Friday, 29 November 2013

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I feel like The Scarlet Letter just kind of bounced off of me. I liked it, without ever really connecting to it. I often have strong opinions about, well, just about anything I read. In this case, not so much. (Although there have been other classics that I've felt at a loss to explain my reaction to.)

Okay, slow down, let's take this with the plot, first. Actually, let's start with the prologue. It's long and unnecessary, given that why its there is to tell us that the book is "based on true events." You know what? I really don't care if it's based on true events, and an author troubling to tell me that about fiction isn't any more likely to win my favour than one who says they made this whole thing up. But it's not so much that claim to veracity as the long time we took to get to it.

But the book itself I found no such slog. The basic story, that of a woman carrying around a visible mark of her sexual sin, is well known. The red "A" is theoretically for adultery, although at that point, Hester thinks her husband is dead. But the book is not about her shame - it's about how she turns her punishment into a source of strength.

And even more so, it's about how having sins not rooted out and publicly punished eats away at her cohort in the aforesaid adultery, the upright minister, who punishes himself far more severely than, in the long run, Hester is punished. And she has her daughter, Pearl, as consolation, but he has, well, no solace, and a false friend bent on making everything worse.

The book is over the top at times, but that feels purposeful. It's Hawthorne's view of what the Puritan reign in New England was like, when outward appearance of piety was as or more important than inner experience. (On the other hand, we know now that the illegitimacy rate in Puritan settlements was shockingly high, not only given their values, but also compared to other contemporary colonies. The Puritans, or at least, the larger mass of people living under their auspices, were not abstaining from the premarital sex, or from adultery. One is tempted to draw a comparison to the high premarital birth rates in red states in the U.S.)

Hester lives apart from the community, but her humble acceptance of their punishment eventually redeems her and turns her into somewhat of a saint. Dimmesdale, the preacher, however, withers away, although the townspeople interpret that as a saint being called to God.

The scene in the woods when Hester and Dimmesdale are reunited is touching, and the last scene, where Dimmesdale's last sermon is remembered very differently by many different people, is very interesting.

And yet, there was a level on which this book never broke through and became something more dear to me. It's an easy and interesting read, but I'm left without any of the emotions I might expect it to stir. 

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Sixth Column by Robert Heinlein

It would be easiest to review this like I have the stories I've been reading on Project Gutenberg - with a hefty dose of irreverence, and covering the sometimes astounding racism and sexism with as much humour as headshaking. But this is Heinlein, and it's not as easy to dismiss. With Heinlein, you have to tackle head-on the issues with many of his books, and, if you're me, admit that you still really like reading them anyway.

I have no problem with doing that, most of the time. But wow, is this book racist. In its defense, it's not as racist as it would have been if the famed SF editor Campbell had written it himself, which he initially did, before turning the concept over to Heinlein. That's really damning with faint praise, to say that the book could have been more racist. Nor do I buy the apologia at the end, where someone  not-Heinlein is trying to prove that a main character might have been black, even though someone refers to him as a white man explicitly. But he was mistaken in the firelight at a hobo camp as Asian, so You're reaching, dude. Severely reaching. Reaching almost beyond the measure of it.

America has been invaded! By "PanAsian" forces, communist (sort of?) Pan Asian forces. The government is destroyed, the military wiped out, civil authority in shambles. The invading armies are ruling with an iron thumb, resorting frequently to massacres and death camps. (It makes me long for Philip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle, which deals much more interestingly with a successful Japanese invasion of the U.S.) A handful of scientists working on a death ray, and the one military guy who comes to then in the last days of the war are all that stand against the invading armies.

And yet, it's just slightly  more complex than I'm making it sound in terms of race issues. That doesn't make it better, but let's give the man his due. It doesn't make Heinlein in 1949 a bastion of tolerance to have one Asian-American who is on the side of the flag and apple pie, but still, Frank Mitsui is a likeable and tragic character. There is a hint of it being a problem of culture and expectation rather than race, but only the merest hint. The rest is pretty inexcusable. (And yes, in 1949, Heinlein cannot have known that there wouldn't be proven that there was an "Asian gene" that would allow a death/stun/dread ray to target races specifically, while leaving white folks untouched. But I do hold him responsible for not really thinking through the implications of such a death ray, particularly only four years after the end of the Second World War and the concentration camps becoming public. Well, for all I know, he may have thought them through, but it doesn't make its way to the page.)

And it's frustrating, because, racism aside, this is a damned interesting book. Heinlein is virtually incapable of writing a boring story. As a look at how populations respond to military control, I'd like to send those bits to certain planners of certain military missions. As a weird precursor to Stranger in a Strange Land in terms of starting a new religion (although for utterly different reasons), it's fascinating. But you can't really put the race issues aside, nor should you try. And so, I remain conflicted. This is probably my least favourite Heinlein, and I'm very glad the stuff that comes up in this book is not a consistent theme in his later, and much superior, works.

But if you look at my Gutenberg themes, as to wit: where people thought the world was going, this is also a fascinating little study of fears about a post-World War II world, wrapped up in tons of contemporary concerns.

