Doomsday Book, Connie Willis
Originally reviewed 11th February, 2011
It took me quite a while to read Doomsday Book. I was intrigued to find it was about Kivrin, who was mentioned in ‘Fire Watch’, but it took so, so long to get off the ground. I figured most things out ages before any of the characters did. Following sick protagonists really is no fun at all, and it’s frustrating for the same conversations to be repeated over and over again — “Where is Basingame?” (who never appears), “Did you get the fix?”, “I must speak to Gawyn”… The parts in which Kivrin’s recordings were recounted were also annoying, given that they simply repeated the action, without giving much more information.
The last thirty percent of the book, though, is pretty good. I’m not sure I’m glad I persevered, because I was seriously being bored to death, but once Kivrin’s story really got into its swing — and I don’t think that happened until nearly the end — the sense of tension and horror was catching me by the heart, and the exchanges between Father Roche and Kivrin at the end of the book made me want to cry. Some of Kivrin’s part had real power — her outburst on the corder, for example, when she swears that she won’t let the others die.
One thing that amused/bothered me in equal measure was the inclusion of a character called Gawyn, with a horse called Gringolet, who bragged and was in love, “courtly love”, with his lord’s wife. Pity that I can’t think of a story where Gawain actually commits adultery, and that Lancelot or Tristan would have been a far more appropriate reference.
I’m going to try reading more of Connie Willis’ books — To Say Nothing of the Dog looks to be next — but I’m not going to stick with them all the way through if they have the same pitfalls as this book.
Toad Words and Other Stories, T. Kingfisher
If you’ve been following my reactions to T. Kingfisher’s longer retellings, it’s probably no surprise that I enjoyed this collection of short stories. Despite the stated belief that she can’t write short stories, this should make it very obvious that she can: with wry humour, with tenderness, with care, with cleverness. Each of these stories has its own spin on the original fairytales; each has its own voice and shape, and sometimes it goes quite far from the original — but always in a way that I really enjoy. For example, the talking boars in ‘Boar & Apples’, which is a skewed retelling of Snow White.
If you’re not reading T. Kingfisher yet, this would make a good introduction; there’s plenty of bang for your buck here, because the stories give you a taster of all the author’s talents (rather than being a single story like Bryony and Roses or The Raven and the Reindeer). Mind you, it’s not like the other books are very expensive either; I totally recommend going for it and having a binge, if you enjoy fairytale retellings.
Of course, not all the stories were 100% to my taste, but that always happens, especially with short stories — I’m picky. It’s a strong enough collection that I think what appeals to me less could well be someone else’s favourite.
(My favourite story was ‘Loathly’; though it doesn’t explicitly reference Arthuriana, I enjoyed this take on the Loathly Lady a lot.)
The Terracotta Bride, Zen Cho
The Terracotta Bride is a short story/novella set in a very particular sort of afterlife: a bureaucratic one, in which people live (er, death?) very much as the living do, though they rely on the offerings of their descendants for money, food, and whatever else becomes necessary. So the saying that ‘hell is other people’ is literally true, especially for the protagonist of the story. It’s a pretty un-Western setting, and Cho expects the reader to keep up. Like this bit:
There were so many other dangers to contend with — demons promoted from other courts, furiously upstanding and eager to hurry on the cycle of rebirth. The eight thousand terracotta warriors who had been buried with an emperor, now lost. Left masterless, the warriors roamed the tenth court, looking for trouble. And worst of all, the dead. In hell, as in every other world, man was man’s greatest enemy.
The story follows a woman who has been married off by a family member to a rich man, because he wanted to manipulate another of his wives. Then there’s the Terracotta Bride herself. I don’t know what other people expected from this story; I didn’t really expect it to go quite in this direction, although it felt very appropriate. The ending is lovely, just right: even if you didn’t expect the exact direction of the story.
It’s a little bittersweet, but hopeful too. It really works.
Being Mortal, Atul Gawande
Death and ways of dying is a thing that a lot of people don’t like to think about, but which is really, really important, and Atul Gawande’s book treats the issues with sensitivity, thought and a wisdom born of experience. It’s not just a doctor’s point of view on death, but an educated look at the ways people die in our society, how things can be different, and a personal point of view — as well as talking about his patients, Gawande talks about his own father’s experience of dying.
It’s not a cold and clinical book, at all; in fact, I found myself crying while reading parts of it. I don’t necessarily always agree with Gawande (I think that voluntary euthanasia and better end of life care can and should co-exist, while he is much more cautious about whether allowing euthanasia causes people to pay less attention to providing better palliative care), but I do respect his point of view and his careful exploration of the facts. He discusses different ways of running nursing homes, different case studies, and different approaches to death and dying, and never did I feel that he was seeing an illness instead of a patient, a problem to be solved instead of a person.
