Friday, December 2, 2016

book reviews, part one of ∞



Oh my god, I forgot!

"Friday" is very similar in construction to "Wednesday," ask any expert.

Rather than writing stupid capsule summaries of these books — you can look those up on Wikipedia or Amazon, you goddamn lazy bastard —  I have tried to convey a general idea of what they felt like to me, and to communicate whether I found them worthwhile diversions, without going into elaborate specifics about their plots. I don’t want to spoil a great story for anybody, obviously, but also I frequently disagree with other readers about what constitutes a spoiler. I never really know what to mark. You should consider that all these micro-reviews contain bales and bales of unmarked spoilers — or perhaps no spoilers at all. We’re all mad here. Let’s do it:

Daybreak On A Different Mountain, Colin Greenland - Currently in purgatory. Although very well-written and intelligently plotted (it seems to contain the rudiments of some of the John Uskglass parts of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) (Greenland is Clarke’s husband, and the two met during one of Greenland’s writing workshops) (Daybreak was published in the 80s), this novel has two of the most obnoxious protagonists ever in history. One of them is an unrepentant pederast, and he’s by far the less-annoying one. The book does a pretty decent job of suggesting that its female and non-straight characters are worthily human, but it also features a bit of instructive, violent misogyny and a creepy association between physical deformity and spiritual impurity — which, to be fair, might get finessed in the novel’s conclusion in a way that could turn out to be inoffensive. (If I ever get there to meet it.) I absolutely loved Greenland’s Plenty Series when I was in high school, though, and I would certainly consider reading the author’s other works. And maybe also finishing this one, when I’m in a better mood.

Elidor, Alan Garner - A childhood favorite! It felt less cohesive and explicable to me as an adult, but that will happen. Also, the confluence and eventual intersection of recognizable reality and the novel’s fantasy realm is handled in a much scarier and more interesting way than similar events that appear in most children’s fantasy novels. I am looking at you, Harry Potter and the. (And also at all the other children’s fantasy novels.) Also, there is a unicorn. That’s very important. I would, and have, read other Garner books.

Lud-In-The-Mist, Hope Mirrlees - This novel is almost certainly the birthplace of John Uskglass proper, whose narrative forefather appears here in the form of a horrible, jolly, rapey Lord of Misrule named Duke Aubrey. One cannot help one’s relatives, of course; 47% of my fuckheaded family voted for Donald Trump. I’m trying not to hold it against him. The novel itself is quite weird, and suffers (as nearly all novels do) from a shortage of fairy action — but it’s still a haunting and beautiful work, and worth tracking down. If you’ve read it and think you know what’s happening in it, please feel free to look me up and explain it to me. ("Something something the transformations of magic as a metaphor for the ecstatic transcendence of death something something something"?) Also: It appears that "Lud" could be the Aulde Tymes word that mutated, eventually, into the modern name "London," a fact which you may or may not find edifying. And: The ebook’s cover borders upon "malicious vandalism." (A common problem for old books put out by philanthropic epublishers.) Many thanks to the Big Bad Bald Bastard for recommending this novel to me; I’m sorry it took me so long to say thank you. I would read more work by Mirrlees, but she’s been dead for ages now and her other two books are regular realist fiction :[

Among Others, Jo Walton - A really wonderful, unique fantasy novel. I read Among Others years ago when it first came out, but I couldn’t remember it very well & so I decided to go through it again. It’s a metafictional text, I guess, but postmodern novels usually go out of their way to be obnoxious about themselves, and this book isn’t like that at all. Narrative works as a symbol and a signifier in Among Others — as does magic — but it’s also just a story. Things that I’d remembered as textual flaws the first time around seemed on this reading to be sophisticated character work (subtle, unconscious misogyny as an expression of discomfort with your designated identity, for example), and the only element I ended up actively disliking was the boring rebellious super-gorgeous boyfriend. But, even he was a manifestation of the self-fulfilling powers of storytelling, in the end. (I think.) Recommended highly, and I would certainly read more of Walton’s novels/stories. (I hope she minimizes further readerly contact with ultra-beautiful dreamboats, however.)

This Census-Taker, China Miéville - I have no real idea what the material events in this novella actually consist of, which I gather is more a feature than a bug when it comes to Miéville, but I had an intense emotional reaction to the story & I read it from cover to cover without stopping. Effortlessly attuned to the humanness of its characters, no tacky world-building, lots of very original detail which rendered his setting explicable while also dislocating it from anything identifiable as reality. Frightening violence which was not instructive at all. I’ve never read anything else by Miéville despite the fact that he’s a heavily-hyped critical favorite; I’ve always been skeptical of the "urban fantasy" aesthetic in general, and also my only other contact with the author was a whiny editorial he published on the Wall Street Journal website (?) complaining that hyperrealistic CGI effects in movies like Avatar will murder the imaginations of the children of the future (???). Nobody’s perfect. My only real problem with This Census-Taker is that it used as an epigram (and praised in a postscript) the writing of an author named Jane Gaskell, whose novel The Serpent I made the terrible decision to subsequently purchase. The Serpent is one of the worst pieces of shit I’ve ever tried to read. It’s a fucking romance novel. It’s not even a good romance novel!!! It praises the feministic virtues of tanning!!!!! At this point I was going to say, "it was so awful that the next time Miéville comes to the US I’m going to go to a book signing and throw a shoe at his face," but I just Googled him to find that WSJ link and he’s pretty scary-looking. So I’ll just frown at him from afar. Anyway: I have purchased Perdido Street Station and I intend to read it next. (Or "next," probably.)