Goddammit, Heinlein! You're always difficult, and yet rewarding. At least in this case, you gave me thoughts. Not complimentary ones, but thoughts all the same.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

"Phantoms of Reality" by Ray Cummings

Of the three stories I've read from this issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science so far, this one has afforded me the most amusement. The prose is the purplest, the science the craziest, the part where this is really a fantasy story with a thin gloss of science fiction, the racial stereotyping the most blatant, and oh, the homoeroticism is the...homoeroticismiest?

Let's see, where to begin? Plot synopsis?

Charlie, a Wall Street broker of some kind, is recruited by his friend Derek into a crazy scheme where they vibrate themselves right out of this world into a parallel world which is all medieval in the Hudson River Valley. But where they speak English, of course, because...parallel world? Duh? And where obviously they're going to recognize the innate superiority of men from our world because...colonialism? Because people always recognize white Wall Street brokers as the best men ever?

(Well, actually, Derek turns out to be the long-thought-dead heir to an usurped throne, although how he vibrated himself into our world in the first place is really never addressed.)

At any rate, as soon as Derek says "Henchman?", Charlie says "You're on! And may I describe your physique some more?" There is a lot of describing of Derek's physique, and moments like this one:
"I stood trembling with eagerness, as I know Derek was trembling." At a certain point, I was wondering if the author was trying to pack as much suppressed homoeroticism in as humanly possible. But then, of course, they end up with women. Bah.

Of course, the women could easily be named "Whore" and "Madonna" but Cummings went for the totally more subtle "Sensua" and "Blanca." They are described in the story like this:

"The Crimson Sensua, a profligate, debauched woman who, as queen, would further oppress the workers. And Blanca, a white beauty, risen from the toilers to be a favorite at the Court."
And boy, this is where race rears its head, none too subtly. Sensua is typed as having "coarse, sensuous beauty," a "pagan woman of the streets." By saying that one might expect to find her "flaunting the finery given her by a rich and profligate eastern prince," it's not hard to imagine that she is from the Middle East. 

And in contrast, there is Blanca, "a slim, gentle girl in white, with a white head-dress." 

Don't worry too much about her, she'll be murdered in seconds. Fortunately, there is a pure, white, backup named Hope. Hope actually gets some stuff to do, but the dichotomy between good and bad women, and the way race is conflated into that is pretty much going on out in the open.

Interestingly, however, this fantasy world as a whole doesn't seem to differentiate between genders for the most part. When Cummings describes the "toilers" aka the serfs, it's in fairly gender neutral terms, and both men and women seem to do the same work. 

After a palace revolt, Derek seizes the throne, marries Hope, and Charlie goes back to his life of suppressed masculinity on Wall Street. Why do I say suppressed masculinity instead of sexuality? It's both, I suppose. But studying masculinity as I do, this is a prime example of that late 19th/early 20th century idea that men have lost something in becoming "civilized," become something less than men, and that they need to reclaim it through daring deed, violence, and test. But, of course, given the chance to test themselves against less "civilized" men who are held up as epitomes of masculine power, the civilized man prevails - mostly by being more violent than the violent. 

Derek gets to lead the perfect life, taking up his throne (because every man could totally be king, if he just vibrated himself into the right plane of existence?) But poor Charlie gets the shaft, relegated to being a Wall Street nobody again. 

And did I mention the prose was purple? I'll just leave you with this last little gem: 

"The gauntlet of the unknown flung down now before me, as it was flung down before the ancient explorers who picked up its challenge and mounted the swaying decks of their little galleons and said, "We'll go and see what lies off there in the unknown.""

Monday, 25 November 2013

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb

This book caused me to get a little snippy with my husband. I was nearing the end, about 30 pages from the finish line, and he kept trying to talk to me. With most books, I could tear my attention away and not get cranky, but at that very moment, it was incredibly imperative that I continue reading and find out what happened without interruptions. Mostly calm, I told him he wasn't going to get any responses from me until I had finished, so just leave me alone for a couple of minutes!

So, thanks, Robin Hobb, for fomenting marital discontent? Luckily, my husband's a reader and a writer and gets that particular quirk.

This is all by way of saying that the last section of this book is incredibly tense! I was very worried about the mostly nameless narrator, and had no idea what was going to happen! (Well, I knew this was first in a series, so I was pretty sure he was going to survive, but beyond that, I was worried about secondary characters!) It was a pulse-pounding race to the finish, and it's been a while since a book did that to me.

This book combines a good meander with a sprint at the end. Since I enjoy both, when done well, I am enthused! I know this series has been around for a while, but it's new to me, and I sincerely hope they keep being this good.

The main character, mostly called Boy or Fitz, is left at a royal garrison when he's five or six. He is the bastard son of a Prince, and causes that Prince to abdicate his place in the succession and leave. Boy is brought up mostly by the head groom, who regards his abilities with animals with some fear. (There seem to be two magic skills in the setting, the Wit, and the Skill. I'm pretty sure they're actually the same thing, but people think they're different. The Wit works on sharing minds with animals, the Skill with humans. And when Fitz starts to Skill, he remarks offhand how similar they feel. But one is seen as anathema, the other as the sole domain of royalty.)

He is also trained by the present King's assassin, Chade. And in arms by the mistress-at-arms. And in scribing by the master scribe. There is a little bit of ALL THE SKILLS! here, but I'll let it pass. And trained badly in the Skill by the Skillmaster, who hates and fears Boy and tries to stymie his attempts at every turn, while pretending to teach him.

