52 weeks · book update

Hello Again! Happy New Year + Book Resolutions 2018

At least you can say the blog lives up to its name. Happy New Year! (?)

Ohhh gosh. So much for one post a week. Maybe I should reevaluate. But the truth is…tests, sick, exams, sick, friends and relatives in town, and sick again. Also, I’m very lazy. Moving on, I know everyone has done their ‘2017 in Books’ and to be honest I don’t know if I could write a full blogpost on that. My 2017 in books has mostly been pretty pathetic – stuff for class, a ton of plays, and a lot of stuff I’ve been ‘saving for 2018’. So…my 2017 in books is a lot of unread books I guess. I plan to do loads better this year…however. Books cost money, I have no steady job, and I do have a constant stream of classes and tests and other responsibilities. Also I may have committed to others for no reason whatsoever. That’s the 2018 Poet Bloggers Revival Tour, if you’re interested, basically poetry bloggers committing to blogging once a week. I might be doing that here and I will try to do it on my tumblr. Basically, I’m doing 52 weeks again, but one post for each place. 26 weeks if you like. I really don’t know why, but…well.

So, what’s the point of this post. Hey, maybe I’ll vaguely talk about which books I (roughly) plan to read. I don’t have it down to names and authors yet as much as I have a vague idea. I’ve got big plans for this year. (But I had big plans for last year too…)
Okay. So. Here are my (kind of) book-related resolutions for 2018.

1. Read more classics
I find the term ‘classic’ difficult when we apply it to literature because practically anything of canonical literary value (debatable, of course) written roughly before 2000 seems to be one. I mean, if it’s not a classic classic it’s a modern classic. I don’t think people should be forced to read classics (or anything), but I do think it’s quite an umbrella term for such a large number of varying-genre books. I mean, there aren’t many similarities between I Capture the Castle and 1984, even if they were written in the same year (although I’m sure you could find some if you tried). That’s why I’m often pleasantly surprised when I like classics I read. There are some I have a low tolerance for; I’m not a Dickens fan (yet?) and there are, of course, many I’ve started and abandoned (…Les Misérables) but that wasn’t specifically out of lack of interest. So this year I definitely want to get more classics off my to-read list, including but not limited to Tolstoy’s epic novels, Gone With the Wind and Wuthering Heights (though to be frank I’m not very keen on the latter), Camus, Kafka and Foucault, annnd the list goes on. I might even give Hemingway another shot. Whether I’ll be able to review these or not is another matter because I’m quite unsure of myself when it comes to reviewing (period), and further, even more unsure when it comes to reviewing books that have been beloved by many for years. But let’s see. Maybe I’ll finish Lolita and it won’t be this year, but who knows, it might be Crime and Punishment instead. 

(c) and never arriving

2. Read more non-fiction
I had this down for last year as well! It was a no-go. Celebrity memoirs don’t count, even if they are funny and easy to get through in one evening. I have started a non-fic right now, which I’m actually looking forward to getting back to. However, mostly my issue with non-fic is I get so tempted by the fiction section in bookstores I never go over there. Bu I’m trying to be somewhat serious about this and therefore I hope I’ll be able to finish at least a handful of non-fiction books this year. That would definitely be an improvement from last year…

3. Catch up on the longlists
I know that there are naturally loads of brilliant books out there which don’t make it on the Booker/Baileys/Pulitzer etc etc lists but I often don’t have any foreknowledge of the books that make it on those lists until I see the lists (well, partly because I assume the publication date is staggered and critics read them first, and everything takes longer to get here anyway, where I live). I don’t always love prizewinners (or nominees) but I do find the subject matter interesting and I often like how it’s a detailed case-study of one particular instance or period in time (like Catton’s The Luminaries or Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves). I generally find that I’ve usually learned something from those books. With so many books being released each day it’s difficult to keep up, but I’m looking forward to making some progress with this year’s nominees (specially Lincoln in the Bardo, but honestly they all look pretty interesting) and hopefully catching up on a couple of the last few years’ nominees.

4. Finish more series’ I’ve left hanging
And I’ve left a lot hanging. I’ve had most of the A Series of Unfortunate Events books for a long time (I think I’m missing three or four). I still don’t know what happens in the end, I don’t know how I’ve avoided it for so long, but I don’t know. Unfortunately I have the annoying habit of not wanting to read books I don’t own, which means I have too many books and too little money. But we’ll see. A lot of series’ I’ve left off in the middle are in the fantasy genre; Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy, Robin Hobb’s The Rain Wild Chronicles, Naomi Novik’s Temeraire, stuff like that. No one ever wants to write fantasy standalones for some reason. Reading these will require me to actually start from the first book because I’ve forgotten everything, but who knows, maybe I’ll get one series done? That’s actually enough for me. A year goes fast.

