Saturday, September 27, 2014

Turtles and treachery, volcanos and violence against books

I've really been enjoying the alternation of children's or YA novels with more adult literary fiction. I get fun and fantasy, but then I also get depth, themes, and better prose. These two adult novels came from my school's library, the result of a day when I forgot to bring a free reading book and stopped in the library to fix that.

I expected Russell Hoban's Turtle Diary to be more about turtles, though I'm not sure why, because I found what I think was the original review that led me to this book and it very clearly discussed the fact that the book is about the two people who rescue them. The book is framed as an alternating series of diary entries from two lonely, middle-aged people, one a divorcee who doesn't even get to see his kids anymore and works in a book shop, and one a children's author who, though she hasn't turned into a spinster cat lady, is almost as isolated, having purchased a pet water beetle at the start of the novel. Independently, they decide that the sea turtles at the London Zoo need to be stolen and set free in the ocean to fill their natural role of "finding," for both are quite taken with the idea that sea turtles swim hundreds of miles to find a particular beach on which to lay their eggs. Though William and Neara don't know it, the process of launching the turtles may help them launch themselves. On the plus side, Hoban avoids the cliche of romance between his protagonists; but the book suffers from an extreme need to say deep things about life.

TheFalsePrince_largeThe False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen was a fun example of an unreliable narrator. Sage, a fiercely selfish orphan boy who cares about the people around him more than he's willing to admit, and three other orphan boys are kidnapped by the nobleman Conner, who intends to train them to impersonate the dead heir to the throne. He will choose only one of the boys, and kill the others so they cannot reveal the treachery, so Sage has to both figure out how to be selected but also how to keep the others alive. And he's a liar. The whole book is a series of lies to the reader, which makes unraveling Sage's agenda great fun. According to reviews, The False Prince is a less-skilled reproduction of Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief, which reminds me that I really do need to read that series.

One of my goals for the year was to read another novel by Shusaku Endo. In the past two years, I've adored Silence and Deep River, and I'm still left struggling with the complex questions he asks about the nature of Christianity and the relationships between religions. I think (for absolutely no good reason, other than I knew the title) that his shorter novel Volcano is his next most famous, so I picked that for this year. As it turns out, my school library has an entire shelf of novels by Endo in translation, so I'm not going to run out anytime soon. Volcano is a puzzling book that cries out for some deeper analysis than I'm willing to spend my time on at the moment (considering the dissertation prospectus I'm beginning to draft!).  It is full of Endo's characteristic hospital scenes and conversations questioning whether Christianity can succeed in Japan. The book centers on an island volcano, Akadaké, and its symbolism to three men who live in its shadow, one a retired weatherman who spent his life making observations of the volcano, one a self-satisfied Catholic priest, and one a French former priest who lost his faith and spends his days contemplating evil and sin. The mental and emotional state of each man revolves around the volcano, according to what Akadaké represents to them. Will it or won't it explode again, and what does that mean for each of these men?

Troll Fell by Katherine Langrish came highly recommended (including a promise of selkies in the second book!), but I have to chalk this one down as a did-not-finish. My usual policy is to read 10% of a book before abandoning it, but twelve pages into this one, the author had already presented unapologetic scenarios of both domestic violence and animal abuse. I just couldn't do it. With over a hundred fantasy books on my public library wish list, I'm not willing to struggle through one that's just going to upset me. Such a shame, since I was really looking forward to the Scandinavian folklore - Husband is Scandinavian, so ever since we began to date, I've tried to pay more attention to his cultural heritage. I'll just have to find it somewhere else.

Django Wexler's The Forbidden Library starts with a fascinating premise: "Books are magic, and a Reader can call upon creatures from books to aid him or her in adventures." What real-life lover of books doesn't agree with the idea that books stay with you? But I'm troubled by the violence in Wexler's concept of the relationships between readers and their books. His Readers must go into a prison-book and literally kill the creature(s) within in order to bind those creatures to his or her will. I don't know about you, but my encounters with plots and characters are much more peaceful! Toss in an early twentieth-century setting that feels more Victorian than Wexler probably intended, an orphan girl being trained as a Reader's apprentice, and a few talking cats, and you have The Forbidden Library. I don't think I'll bother with the sequels, but it was nice to contemplate my own relationships with the books of my past while reading this one.