The kingdom is under siege. The coast towns are attacked frequently by raiders, but the raiders have started to carry out a terrible act on the villagers they leave behind, and those so affected, the Forged, are a truly frightening prospect, particularly when Boy can tell exactly what's been done to them and why. Gave me the shivers.

In the capital, things are scarcely more settled. The abdication of Prince Chivalry has left two other sons jockeying unofficially for the throne, and the marriage of one becomes the chance of the other. Not going to go into more details, but the meander through Boy's early life is entertaining if not urgent, and then when Hobb turns up the tension, she really turns it up.

Interestingly, this is also a fairly gender-neutral world, which is presented without overt comment. Succession goes through birth order, regardless of gender, and most jobs in this medieval setting are not gendered - as I said, the master-at-arms to the King is actually a mistress-at-arms. But while I appreciate that take on the world Hobb is creating, it would be nice if the female characters were given a bit more to do. The background has some interesting gender equality, but the vast majority of secondary characters, particularly the important ones, are male. It's still better than a lot of fantasy out there, but she's so close to doing something really interesting, it's just undercut by the general feeling of male homosociality, which in the world she's creating, seems at odds with the gender structure.

But that's a quibble. I thoroughly enjoyed Assassin's Apprentice, and it doesn't seem to have done any permanent damage to my marriage. But I'll make sure I get to the end of the next one someplace secluded.

Friday, 22 November 2013

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

There were times reading this book when I felt infected by Hans Castorp's lassitude, when it seemed to difficult to even pick up this book and continue one, when the desire for comfort was greater than the prick of ambition to read yet another long classic. In the end, I persevered, although it was through that kind of weariness. I'm glad I did, but I can't say I loved The Magic Mountain. On the other hand, now that I've gone through the months of treatment at its hands, I'm grateful I did.

It's a difficult book, there's no two ways about it. Chapters and chapters of Hans feeling separated from the world around him, engrossed in the world of the rest cure. Other chapters of long philosophical discussions between our two embodiments of European intellectualism of the early 19th century. Occasional rollicking parties and seances. The sadness of deaths. A duel. It's quite amazing that the book includes so many different moods, and a testament to the author that I often felt my state of mind while reading it mimicked that of the main character.

Hans Castorp goes to a ritzy tuberculosis sanitorium high in the Swiss Alps to visit his cousin, who is there to get better. Hans thinks he's only going for a couple of weeks. He leaves seven years later. While there, he engages in most of the leisure activities of a group of people who have nothing but leisure activities, from illicit skiing to almost-as-illicit sex. He embraces the life of separation from the world below in a way that his cousin, a would-be army officer, cannot. His connections to work, to his family, to anything at all are rather weak, and help him stay content high above the world.

Once there, he runs into representatives of almost every European nation, and phrasing it that way is certainly not an accident. They stand in for national characteristics,  the "good" Russian table, and the "bad" Russian table are not particularly subtle, and every person there is not so much as person as a physical manifestation of a nationality or philosophy.

That probably makes the book sound drier than it is, and it isn't particularly dry. It's a slog, at times, but the characters, while they may be difficult, and not always the deepest portraits, aren't uninteresting.

And that's pretty much it for plot. Because this is not a book of plot. It's a book of ideas, spoken through characters, as Hans, a fairly shallow young man, drifts through his life away from the world, the world goes on below him, and struggles in the "flatland" are mirrored high in the Alps. The buildup to the Great War, the clashes in nationalities, are duplicated at the sanitorium, and the chapter about this is one of the most entertaining.

To read this book, you need a lot of patience, and sometimes, the will to bull through when Hans' listlessness infects you. But as a microcosm of European culture at a certain time, it's worth the read. As an exercise in making the reader feel as distant from the world as Hans does, it's worth the read. But it's not an easy.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland And Cut The Moon In Two by Catherynne Valente

I love these books. I've said it before, and if there are more to come, I'll damn well say it again. I love these books. These are books I'd be so happy to read to children, and I would barely be able to suppress my glee to see what stories they'd come up with themselves, prompted by these inventive and whimsical tales. September, every time she goes to Fairyland, steals my heart.

That said, I had some odd moments with this one that I don't recall from the previous two. It might be entirely me, I may have been more distracted this time, for whatever reason, but there were these little moments of dissonance, where I'd completely lost track of what was going on, and couldn't for a few seconds, figure out why the characters were doing what they were doing. I'd go back a few pages, and carefully reading, figure it out, but even then, the links occasionally seemed slight, and the information buried.

It's a minor quibble, really, beside how lovely these books are, and for the most part, I loved The Girl Who Soared to pieces, but it did keep happening.

September is worried, because no wind has come for her this year. She's afraid she's grown up too much, and Fairyland will be forever beyond her reach. So when she finally gets to Fairyland and is immediately sent on a side mission to the moon, there's a sense of desperation, of trying to fit all the rest of her experiences in before she leaves them behind.

On the moon, she is reunited with A-through-L, the Wyverary, and Saturday, the Marid, but even these relationships are more complicated. The Wyverary is shrinking, and she has seen enough of the future to be wary of the Marid - not because she doesn't love him, but because she's afraid of her future already being written.

Despite her attempts to destroy her fate, she discovers a few things about stories that have already been told, and is given the task of stopping the Yeti who is trying to destroy the moon with terrible moonquakes, in revenge for an ancient ill.