5. Read more historical fiction
I often don’t come across a lot of historical fiction that’s actually really good; so if you’ve got any recommendations maybe let me know. I know I must eventually get around to reading the one everyone tells me is a masterpiece: Wolf Hall. I’ve read entirely too much Philippa Gregory and I prefer something with a little more meat to it. I did pick up two of Ken Follett’s (accidentally?) so I’m looking forward to reading those. I’m just going to keep my eye out at the bookstores. Oh, visit more second-hand bookstores, that should be a separate point, but the last one is…

6. Finish my Goodreads target
This usually happens no matter what because I’ll inevitably change my goal to fit how much I’ve read in the last December days when I know the year has beaten me. (What can I say, I take failure very badly. I’ll take a fake win over that.) A hundred books looks quite a measly number after all these ambitious goals I’ve sketched out, but frankly, if I could even do one book/book series from every point up there I’d be happy. I feel in the last year I kind of lost sight of how fun it was to read, I was absorbed in studying and panicking and I ruined it for myself. This year I want to have fun, I want to read what I want and read what I like, and hopefully I’ll have time to do enough of it.

So that’s that! I know this isn’t really that interesting, but I don’t have anything to review at present, so I just thought I’d chalk out my plans for the year, which will eventually end up as a puddle of tears at my feet in December. I thought I’d start the year an optimist for a change (no, I didn’t, but January’s going fast so I don’t have to keep up the pretense for long in any case) and then let things go to pieces later. This is more a ‘resolutions for the next 5 years’ than it is just for this year, but it never hurts to make lists. Let me know if you have any resolutions yourself, or any recommendations! And scene, 2017.

book review

Book Review: Magpie Murders [by Anthony Horowitz]

Image (c) goodreads.com

I haven’t had much experience with Horowitz’s writing. As a kid I was aware of the hype around Alex Rider but was never interested in it. The only books I did read at a much younger age were Groosham Grange and its sequel. I did like them, and I’ve reread them a few times since. But this was my first attempt at a Horowitz novel catering to older audiences.

It’s difficult to dissect this novel without giving much away, since it’s a mystery, but I’ll do my best. Susan Ryeland has been editing the mystery novels of Alan Conway through the Cloverleaf publishing house since his first (she ‘discovered’ him, as it were); she doesn’t like him much but she likes the novels starring Atticus Pünd – a German WWII concentration camp survivor turned private detective – and when she’s given the manuscript for his latest detective novel set in a small gossip-ridden village, Magpie Murders, she begins to suspect that something very wrong is going on.

Why is it that we have such a need for murder mystery and what is it that attracts us – the crime or the solution? Do we have some primal need of bloodshed because our own lives are so safe, so comfortable?

I didn’t expect the story-within-a-story to take out such a chunk of the book. The cozy mystery that Magpie Murders is occupied with takes up roughly half of the novel itself. At first I was skeptical, but when it comes to crime fiction, I’m very lazy. I can find anything interesting. So I was pretty much hooked a few pages in. Written somewhat in the vein of Agatha Christie (not having read Doyle I can’t comment on that aspect), with his novels set in the 50s, Horowitz recreates the prose of the absent author Alan Conway. Susan Ryeland, the protagonist for (most of) the rest of the novel, notes that he is one of the most successful crime fiction authors of the time, and also at the same time repeatedly brings up how badly their publishing house is doing.

Two issues: firstly, I can understand the Agatha Christie style being popular in 1995 (when Conway published his first Pünd novel) but post 2012 we seem to be looking at more of a Gone Girl era. I don’t claim to know much about the genre of crime fiction (I really don’t – know or claim, both) but I think readers nowadays expect more psychology out of crime, more character depth, just more. Of course everyone still reads Agatha Christie, but she started writing in the early 1900s. Would people today still be interested in a Christie-imitator when they can get the real thing?
Secondly, a publishing house with an author who sells that many books – can it really do badly? I again don’t claim to know anything about publishing. But Susan often reminds us of Conway’s achievements as a popular author, only to go on to say that he’s the only success story the publishing house has. If this is how publishing really works, sue me, (not actually) I’d hate to be in that business. A world-bestselling author, his work translated into 35 languages, and the publishers are getting no good manuscripts otherwise?

Now that that’s out of the way. The internal story that Alan Conway wrote, Magpie Murders, is written in simple, uncomplicated, unremarkable prose. It’s basically a Christie 2.0, except I liked Poirot much more. It’s a normal, prototypes and tropes and all crime fiction piece. Everyone has a motive, and only the detective – and to some extent, the reader – is in the know. The external mystery that Susan Ryeland tries to crack is penned in what I assume to be Horowitz’s more natural prose – crisp, realistic, somewhat casual. And the third literary piece that we get a short glimpse of, Alan Conway’s novel which the publisher rejected, The Slide, is dismissed by both Susan and the publisher as ‘bad writing’, which I find puzzling, considering that there’s nothing extraordinary about the Atticus Pünd novels in any case, and there wasn’t enough of an extract from the book for me to gauge a concrete opinion. It’s radically different from Pünd no doubt, but different isn’t terrible. In fact, I do question Ryeland’s abilities as an editor if she thought Conway was such a great writer. He can form a mystery, no doubt, but the prolonged offering we get of last book is unremarkable in its prose and characters. It’s very been there, done that.

