Thursday, 31 December 2015

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2015: Round One, Part Twelve

Round one comes to a close! A little earlier than usual, but my husband solved a problem I'd been having. This tournament often extends far into January, as I want to include all the books I've read in the year in the year-end tournament. I couldn't figure out where to put an earlier cut-off point.

My husband pointed out that I'm pagan, and my new year actually comes on October 31st, so I could start the Dust Cover Dust-Up then and finish probably just before the calendar rolls over. This solves all the problems, as far as I'm concerned. So the 2015 Dust Cover Dust-Up is a bit shorter than usual, just covering January-October 2015. Next year, I'll start shortly after Hallowe'en with a full year of books to battle.

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks vs. The Trouble With Poetry by Billy Collins

Use of Weapons was not my favourite Banks of the year. In fact, it was one of the ones I found most opaque and frustrating, with a twist at the end that I had both guessed, and found frustrating, because withholding the information makes the rest of the book frustratingly distant. So it's not really difficult to award this battle to my favourite poet at present. While The Trouble With Poetry may not have knocked me quite as much on my ass as did the previous book I'd read by Collins, Sailing Alone Around the Room, there was plenty of joy to be gotten from this one. 

Winner: The Trouble With Poetry

The Scar by China Mieville vs. The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keating Snyder 

Another easy battle. Soon, no doubt there will be battles that rip me apart to choose, but for now, I get to pick one of my favourite authors in a tale of urban fantasy-at-sea over a mediocre children's book. Snyder's work is fine, but it can't compare with the politics of the world in which New Crobuzon exists, where a floating pirate city attempts to harness a creature from beyond the depths for reasons only a few actually know. It's about betrayal and trust, and as always, truly swoon-worthy prose.
Winner: The Scar

The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott vs. Machine Man by Max Barry

So, do I pick a vast book of English colonialism in India, in only its first volume? Or a paean to adapting the human body no matter the cost? Barry's book was entertaining, but it was more action than ideas, and the ideas were provocative enough I wished there'd been some time spend on them. On the other hand, while not everything comes out in The Jewel in the Crown, there's enough here to award it this round. 
Winner: The Jewel in the Crown

The Beautiful Room is Empty by Edmund White 
vs. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

The battle of books with long titles! One is about a young man discovering his sexuality in, among other places, New York. The other is about the long-term problems of cloning and the cost to the human spirit. Science fiction vs. mainstream fiction. Well, possibly not mainstream, but not genre. Both were interesting, neither knocked my socks off. I guess we fall back on my old test - which would I rather read again right this moment? My nerd loyalties say that it's Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.

Winner: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang


The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot vs. Fortune's Pawn by Rachael Bach 

Such an easy choice! I really disliked The Princess Diaries, so while I didn't love Rachael Bach's book, I certainly enjoyed it enough to award it this round! I don't really have any more in-depth analysis than that.

Winner: Fortune's Pawn 


Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

Yipes. This is not a book to be read by the faint-hearted, or those with parents getting older. Or rather, it is a book for those with aging parents, but it's not an easy read. Luckily, my mother is still looking far younger than her years, but my in-laws, while doing very well, are starting to find things slowly changing. We're not anywhere near this territory, and thankfully get along much better with all the parents in our lives than Roz Chast does with her parents, but it's still unsettling. (The reason I say that is that we're very willing and even expecting to have some parents living with us at some point in our lives.)

As a graphic novel, this was burning up the best of the year lists last year and so I eventually got around to picking it up. I've had much better luck finding good books by compiling best of the year lists than I was reading things off the bestseller lists. 

The art is a little ragged, in a way that perfectly suits the story, and seems to mirror the emotional state of Chast's father, and even of Chast herself. Her father struggles with anxiety issues and has for his entire life, while her mother is controlling and angry. They're also in their 90s, and Chast chronicles the quicker decline that happens at that age. (It's also unsettling for me to read as my wonderful grandmother is now 97.) They go from living together in an apartment in the Bronx, weathering major health issues for her mother, hospitalizations for which reveal the depth of her father's dementia. When his normal routine is disrupted and his wife isn't there to be his other half, he is at sea and constantly stressed about his bank books.