A Darker Shade Of Magic, V.E. Schwab - "How can I combine my mindless love of otome games, Doctor Who, and Game of Thrones in a way that suggests all my writing experience was earned in the creation of erotic Sherlock fanfiction?" thought author V.E. Schwab, who is a moron, one day. And then he or she or etc. wrote A Darker Shade of Magic, an incredibly shitty and boring novel (with a weary magical bishounen hero), which I read 38 pages of before deleting. No more V.E. Schwab novels.

A Knot In The Grain, Robin McKinley - I am a major McKinley fan, to my continuing surprise, but this short-story collection isn’t her strongest. However, its first two stories, "The Healer" and "The Stag-Man," allowed me to spend some time in the company of Luthe the Mage-Master, one of my favorite characters ever (shut up, you don’t know him). Don’t let this be your first McKinley (your first McKinley should be Sunshine, which is fucking amazing) — but it’s okay.

A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!, Harry Harrison - This book stars out with the kind of vicious misanthropy I associate with British writers, who can bleed you dry of human sympathy before you even notice you’ve been cut, and so I was surprised to discover that Harrison is American. There are, indeed, reasons for this secretive contrivance of narrative identity, but if I tell you what they are I’ll spoil the novel’s Twist, and then there would be no reason for you to read it. So I won’t do that (don't waste my love and look it up) — I will, say, however, that it’s all disposed of very elegantly, considering the large number of novels that feature similar Twists and are terrible (Newt Gingrich, I'm looking at you). As a matter of fact, it may be that A Transatlantic Tunnel was the first book to perform this particular Twist in public! (It was written in the 60s.) But I don’t know for sure, sorry. I didn’t like this book enough to finish it, but I can see where someone else might think it’s really terrific (NEWT). I would try other Harrison novels.

And Other Stories, Emma Bull & Will Shetterly - A very uneven collection, with stories that are unreadably boring ("all of the stories written by Will Shetterly") and stories that are pretty great ("most of the stories written by Emma Bull"). I don’t know what to tell you. If you’re into slightly less than half a book of short fantasy stories with a crummy cover, this might be your new favorite. I like Emma Bull, but I’m not sure I would go for any Shetterly books in the future.

More on Monday, or on whatever day of the week I happen to remember I have a blog.

9 comments:

  1. Amusing reviews as always! I shall have to look some of these up (the good ones, that is) next time I find myself buying books. I'm intrigued to hear that "Lud-In-The-Mist" contains a proto-Uskglass, even if he's not a nice person. And I know you've recced "Among Others" to me before. I really should get around to that.

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    1. Thank you!

      I'm intrigued to hear that "Lud-In-The-Mist" contains a proto-Uskglass, even if he's not a nice person.
      It isn't that he's not a "nice person," exactly -- he possesses an Uskglassian admixture of plain-folk commonness and mythological divinity, and also he is a singer and artist, traits that are preferable to moping and whining and slumbering when it comes to the Kings of Old -- it's just that he's presented in a way that looks very bad to modern readers but may not have looked quite so bad to readers in the 20s, when sexual mores were significantly different. Also, he has a little 'gentleman with the thistle-down hair' slapped up in him too, which confounded me for awhile. It's a really good book, though! There's a lot of lyrical, poetic menace in Mirrlees's fairy constructions that would've amounted to subtext in a less sophisticated writer's work. I would love to know what you think about it, if you ever get around to reading it. (It's relatively short and not difficult story-wise, like Eco's work can be.)

      And I know you've recced "Among Others" to me before. I really should get around to that.
      I know you're busy, and sleep always comes first -- but I think you'd really love it. It is predicated on the kind of sensible thinking which I always associate with you, anyway. It's definitely one of those novels that violates the stated boundaries of genre fiction because, as it turns out, the stated boundaries of fiction were devised by stupid people who only read Philip Roth novels. It's also really interesting, and entertaining, and easy to love -- the novel itself is full of dozens of recs of great genre novels, too. Did you know that? It's amazing!

      Thank you for you comment!

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    2. And that's persuaded me even more that I need to read these!

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  2. Jane Gaskell was something like 14 when she wrote that book. You're absolutely right about it, though many people for reasons I don't understand rate it highly.