I’m usually sorry when I dislike a book. I feel even worse when I think a book is mediocre, everyone else liked it, and I don’t have much to say about why I felt…nothing. But that’s what I thought. The cozy mystery of Magpie Murders was actually more interesting to me than the outer mystery that Susan Ryeland finds herself being drawn into. I found the crucial revelatory scene in Ryeland’s mystery contrived and overdone.

Ultimately, in the outer mystery, the secrets weren’t big enough, the motive wasn’t strong enough, and none of it was clever enough. Wordplay and character-matching with two novels are all well when you do the story-within-a-story deal, but in this case, sadly, they made up bones that never formed a skeleton.

The two stories remained disparate except for a few tricks and connectors here and there, leading me to question the need for either one in the first place. Do one, not both. And I would’ve enjoyed the first (unoriginal thought it may be) story more, with its Christie-esque style (which, I suppose, goes against my thing about people wanting to read that these days, but hey, it’s a comparison) without the momentum being interrupted by Susan’s investigation, which results in a solution that’s just…well, lukewarm, I suppose.

There are several other unrealistic scenarios in the novel that (fortunately for me) are bursting with spoilers, so I don’t have  to talk about them. I feel like too many people liked this book. I didn’t. I feel I’ve read better, that Horowitz can write a cleverer book, and that the crime fiction genre has definitely produced better. So, I leave no definite recommendation. If you liked the pitch, you’ll fall for it like a sitting duck (my phrasing might need some work). If you didn’t, well…there are more positive reviews out there, if you’re still keen.

Sometimes, some books come at the wrong time. Maybe it came at the wrong time for me. Maybe there was never really a right time. Who knows. I do know it’s impossible to analyse any piece of art objectively. Everything, unfortunately, is personal. Also, this is a rushed review and I didn’t talk much about character, pacing, etc., but to be honest, I have no real opinion on those aspects. Two novels in one are two halves, except it felt like I had the wrong lid for the bowl, if that makes sense.
Also, excuse #2, I have three tests in the next two weeks, if someone wants to give them for me that’d be great.

PS. A much more successful attempt at this sort of book-within-a-book (kind of) has been attempted (in my limited view) in Galbraith/JK Rowling’s The Silkworm. So in case you’re looking for something similar, but in my opinion, more clever (if extremely perverse), that’s what I would go for. Although it does lead me to wonder if and why so many authors are rude to their publishers.

All quotes attributed to the respective work.

book review

Book Review: Slade House [by David Mitchell]

Image (c) goodreads.com

This is the first book I’ve read by David Mitchell, as I just said (why yes I do have to link to my old posts because no one reads them!)  and it’s pretty short, roughly 230 pages in my (very pretty) hardcover. Now I haven’t read The Bone Clocks but I’m given to believe that this is set in the same universe. And also that a lot of Mitchell’s books are interconnected when it comes to featuring old characters. I might be wrong, I get all my info from goodreads, but it sounded like it could be true so there you go. I don’t plan to do any research before reading The Bone Clocks, but it might be a while before I get around to it, even.

I’ll try to keep this as spoiler free as possible but Slade House is a horror book and I do need to talk about something so…if you’re going into it cold (like I did), just don’t read this, I guess (not that anyone is anyway…I’m just talking to myself, not creepy at all). Anyways.

So. Slade House. A small iron door is usually what greets the narrator, if they’re lucky enough (ha), every nine years or so. They might meet either of a pair of twins – a brother and a sister – who live there (loosely speaking). Or both. But once they enter the alternate reality that’s pulling the strings behind Slade House, it’s very difficult to leave. Very ‘Hotel California’-esque (and strangely enough, the song is mentioned in the book).
So if that was vague enough, that’s pretty much Slade House inadequately summed up by me. The book is divided into five parts, each dedicated to a different ‘guest’ who walks past the iron door and into Slade House (sometimes figuratively speaking).

The man looks towards me, but not at me, as if he can’t quite place where my words are coming from. ‘They…don’t…e…ven…let…you…die…pro…per…ly.’

I think it’s difficult to be original these days when it comes to horror and disturbing imagery. Everything’s been done already. So the concept of Slade House isn’t a hundred percent refreshing, but it’s interesting enough to hold your attention. It’s very readable, and with a low page count it really doesn’t take more than a couple hours. At first I wasn’t sure if I liked Mitchell’s style – it’s very modern and casual, with the occasional interesting (sometimes even quasi-poetic) turn-of-phrase. But it was engaging enough and it grew on me quite easily, I wasn’t really ever bored.
When it comes to how this book scores in the horror slot, I feel like I’m not the best person to say. I don’t read much horror, and when I do, it doesn’t really affect me. However I should say that this book had a few really good moments with inventive visual description. There was nothing really over-the-top about the horror, but some of the images were unnerving enough to stay with you for a bit, and they were conveyed very well. But there were no surprises. And it was a bit of a stretch to expect to be scared of the people doing the scaring, at least for me.