From there, it's an eventual trip to a very expensive nursing home, even while Chast struggles with guilt that she isn't taking her parents in. There's a lot here about resolutions to be the perfect loving daughter, which survive first contact with her parents on any given day for about five minutes. The actual visits are long, tedious, and painful, full of guilt and disguised recriminations, and her wishes to be a saintly caring child quickly go out the window. She's really good at capturing the flashes of anger and frustration that it is easy to have as caregivers, but are generally hidden because they feel like they reveal something ugly about us.

Ugly but human, is the point, as is much of this story about Chast's parents. Chast and her reactions, her mother's anger and the fact that they never come to a peaceful, blissful reconciliation before the end. There are still hurts, the effects of a life together still present. The negative parts of a personality don't go away as people fail. 

As a look at aging and human frailty and the seedier, unpleasant aspects of changing, this is a powerful graphic novel. It made me frequently uncomfortable, which I think is the right response. I'm glad I read it, and have been very glad I moved to this model of finding recent "popular" books to read.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2015: Round One, Part Eleven

Phew! An easy one as we trek towards the end of this round of the Dust Cover Dust-Up. I'll explain in the next edition why it's going to be slightly truncated this year. But let's turn our attention to this particular match-up. I really didn't like All My Friends Are Superheroes, for reasons you can read in the review. I was, however, thoroughly enchanted by the brutal fairytale logic of The Uncertain Places. Fairy tales are something I"m partial to anyway, and it lifts Goldstein to a very, very easy win.

Winner: The Uncertain Places

Kane & Abel by Jeffrey Archer vs. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

Interesting. I didn't really like either of these books very much, but I actively didn't like Kane & Abel with its heroes of capitalism, where I was merely not enthralled by Gail Carson Levine's feminist fairy tale. I don't expect to see it go much further, but the story of Cinderella cursed with obedience, and the wits to try to thwart it, is certainly more enjoyable to read than two people who would be friends if they merely spoke for two minutes.

Winner: Ella Enchanted

A Season in the Life of Emmanuel by Marie Blais 
vs. River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

This does seem to be a day of the very easy choices. I read Marie Blais' book as a part of reading a Canadian Top 100, and was a little baffled by it. It's so over the top in its depiction of rural Quebec pre-Quiet Revolution. In the other corner, we have a book by one of my favourite authors, and if I don't think it's quite as good as the first set in this world, his depiction of an empire in slow decline is always gripping. No question, no contest, this round goes to Guy Gavriel Kay.
Winner: A River of Stars

The Woman Who Married a Bear by John Straley 
vs. A Companion to Wolves by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear

Now, that's a synchronicity in match-ups, isn't it? Not only do we have a book by a Bear, and a book with Bear in the title, we also have the connection of people becoming bonded to animals. In one case, however, it's metaphorical/legendary, and in the other, quite literal. There's a mystery set in Alaska, and a tale of growing up and fighting trolls alongside your wolf. Only one has a lot of sex, handled in a very interesting way. I liked Straley's mystery fine, but I liked A Companion to Wolves a lot more.

Winner: A Companion to Wolves

The Known World by Edward P. Jones vs. Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

Another interesting match-up! Two books about race, one written decades ago and only now published, the other a book of this century. One about civil rights in the States, the other about slavery. Both challenging in the ways they consider race, and often unsettling. However, despite all the hype, Harper Lee's book very much shows its unedited first novelness, whereas Jones' book is accomplished in every way. I enjoyed the ways both problematized matters we would like to think of as simple, but there's no question that Jones wins this round.

Winner: The Known World 

Monday, 28 December 2015

Look To Windward by Iain M. Banks

*Some Spoilers Below*

I have read so many of the Culture novels in such a short period of time that I find it difficult to know what to write this time. My online book club is doing a series read, so every month, there is another one. My relationship with the series tends to be up and down - some books I really enjoy, some I find frusratingly opaque. This was not one of the opaque ones.

Part of my problem is that I don't connect very easily to his characters. For one, they're never the same from book to book, so I don't have that lingering affection carrying over from one to the next. Which is not the worst thing in the world, because the characters are not where Banks puts the bulk of his attention, but I find they don't spring to life.

