Archive for ‘Books read in 2012’

April 3, 2012

March Reading

This month was mostly made of work and rereads.

 

John Berger, Hold Everything Dear: I’m not sure what to say about this collection of pieces (‘dispatches’, according to the book’s subtitle) in poetry and prose that examine various aspects of the post-9/11 world. There’s a lot on Palestine, there’s a lot that is intensely personal, there’s a section on desire that I found myself typing out. Because this is Berger it often teeters between being beautiful and being precious. On the whole, beauty wins.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars:  I wanted to reread this before I watched John Carter (which, for all that it couldn’t entirely escape the politics of its source text, was great fun) and so chose to write about it for my column in April’s Kindle magazine. The section of the book I remembered best is one that the recent movie omitted, and that would have little place in a sensible, well-crafted plot. It’s the bit where Carter meets an old man who runs the machinery responsible for keeping the Barsoomian air breathable. He then forgets all about this until the final pages of the book, where the incident suddenly becomes immensely important. I remember it because it seems weird and out of place – a moment of genuine strangeness.

Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog: I reviewed this for The Sunday Guardian and will post a link or repost it on the blog when it is up. Briefly, though, I thought that it engaged less with the various schools of philosophy that it mentioned than I hoped it would, and the younger character in particular came across as less brilliant and more sulky than I think was intended. Despite this, it charmed me utterly – one of the funniest, most quotable books I expect to read this year.

Kiran Nagarkar, Ravan & Eddie: I was given a copy of The Extras to review and it seemed a good opportunity to reread Ravan & Eddie. I think I first read the book when I was in school or in the early years of college. I remembered that it was funny, but I was surprised, on rereading, to see that I’d forgotten how dark it also was. Still brilliant, of course.

Kiran Nagarkar, The Extras: Reviewed here.

Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea: Apart from skimming the Roke chapters (while I was writing my thesis about three years ago) I had not read A Wizard of Earthsea since my first year of college, which was when I bought my four-in-one omnibus edition. I had a piece on fantastic voyages to write (I’ll link to it here when it is published in late April) and remembered Ged’s pursuit of his shadow as having some of the loveliest prose. I wasn’t wrong:

With hand and spell Ged turned his boat, and it leaped like a dolphin from the water, rolling, in that quick turn. Faster than before he followed, but the shadow grew ever fainter to his eyes. Rain, mixed with sleet and snow, came stinging across his back and his left cheek, and he could not see more than a hundred yards ahead. Before long, as the storm grew heavier, the shadow was lost to sight. Yet Ged was sure of its track as if he followed a beast’s track over snow, instead of a wraith fleeing over water. Though the wind blew his way now he held the singing magewind in the sail, and flake-foam shot from the boat’s blunt prow, and she slapped the water as she went.

and

But he was not watching the ocean now, or not the ocean that Vetch saw, a waste of heaving water to the rim of the sky. In Ged’s eyes there was a dark vision that overlapped and veiled the grey sea and the grey sky, and the darkness grew, and the veil thickened. None of this was visible to Vetch, except when he looked at his friend’s face; then he too saw the darkness for a moment. They went on, and on. And it was as if, though one wind drove them in one boat, Vetch went east over the world’s sea, while Ged went alone into a realm where there was no east or west, no rising or setting of the sun, or of the stars.

Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games: I’d wanted to reread this before the movie was released, and anyway had to write a piece on YA dystopias (posted here). I’m still very ambivalent about this series as a whole; while I think the universe is full of holes and the politics distinctly patchy, there are so many moments when Collins gets something exactly right and the whole thing comes to life.

C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: I was writing the piece on fantastic voyages, I took this book out to find a particular quote, and then reread it over lunch. Of all the Narnia books this is most people’s favourite – in quality the only one that can compare, for me, is The Horse and His Boy, and that one is spoilt a bit by the rampant racism. But (and I’m sure I’ve said this before) am I really the only one who cannot help comparing the last bit of the journey to the end of Arthur Gordon Pym?