Now I'm back to working through my to-read Viragos, still trying to tackle the oldest ones on my shelf first rather than the exciting new purchases. I'm a chapter into Elizabeth Taylor's Palladian and adoring the Jane Eyre and Jane Austen allusions. Next up after that, R.J. Anderson's Spell Hunter (killer fairies?), Rumer Godden's In This House of Brede (Benedictine nuns, so definitely jumping from one extreme to another!).

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Fairies, witches, Native American magic, and a violin-player

I ended my last post by noting that the next book up would be Physik, third in Angie Sage's Septimus Heap series. Well, as fun as they are, it looks like I'll have to set the whole series aside for now, because ten pages into Physik, I realized that I didn't remember a thing from book two. Half my problem, since I read Flyte back in the spring semester, and half the author's problem, I think, because it's not good when a book in a series is so unmemorable that you have to read the whole set in rapid succession for the overall narrative to hang together.

So instead, I turned to the next of my stack of children's/YA library books, Among the Brave. It's fifth in Margaret Peterson Haddix's Shadow Children series, which I'm happy to say is a lot more memorable than poor Flyte. I read the first few of this series when I was a kid, and either the sequels didn't exist yet or my public library didn't have them, so it's been fun catching up now as an adult. I have enjoyed the multiple perspectives across this series; this one is from the point of view of one of the more bookish and shy characters, and it was nice to see him come into his own, discovering his bravery (though the plots get more fantastical and unbelievable with every book). I'm nearing the end of this dystopian series and looking forward to whatever's to come!

A trip to the gym is never complete without a mindless and fun book to take your mind off your aching, sweaty body, and last week, I read yet another Animorphs book - only two left! - and then even had time to start a childhood favorite, Ella Enchanted. (I may have accidentally spent a good portion of last Thursday finishing said childhood favorite instead of reading homework, but oh well, it all got done in the end!) If you're not familiar with this wonderful retelling of the Cinderella story (have you lived under a rock? by now it's a classic!), go forth and find one of the lovely new editions! Cursed at birth by a fairy with the "gift" of obedience, Ella battles finishing school teachers, ogres, her wicked stepfamily, and her growing love for the prince in order to win her freedom and independence. It's absolutely splendid. And isn't the new cover nice? I tend to prefer the cover I first encountered, but I might make an exception for this lovely one.

Less splendid was Rachel Hawkins's Hex Hall, which didn't quite have enough self-conscious metacritical humor to save this story of a paranormal boarding school from being an annoying knockoff of Harry Potter (or as one Goodreads reviewer accurately pegged it, Harry Potter meets Twilight meets Mean Girls. Yes, really.)

I spent most of my last two weeks reading Rebecca West's sublime The Fountain Overflows, one of the first Viragos I ever purchased (its back cover blurb mentioned both music and the Edwardian period; there was no way it wasn't going home with me). It's supposed to be a heartwarming family drama, yet so much of the book seemed to me to be so sad, and I didn't trust the narrator as much as I think I was supposed to, especially when it came to her sister Cordelia, a violin-player whom her family believes cannot actually understand music. There's so much in this book to analyze - its treatments of politics, the English legal system, family relationships, and the supernatural, to name only a few - that I imagine I'd have to read it several times to even begin to get a handle on what this novel is trying to do, but I'm not actually sure I liked it enough to do those re-readings. Yet, I've continued thinking about it every day since I finished it, so clearly something has captured my ongoing interest. I'm definitely keeping it, and will definitely re-read it someday, if only to compare its philosophy of music with that of Margaret Kennedy's The Constant Nymph. And who knows, maybe I can team up with an English lit professor and teach both of them together.

Taking heed of calls this summer to introduce more diversity into one's reading, I had marked down Erin Bow's Sorrow's Knot to be one of my first YA choices once I'd returned to my local public library. Husband and I have had a lot of discussions about appropriation - how does one give existence and a voice to cultures not your own without appropriating them and contributing to ongoing oppression and stereotyping? This interview with Erin Bow about the Native American basis for Sorrow's Knot was really influential for me, and got me really excited to read the book, but I'm afraid it fell somewhat short of my expectations. The world-building was fantastic, and I love Bow's commitment to basing fantasy novels on non-Western European traditions, but the actual execution of Sorrow's Knot was disappointing. It kept the characters at an objective distance, so it was hard to fall in love with them, and the last fourth of the book had some serious flaws (that last few chapters are deeply confusing, not just for me but for many other readers, is not even the extent of the problems).

