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!).

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