And that's all I'll tell you about that, because to do more would spoil the story. But Valente's whimsical inventiveness is still in full force, and I love to follow along behind. Even more than that, there are these passages where she, as the narrator, tells us stories and lessons about growing up, and having a heart, and being in a story, and they are always perfect and sometimes they make me cry.

To sum up: I was occasionally lost, but always found my way again, and found that I was on exactly the path I wanted to be.

Monday, 18 November 2013

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

One book closer to having read all of the BBC's Big Read! Twelve books to go! (As long as I can track down the two books my library system doesn't seem to have....) And in pursuit of this quest, I read I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith. I'd read her 101 Dalmatians before, but nothing else, so I wasn't at all sure what to expect. And this was a pleasant surprise.

The word, I think, is charming. It's a charming book, written diary-style. Well, at least sort of, in that the book is the main character writing to herself, but it doesn't tend to be as day-bound as Adrian Mole or Bridget Jones (that's not a knock against either of the two, just an observation.) So it's less about the amusing trivia of everyday life, and more about trying to capture those big moments in your life as they occur. And about falling in love, and becoming an adult, and caring about money, to appropriate or inappropriate degrees.

The main character, Cassandra, is in her late teens. She lives in a castle with her father, stepmother, older sister and younger brother. As the story begins, they are absolutely destitute. Their father, who wrote one literary sensation, has suffered from writer's block for the last 15 years. Their stepmother is an artist's model, but it costs almost as much to send her to London to model as she would make doing it. None of the children brings in money - in fact, they are entirely dependent on the income of Stephen, the son of their former housekeeper who is part one of the family, and part a hired hand. Everything of value in the castle has been sold, and they haven't paid rent in years.

The new owners of the castle arrived, however, and he turns out to be a big fan of the father's work, and shortly thereafter, to develop feelings for one of the daughers, and it looks like their fortunes might turn around. But are they doing anything for the right reason? Is the older sister looking to marry for money? What happens when love rears its ugly head and the father's new lease on the writing process seems to come out in creating puzzles?

This book is not about the plot. It's about the atmosphere of the castle, which I loved, and the characters, who are also endearing. Each is interesting in their own way, but I was particularly fond of Topaz, who breaks all literary stepmother molds by being young, compassionate, quirky,  and devoted to her husband and to his children. And, you know, who likes to go out naked into the fields and up the fairy mound to commune with nature.

This is not the book to read if you're looking for earth-shattering. It's a small study of an intriguing group of people, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Read as part of the BBC Big Read

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht

Of Blood and Honey managed to win me over despite relying far too much one of the literary tricks that drives me batty every single time I see it. That's saying something. But still, it was at times an aggravating read. There are so many things that are good here, and then so many things that I want to be just that little bit better to make this awesome. The book got the author a nomination for the Campbell Award, so this is obviously very early in her career. I have high hopes for her future books, because she's got really unique ideas and I want to read more of them. Just a little less of a couple of things.

I just tagged this review as urban fantasy, which is both true and false. It's certainly urban fantasy unlike I've read before, but it's set in real cities in Ireland during the Troubles. That's one of those ideas that makes me wonder why no one had ever thought of doing it before - it makes so much sense! Weaving a fantasy story about the Fae, in Ireland, no less, in with a take on real history of the area - this is brilliant. It's a great idea. And for the most part, it's executed well.

Liam, as a young Irish man, is automatically under suspicion. That's probably why he is arrested and sent to prisons and internment camps twice before his 21st birthday. Wrong place at the wrong time, Liam is not particularly political, although the woman he is in love with is fiercely political. It's probably not because Liam is not like other young men. There's something about the eyes.

Of course, that could be because his father is Bran, a figure of Irish myth and legend. And inside his head, a beast seems to be clamouring to be let out.

The book tells Liam's story through the camps, through marriage, through his involvement with the IRA. And I really enjoyed the inventiveness of this narrative - the story mostly made me so happy. As did the idea of having a secret Catholic order dedicated to tracking down and disposing of the supernatural, and the ways they'd formulated their thoughts about the supernatural, and how one member was coming to realize that they might have been utterly, terribly, wrong.

What I'm trying to say is that I love the ideas in these books. These are things I'd never thought of, yet made me thrilled to read. Which is not to say this is a thrilling read. Like anything that is about the Troubles, there is brutality here. And violence. And horrific deeds.

So, here's what I don't like: to some degree, the focus on Liam at the expense of the other characters. This is because the other characters are so interesting, so in some ways it's a good problem to have. The real issue is that some emotional conflicts get undercut by not letting us see them until it's far too late, and they have to be explained by someone else in a single line of dialogue.

Take Mary-Kate, Liam's love and later wife. She is a great character, complex, interesting, and I wanted more of her. Partly because I liked the character so much, I wanted to know things from her perspective. This becomes a huge problem as she deals with something that is an emotional crux of the novel entirely off-screen. There are hints, but for those later moments to have the heft they need to, we need to know about the anguish she's going through first-hand. Not years later, third-hard.