I think the main issue with this book that I had was how repetitive it was. By the second chapter you kind of know how the drill goes. The visual elements that work in the first chapter begin to lose their clout a little as the words go by. It’s not a matter of who or how, even the matter of when doesn’t have any suspense attached to it. It’s mostly a matter of: in what specific circumstance does this occur? And there’s only so much suspense you can extract out of that. Mitchell is also quite patchy with exposition. He’s never meagre about it, in fact, in one or two of the chapters he strikes the perfect balance with letting things unfold in a natural way. But in other chapters there’s an information overload, there’s too much being given away in one go, and there’s really not much enthusiasm you can muster up to stay alert when reading.

Five parts/chapters, and if you’ve read the first chapter…I feel like you’ve read most of the book. It’s not that it isn’t interesting, it’s just that there’s nothing really that’s worth uncovering. There’s no great and terrible secret lurking in the corner. It’s all quite predictable. There are questions that are answered, but the questions being asked lack the weight required to keep a reader totally hooked. Lines casually dropped in the previous stories do come back to resolve themselves later, but that’s the kind of thoroughness I would expect in a book this short, really.

The characters are fine, they feel quite lived-in, Mitchell has no trouble switching narrators. At times I can’t tell exactly what his intentions are; as we go through the chapters the ‘villains’ of the story gain more and more prominence, and he spends some time trying to humanise them, even giving them amusing little quippy lines. I don’t really think this worked in his favour to make the book a better horror read, but I do think it added some texture to the novel and made it more interesting. I liked that he made that attempt to flesh out those characters in particular, gave them their little intricacies.

Initially, I thought I would review this by going through it chapter but chapter, but I thought that would suck all the fun out of it, and anyways, it’s a short book. I hope I didn’t give too much away. Anyways, with regard to the ending, I thought it was a bit deus ex machina. But to be honest, I don’t really know how Mitchell could’ve written himself out of this one. As for the last few lines I thought it was fine – neither a huge let down nor a brilliant breakthrough.

I feel like this hasn’t been a very successful review (I feel like I say this about all my reviews). If you’re a horror fan or easily frightened by descriptive literature, you could go for it anyway. If you’re not, and you’re not a fan of Mitchell’s writing style or the concept, this might not be for you. This review may have come out more negative than intended, but actually I think on balance it’s a decent book. It’s an easy read; the repetition isn’t really annoying per se because you kind of expect it, and anyway it’s not as though everything is repeated. I think I would prefer to not view it as a horror book (because it’s probably more of a disappointment than not on that scale, at least for me) and just as a quirky read. But the focus of the book is horror, and in that it doesn’t really work for me. Some of the elements in the book were…fine. There was nothing wrong with them. But there was nothing really to write home about. A couple sprints ahead of mediocre.

This doesn’t by any means mean I’m going to give up on Mitchell, I still plan to read The Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas, I’m interested to see how he does with consistent characterisation, exposition and plot in other his other work. So, I do still look forward to reading those. (In fact, towards the end I thought Mitchell was cutting it close a bit, with a few too many references to other situations, and thus, books; I assume, The Bone Clocks, primarily, which isn’t really great for a standalone. So, yeah, that didn’t help.) I didn’t not enjoy reading Slade House. Overall, it was fine. I wanted to like it more. Alas.

Anyways, see you sometime. God knows when. God should know, I certainly don’t. I’ll bet it’s a weekday, I’ve got a five out of seven chance (That’s still how probability works right? Anyway, RIP Maths.).

All quotes attributed to the respective work.

book update

Currently-Reading Update [October 2017]

Gosh, time flies when you lie (courtesy Youtuber Nat Tran). So much for a post a week. Couldn’t even do a post a month. Anyways.

I need to come up with snappier titles (and also dates) for these things. Between classes, listening to Alice Isn’t Dead and blind auditions of The Voice (god knows why), tests, and test results, I haven’t had much time to read. I’ve kind of been casually doing it anyway (autopilot?) and here are some I’ve been getting through this month. I’ve actually already finished most of these, but I’ve done the currently reading posts before, so I figured I’d put it all in one neat basket.