    I was reading along thinking what a right-headed person you are, correct in so many opinions about so many books, when I found out that sadly you're wrong about Sunshine, which is just another Beauty & the Beast story, only with cinnamon rolls. People should totally start McKinley with The Blue Sword and advance decorously through her work until they reach the cinnamon rolls and the honey of her later work.

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    1. Jane Gaskell was something like 14 when she wrote that book.
      Oops! Having the mind of an adolescent because you are an adolescent is perfectly fine, obviously. I wrote horrifying garbage when I was 14-ish -- much worse than anything in The Serpent -- and now I feel bad for making fun of her. Many Amazon reviews claim that some of the novels further on in the series are better than the first few, but I was so horrified by #1 that I gave up. So. I'm just going to gloss this episode over in my memory & try never to think about it again.

      I was reading along thinking what a right-headed person you are
      Wow, thank you!

      when I found out that sadly you're wrong about Sunshine, which is just another Beauty & the Beast story, only with cinnamon rolls
      I think that most of McKinley's novels are retellings of Beauty & the Beast, even by her own admission. I just finished Shadows, for example, and while it's full of weeaboo Japanese and questionable depictions of teenage culture, the thing I really liked about it was its underlying Beauty & the Beast-ness. I am a sucker for Beauty & the Beast, I guess! I apologize. It's the only fairytale I know of that features a Mary Sue who isn't a princess & is commended for reading, and which also doesn't feel slimily as if it is a pretty, romantic attempt to vindicate rape as a matchmaking tool (the substance of the relationship between the Beast and Beauty is his attempt to obtain her consent, and his gracious acceptance of her refusal) (although, by those lights, I guess he does finally get a "yes" through guilt, but it's still better than what happened to Sleeping Beauty).

      Also, I love cinnamon rolls.

      People should totally start McKinley with The Blue Sword and advance decorously through her work until they reach the cinnamon rolls and the honey of her later work.
      This is probably true.
      Although I think Luthe could be thought of as a Beast-adjacent figure, you know? I will never get over Aerin's miscalculation in going home to marry whoever that other guy was, instead of staying with Luthe and becoming a witchqueen, as is proper. (I read the books backwards because I didn't know any better.)

      Thank you for your comment!

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  3. For much of the book, I read Lud-in-the-Mist as an allegory for addiction and its allure. The smuggling of fairy fruit into a staid community, the disappearance of the town's children... it reads much like a fantasy version of the current opiate epidemic. It was also a welcome relief from the current 'elfy stuff is better than mundane matters' approach that the sub-Tolkienian dreck all-too-often takes. The staid bourgeois characters were genuinely the protagonists, and the glamour of Faerie genuinely dangerous.

    The end of the book took a bit of a left turn, with the unexpected reconciliation of Mundanity and Faerie... I really didn't see that détente coming at all.

    I'm working on my recollection of the book, I think I'm going to have to re-read it.

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    1. DON'T LOOK AT THIS IF YOU HAVEN'T READ LUD-IN-THE-MIST

      I read Lud-in-the-Mist as an allegory for addiction and its allure
      This is definitely a true fact. I kept wondering what people would've been addicted to in the mid-20s, though. Cocaine? Absinthe? Wodehouse novels?

      the current 'elfy stuff is better than mundane matters' approach that the sub-Tolkienian dreck all-too-often takes
      I was very anti-Tolkien for awhile, because social justice, but then I decided that the thing about Tolkien's constructions that I objected to had nothing specifically to do with the elves' whiteness. And there are other things to admire! So I have become a Tolkien agnostic, in my old age.

      It does seem like Tolkien wrote the book on fantasy (as a modern genre, I mean; we aren't allowed to include the Bible or the catalog of world myths in there, for some reason) and then closed it, doesn't it? I think we're coming out of the imitative torpor that has characterized genre fiction since the 70s, but it's a long slow slog.

      with the unexpected reconciliation of Mundanity and Faerie... I really didn't see that détente coming at all.
      Me either! This is also what happens at the end of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, sort of -- I actually think she was inspired by this story pretty heavily. It was one of those novels in which I couldn't tell what was a feature and what was a bug -- Nathaniel's preference for his son, for example. A credit, or a demerit? His melancholy bougie-ness ended up being an anchor for Aubrey's mercurial resistance to categorization, as you mentioned, but I didn't know whether the book wanted me to appreciate that or mourn it. It was such an odd story!

      I think I'm going to have to re-read it.
      DO IT.

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  4. Also, having Jo Walton comment is extremely cool. My biggest blogging thrill was having Frans de Waal link to a post on his FB page... I'm an unabashed fanboi.

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    1. Oh god, I know! So exciting! I tried to be very cool about it, in case it was someone who happened to be named "Jo Walton" but wasn't a famous author.

      having Frans de Waal link to a post on his FB page
      Wow, that's amazing! If that had happened to me, I'd have a whole sidebar widget titled "HERE'S THE POST FRANS DE WAAL LINKED TO, GO READ IT." Your restraint is admirable.

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