The other reason is bigger, and it's part of why the above was so irritating. It's the one thing I would change about the novel if I could, because I HATE IT when authors do this. It's when no one tells the main character anything. When most of the issues of your novel are literally because people are withholding information, it gets under my skin in ways that make me grouchy and frustrated. That's very false drama, so just tell the poor fucking guy what the hell is going on, and THEN DEAL WITH THE FALLOUT. Because there is fallout to be had. And that fallout is undercut because no one is fucking telling Liam a thing, and this happens for most of 300 pages, and aarrrggghhh!

His mother doesn't tell him anything and his wife doesn't tell him anything and his priest doesn't tell him anything and his father doesn't tell him anything and it is a little ridiculous. I hate it when that's where the drama comes from, and it's so unnecessary here. If Liam had known about his ancestry earlier, i think it would have caused more tension, not less.

So, to sum up, there is great potential here. As long as future characters don't keep withholding information long after it makes sense that they should have shared it.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

"The Cave of Horror" by S.P. Meek

The second story in the first issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science that I've read from Project Gutenberg. In this one, a scientist and his sidekick (apparently this author wrote a whole series about them, according to Wikipedia) investigate "Mammoth Cave," where people have been going missing, including the soldiers brought in to search the cave after most of a family disappeared.

Once there, the scientist figures out that this is a monstrous creature from BELOW THE EARTH, which can only be seen in ultraviolet light (I know nothing about the science, but this seems a little dicey to me). It is a small one, obviously, and ravenous, and eats cows like they're popcorn. Or people, when it can get people.

After driving a tank into the cave...

Okay, list of questions:
A) Can you really drive a tank into a cave and maneuver it in such a way as to turn quickly and beat a hasty retreat?
B) Are driving a tractor and driving a tank really transferable skills in 1930?
C) Are there a lot of mysterious monsters from under the earth that can really survive something like 4-6 grenades?

Anyway, after driving the tank into the cave with a sheep strapped to the front, the scientist is able to snap pictures of the creature and, DUN DUN DUN! Discovers it mostly exists in two dimensions! It's huge! And broad! With human-like hands! But is sort of a snake! But it's only about two inches wide!

When he fails to kill the monster, presumably to stuff and mount it, the scientist makes what was to me the weirdest choice of all. Despite the massive manhunt, the double-digit number of soldiers who have been mauled and eaten, the cows they've requisitioned, and the general feeling that something is going on, without the carcass, the scientist decides he's going to go back to the lab and will never speak of it again! Because no one would believe him and he'd be laughed at!

Also, with no evidence, he decides that now that cave is perfectly safe to open to the civilian population again, and there's no reason they should be warned. 

If this is what scientists are like, I think I'm a little frightened of scientists now.

So, it's a crazy story, and oh, the science is told in such a boring manner (the author was apparently an Army scientist), but there are moments of genuine tenseness snuggled in between the howlers like commenting on how the scientist had "dreamer's hands," which I still don't understand as a descriptor.

As for gender, well, there are no women in this story, which tells you something all by itself. The only mentioned woman is the one whose entire family were the first to be eaten by the creature, and she doesn't even get a name that I remember. Nope, this is all male scientists and soldiers.

Ditto for race.

As for the science, well, I have to say that scientists don't come off so well in this, in their willingness to suppress evidence that might save someone's life in order to preserve their prestige.

So far, in this issue, all the scariest things come from under the earth. We'll see if that changes!

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

I have been making a self-conscious effort to keep reading some bestsellers, mixed in among my other lists. I like knowing what people are reading, and increasing my chances of being able to discuss books with anyone I meet. Given that a lot of what I also read is obscure, classics, or science fiction, it seems like a necessary ingredient in my overall reading mix.

It has also, on occasion, been disappointing. I've read those books that make me arch an eyebrow and go "Wait, this is a bestseller? Why?" There have been others that have been passable, but really nothing special. Well, I have to tell you, this is one of the best bestsellers I've read in a while.

It's not so wonderful that I have immediately become evangelical about it, but it's a damned solid historical novel, and avoids many of the pitfalls that have made me a little wary of some historical fiction. This is a good book, with interesting characters, and Buchanan weaves in threads of intellectual history that I know did exist at the time into the lives of her characters, not always with subtlety, but with purpose. I might not have always completely bought exactly the reactions of her characters, but I appreciated her research!

And, thank goodness, she avoids infodumps. So many writers of historical fiction feel the need to shower upon their readers page after page showing how familiar they are with their settings. This is not necessary, and at worst, it's very irritating. Writers need to do their research, know their setting intimately, and then avoid the temptation to show that knowledge off, and merely use it when it is pertinent to the story, when it actually elucidates something, when it enriches a scene or is essential to the action.

She also avoids melodrama, which I appreciate. But that's a lot of talking about the kinds of historical fiction that make me frustrated, so let's talk about what this book is instead of what it isn't.

The Painted Girls is a novel about three sisters in Paris, one of whom really was painted and sculpted by Degas. They are exceedingly poor. They are not, thankfully, commensurately saintly. They are not cute, or precious, or symbols of anyything. Buchanan succeeds in making each girl only herself. The oldest, Antoinette, used to be one of the petit rats, one of the little girls hired by the ballet. Now she does walk-on roles in the Opera, trying to help her mother, an absinthe-addicted laundress, support her younger sisters. She's also in love with a young man who her sister thinks is dangerous, but she believes loves her truly. (And honestly, I got suckered on how this one turned out. Good work!)