Wyrd Sisters (Terry Pratchett)
I’ve read this before, but since I’ve been microexamining Macbeth, I figured I’d give it a reread (something I very very rarely do with books). I’m enjoying the experience (imagine that). I have a goldfish memory so for the most part it felt like I was reading something new, and it was as amusing as I expected it to be. I find Pratchett’s novels difficult to dissect in the way I would other novels, occasionally I find myself thinking something’s going over my head, even if it isn’t. But this time it felt like a clearer road; I enjoyed the jumble of witches, murderous kings, fools and general humour. Whether or not you’re well versed with Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, if Pratchett can usually get a laugh out of you, this is worth it. I’m not sure this book would make the greatest introduction to Discworld though (if you’re unfamiliar with his work), but to be honest I haven’t read enough of them to know. Anyways I think it’s easily enjoyable overall, and the witches feature prominently, which is always a plus. Apart from a few problematic exceptions, this is fun, funny, and clever.

Image (c) goodreads.com

Averno (Louise Glück)
I also read Faithful and Virtuous Night but figured I’d just mention one here to be concise. I kind of rushed through this which I know one really shouldn’t do with poetry. I look forward to rereading it (really?) at some point in the future. For the present moment, ‘Averno’ (the titular poem) remains my favourite. I’d recommend it, actually – just that one poem, if you have the time. It’s beautiful.

The Books of Imirillia (Beth Brower)
This is actually a trilogy (what isn’t these days), the first one being The Queen’s Gambit. Followed by The Ruby Prince and The Wanderer’s Mark. This YA fantasy series is pretty much a poor man’s The Queen’s Thief series. The latter I’ve read and very much enjoyed (I won’t get into the details here) so when I read Brower’s books on a lazy weekend (yes, I’ve had free time and I haven’t blogged, I’m awful) I was pretty much able to join the dots. This is a mediocre series at best with a heavy-handed romance as the series progresses; it might strike you as slightly more impressive if you actually haven’t read Turner’s series. I felt it had a great deal of potential but ultimately fell short; Brower’s focus on romance inhibited the political sharpness she seemed to be aiming for, and it just wasn’t really as clever or impressive as it could’ve been. Instead it became unrealistic, with strange dialogue and somewhat stale characters. It’s kind of better than a lot of YA fantasy making the rounds these days, but it’s nowhere near the best.

Intimacy and Other Stories (Jean-Paul Sartre)
I also recently reread No Exit (honestly, all this rereading is the most I’ve ever done) and I may just prefer that to this, although I’ve only read 2 stories out of 5 so far. Actually, scratch that, I found ‘The Wall’ quite interesting (‘Intimacy’, the titular story, less so) – a political prisoner’s musings on death. I’m looking forward to reading the rest at my own pace, and with more time to savour it, and not rush through. The prose-style is unique, particularly when we’re in the characters’ heads.

Tower of Dawn (Sarah J Maas)
On the same lazy weekend…yeah. I’ve no particular interest in Maas’ books; I know they’re beloved by many but also harshly criticised by some, and for the most part I agree with those criticisms. I think I skimmed the previous book and I’ve (kind of) read the first five (ish?) with varying degrees of commitment as they’ve released over the years. There’s nothing impressive about this one, it’s full of clichés, warrior nursed back to health by magical healer, love story, evil things lurking, etc etc etc. I think (as many do) that Maas would probably strengthen her plots and characters more if they weren’t all inhumanely attractive and attracted to each other all the time with a ridiculously enforced gender binary sketched through awful love scenes, but I’m not going to waste much time deriding her when so many have done it already (I did like Manon for say a few seconds before she turned out like everyone else). If you like her, I guess you could read this (or you already have). If you don’t, well, it’s just more of the same. Only a few of the old characters feature (the others get mentions). I’m guessing this is something of a filler book as she works on the actual series.

Image (c) goodreads.com

To The Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf)
So far I’ve only read Woolf’s essays, and I’ve really fallen in love with a few. This book was so beautiful in its prose, her brilliant ability to capture such specific human feelings in words is almost overwhelming. So while I was totally enamoured of the prose, I knew (and I’d expected) that the action in the book was minimal. At times this got a little boring. I want to reread it again at some point (I really don’t know why I’m going on and on about that today), slower, so I can appreciate it more. But before that I want to read pretty much everything else she’s ever written. (In case you’re interested, some of them do get to the lighthouse. But it takes a while. It takes most of the book, actually.)

Slade House (David Mitchell)
This has been a longer list than I normally do. I didn’t list everything, but I do plan to review this one sometime (hopefully soon). This is the first I’ve read of Mitchell (I’ve obviously heard of Cloud Atlas and I own The Bone Clocks but I’ve read neither, yet) and I’m definitely open to reading more. I actually just finished this last night. It’s somewhere between horror and fantasy, or both. I won’t spend too much time talking about it here, but this book definitely had its moments. In a nutshell, something very strange happens every nine years in Slade House.
(Was that good? Should they hire me to write trailer openers for thriller movies? I thought not.)