Which isn't to say the characters are poorly written. Banks is interested in motivation and how people react to trauma, but it all feels just a little bit clinical and detached. There's intellectual angst, and even emotional pain, but it is just…it's hard to find the right word. Distant probably comes closest. 

What I'm trying to say is that some writers write characters that leap off the page and are who they are so entirely they never go away. In Banks' books, the emotional circumstances of the characters are interesting, but the characters themselves are forgettable. What they do is what he seems to be interested in, not who they are.

So, while I'll remember Quilan's struggle for meaning in a world that has been stripped of it by personal loss, I'm not sure I'll remember him. I'm not sure I ever entirely knew him. I know what he did, and maybe why, but not who he was as a person that led him to that spot, to that moment. 

I did find this book interesting because it touches on an idea that's been drifting through my head recently, about the difference between justice and vengeance, and why we have a system put between perpetrator and victim, to protect both parties from the other. I was watching something on TV when someone who had had a family killed by a drunk driver, and it was troubling. There is so much pain, and the the guy who killed their loved one needs to face the consequences. But there are reasons we don't let the bereaved pick what those consequences are. Very necessary reasons, because very few people can put aside the urge to hurt the other person back, to make them suffer even more than they themselves are suffering. But there isn't an equilibrium of pain that can be achieved that way, and we are all so interconnected that there are very good reasons to get away from blood feuds and public executions.

How does that relate to this book? Well, there's a world that was riven by civil war, oppressed castes turning against privileged ones in an orgy of bloodshed, hit back with intense reprisals. Instead of looking at the fault lines that led to it, they turn their blame outwards, to the Culture, which did meddle, which did help create the circumstances that led to the civil war, because they didn't perceive quite how deep the wounds were. The survivors of the civil war cannot see themselves at fault, so they blame outwards. And want retribution.

The main character lost his wife, and suffers from a grief that would only be made worse by being relieved. He hurts so much that not to hurt would be a betrayal. He isn't emotional about it, though. Numb. Lost. And ready to do anything to die without actually committing suicide.

In this case, it's a recipe for how to commit horrific crimes while thinking yourself justified. What would the Culture do in return...well, these books are often about the ethics of interference, and Banks avoids easy answers - the interventions of the Culture may indeed be necessary, and are often effective. But they are also arrogant and culturally solipsistic. What are we justified in doing and when?

It is in these ideas that Banks shines, not in the characters, who are mostly there to be the vehicles through which the concepts are explored. In Look to Windward, he's exploring potent ideas that dovetail with thoughts I've beent hinking, and so it was one I enjoyed more than I have some of the others. 

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2015: Round One, Part Ten

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion vs. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss

The Rosie Project came near the very end of my years-long project to read some bestselling books, around about the time that I was fed up with it, and in search of a different method to stay current. While this book wasn't as irritating as some others I'd read, it still didn't set my world on fire. And so today's first match goes to Dr. Seuss, and The Lorax, because who doesn't need some good children's lit attacks on unfettered capitalism to start one's day?

Winner: The Lorax

S.E.C.R.E.T. by L. Marie Adeline vs Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett

Huh. Weird decision. Erotica that didn't really grab me vs. a children's book that didn't really grab me either. What a choice! Neither was objectionable, but neither made me excited, for bizarrely different definitions of the word. In both cases, I sort of appreciated what the author was trying to do without ever entirely buying in. I just have to shake my head at how hard it is to choose. I guess we come back to my core question - what would I want to read right now if I had the opportunity. Of the two? I guess the erotica - just barely.

Winner: S.E.C.R.E.T.

People of the Book edited by Rachel Swirsky vs. The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

I liked many of the stories in People of the Book a great deal. It was a strong collection, albeit one with lots and lots of golem stories. But anthologies are inevitably uneven, and so it's hard to pick one to continue. Particularly when it's up against nonfiction as good as The Ghost Map. For popular history, Johnson manages to pack a lot of complexity in there, even if he meanders in the conclusions.

Winner: The Ghost Map

Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson vs. Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley

No contest. Just no, no contest. I enjoyed Seconds, but Written on the Body blew my mind. It's going to be in this battle to the end, I predict, and has a good chance of winning the whole Dust Cover Dust-Up this year. The writing is magnetic and raw and powerful, the story difficult, the's just...I still get breathless just thinking about this book. So, so amazingly good.