Her younger sister Marie is just starting at the ballet as a petit rat, with obvious talent, but few looks to match her dancing ability. She is the one Degas wants to paint, and the author's note at the end about the exhibition in which her sculpture was shown, and the discussions that have gone on since about why Degas might have included it in that particular show shed some interesting light on some of her overall themes.

The youngest sister, Charlotte, is least integral to the story, but she is young, an excellent dancer, and arrogant about it. She has the kind of talent and shamelessness about showing it that might not endear her to anyone.

The actual story goes back and forth between chapters narrated by Antoinette and Marie, and we follow their efforts to survive,  to keep going, to have enough to eat. The book wisely picks a middle path. It doesn't whitewash how hard it is, but it also has no sense of outraged bourgeois morality. These are the decisions these girls might make, and Buchanan does an excellent job of showing why. She also does not make the mistake of having her characters be irredeemably ruined by their actions, and that rings true in the fiction, but also mirrors nicely what we know about women who sold sex in the 19th century.

Interwoven with this are contemporary notions of heredity and eugenics, and these are used in interesting ways, although I was not always convinced that Marie would take them as gospel truth in quite the way she did. That was the one note that seemed a little off to me. But otherwise, they provide a tapestry that also, subtly, influenced the range of reactions of people to the poor, the limits it helped put on how they could imagine the lives of those who survived on so little.

It's not a perfect book, but I love the research, the characters are excellently done, and the setting is used to great effect and not to batter me about the ears with how much the author knows. Consequently, I am far more convinced of her mastery of her subject than I would have been if she'd felt the need to show it off.

Monday, 11 November 2013

The Last River by Todd Balf

These kind of wilderness/extreme sport survival tales of death and striving slightly baffle me. I dip my toe into the genre every once in a while, as one pops up on one of my lists, but I have to confess that I don't get the urge throw yourself into harm's way again and again. I'm not one to advocate for comfort and no challenge in life, but I'm pretty sure I don't need that kind of challenge. Isn't life hard enough already?

I'm not condemning those who do, but as I say, I just find it a little baffling. I believe the sweet spot in life is in balancing comfort with challenge, and not falling too far to one side or the other. Too much comfort, and life is boring and complacent. Too much challenge, and all is stress. And the areas I tend to challenge myself in have to do with both my work as an aspiring academic, and in my hobbies. (Which reminds me that I should post at some point about the podcast my husband, a friend of ours, and I launched last week. But that's definitely a digression for another time.)

But physically? I don't know. Maybe my lungs have had enough trouble in my life for me to romanticize the possibility of having breath taken away. Maybe the two times I came eerily close to dying make me think that risking that life unnecessarily is a fool's game - I know too well that it could be snatched away without courting that possibility. (Once was when I was born, far too early, and the second time is more an "if that explosion had happened five minutes later..." sort of thing.)

But in The Last River, we're smack in the middle of whitewater kayaking, and not just any whitewater kayaking, but exploratory river-running, down a river no one has yet successfully navigated by boat, at least as of the time of the writing of the book. One member of the expedition died on the trip. This author, in his notes at the end, relates his worry about being just another author who wants to write about these extreme adventures to cash in on someone having died. But isn't he? This is the trip he chose to write about, after all.

That being said, this book doesn't feel overly exploitative. The mere fact that it was written about this particular expedition does say something, but not everything. The author does not come down as completely condemnatory, and does genuinely seem to be seeking answers. In the end, though, even the team who were there are slightly baffled. The river was dangerous, absolutely. But the place where the kayaker died was the sort of rapid he'd run before many, many times. It does seem to have been one of those occasions where everything goes wrong and the outcome is the worst possible.

But the book is also about sponsored expeditions, and some of the pitfalls. It is mostly, however, about the four men who were trying to run the Yarlung Tsangpo river in Tibet and China. It's interesting, but not gripping, if that makes sense. If this is your type of genre, you'd probably enjoy it. I found it serviceable as a read, but not spectacular.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie

I know I have written before about books that just fit. Books that snuggle into crooks and crevices of your mind, that nest as though they had been born there. Books that hit themes and subjects and loves in just the right ways. This is one of those books. In Luka and the Fire of Life, Rushdie has created a modern fairytale, weaving together myths modern and ancient in a glorious mishmash of energy, shot through with meditations on mortality and storytelling.

Of course, stories centered around death, particularly the dying of a parent, still have particular resonance. Three years on, it's not like that pain goes away. It's less acute, less omnipresent, but it's still there. So when Luka, the eponymous boy, is faced with the death of his beloved storyteller father, Rashid, and ventures into Rashid's oft-discussed Magic World to try to recover the Fire of Life, it's bound to strike a chord.

But when that is intertwined with the myths of dozen of cultures, and intertwines classic mythology with irreverent inclusions of video game tropes (shades of Scott Pilgrim, at times), and a talking dog named Bear and a dancing bear named Dog, and the Insultana of Ott, an otter who looks like Luka's mother and thrives on disrespect and insults, and the shade that is trying to claim his father, dubbed Nobodaddy and many more little touches, I just loved it.

This is, undoubtedly, a gloriously messy book. It zigs and zags, it digresses and plays, it is serious and comic, and somehow, due entirely to Rushdie's prowess, works. Luka ventures into the River of Time, past obstacles untold, all to find the Fire of Life and take it back to his father. Such a feat has not been done since the newest reorganization of the Magic World, although Luka can call on the past experiences of Coyote and Prometheus.