Tove Jansson, Finn Family Moomintroll, the complete comic strip (vol. 3) and Moominland Midwinter: Ekaterina Sedia started a #Moomin2012 hashtag on twitter, and I realised it had been a while since I’d read any of the books. My Moomin collection is very incomplete (which is one reason I’m not rereading the books in order), and I only really discovered Jansson as an adult. But there’s something so good about these books – and I mean that in a moral way as well as a judgement of quality – something fundamentally generous-spirited. But there’s also a complexity of emotion that occasionally pops up that you rarely see in books for adults, and I don’t think the comic does as good a job of conveying this as the books. Take this, from Moominland Midwinter: “Such things just are, but one never knows why, and one feels hopelessly apart.” Or “Too-ticky shrugged her shoulders. ‘One has to discover everything for oneself,’ she replied. “And get over it all alone.’” I’m rereading Tales from Moominvalley right now, and I suspect next month it’s going to be a struggle not to just quote the whole of Snufkin’s journey back home. I loved books as a child, but it was always startling to discover characters who had complex feelings that I understood and shared. It’s why I loved Antonia Forest; I would have loved the Moomins.

Jack Vance, Lyonesse: Suldrun’s Garden: As with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I only meant to leaf through the book for a particular quote. But the Lyonesse books are a bit more substantial than Narnia, and I had to set aside a whole day for my reread. This was entirely worth it. I’m a huge fan of Vance’s high, ironic style, but with Lyonesse there’s also something childlike. I want to say it’s innocence but it isn’t that at all – terrible things happen, there’s murder, suicide, slavery, depression, rape, paedophilia. But there’s also a sense that all this is play – that we can pack up our toys and go home when it’s finished. If that sounds cruel, it probably is, but it also gives Lyonesse some of the soft-focus, golden-light quality of childhood memory. I’ll be rereading the other two books in the series this month; I’m not sure how I went so long without them.

Dorita Fairlie Bruce, Dimsie Moves Up: I’d only read a couple of the Dimsie books – the first, and then a couple of the later ones – and remembered being distinctly unimpressed. I liked this one better than any of them. Bruce occasionally breaks into an elevated, exclamatory tone that makes it appear as if she’s mocking her characters. It’s possible that I missed this in the earlier books I read (unless she changed style drastically for this one book) – I don’t know, but it makes the books more complex than they had previously appeared to me.

Antonia Forest, Peter’s Room: Those of you who were following my Antonia Forest readthrough will know that I took a break from them in December because I was too busy to continue. That isn’t entirely true – I could have continued in the last couple of months, but I was putting it off. I think Peter’s Room is brilliant; it is more nuanced than pretty much anything I expect to read this year. But there’s a moment midway through the book when it wrecks me. Those of you who have read it might understand – it’s Nicola hearing Patrick call Ginty “Rosina”. Peter’s Room is all about roleplaying, and in this moment she realises that her friend and her sister are playing without her. Later books (and fanfiction) will make Ginty and Nicola’s rivalry over Patrick at least partly romantic, but I don’t think it’s entirely that here – or not yet, for Nicola. This will seem like I’m going off on a complete tangent, because I’m going to talk here about the BBC’s Sherlock [spoilers ahead]. The first episode of the most recent season ends with John Watson learning that Irene Adler is dead, and trying to protect his friend (who he believes has feelings for Adler, and he may be right) from the knowledge. We then cut to Adler about to be beheaded in Karachi by men in robes, one of whom is holding a curved sword (seriously?) But then one of the men present is Sherlock Holmes in disguise and he saves her from the evil brown men with apparently medieval weaponry while she kneels and cries! Obviously on an intellectual level I have huge issues with this. But when I watched the show it just made me feel a bone-deep sadness because John didn’t know. That is my difficulty with Peter’s Room. There’s a betrayal of exclusion in both cases; I can’t think why this particular thing should upset me so, but it makes me utterly miserable.

March 2, 2012

February Reading

A monthly record of things that I have read.

 

Stella Gibbons, Starlight: Still trying to wrap my head around the fact that Gibbons wrote a book about demonic possession and exorcism. I thought Starlight was excellent, and wrote about it here.

Miranda Neville, The Dangerous Viscount: I’m not sure why I read this except that it’s part of the same series as The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton (of which I wasn’t particularly a fan). This was interesting though – something of a reversal of roles as the female character is not only the more sexually experienced in the relationship, but also the one who first seduces her eventual partner as part of a bet, while the hero gets a makeover. Much of this is undone by the revelation that it’s actually not about her, but a childhood rivalry between the hero and his male cousin, but oh well.