That’s been my literary October so far. If you’ve been reading anything interesting let me know!

listicle · recommendation

5 Fairy Tale Fantasies Worth a Read

When I say fairy tale fantasies, I mean fantasies with a fairy tale atmosphere or novels that are rooted in fairy tales. (I thought ‘retellings’ might be too specific…perhaps for another post.) I think these are often difficult to pull off (but so are a lot of other genres); the plot trajectory, if taken from an existing fairy tale, is often predetermined, and so the onus is on the author to make it worth it, through plot innovations, character depth, language, and so on. These are some (probably not so obscure) fairy tale fantasy novels/collections that I think are definitely worth a read.

Image (c) goodreads.com

1. The Bloody Chamber & Other Stories (Angela Carter)
This is a short story collection that was published back in 1979. Carter died in ’72, and this might not seem a particularly shocking book now, but for its time, it did prove to be something of a shock, for its depiction of sexuality and even, violence. Carter remarked that she was working with the “latent content” from existing fairy tales, and I don’t know how original they would seem to a 21st century reader (particularly in the era of dystopias and grit-lit). But Carter’s lush, nearly decadent prose is really the most engaging thing for me. It’s a collection of 10 stories, all (I’m sure) studied under microscope in universities by now, but it makes for interesting reading and I think in a time when we’re still seeing ‘classic’ remakes of films like Cinderella and The Beauty and the Beast (although I haven’t seen the latter) Carter’s ’79 collection is actually not totally un-original. At times horrifying, macabre and grim (the shortest story, ‘The Snow Child’, is certainly all three) but narrated in rich-toned prose, the stories are based on a variety of fairy tales (and other things besides) like the Bluebeard tale, Red Riding Hood, Sleepy Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, and so on. My personal favourites now are ‘The Erl King’ (I wasn’t aware of the Danish origin, so this was a totally fresh story for me at first) and ‘The Lady of the House of Love’ (a kind of twisted up take on Sleeping Beauty which is, for me, entirely carried by the prose alone). The language might be a little difficult if you’re more used to casual prose but it’s well worth it for me.

His wedding gift, clasped round my throat. A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat. – ‘The Bloody Chamber’, Angela Carter.

2. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Catherynne M. Valente)
A much more child-friendly book, this is about a 12 year old girl September’s adventures in Fairyland, as she leaves behind her dull home in Omaha, Nebraska. I was initially reluctant to read it – I felt it would either be absolutely for children (which there’s nothing wrong with, but it’s not really something I would read eagerly) or it wouldn’t be interesting enough to hold my attention for very long. I was wrong on both counts; this is a beautiful, fantastical, and extremely original novel that everyone can read. It is not specifically a fairy tale (too long, for one) but it does have fairy tale-like qualities. But really, it’s a book that creates a brand new world, populated by interesting and colourful characters, sometimes comical, casually mysterious, and bursting with a whimsical and powerful freshness even in its plot. I was so pleasantly surprised by this in so many ways, and I’m looking forward to reading the two sequels when I finally have the time.

3. Poison (Chris Wooding)
This is sadly the only book I’ve read by Wooding, and I read it a couple years back, but it managed to be quite memorable. Drawing upon the changeling myth, Poison, about a teenage girl who lends her name to the title, sets out to rescue her little sister Azalea who’s been replaced by a changeling. Girls going off on adventures is becoming a bit of a theme here but this (somewhat) YA (slightly) horror fantasy is strange, morbid, and would probably make an interesting film with its visual descriptions of characters like The Bone Witch and the spidery Lady Asinastra. It might be a bit deus ex machina-ish at times, but it’s still very engaging, sometimes a little Coraline-esque in its twistedness. I enjoyed it very much when I read it, and while I’m sure this kind of thing has been done since, I don’t really ever tire of dark fairy tales when they’re done well. The end kind of meandered into a bit of a metafictional theme and I remember thinking the book lost a little focus there, but who knows, maybe someone else would find it even more interesting.

It was dark in the Realm of Spiders. The sky was a mottled velvet colour, wisps of purple cloud drifting across the cold points of starlight, far away. No moon lit this realm, and yet it was as bright as the brightest night in the Realm of Man, for everything glistened here.Poison, Chris Wooding.

Image (c) goodreads.com

4. White is for Witching (Helen Oyeyemi)
I struggled a bit to include this on the list, because I personally didn’t love it. It’s very unconventional in its gothic, meandering, supernatural tone, but it follows no sense of linearity or tradition in its plot. In fact, I’m not even sure it has one. Miranda Silver, having lost her mother, deals with her grief and her eating disorder (pica) at the same time, as her house begins to wake to the voices of generations of women within. It’s quite a dark, strange book, perhaps more psychological horror than fairy tale, and it’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. I did remain interested till the end, but didn’t have much to say about it once I was done. I’ve read some of Oyeyemi and plan to read more, but I don’t get very invested in it (although I am interested). So I don’t think this book is for everyone, but if you like to read haunting, unstructured prose that kind of goes in all directions and nowhere at once, this may be for you. I felt it important to include something that I didn’t absolutely fall in love with but someone else would, and honestly, I think I could use a reread and come back to it afresh.