Wineer: Written on the Body

Interesting match-up. Two older science fiction books. Unfortunately, neither were ones I loved. There were troubling aspects to both, and I thought Heinlein ditched his most interesting innovation far too quickly. But if it comes down to readability, it's got to go to Heinlein. There are things I don't like, but his writing style is never one of them.

Winner: The Puppet Masters

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton

Another book closer to having read the entire BBC Big Read list. The last is proving elusive, but I will track it down. This one was kindly loaned to me by John, courtesy of his son. Ninety-nine down. One to go. 

So, I remember reading a fair number of Enid Blyton books when I was younger - the Noddy books in particular, but also some of the Famous Five. I remember enjoying them, but not much detail remains. This, of course, is of an entirely different universe than those books, and it has all the elements of a charming, whimsical children's fantasy. What it doesn't have is an overarching plot.

I try not to be too demanding of children's books, except when I think I should be even more demanding because children deserve good books, dammit! This is a book of charming little episodes, and that's fine, and scarcely revolutionary for a children's book. However, my favourite childrens' books, even if they are episodic, have something to tie the overarching story together. 

We have four children, because there are almost always four children. Two boys and two girls, again, nothing new. (Except the girls are very thinly drawn - the two boys I can remember, but I retain almost nothing of the two girls' personalities, and I'm not really sure they had any. Disappointing, coming from a female author.)

Three of the children are siblings, and the fourth is their cousin Rick, who is staying with them for the summer. Rick is greedy and apt to get them into trouble. He doesn't listen as carefully to the rules of magic as the other three. 

The three siblings have a secret (and interestingly, in this series, the adults know about and interact with the magic beings the children have befriended.) It's a magic tree, populated by Moon Face, and a pixie-type named Silky, and Old Saucepan, who hangs saucepans all over his body. There's also a washerwoman fairy who empties her water down the tree, and an Angry Pixie, and probably a third. The real magic, however, lies at the top of the tree, where the very tip pokes into the roving magical lands that float about (presumably on clouds) and which the children can visit. But only for a little while, or the land might move off and they'll be trapped!

There is a Land of Presents, and a Land of Do-As-You-Please, and a Land of Topsy-Turvy, where people walk on their hands. Several times, the children get arrested for breaking the rules of whatever land they are in, through ignorance or thoughtlessness. 

All is not always well in the Lands above. Some people would rather live in the Magic Faraway Tree, like the Woman who Lives in a Shoe (and really wants to get away from her children) or the people from the Land of Tempers. In both cases, they try to steal the homes of Moonface and Saucepan and Silky and have to be tricked away.

It's not that any of these vignettes are bad. It's just that I want something to link them together. There's an episode where they are going to get a medicine for their sick mother, but a) she's not really that sick, and b) her being sick is just confined to that one chapter. The comparison that came to mind is The Magician's Nephew, where Digory's mother is not only ill, she's probably dying, and his worry about her colours the entire book. It's for around the same age range, and I think kids can follow an overarching plot perfectly easily. This book is charming, but it's missing something.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2015: Round One, Part Nine

Spook by Mary Roach vs. Rule 34 by Charles Stross

Another easy choice in the first round. Phew! I was not a huge fan of Roach - it felt very surface-level and used logical fallacies to dismiss ideas. I was quite sure better and more complete arguments could have been made. In the other corner, we have another Charles Stross book that I quite enjoyed, this one about the emergence of a conspiracy that appears to be killing spammers. Fun mysteries wrapped up in computer enigmas.

Winner: Rule 34

Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi vs. Annabel by Kathleen Winter

This is a weirdly difficult choice. On the one hand, we have pure fun science fiction. Not deep, not heavy, just plain old-fashioned fun about an agent in Hollywood who has to figure out how to make friendly but ugly and smelly aliens palatable to the human race. On the other hand, we have a more self-consciously literary look at someone who feels alien in the world, struggling with their place in a gendered system that they call into question by their very existence. It's a worthier book, I'm sure. I just...I really enjoyed Scalzi's book, while Annabel never quite caught me, and had a few things that were downright annoying. So, this feels like a weird choice, but I'm going with fun and light in this battle.

