A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett
As a kid, The Secret Garden was the most magical thing I could think of. For some reason, I never read A Little Princess back then. Perhaps I would have liked it more then; as it is, I found it preachy and tedious. It’s very… Victorian: a child is in good circumstances, has a fall from grace, but her own merits of character finally result in a restoration. Unlike Mary from The Secret Garden, Sara Crewe is tediously saccharine and goody-goody.
I don’t really see why other people love this so much — especially if there’s no element of nostalgia. At least The Secret Garden’s Mary has character — Sara Crewe feels like, well, a Mary Sue. I am a little scared to ever reread The Secret Garden, now…
Slade House, David Mitchell
I want to enjoy Mitchell’s books, but it annoys me that they’re all connected. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it’s how I feel all the same; it seems so consciously literary and over clever, in many of the cases. Granted, I’ve only read this and Cloud Atlas, but I’ve seen a chart. A chart, for goodness’ sake. So I was a bit annoyed when reading this, because I came to the phrase ‘the bone clocks’, a reference to the title of another of Mitchell’s books. I don’t want to have to read all your supposedly stand-alone books to understand all your characters!
Pet peeves aside, the different voices were interesting, though not always as distinct as I’d like. I figured out the “mystery” of it pretty fast, and thus wasn’t surprised by things which rather surprised the characters themselves — the trouble of having seen it happen to another character before them, I guess. There’s a creepy atmosphere about the book, though that works best in the earlier sections: later, I’ve got too good an idea of where things are going.
It was fairly absorbing, but if it had been much longer I might have got bored. There’s only so many cycles you can go through before it all becomes rather obvious, and repetitive to boot.
The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis
This was one of my favourites of the Narnia books as a child, and reading it now, I’m not sure why. The story is okay, though it’s mostly set outside of Narnia. I suppose it’s the setting that really lets it down: the Calormenes are blatant stereotypes, and Calormen itself is an obvious exoticisation of a Muslim country. I do give it some credit for having a female lead in Aravis — a female lead who can ride and hunt better than the male lead, who is brave and clever, though not perfect. (She’s self-centered and selfish, as well, without giving thought to the consequences of her actions.) It’s even better that she is a Calormene, even though she’s presented as rather an exception.
(For example, Lasaraleen is Aravis’ friend, but Lewis doesn’t have nearly as much time for her. It’s just the same as the way he later dismisses Susan: Lasaraleen is feminine, interested in clothes and makeup and men, and so he dismisses her. I’m not sure it was narratively necessary to make her seem so silly. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if Aravis was tempted to stay with her because she’s sensible and smart and reminds Aravis of the enjoyable aspects of her life in Calormen?)
Anyway, it’s still fairly fun, and one of the least openly allegorical books. So, a rather lukewarm three stars.
The Litany of Earth, Ruthanna Emrys
You can read this novella online here, and it’s good background to have if you’re interested in reading Emrys’ novel, Winter Tide. It helps orientate you and figure out the characters, how they’re related, what they care about, where they’ve been. I paused in reading Winter Tide to read this, and it definitely clarified things. In fact, I liked it more than Winter Tide: it felt better paced, perhaps because it does have to have a beginning, middle and end in a fairly short stretch of words.
It’s beautifully written, as well; both this and Winter Tide are excellent reworkings of Lovecraft’s ideas concerning the Deep Ones, taking away a lot of the horror he held and expressed about anything Other. It stands alone well, even though it serves as a good introduction for Winter Tide. It’s definitely a good way to dip into Emrys’ work to see if you like her style and ideas.
The Book, Keith Houston
This is a really beautiful object. If you read the colophon, it has all sorts of details about the book’s binding and printing processes. The pages feel lovely, and though I’m not a fan of the cover — it’s just so… cardboardy, and gets easily scuffed — it looks good. The page design is really fun: when a new element like a title, bullet or indent shows up, there’s a label on it. Also for gutters, margins, etc. The photos and images included are in colour, too. All in all, it’s a great gift item, something to give to someone who loves books. It’s less readable for being such an object in its own right; I sort of want to keep it pristine rather than read it. Particularly given that it’s not cheap (though there is an ebook).
But, read it I did, and it’s a fascinating book. It’s split into a couple of different parts, following the development of the book: paper, writing, ink, the invention of the codex as the physical format. It’s clear and, as far as I can tell, accurate. I enjoyed reading it: the prose is clear and to the point, without being dry.
If you’re fascinated by books, not just for stories but for their scent and feel as well, this is probably well worth picking up. It’d definitely make a good-looking gift for someone so inclined. I found it both enjoyable and informative.
A Taste of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson
Received to review via Netgalley; published 26th October 2016
I want to like A Taste of Honey, just as I wanted to love The Sorceror of the Wildeeps. There’s some fascinating world building in the back of this, and some beautiful, lyrical, sensual language. And there’s LGBT characters! And the cover looks awesome! It actually gives me more of the background I wanted from the other novella, and the relationship was also much more up-front; obvious from the start.