I would have loved this if it had just been a tour of myth and legend. But near the end, it becomes something deeper that touched me deeply. When it becomes apparent that this is a world that is entirely made up of Rashid's stories, sustained in his mind, in danger of falling apart with his death, I had to put the book down for a few minutes and catch my breath and cry. The idea of people as creators of worlds, of stories, sustained by the telling, kept in imagination, that's not new. But Rushdie takes that world and puts it at the moment of its dissipation, of death stealing stories and whole universes every time someone ceases breathing. And that nearly did me in.

I came out of the experience of being with my father while he died in the possession of several Great Truths (those that are both contradictory and simultaneously true.) One pair was that death is a natural part of life, and that death is a jagged disruption in the natural path of life. This book made me remember that jaggedness very keenly.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

"The Beetle Horde" by Victor Rousseau

Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

Some of what they have are old Astounding Stories of Super-Science from the 1930s. The first story I read (well, read at least the first part of) was "The Beetle Horde" by Victor Rousseau from the January 1930 issue.

In "The Beetle Horde," Antarctic explorers discover the world below the world. It's a Hollow Earth story, complete with mad scientists and, you guessed it, hordes of beetles! A previous scientist on an Antarctic expedition (addicted to opium no less, although it's unclear who his supplier has been these long months under the surface of the earth) found the way into this strange land, and once there, used the power of FIRE (aka his cigarette lighter) to rule over the five-foot long beetles who live there, and to help them enslave and eat the humans who live in the Hollow Earth, before, of course, launching a mass beetle attack on the surface world to establish a new age of the beetle.

Question - since the entry to the subterranean world seems to be at the South Pole, how does the scientist plan on getting his beetles to any place that has a large human population? Can they swim?

He's mad as a shithouse rat, obviously, and when a pilot and another scientist crashland and are taken captive by the beetles, he spends most of his time ranting at the other scientist about how his theories are wrong wrong wrong, and once he's the ruler of Earth surrounded by beetles that will have eaten the human population, people will finally realize his genius! (This is not the best plan to prove your not-craziness to scientists, let alone the general population.)

The first half of the story (it's continued in the next issue) ends with our intrepid heroes and the large and beautiful white female who has fallen in love with the scientist and quickly learned English have escaped! They are nearing the earth's surface.

This is, obviously, a bit goofy. It's a little heavy on the scientific jargon - the fights between the scientists are unintentionally hilarious At least, I think it's unintentional. If not, good work Mr. Rousseau!

The one beautiful woman, Haidia, who falls in love with the hero (although notably not the pilot) is a fairly common trope - every barbaric human group seems to have one woman who conforms to our beauty standards and who is just dying to fall head over heels with the Western interlopers. She's smart, and large, and they keep referring to her as an Amazon. She doesn't have a lot to do except scoff when our heroes eat fruit (she eats five-foot long shrimp).

Race is not really covered except for an offhanded reference to the people under the earth being related to Australian aborigines, which then is not borne out by the quite white Haidia.

As for the science, it's mostly about insects. Hilariously, though, the author doesn't seem to know how hair grows. The subterranean people all wear clothes, but the clothes are woven from their hair while their hair is still on their heads. I would like to point out that hair grows from the roots and not from the tips, and therefore, once you had the shoulders of your dress woven, you might have a problem.

And, of course, there is the mad scientist, whose mad lust for glory, or at least for being right, has led him to actively plot against the entire human race. There is a sane scientist for contrast, but science and human nature and addiction make nothing good.

The author also wrote more generic pulp fiction, says Wikipedia, and that shows in this story. Good pulpy insane scientist fun. With beetles.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Cane River by Lalita Tademy

Cane River is an odd mix of fiction and non-fiction, and I'm not sure it entirely works. It feels like trying to find the balance between the two constrains the narrative in ways that either one by itself would not. As non-fiction, it is limited by the availability of sources, and it truly seems like there is much that has to be speculative. As fiction, it is equally limited by the sources - the author is hemmed in by what she does know, and that structure seems binding.

Is there a fix for this? Would it have been more skilful in a more experienced author's hands? But then again, would an experienced author have gotten anywhere near this. For what this book does have is a sense of searching, of trying to make sense of the past, of family stories. What emerges is a book that is not bad, but doesn't transcend its awkward origins to become something great.

It's not to say that first-time authors can't write something spectacular. But in this case, I wish she'd written a few more books, gotten some more work on narrative structure and prose out of the way, before tackling such an ambitious project.

This is the story of Lalita Tademy's family, in particular, one female line. From scanty documentary evidence (some of which appears in the book, creating more of that uneasiness between fiction and nonfiction), she reconstructs the line of her mother, grandfather, great-grandmother, great-great grandmother, and great-great-great grandmother through slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction and the emergence of Jim Crow laws. The story is important, but it's perhaps not an accident that the narrative is strongest for the time period she knows least about.

The early parts of the books, the ones furthest away in time, are the ones that Tademy is most free to do with as she wills, and they are definitely the strongest. As the book moves further forward in time, there becomes the feeling that she is trying to fit in everything she does know, to make it all fit the narrative she's telling. Without those nonfiction constraints of documentary evidence and family stories, she weaves a difficult tale of women enslaved, of desire, of families being torn apart, of power abused and misunderstood.