What's next? I'm halfway through Russell Hoban's Turtle Diary, which I thought would be more about sea turtles and less about lonely individuals explaining deep truths about life, but it's still interesting and hasn't quite crossed the line over to trite (yet?). I have a new set of fantasy stuff from the public library, and I also have Shusaku Endo's Volcano, since I made it one of my reading goals for the year to read another book of his.

I also have a cupful of chocolate mint from the farmer's market this morning, so I think I'm off now for some tea!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Since I returned home from England...

...I've read some wonderful books.

I've been delighted to be back in the land of libraries that let you check things out and my own overflowing to-read shelf, which is supposed to be a single shelf, but is currently two and a bit (taking up valuable space for academic books for dissertation work!) The very first thing I did was pull out what are, for me, quintessential summer reads:

Tove Jansson's Finn Family Moomintroll and The Summer Book - these books span the course of a single (or several) summers, but I originally read both out of season. There was something magical about reading them in the heat and humidity of a North Carolina August, the rocks, rivers, and breezes of island life in the North Atlantic calling me to adventures... Upon re-read, Jansson's prose remains equally fanciful, but the more somber undertones regarding introversion, loneliness, and death came more to the forefront.

I exercised heroic restraint at my first trip back to the public library, coming home with only five books, and I have so far kept to my intention to switch between library sci-fi/fantasy/YA with Viragos off my to-read shelf. It has turned out to be a very refreshing alternation of genres, themes, and reading expectations.

Helen Dunmore's The Tide Knot - I still think Dunmore's idea of mermaids as half-seal instead of half-fish is clever (and the source of husband's and my many arguments about whether mermaids are fish or mammals), as is her conceit that Ingo (Sea) is a neighboring world to Earth and Air, the transition possible only for a few. It's hard for a second book in a series to sustain the fascination of the first, where the magical worlds were first introduced, but this one substituted plot and a terrific action sequence (and some very satisfying, if sad answers to some of the mysteries left open at the end of Ingo) and was reasonably successful in keeping the series interesting. I do plan to read the other three, but my public library doesn't have them (off to ILL!).

Radclyffe Hall's The Unlit Lamp - Possibly the first lesbian fiction I've read, which is a glaring omission considering my desire to read about as many aspects as possible of the woman's experience. I was amazed that though nothing happens in this novel - literally nothing; it's all about how a driven, intelligent young woman ultimately fails in her bid to escape from her stifling home to make a career for herself - I couldn't put it down. It asks hard questions about our responsibilities to other people, especially when those responsibilities prevent us from living our own lives.

Margo Lanagan's The Brides of Rollrock Island - My thoughts on this book are one enormous ball of wonder and awe. Like Franny Billingsley's The Folk Keeper and Chime, Lanagan uses unbelievably beautiful, poetic prose in service of a story based on folklore. This book uses the selkie myth (seals turned into women, forced to marry the man who steals her coat, and who will forsake her husband and children to return to the sea should she ever find that coat) to grapple with questions of sexuality and desire, shame, power dynamics within relationships and within communities, differing responses to the oppression born of systemic patriarchy, agency, and tradition. And more. From multiple perspectives (we hear the narrative through the voices of six very different characters - but, tellingly, never the voice of a seal-maiden herself). Because no one I know has read this book (which will hopefully change as I push it on people), I had to search out other reviews to satisfy my need to hear others converse about this incredible novel; I wanted to share with you my favorites: Ana at Things Mean a Lot and Karyn Silverman at Someday My Printz Will Come.

Katharine Thurston's The Fly on the Wheel - Meh. It's basically The Age of Innocence set in Catholic Ireland, but I didn't care about any of the characters, and her writing was increasingly frustrating, since Thurston felt the need to immediately spell out any symbolism or subtext. I finished it, but have no interest in keeping it.

Next up, Physik (third in the Septimus Heap series).