Winner: Agent to the Stars

Baby of the Family by Tina McElroy Ansa vs. 
Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Interesting. Both the novel and the anthology of short stories centre around legends brought to life, in very different ways. Some of the stories in the anthology were quite brilliant, and the overall quality was higher than I was expecting. However, I really enjoyed Baby of the Family. Ansa had created a work of domestic magical realism that I thought was quite impressive and certainly enjoyable. It would be hard for an anthology to beat out a good novel, and in this case, it doesn't.

Winner: Baby of the Family

Seriously...I'm Kidding by Ellen Degeneres vs. Goliath by Scott Westerfeld

Huh. Neither of these books were ones I really liked, so it's one of those times that a book makes it to the second round just because at least I liked it better than the second option. In that case, it'll be Goliath. I wasn't a big fan of this series, but the Ellen book was just so entirely slight. At least the steampunk young adult had a plot. Neither is terrible, neither I hated. But both were entirely forgettable. On that scale, Goliath is slightly more memorable.

Winner: Goliath

Saga, Vol. 4 by Brian K. Vaughn vs. Flash and Bones by Kathy Reichs

I am just not a fan of Kathy Reichs. Her books are filled with product placement, and the mysteries not that involving. That this one took place at a NASCAR track, about which I do know a little bit, didn't end up helping. However, this volume of Saga felt like it relied a bit too much on false drama and people not talking to each other, which are two of my pet peeves. Still, there's a lot to like in this series, and I'm still onboard for more Saga. SF over mystery, no question.

Winner: Saga Vol. 4

Monday, 21 December 2015

Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson

I think I actually read the three books that are all in this universe in order, although Count Zero was long enough ago that I remember very little of it, except that I liked it. Neuromancer I've always had a difficult relationship with - it just persists in keeping me at arms length. I get the story, I get the characters. I just don't...get it. Why it's so hugely popular. I don't dislike it, I'm just sort of baffled.

Now, at long last, I make it to the third book, because my online SF group had it as a choice this past month. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I actually enjoyed this one quite a lot. That strange distance I found between me and the prose and the characters wasn't there, and as always when that happens, it's hard to tell if it's a change in writing style, or that I'm finally in the right mindspace for this book at this particular point in time.

I won't go so far as to say I love this book, but I did find an easier connection to it than I have to other Gibson books so far. 

There are several interweaving storylines in this book. There's the daughter of a Japanese mob boss, sent to England for her own protection, who finds herself embroiled in the plans of the man she's sent to stay with, who is in the process of blackmailing some very dangerous people, including one familiar face with an unfamiliar name. 

There's the comatose man jacked into a machine, whom a suspicious character leaves in the care of an ex-con he knows, who builds robots according to certain designs in his head. 

There's a...shit, what's the world in Gibson's universe for the taping of human experience so others can try it out? Sim? Stim? At any rate, there's a woman who's the star of the sim world, recovering from addiction and able to communicate with the Net in ways no one else can.

There's a very young prostitute with a pimp with lofty dreams, who looks a little like the sim star mentioned above, enough so that in a convoluted scheme, it's worth someone's while to have her operated on to look just like the celebrity.

We come into the story when it's already in progress. The problem is that Count Zero was long enough ago that I don't remember whether or not these are dangling plotlines from that, or entirely new ones. At any rate, everyone's already running, and Gibson throws the reader in trying to keep up.

Strangely enough, there are also times where the plots simply fall apart without us ever really knowing what they are. Some characters are just that damned good. I am not sure what I think about this - it's interesting to watch competent characters run circles around unsuspecting others, but I do sometimes wish I'd been let in a little more on what they were foiling.

I think I get the outline, but...what were the bad guys going to do if they succeeded? They're thwarted at such a distance from the centre of power that it's never entirely clear to me. I get why the big bad wants Angie. I get why she hates her. I don't really get what she was going to do....

It's a relatively  minor quibble, I suppose. I don't mind being brought in in the middle of the action. It's just that the physical action that I saw sometimes seemed so far from the motivations behind it, and I find those motivations far more interesting and less explored. 

So, Gibson's still not my favourite author, but the writing style is growing on me.