5. Thorn (Intisar Khanani)
If you’re a fan of traditional fairy tale fantasies (none of my recommendations have really been like that so far), then this is for you. It’s straight up a retelling of the goose girl story, where a princess is tricked by her servant and they change places. The maid becomes the princess of another kingdom, and the princess becomes a goose girl. Here the princess is Alyrra, and goes by Thorn after she is cursed and takes on the task of a goose girl. This isn’t by any means the best or most original retelling I’ve ever read, but it’s quite satisfying, and I think people who enjoy conventional fairy tales particularly might like it, but it’s interesting enough for anybody really. I think it’s got a lot more clout than many of the popular YA fantasies these days, it has a bit of everything and Khanani does make an effort to add her own little details and give her characters some depth. And if it’s slightly predictable, well, it’s not really too much of a hindrance. It’s a neat little novel, and, I think, better than Shannon Hale’s retelling (although, to be honest, I can’t remember much about that one at all).

PS. Marissa Meyer and Robin McKinley don’t feature on this list, because I just figured everyone knew about them already (probably). With the former, I’ve too many issues, with the latter, well, I like her, but…it’s a story for another day.

I know there should’ve been a review. I’m working on it. I’m always working on it. In fact, a book I wanted to add to this list is the one I’m rereading (to review) at the moment. So. I know I need to make these posts shorter. I’m working on it…

If you’ve any suggestions for fairy tale-esque fantasies, let me know!

All quotes attributed to the respective work.

book update

Currently-Reading Update [August 2017]

Soooo it’s going to be impossible for me to put up a review on Monday due to Life Reasons. However I was doing so well! (Two in a row!) Didn’t want to jinx it so this is going up instead, and I’ll try to be back to the regular ‘schedule’ by next week. So.

Image (c) goodreads.com

Dubliners (James Joyce) 
The famous collection of fifteen short stories, all set (naturally) in and around Dublin. I’m around halfway through it now, finding it fairly interesting, and while I’m not blown away by it so far I’m sure eventually I will be required to plod my way through Ulysses so I’m considering this a starter-pack.
Although I should say I’m finding it more interesting than I thought I would; that is, I’m learning to gauge a lot more meaning from Joyce’s prose than I previously did when I studied parts of this in school.

Macbeth (Hah)
Now this is in fact for college, and I’m already done with it, I’m just spending a lot of time studying it intensely which is fun (not really).
To cut it short, there’s not much I can say about Shakespeare on the internet which hasn’t already been said.

We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lionel Shriver) 
I am actually really excited to get through this, I’ve only made it through a chapter or two and then consciously made myself stop, because I’m Saving It. As in, there are far too many books lying around unread and I want to get to some of those first. What little I’ve read of this, though, I’ve found really engaging. It’s told from the point of view of a mother whose son perpetrated a school shooting.
So it might be a while before I get around to actually finishing it, but maybe I’ll write a review when I do.

In non-book related news, I’ve finished watching all of Gilmore Girls (revival included) and I really miss not having new episodes to watch. I hardly ever watch things that aren’t Youtube videos so this kind of thing is a shock to my system. In any case, I’ve been kind of languishing in boredom without it (I know there are tons of TV shows out there to watch, I’m just really lazy). I might, in fact, die of boredom, and then someone will have to pry two editions of Macbeth and my half-a-copy of notes from my cold dead hands (I really want test season to be over). See you next week, I hope.

book review

Book Review: Did You Ever Have A Family [by Bill Clegg]

Image (c) goodreads.com

Did You Ever Have a Family takes its name from Shapiro’s opening lines in Song and Dance (thank you, acknowledgements) and works in the vein of these literary family dramas that are all the rage these days (although I’m sure people have been doing it forever, since families have certainly been falling apart forever). It was longlisted for the Man Booker (2015) and while I’m inevitably behind on catching up with all the prizewinning books of the world, I was happy to be surprised by this one.

I went into it expecting one of those tight-strung, psychologically-loaded, the-truth-comes-out-and-all-crumbles dysfunctional criminal family dramas (many of which I must say I’ve vicariously enjoyed; hey, it’s always good to know other people are unhappy) but in that, I was surprised. Clegg takes a different tack, and this novel has very little drama, despite its fair share of crises and criminality. What quietly unfolds instead are the stories – some, tragedies – of several families, broken, breaking, recovering, and successful.

The central story which ties the characters together is the tragic occurrence on the morning of June Reid’s (well-to-do New Yorker) daughter’s wedding, in the small town of Wells. It’s not a spoiler because the dustjacket spills it in your face: a fire that pretty much consumes her whole family, her boyfriend, her daughter, her daughter’s fiancé. The book deals with the aftermath, seemingly unconnected or sparsely connected characters are brought in to provide their take on what could arguably be one of the central issues of the book (well, it is in the title) – family. Not to point out the obvious of course, but it should be noted that Clegg represents families of various makes, in various states across the emotional spectrum – and not all unhappy.