Rick Riordan, The Son of Neptune: The second in a series titled Heroes of Olympus, a sequel of sorts to the Percy Jackson books. The books in this series feel rather more substantial than the first set – also rather more multicultural, as if Riordan had decided in the interim that this was something that needed working on. There’s nothing world-changing about any of this, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of the books in both series so far.

Stephanie Laurens, The Capture of the Earl of Glencrae: It feels like (and probably is) every few months I obtain, read, and moan about obtaining and reading a new Stephanie Laurens book. Big, interconnected series are dangerous – they’re responsible for the majority of my Regency romance reading. Having said which, The Capture of the Earl of Glencrae is a bit better than some of her earlier work simply because it doesn’t have exactly the same plot as most of her other books.

Sarra Manning, Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend: I’ll be posting soon about a particular aspect of this book. For the rest, I didn’t think Nine Uses…was as overwhelmingly great as You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, but Manning is a fine writer. I am a bit worried by this surnames-as-first-names tendency she has developed (Vaughn in Unsticky I could tolerate, but “Wilson”?) but I will continue to read her anyway.

Edmund Crispin, Swan Song: Consistently funny, and with the most convoluted solution I’ve seen in a long time. The Gervase Fen books have been my default light reading for the first part of this year – once I’ve reread Holy Disorders I’ll have to find something similar for the rest of the year.

Margery Allingham, Look to the Lady: The first Campion mystery I’d ever read, on the recommendation of a friend. I enjoyed it enough to seek out more books in the series –advice as to reading order (and whether there are books I should choose to leave out or should particularly read) is welcome.

Aimee Ferris, Will Work for Prom Dress: Exactly what it looks like it is. Teenage girl, high school, best friend, college scholarships, two potential partners. Utterly fluffy. My overwhelming feeling was one of great meh – there’s nothing particularly wrong with the book, but I can’t imagine ever wanting to read it again.

Ann & Jeff Vandermeer, The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals: Reviewed here.

Priyadarshini Narendra, Two Chalet School Girls in India: Review forthcoming. I found this fascinating partly because it’s a fill-in written decades after the original series, partly because I wanted to see how Narendra negotiated sounding like Brent-Dyer while writing about India (I assume from her name that she is Indian or of Indian origin) in a reasonably inoffensive way.  The result is a rather strange mix of both extremes – not the best thing I’ve read, but most of the ridiculous bits were authentically EBD.

Jedediah Berry, The Manual of Detection: I’ve written a bit about this for this week’s column, which I’ll post on the blog (and link to here) when I can. But The Manual of Detection is so clever. I just beamed my way through it.

Georgette Heyer, Venetia:I hadn’t reread this in years. This time, though, I found myself wondering if it was actually Heyer’s finest novel. This will probably also turn into a separate blog post.

Rakesh Khanna & Rashmi Ruth Devadasan ed., The Obliterary Journal: Reviewed for The Indian Express, will link when it’s up.

Gail Carriger, Timeless: A very satisfying end to a series I’ve enjoyed greatly over the past couple of years. I do have quibbles with it – it’s a very character-based set of books (often at the expense of what could have been some fascinating supernatural-colonial-steampunk worldbuilding) which is not in itself a bad thing, yet it shies away from depicting difficult emotional moments, even when it gives its characters plenty of them. It’s all very well to have a ridiculous comedy of manners at surface level, but we keep getting hints of something vaster and more meaningful, and Carriger seems content to leave it at that.

Jo Walton, Tooth and Claw: I like Walton’s habit of mixing up genres – see Farthing, where she manages an alt-historical Nazi country house murder mystery. Tooth and Claw is your basic 19th Century novel – family disputes and wills and dowry and fathers who may have bought a title, but everyone knows that their fortune was made in trade. Except that all the characters are dragons. Will probably be writing about this book for a future LoC column, but for the moment, I thought it was great fun.

