (this version) I gained some useful insights about cover art that I considered contributing to this conversation – unfortunately about four paragraphs in I realised I’d begun to argue for SFF covers featuring Fabio and I deleted the whole thing. I found these a bit tedious; romance novels tend to rest on the interestingness of the hero and Laurens for some reason likes to stress that all her heroes (whether because they belong to the same family or because they are in the same profession) are the same. In this lot, ex-spies try to find brides, get involved in solving crimes that affect these brides, and ultimately realise that each crime has to do with this one Last Traitor who is still floating around England and whose identity is revealed in Mastered By Love, the last book in the series. I haven’t read that one and I don’t really care that much. Still, I will continue to read Laurens when I come across her.

Gaelen Foley – The Knight Miscellany [ The Duke, Lord of Fire, Lord of Ice, Lady of Desire, Devil Takes a Bride, One Night of Sin, His Wicked Kiss]: This series is loosely based on the Duke (and Duchess) of Oxford and their “Harleian Miscellany”. Apparently the Duchess had a number of flings on the side and the Duke gave the resulting children the protection of his name. This series actually sounded really great. The idea of a group of titled aristocrats in Regency England who were all widely known to be illegitimate raises the possibility of all kinds of interesting situations. The Duchess herself is fascinating; she writes treatises on the rights of women and smuggles the French nobility into England (apparently the historical Duchess was also a feminist, and pretty amazing). I’d love a book on her, but Foley has said somewhere (in one of the afterwords I think) that she’s never going to write it. It’s a pity, with all these awesome ideas, that the books themselves should turn out to be so unimpressive.

The connected series, the Spice Trilogy (involving Knight cousins) is set partly in India, though why it must therefore be called the Spice Trilogy is uncertain. I have only read the first, Her Only Desire, which features a feisty English girl who is opposed to the East India Company (which as far as I could tell was the source of her income) and within the first ten pages of the book had rescued a native woman from Sati. The book then went on to have her bewildered at how the natives refused to take to her liberated ideas and went on obeying their own traditions, however foolish. It could have been an attempt to show idiot Westerners trying to barge in and change everything according to their standards, but it didn’t turn out that way for me. The book then went on to encompass two incoherent plots involving a scheming Indian queen and the hero’s ex-wife’s suspicious death. Not good.

Julia Quinn – The Lost Duke of Wyndham/Mr. Cavendish, I Presume: Thomas Cavendish is the Duke of Wyndham, is engaged to a woman he barely knows, and lives with his horrible grandmother and her companion. Jack Audley is a highwayman who holds up said grandmother and companion and soon finds himself kidnapped because of his striking resemblance to Thomas’ uncle. It turns out (whether he likes it or not) that Jack is the real duke and Thomas is merely Mr. Cavendish. The two books run parallel, with the first telling of Jack and Grace’s relationship, and the second of Thomas and Amelia’s. The comments over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books would suggest that for most people the first book they read of the two is the one they prefer: for me this was simply not true. The Lost Duke of Wyndham bored me – Grace is colourless, and I thought that Jack’s dyslexia and guilt over a cousin’s death in the army were really not shown to be that serious. Plus, I find myself disapproving of highwaymen in a very conservative manner. Mr Cavendish, I Presume, on the other hand, was really good. I like Thomas and Amelia, they have problems and personalities and Thomas’ identity crisis and Amelia’s trying to get over the damage Thomas had already done to their relationship both worked for me.

Loretta Chase – Viscount Vagabond and The Devil’s Delilah (both rereads): A few weeks ago, Sarah Rees Brennan mentioned The Devil’s Delilah on Justine Larbalestier’s blog and reminded me that I had not read one of the Greatest Romances Ever in a few months. So I reread it, along with Viscount Vagabond, which features some of the same characters. There are geeks and books and some absolutely delicious quotes that I should put up at some point since they deserve a post of their own. This sort of thing:

“Your upper classes, sir, have but two fears in this world: appearing foolish and being murdered by a revolutionary mob. Naturally they believe it is all one thing. It is very difficult for the British gentleman to develop and retain more than one idea in his lifetime.”

And what Sarah said too.

Jane Feather – The Bachelor List, The Bride Hunt, The Wedding Game: This was quite a strange series. These three Victorian romances feature sisters who run an underground feminist magazine in London. I found myself far more interested in the feminism and publishing than the romances, which weren’t all that interesting. My intolerance for chauvinism in romantic heroes is probably unfair in a series like this one, but it did get in the way of my enjoying the things. The feminism was pleasing though, and I liked the Pankhurst cameos.

Victoria Alexander - Love With the Proper Husband and The Pursuit of Marriage: These appear to be part of a series involving devious matchmaking parents conning their kids into love and marriage. Love With the Proper Husband wasn’t great. The Pursuit of Marriage involved a huge stuffed camel. Guess which one I preferred?