Later, as we get to her great-grandmother and father, another narrative takes over, one that might better be its own book, given the strengths of the earlier part of the book rather than the latter, taken out of the family context and the desire to get it all on paper, and fictionalized more heavily to get at the narrative core. For that story, the story of her great-grandmother who loved and was loved by a white man and who defined convention for a while, but then found their relationship strained under the burdens placed on them by hate, by history, and by violence. This should have been more powerful, but instead, it felt like the book was running out of steam. 

Tademy is not a bad writer, but this book is uneven, and the mix of fiction and nonfiction seems to limit rather than set free. I would be interested to read further works, and I hope she eventually gives herself the freedom that not being too beholden to your sources when writing fiction would provide.

Monday, 4 November 2013

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

This is politics and power on a grand scale, and for much of the book, I was left in suspense as to what was really going on. A good kind of suspense, though, as I could tell that although I didn't know, Jemisin did, and the writing was such that I had confidence that all would be revealed in due course. I don't mind not knowing, as long as it feels like the book isn't floundering, unsure of what it is.

It's funny, though. For a good while at the start of the book, I was convinced that this fantasy might suddenly turn out to be science fiction, based on the old adage that sufficiently advanced technology, etc. I think it was the way the gods were written about, particularly when they were referred to as "weapons." It felt like maybe they were the remnant of the technology of a previous civilization.

Well, by the end of this entry into the trilogy, anyway, that appears not to be case. And the answers were even more satisfying than that would have been.

In a world that had been riven by the Gods' War, one caste, the Arameri, wields the power of the remaining enslaved gods and godlings, allowing worship only of the god of light, Itempas. His siblings/lovers/enemies, the other two of the Three, he cast down, and killed one and enslaved the other. Why will take quite a long time to come out.

Centuries on, one young Darre woman, Yeine, daughter of the former Arameri heir and her Darre husband, is called back to Sky, the mystical castle that balances in the air through unknown forces (see what I mean about thinking it might be SF?). She is named a possible heir as well, even though her mixed blood makes her an unlikely choice. There, she is cast into a battle between the two other heirs, but that pales next to the plan the enslaved gods, the Enefadeh, have put into motion.

Their plan started before her birth, and might end with her death. This is world-shaking stuff, and it's a credit to the storytelling that when all is revealed it was, not so much earthshattering, as deeply satisfying.

Yeine's story is not just the fantasy of these power struggles. It's about love, even when love is unwise. It's about pain, and power, and corruption. It's about loneliness and penance and cruelty. And it's about the dangerous possibilities of working with those who can understand humans only in fragments.

And at the end, it is about mythmaking and legendtelling on a grand scale. But not past myths - creating new ones, moment by moment. These are the events that will live on past human memory, told and retold, polished smooth by the telling.

I look forward to where it goes from here! This is a fantasy well worth reading, even if it did fool me into thinking it was SF for a while. (And if there is a switch pulled in one of the next two books, don't tell me.)


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Sunday, 3 November 2013

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

When this story started to come together, when all the disparate threads started to weave together and create some sort of momentum, this book was suddenly a lot of fun and pretty damn amusing. Unfortunately, it didn't hit that point until about 340 pages in, with 40 pages left to go. While I enjoyed the last forty pages quite a bit, that's not really enough to make up for the way the previous pages didn't really engage me at all.

It's billed as hilarious. At most, I'd say moderately amusing. It's not a terrible book, and I'm not angry I read it. I was just a little bored by it. And here's why:

So little mattered to the main character.

And so, in consequence, I found it hard to have anything that happened matter to me. I don't like these detached, dissociated characters. I'm not interested in them, and their lack of connection to the world to me seems less a statement than lack of attention to writing a vivid character. <i>The Stranger</i> bothered me in the same way, but at least Camus was trying to do something there. In this case, it seems like the author is trying to create a blank slate and I don't think it helps the story.

The inside cover bills this as Forrest Gump, if Forrest Gump were 100, enjoyed vodka and knew how to build explosives. As far as we can tell, Allan Karlsson, the main character doesn't share the intellectual disabilities of Forrest Gump, but his life takes him through a surprising number of world events, including helping build the first atomic bomb, accidentally giving that secret to the Russians, drinking with Truman, saving Franco, not getting along so well with Lyndon B. Johnson, getting along quite well with Mao Tse-Tung, getting sent to a gulag in Vladivostok, etc., etc.

Allan's just not interested in politics, you see, and so he meets these people and doesn't pay attention to the political nonsense they speak, he just wants a drink. But while I think you can get away with a character who isn't as interested in world events as world events are interested in him, I don't think it works to have the main character care about nothing. If world events happen to him and are the backdrop for something that does have meaning to him, then that's one thing. But nothing does. Except maybe a drink. But even that isn't urgent enough to mean that much - he gives up drinking for over five years in Vladivostok, with nary a tremour. It does eventually drive him to leave, but apathetically. It's all apathetically. He does things, with a minimum of effort, but does them. And doesn't care.

For that to be enough to carry the work, everything else would have to be a damn sight more vivid than it is. Instead, it retains that detachment, that apathy, that lack of concern. And I didn't find that funny, I just found it tedious. And although the ending started to bring it together in amusing ways, that was not enough to make me fall in love with this world and this character.