I think this is a very worthwhile read for doctors, for patients, for young people and old people, for carers… for everyone. These are discussions that need to be had. My family know what I want to happen if I were to be ill without hope of recovery, when I would want the life support machines turned off, that I would want my organs to be available for transplants, etc. Do yours?
This week’s theme from The Broke and The Bookish is “top ten things books made me want to do or learn”. Now I’m sure if I thought about it I could come up with some serious answers (like the way The Grey King by Susan Cooper always makes me want to learn to play the harp — or the way books on archaeology really make me reconsider my childhood dream of working with Time Team), but it’s waaaay too warm here, so you get the silly version.
- Uprooted, by Naomi Novik. Magic! Obviously! I want to be able to dress myself or cook a meal with a word. That’d be really handy.
- Magic Breaks, by Ilona Andrews. I want to be able to sword fight like Kate. I mean, okay, I am a total wuss about pain in reality, but I’d be badass anyway.
- Hawkeye, from Marvel. Or countless other archers in my reading past, like Katniss. Because archery looks fun.
- Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I want to know when people are lying, like Lying Cat. Okay, that would probably actually really suck. Some lies really do smooth the way between people.
- Whose Body?, by Dorothy L. Sayers. I want to rock a monocle like Lord Peter. And say things like “I’ll make a noise like a hoop and roll away.”
- Tooth and Claw, by Jo Walton. I want to be a dragon. That counts for this list, right? And I want to wear really cute hats. As a dragon.
- The Sudden Appearance of Hope, by Claire North. Maybe not all the time, but I’d love Hope’s ability to be forgotten. Especially when I’ve just embarrassed myself.
- A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan. Studying dragons would be really super easy if I was a dragon (see #6).
- The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente. The title says it all.
- Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie. I want to know how to make tea. No, really, I suck at it. Nobody likes my tea.
Anyone else done a silly version…?
Saints Astray, Jacqueline Carey
Saints Astray is a fun follow-up to Santa Olivia, following Pilar and Loup as they find a way for themselves in the wider world outside their cordoned off district. Refreshingly, after the ups and downs of their relationship in Santa Olivia, the two are devoted to each other and while they do experience moments of doubt, these are quickly put to rest. Maybe the one thing that did bother me was how many people around Loup turned out to be ‘one in a hundred’s — people attracted to her despite the results of her genetic manipulation, which make her feel unattractive or strange to people. All of a sudden, in this book they’re coming out the woodwork!
Still, for the most part it’s just really fun: Loup and Pilar learn to be bodyguards, and Pilar shows that she’s far from just a pretty face — proving herself well worthy of Loup, if her love and loyalty hadn’t already proven that. They make friends and gain supporters in the outside world… and never forget their friends, whether that be Miguel (who has also escaped) or the kids from the orphanage who grew up alongside them.
The least fun part of this book is Loup’s incarceration, but at least this time she’s treated fairly, and her case triumphs in court, winning new freedoms for her and people like her, and shining a light on what was going on in her border town home. There was hope in Santa Olivia, but Saints Astray is more hopeful yet, full of a kind of optimism that love can win. Not a bad read for the present climate, I think.
Death Among the Marshes, Kathryn Ramage
Death Among the Marshes is quite short — more a novella than novel — and essentially a modern take on the Golden Age staple of a country house mystery. The detective, Freddie, bears some resemblance to Sayers’ Lord Peter, in his aristocratic ties, his war-buddy turned valet, etc, and indeed Ramage references Freddie reading Dorothy Sayers’ work, which made me smile.
Unlike the Golden Age country house mysteries, though, this novella is quite frank about the existence of gay people; one couple come under suspicion as their family tries to put a wedge between them and persuade them to be more socially appropriate, and there are possible hints that Billy, Freddie’s manservant, might have feelings for him. All the characters are well-drawn and, if not exactly likeable, understandable in their support of each other, their squabbles, their faultlines.
I found Death Among the Marshes enjoyable and well-structured, and I’ll definitely read any other books by Ramage which feature these characters. This review does more justice to it than mine, I think!
The Door into Shadow, Diane Duane
While The Door into Shadow continues the overarching plot of getting Freelorn to his throne, the focus turns from Herewiss to Segnbora. Segnbora is a great character, her relationship with the dragons is fascinating, and the overall thrust of the story — of overcoming old trauma to really come into your power, even embracing the old trauma because it made you who you are — chimes with me quite well.