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

Friday, 18 December 2015

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of those science fiction authors that I have respected but not loved. The two of his books that I've previously read were both well-written, although for my taste, they spent too long without people on the scientific exposition. I am okay with scientific exposition, but in slightly smaller doses. Or mixed with people. For his early books (and the two I've read were early in his career - the first two Mars books), there are just too many data dumps. Still, on the whole, I liked both books.

The other reasons that I haven't loved him is what feels like an underlying pessimism. It's hard to put my finger on, but there's a real sense about these books that there is a limit to whether or not things can get better, a limit to human knowledge and reach. While that's not a bad thing, per se, when it's persistent and pervasive, it makes it hard for me to look forward to his books. I can acknowledge they're interesting and well-written, but this quiet pessimism is just a little much to take.

So then we get to 2312, which actually addresses, if not solves, both these issues in interesting manners. But first, the plot. It is 2312, surprise, surprise. Humanity has spread throughout the solar system, but the stars are still out of reach, and perhaps always will be. Earth has maintained a capitalist economy that sucks its workers dry, as a general rule. Mars is part of a new system that is explained, but I'm not sure I ever got entire hold of it. It's interesting, anyway. It's a controlled exchange society, with free market capitalism played as a game of risk only at the margins. Venus is partially terraformed, Mercury has a travelling city that stays out of the sunlight, the asteroids are heavy with people (and many have been hollowed out as habitats and turned into ships.) The moons of Saturn are resource heavy, and those who live there have to struggle against those that want to break them down for parts.

That's not the plot. That's just the setting. In the midst of this, there are people. Swan, grieving her grandmother, prone to impulsive behaviour and fear of being in any one space for too long. Wahram, from...Titan, I think? Stolid and quiet and slow to act. There is also a "small" - genetically engineered small human police inspector from Mars, because smaller size equals longevity.

They meet after her grandmother's death, and Swan becomes aware how much her grandmother kept off any kind of computer, only slowly. There seems to be a conspiracy on the move. It may have to do with the AIs that are being developed. Or about politics on Earth. Or terraforming plans elsewhere. Without knowing the origin point, it is dangerous. And the system is tilting precariously.

So, back to my initial two points. In 2312, Robinson has utterly solved the first one. He's gotten away from long data dumps in favour of shorter chapters which are made up of short incomplete sentence excerpts that read like they're lifted from textbooks. They give you just as much information as you need, no more, and no need to go step by step through all the science. I appreciate this method - enough science to keep me interested, not so much that I start to zone out.

There are also interesting disjointed stream of consciousness chapters, and it only becomes apparent what those are towards the end of the book. It's more self-consciously literary than I've seen from Robinson before, and it works.

As for the pessimism, yeah, that's still there. But it's leavened now, with some more human connection, some recognition of the beauty of persistence and connection, even in a universe that may not bend to our will. There were a couple of places where his writing about loneliness and connection made me tear up. So, while that distance hasn't been erased, I am much more eager to read another Kim Stanley Robinson book than I would have been. It's an excellent read, a great scope, and although I wanted to strangle Swan every once in a while, she grew on me.


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

Monday, 14 December 2015

Wise Children by Angela Carter

People recommend books to me a lot. It's hard to know when or how to fit them all in! And then there's the worry I won't like a book that is very dear to a dear friend's heart. For a long time, I just avoided reading books that had been recommended to me, unless someone pushed a physical copy into my hot little hands. (This is still the fastest way to get a book to the top of my list.) So I started a new list to read of books friends recommended. If you want to get in on this, you can recommend a book on this post.

This book was recommended to me by my Sarah!

I trust my sister's choice in books, but I was a little startled when I picked up this book that it was about the theatre. I don't know why that should startle me, except that I scarred her once by exposing her to a bunch of actors, and she's seemed a little leery since. At the remove of fiction, though, this was apparently right up her alley, and I'm pleased to say that it was exactly to my taste as well.

I knew almost nothing about Angela Carter before I picked it up, butw as delighted to find her writing something so thoroughly Shakespearean/theatrical. It's about a pair of twins who made it "big" in English music hall theatre, but have connections to the legitimate theatre because they are the illegitimate children of the leading male Shakespearean actor of his generation.