Can you imagine watching everyone you love just disappear? Have you ever heard of such a thing?

Many of the chapters (headlined by the characters who are narrating) are in present continuous (I really hope I’m not mixing tenses here – a particularly weak grammar point of mine) which I noticed, for some reason; I’m guessing I don’t ordinarily read novels which use that but it could just be that everyone’s been using it a lot nowadays and I’m missing out. It did seem somewhat intuitive to me, but who knows why, really; novels are strange things. What’s more interesting than my grammar-related self-debates are that the characters primarily involved in the tragedy (June herself, her much-younger boyfriend Luke’s mother Lydia, also) narrate from a third-person point of view, while the peripheral characters tell theirs from a first-person point of view. (Oh wait I just realised that’s also grammar related. Sorry.) And while this is technically engaging, it’s somewhat problematic.

Perhaps Clegg’s biggest issue (I don’t want to call it an out and out ‘problem’) is he often relies heavily on telling, rather than showing. While showdon’t tell is writing 101 I don’t really feel there are any rules to writing, so I feel I can give this both an argument and a de-argument (it’s not been a great grammar day for me, okay?); I found the book honest in its capacity to be so, despite the telling (when showing can be more effective), and successful in its ability to allow readers to empathise. Because, wow, do people mess up, but ultimately regret is something we’ve all had to swallow and Clegg makes it very easy for us to feel that his characters genuinely repent, they are sorry, and in that, they are, like most of us (I hope), very human. While I’m not sure arousing empathy is a feat of excellence when you start at Tragedy Point A, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that Clegg deals primarily with post-tragedy. And because there is no telling, it is difficult to imagine the characters before the fire. Lydia recalls (in a more ‘telling’ mode) scenes of her son laughing with June, of her friendly relationship with June – but these characters are sketched in such a way that it’s difficult to imagine that kind of dimension to them. June and Lydia specifically are painted in such drab, world-weary colours that it’s hard to picture them as happy and laughing.

Of course people are and can be both overjoyed and mournful, but Clegg never shows the first, so it requires an act of imagination on the reader’s part.

I think, more than the writing or the characterisation is the technical crafting of this novel that I find interesting, and maybe even innovative. Most of the characters who get to have their say have somewhat strange connections to June – her daughter Lolly’s (okay, also, is that a real name that people give their real kids?!) wedding-cake baker’s son, her future (and never to be) son-in-law’s father. Strange connections to Lydia as well – a one-time lover, a kid who worked for her son. Well, actually, some of the connections don’t really seem strange, they seem sensible, but most of the characters spend a lot of time talking about their own families. And it is all pulled together in the end (although it’s a weak mystery, really) but it reads almost a little like a book of short stories with a few connecting threads running through. I did find it an interesting approach, to recruit peripheral characters for a tragedy like this, and see how they approach June and Lydia’s personal predicaments, and how they define their own families.

To be honest, I almost didn’t want the characters to intersect, reading snippets was comfortable. And I felt the ‘mystery’ subplot, if intended to be so, was too weak to really even be considered one. I honestly would’ve preferred the book without it, but I suppose it might have left other people frustrated.

There is nothing particularly exemplary about Clegg’s writing style, it’s normal narrative, and I suppose you could say there’s nothing particularly exemplary about this book (I leave that to you). Personally, I felt that I was able to appreciate it for what it was at this point in time (maybe I woudn’t have thought much of it had I read it earlier or later) – truthful, full of regret and a strong desire to correct past errors, and ultimately, a turbulent road to something of a recovery. I don’t consider it exemplary, but if a quiet, sometimes-stirring and technically textured novel appeals to you – go on. It’s certainly not a fast-paced giant, but sometimes slow fits my mood. When June asks the pivotal question – did you ever have a family? – it’s a deep moment of reflection, I think, and a question that, while the book may not quite be able to measure up to, it does its best to quantify. But ultimately, it’s probably a question best reserved for a personal 1000-word essay. And, well, if you’re the kind of person who likes to take life lessons from books, you’ll definitely find yourself learning that the accumulation of error and regret is a heavy burden to bear. (Well, now that I’ve told you the lesson you may not have much incentive to read it…)

All in all, this was an above average read for me, but I do think it’s very subjective – what literature isn’t? (Also I’m a bit scared to trash Booker nominees…does the Booker committee mascot come after you or something? Although of course they wouldn’t bother with a lowly poorly-updated blog.) It’s not Gone Girl, but it’s insightful and reflective enough (if not exemplary enough) to be worth someone’s time.

…we’ve learned that grief can sometimes get loud, and when it does, we try not to speak over it.

PS, I got this up even though my laptop is away for repairs! Am I finally sticking to a schedule? I’m scared to answer that.

All quotes attributed to the respective work.