The only problem is, Segnbora’s character is built on that trauma, around her inability to open up — to magic, to people, to anything. The whole thing relies on her overcoming her trauma. Which, because she’s a female character, you can probably guess the origin of. There is something powerful here about acceptance and healing, but I could wish her story didn’t just reach for that convenient storyline. Particularly when it’s otherwise good about people living and loving outside the box, and at making that a totally natural part of the world.
I didn’t love any of the characters as much as Herewiss and Sunspark, and something about the structure of the plot didn’t work that well for me either. It felt like a series of pre-ordained episodes, taking Segnbora inexorably toward something she didn’t want to face, “for her own good”. I guess that fits with the way this world works, but it didn’t work for me.
Also, some of the language about the Goddess sometimes tips into being ‘too much’ for me, somehow. The Glasscastle section, however, is brilliant; atmospheric, urgent.
Good morning, folks! How is everybody? I’m having a busy time, with my wedding coming up and an assignment deadline due while I’m actually away on my honeymoon… but things progress. And there are books, which is always nice.
Books to review
I guess I need to hurry up and read Planetfall… Also, yay for Chris Holm’s new book!
Nearly all of these were in the sale, don’t hurt me. And Roses and Rot I actually picked up a while ago, but I don’t think it ever made it into an STS post. So tahdah. Buying Temeraire for my Kindle is a blatant excuse to start rereading that series, especially given Imyril’s reviews…
Books finished this week
Reviews posted this week:
–Our Lady of Pain, by M.C. Beaton. I’m really not impressed by this series, but it made good light reading. 2/5 stars
–The Greatest Show on Earth, by Richard Dawkins. Skip Dawkins, go back to Darwin. It’s not that he’s wrong, at least in his science. It’s his attitude. I’ve never hated agreeing with someone so much. 3/5 stars
–A Surfeit of Lampreys, by Ngaio Marsh. Ngaio Marsh isn’t bad at constructing a mystery and doing little character sketches, but I’ve stopped caring about her detective, who could be replaced by a cardboard cutout in this book. 2/5 stars
–The Sleeping Prince, by Melinda Salisbury. If you enjoyed the first book, you’ll probably enjoy this one. I found it enjoyable, and probably better than the first, though I did also find it somewhat predictable. 3/5 stars
–Bitterblue, by Kristin Cashore. Not an easy read, but worthwhile, this book pulls the whole loosely linked series together very effectively. 4/5 stars
–Missing Microbes, by Martin Blaser. Makes a very good point about the way we’re destroying our own microbiomes, and how that might affect illnesses from allergies to ulcerative colitis. It might stretch a bit far at times, but I found it enjoyable and interesting. 4/5 stars
–Flashback Friday: Exiled from Camelot, by Cherith Baldry. A book I read for my Master’s dissertation on the portrayal of Kay, this one is pretty fun, with a non-traditionally-capable Kay and a strong bond between him and Arthur. 4/5 stars
–Top Ten Tuesday: Books Set Outside the US. What it says on the tin, with mostly historical fantasy to delight you.
Any fun plans for this week? Reading anything I should know about?
Exiled from Camelot, Cherith Baldry
Originally reviewed 3rd October, 2012
I can’t remember who recommended me this, but bless you, whoever you were. It was definitely useful for my dissertation, as well as an enjoyable book. Kay-wise, it has an interesting mix of portrayals — the Loholt plotline is from the Cymric material, as far as I can gather, and yet Arthur’s position in the court is very much that of the continental stories. Hmm.
You know how I said Sword at Sunset was homosocial? I think Exiled from Camelot was even more so: it’s all about the bonds between the men of the Table — strained as they are, it’s clear that one has to hope for them all coming together and sorting things out. The bond between Kay and Arthur is so intense that it really excludes any other relationship for Kay: I did like that, though at times I did find myself questioning whether Cherith Baldry thought at all about authenticity. Kay does a lot of grovelling and crying, and acting like a coward, and yet it’s all waved away by the other characters — not likely, I would think, in a culture where merely calling Lancelot a coward is an invitation to a duel…
But whatever, I suspended my disbelief. My two main problems were Brisane — oh can we be more typical, with an evil woman who was rejected by men and sold her soul for power and used her body to gain more? — and Arthur being, well, stupid. He was so easily taken in, so easily led. Headdesk.
Still, more or less carried off, though it’s likely to wear thinner the more I think about it. Ultimately, it distracted me from any such flaws when I was reading it, which is the main thing.