Oh god, there are so many twins! Not only that, twins whose parentage is frequently in question. Carter is playing a great deal with legitimacy and illegitimacy here, both in the legal sense around birth, but also to do with the "legitimate" and "illegitimate" theatre - the grungy spotlights that are a far cry from those who set themselves up as the bearers of culture.

Except that this book subtly makes the point that from the point of view of "normal" society, there's less difference between the music halls and the august stages than you might think. An air of raffishness persists, and as far as love lives go, both groups are less bound by conventional morality. And it's all thoroughly enjoyable.

The main characters are octogenarian twins, invited to their father's 100th birthday party, even though he's never acknowledged them as his children. From their time on the music hall stages, they're fascinating older women - the story is told by Dora, of herself and her sister Nora.

Their father, of course, is a twin as well, and has fathered two other sets of twins (or has he? There's lots of questionable parentage in this one. As well as ungrateful children, ousting of parents from their homes, drownings of grief-crazed young women, mixed identities galore, falling in love with asses, and many other Shakespearean nods.)

The writing is what really makes this shine - Angela Carter can certainly turn a phrase, and the characters and world jump vividly to life under her pen. In sixty years of people falling in love, cheating, remarrying, betraying, disliking, liking, the myriad characters were always memorably distinct and entertaining.

Since this book is a comedy, at the end, all is restored. (Comedy not in the sense of being funny, although it is, but in the sense of Northrop Frye's elucidation of Shakespearean genre. ) I'm very happy Sarah recommended this book to me, and would happily recommend it to any other lovers of the theatre, or simply good prose and Shakespearean hijinks.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Dust Cover Dust-Up 2015: Round One, Part Eight

His Monkey Wife by John Collier vs. Black Powder War by Naomi Novik

This one was depressingly evil. As soon as I saw the first title, I knew whatever the second in the book of the match-up was, it was going to win. His Monkey Wife was one of my least favourite books of the year, so even though I didn't love Black Powder War, it gets through this round. Napoleonic Dragon Wars may be wearing on me, but their better than His Monkey Wife, which is pretty much about what it sounds like.

Winner: Black Powder War

Cocaine Nights by J.G. Ballard vs. The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

That's kind of a trippy combo. Both very strange books, where morality is up-ended and things are confusing, even to those in the middle of them. (And also to the reader, but not in a bad way in either case.) The choice is easy, though. I was not engaged by the deep pessimism in Ballard's writing, and at times, intensely amused by G.K. Chesterton's story. Instead of morally bankrupt rich people, I'm more amused by a policeman's infiltration of an anarchist ring, particularly the decidedly bizarre ending. It may not make sense, but of the two, it's definitely my favourite.

Winner: The Man Who Was Thursday

That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis vs. The Immorality Engine by George Mann

Both books set in England, although slightly distant in time - one in the 1950s, the other in Victorian steampunk England, with an immortal (and partly mechanized) Queen Victoria. Although I find Mann's books diverting, there's not a lot there. And while I didn't love That Hideous Strength, the ideas are intriguing enough to get it through this round.

Also maybe I have a secret desire to pit G.K. Chesterton against C.S. Lewis.

Winner: That Hideous Strength

The Long Way Home by Louise Penny vs. Dry by Augusten Burroughs

Sorry, Augusten Burroughs. I don't want to downplay your struggles with alcoholism, and I did enjoy reading your memoir. But this is Louise Penny we're talking about. Although the first book after the wrap-up of her overarching plot was bound to be a bit of a disappointment after the culmination of so many books, this is still an excellent mystery. And, as always, she has such a keen sense of human pain. I toss that off like it's nothing, because I've said it so many times about Penny before. It's not, though. It's quite extraordinary, and make these books that would stand up against any others. 

Winner: The Long Way Home

Shoggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear vs. Katherine by Anya Seton

I was not a big fan of Anya Seton's historical romance, which took as its premise that Katherine couldn't possibly have been interested in anything that was going around her other than her children and lover. Yawn. In the other corner, we have a really excellent book of short stories by Elizabeth Bear, stories that often build on her existing worlds, and are as frequently like jagged pieces of glass. She puts her characters through the wringer, and I always love it. 

Winner: Shoggoths in Bloom