Knowing other people really enjoy both Wilson’s novellas for Tor.com, I guess I just have to include it’s a case of “it’s not the book, it’s me”. It’s harder to even put my finger on what I didn’t like about this one — it just felt so disjointed, so opaque.
It’s a shame, but unless I hear something very different, I probably won’t read Wilson’s work again. It just doesn’t work for me.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
This book is exactly what I reread Narnia for. Though it’s a blatant allegory (e.g. Aslan is Jesus, Edmund is Judas, the Emperor Over the Sea is the Christian God), it’s also a good story. Perhaps it helps that the story it’s based on is also a good one… In any case, there’s so much warmth in the narration, the way the narrator speaks to the reader and gently explains the characters’ faults and virtues. The scene with Mr Tumnus in his cave feels genuinely cosy, as does the scene with the Beavers. The treks through the snow feel genuinely freezing, and the slow dawning of spring feels like a breath of fresh air…
In other words, this book has some of the best of Lewis’ writing for children, in my opinion. The allegory doesn’t matter: I still care fiercely about Aslan, I still want Edmund to be redeemed. It mostly avoids being preachy. As with Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew, Edmund’s thought process makes sense, and he’s a more sympathetic character too.
I still don’t get the appeal of Turkish Delight, though.
Invisible Planets, ed. Ken Liu
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date was 1st November 2016
It took me a while to get through this, as I found the tone of the stories rather same-y. I don’t know if that’s because of the translator (because granted, I had the same impression of Cixin Liu’s work in the novels Ken Liu translated). But it’s a great survey of Chinese science fiction and it’s well worth the read; I don’t remember well enough what I’d pick out now from the beginning of the book, but there’s quite a breadth of choice here. There’s usually several stories by each author, to give you a good taste of what’s out there.
The thing I find really often with novels in translation that the translation somehow deadens the feeling, and I found that quite a lot here. Maybe having different translators would’ve helped, I don’t know. I think that’s really where it didn’t work for me — which is a shame, because it’s a pretty awesome collection in other ways, but this was my main impression.
Grey Mask, Patricia Wentworth
Received to review via Netgalley; republished 28th June 2016
So far I’ve only read the first of the Miss Silver Mysteries: Grey Mask, which was published originally in 1928, and features mostly some young people whose lives have been messed up by a criminal network. Miss Silver is, in this book at least, a background character who comes in to solve all the problems, while Charles, Margaret and Margot are the characters who we mostly follow. Margot’s rather silly, but the aborted romance between Charles and Margaret is sweet — I found myself rooting for them before long.
I figured out the culprit pretty easily, but I was still interested in learning all the hows and whys, and there is quite a sense of tension in the last couple of chapters.
It’s fun, but not groundbreaking at this point; I’ll read more of the Miss Silver books, but I’m not hooked. If you’re a fan of Golden Age detective stories, this fits into that subset of crime/mystery novels well and will be of interest to you! Especially, perhaps, if you’re a fan of the genteel lady detective, Miss Marple style.
Camelot’s Shadow, Sarah Zettel
I’ve read this several times now, and I always go back and forth on it a little. Initially, I think I was a teeeeeny bit ashamed to be caught reading something that is a romance in both the modern and the medieval senses of the word. Then I included it in my dissertation and had to think about it critically. And now… now I get to read it just for pure fun. Which is great: it makes me realise how much this version of Gawain is exactly what made me love the character in the first place, and that this retelling of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle’s story was what guided me toward reading and loving the Gawain ballads.
It’s fun, with and without the romance; I love this version of Camelot, which is practical at the same time as romantic. There’s the knights, but there are also Saxon boys staying at the court as hostages. Guinevere is a queen and a figure of romance, but she’s also Arthur’s other half, managing Camelot alongside Kay, maintaining a whole set of duties belonging to queenship. There’s no polite ignorance of the need for an heir: Gawain is openly Arthur’s heir. (And definitely worthy of it; this version of Gawain doesn’t kill women or go on mad rampages yelling for blood. He’s courtly, though human — somewhere between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Le Morte Darthur‘s least flattering sections.)
And Rhian is a great character too: determined, but not foolhardy; clever, but not infallible; cautious, but not immune to Gawain’s pretty face. Brave, but not insensible.
The two make a great pairing, and it’s a joy to read — as it’s also a joy to read of Arthur and Guinevere’s genuine love.
There are some frustrating aspects to this, like a certain judgemental quality around women who have sex (but not men), and an unfortunate editing slip-up where even when “father” is being used as a name, it isn’t capitalised… but it’s still fun, and I’m glad I got the chance to read it in a relaxed way like this.
Sidenote: I don’t understand why the US version has changed Rhian’s name to Risa. Well, probably to avoid people thinking it’s pronounced “Ryan”, but that doesn’t mean I like the decision — Rhian is a pretty and Welsh name, and it fits much better in the context than “Risa”.