February 1, 2012

January Reading

As promised, the first of a series of monthly updates listing the books I read this year. January got off to rather a slow start, but began to pick up towards the end. I have a rather terrifying deadline to meet in March, but I’m hoping I can still get some decent reading done over the coming month.

 

Stella Gibbons, Westwood: A longish review of this for the Sunday Guardian will be coming at some point. Lynne Truss (who, as I understand it, was a big part of the move to get this and other Gibbons books back in print) suggests that Westwood is the Persuasion to Cold Comfort Farm’s Pride and Prejudice, and it’s easy to see where she’s coming from – though surely if one wanted to get the analogy exactly right CCF would be compared to Northanger Abbey. Westwood certainly feels more mature, more wistful, and less obviously funny. Still a fine book, but I think I’ll always love Cold Comfort Farm more.

Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns): Very fluffy, very funny. I suspect it was also very hurriedly put together, judging by the amount of material that feels purely for the purpose of filling up space. Reviewed along with How to Be a Woman, here.

Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman: See above.

Edmund Crispin, The Gilded Fly, Love Lies Bleeding, Buried for Pleasure: I’d read two of the Gervase Fen mysteries before; The Moving Toyshop (generally considered the best of the lot) and Holy Disorders. A bookshop I visit had six or so of the series – I bought these three and have since visited and obtained the others. Ages ago Subashini suggested that Love Lies Bleeding was perfectly tailored to my interests and this turned out to be the case; school story, murder mystery and drive-by Shakespeare geekery all in one. The others were less perfect but good fun, and Buried for Pleasure particularly pleased me on its first page with its description of a chocolate machine “rusting and overturned, like a casualty in some robot war”.

Barbara Cartland, The Rhapsody of Love: Oh dear. Dubious premise (brother and sister come to London to meet guardian; due to a legal quibble guardian is actually sexy young son of former guardian) borrowed from Heyer’s Regency Buck, nothing remotely attractive about either of the main characters, random running away to the circus, and not even the ridiculous eugenics of A Sword to the Heart to keep me entertained.

Enid Blyton, The “R” Mysteries: Part of a bit of academic research I’ve been dancing around for a while. Expect to see quite a few references to Blyton on this blog in the near future. This is (for those with imperfect memories) the series that begins with The Rockingdown Mystery, ends with The Ragamuffin Mystery, and features four children, a monkey and a hyperactive spaniel. I’ve always quite liked the “R” books, and they’re certainly more mature than a lot of Blyton’s other work. But more on that in a half-finished post that I really should get around to finishing.

Alan Garner, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: I’ll be writing at length on this book and linking to other people’s commentaries. But it’s been some years since I read it, and I’m astonished by how powerful it still is. I loved the book when I first read it, but I’ve tended to think of it as a less mature relative of The Owl Service and Red Shift. And while it’s probably accessible to younger readers than either of those two books, it is much more than that.

Mary Robinette Kowal, Shades of Milk and Honey: On the surface this novel combined a number of things I love; Austen, Regency romance, and fantasy. The central conceit of the glamour as a learned art fits well into the historical setting. And I liked the various echoes of Austen scattered through the plot – the Mrs. Bennet-ish mother, the Dashwood-ish contrasting sisters and so on. But this book is really only Austenesque with regard to setting and those particular plot points. It lacks Austen’s humour and her sense of irony and offers up in compensation only a tepid romance and a bunch of characters it’s hard to care much about. And while I know that Austen would have spelled “show” as “shew”, I can’t imagine that she’d have used it so often that one would notice and get tired of it. Beyond its premise, then, Shades of Milk and Honey left me distinctly underwhelmed.

Kuzhali Manickavel, Eating Sugar, Telling Lies: I’m not sure if it’s cheating to list here what is effectively a short story, but it’s a standalone work. I have a tendency to be a bit evangelical about Manickavel’s work. Her first collection is one of those books I’ve never owned for very long without pressing it on a friend – I’ve bought it at least five times so far, and received one copy as a gift. Eating Sugar, Telling Lies is exactly as good as Insects was. It’s dark and layered, clever, grotesque and it feels me with so much envy because I’d love to have written it.

 

In unrelated news, my review of Lavie Tidhar’s Cloud Permutations was published over at Strange Horizons while I was away and can be found here.