I’ve talked about books I reread, and authors for whom I will read anything they produce, which must go some way towards helping even the casual reader get to know me. But when I was thinking about possible posts for this blog, I wandered off into thinking about books that I’d give people to help them understand me — not non-fiction books, which would be too easy, but the fiction books which have shaped me or given a voice to something in me.
So I’ve come up with a little list of five and some explanations; you may also see these as recommendations.
There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake, Hazel Edwards. If there’s a book that defines my whole childhood, I guess this is it. As far as I was concerned, there was a hippo on my roof too, and if there wasn’t, there should be. (And a giraffe in the garden.) My life is still filled with teddies, many of them hippos, and I keep a copy of this book in sight of my desk. And there’s still a hippopotamus on my roof, although sometimes now he worries about his weight, and trades in the cake for a diet of mushrooms. (Why mushrooms? That’s another story.)
The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien. I probably love The Lord of the Rings more than The Hobbit, but this is the book that enchanted me when I was a bit too old for Cat and Mouse or hippos on the roof. I could’ve read this endlessly, and often did. I remember one night when my parents were particularly determined to make me go to sleep, and I was equally determined not to, I read this book by the light of the streetlights down past the end of our garden, shining in just a little through my window. My imagination became full of dragons and trolls, and dwarves and gold, and wizards. And they’ve never left me either.
The Positronic Man, Isaac Asimov. Once upon a time, my mother got me some Asimov books out of the library on her account, because they wouldn’t let me into that section and I’d read everything they didn’t drag out of my clutching little hands. I have no idea what the library fine was when I finally allowed her to take this one back, but it’s fair to say it was probably the most epic fine I’ve ever wracked up — and I did manage some epic ones in university. I loved Andrew and his struggle to become human, and still do, even if I’d happily move the other way. Also, Andrew’s struggle for his rights, for the respect of the people around him, certainly speak to me now on a level I wasn’t aware of back then. I had no idea at that age that civil rights would become an issue for me, or that they were an issue for people like me.
The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper. I didn’t read this until I was about fifteen, sixteen, despite what everyone expects when they see my battered to death copy. I reread it just about every year, around this time; it seriously got under my skin. It’s magic with consequences: Will is an adult and more than an adult in a child’s body; Bran is isolated, motherless, starving for love; the Drews grow up over the course of the books; John Rowlands loses the love of his life, learning that she’s not the woman he thought she was… Things don’t really come alright at the end. And, of course, it draws on some of my heritage, Welsh legends, and deals with some of the tensions between Welsh and English. And there are themes about racism and bigotry, and some amazing passages about all sorts of things from justice to Englishness to responsibility.
Among Others, Jo Walton. I read this and thought, this is me. Of all these books, if you want to get to know me, this is the most important. Sure, there are ways in which I’m very unlike Mori, but her love affair with books, her thirst for them, some of the Welsh/English issues going on, many of the things she’s dealing with… I recognise them. For Christmas, I gave each of my ex-housemates a copy of this book. On reading the back, they all mentioned the immediate parallels between me and Mori…
Honourable mentions go to Enid Blyton’s Tales of Brave Adventure (I owned two much-loved, faded copies: one my father’s, one my mother’s), C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, and Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth.
And, perhaps surprisingly even to my mother, the old chapter-a-day retelling of the Bible for children which I had. I’m not a Christian, but I still think that a lot of the goodness in me, I learnt there.
Irregular Creatures is a collection of Chuck Wendig’s short stories. Someone recently compared his work to Stephen King’s, and I can see where they’re coming from: there’s something robustly readable about all of it, and the fantasy/horror aspects are all handled in a matter of fact sort of way. I can’t remember how King handles narrators, at this point, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find similarities there.
I think someone also mentioned a sort of cheerful vulgarity, and there’s that, too. Sometimes I find that uncomfortable, e.g. in ‘Mister Mhu’s Pussy Show’; it’s really not my kind of thing.
Mostly, the stories are fun, very readable, sometimes completely fascinating in their bizarreness. Chuck Wendig is an author I follow because I know he writes solidly and prolifically, and always has ideas I want to see played out.
Must get round to reading more of his Miriam Black books…
I’d often heard of this pretty classic crime novel, but I’d never read it. However, it was on my ereader, and I was settled in for a looong car journey, so I randomly picked it up and got going. It’s a very easy read: the language is simple, to the point, which helps to define the narrative voice. More flowery language wouldn’t work with the character.
Once it gets to a certain point, parts of the plot are obvious, but the trick pulled in court is amazing. It’s a simple story, in one sense — guy meets married woman, they want to get rid of her husband — but the tangle of passion and brutality stands out more against the relatively simple plot (except for the bit in court, which is less simple).
Definitely worth reading if you enjoy crime fiction and have missed out on James M. Cain thus far. Where now?
What did you recently finish reading?
I read quite a bit today, Chuck Wendig’s Irregular Creatures and James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Reviews for both of those are coming up on the blog (though you can see them on Goodreads/Librarything already, in the unlikely event that you’re desperate). Before that it was Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Signal to Noise, from Netgalley.
What are you currently reading? Actively, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, by Alan Bradley and The Man from Primrose Lane, by James Renner. Oh, and Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls, which is reminding me very much of Firefly right now. On the backlog, many books from this list and books mentioned here before that didn’t make it onto that list because I’m a scatterbrain. The Alan Bradley book seems to be serendipitously being read at exactly the right time of year — it’s Christmas in Bishop’s Lacey and Flavia de Luce has a plan to catch Santa — and The Man from Primrose Lane got my attention when going through library books I should return, last night…
(I should talk someday about my problem with library books. Suffice it to say, I went to Ikea, bought and assembled a whole bookcase almost solely for library books, although one shelf does hold my games.)
What do you think you’ll read next? I’m probably going to break off from the aforementioned backlog to read The Dark is Rising, since it’s exactly the right time of year for it and there’s a readathon going on via Twitter to celebrate the 40th anniversary. I might even start that this evening. Other than that, I want to read more of Alan Bradley’s books (they are on the list), and I’m hoping to finish Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City, Rosie Best’s Skulk and Julianna Scott’s The Holders in relatively short order.
Books acquired: It’s Christmas, so I have duly been acquiring. Well, that and the Kindle Daily Deal… I forget exactly what I’ve got there altogether, but basically some fantasy/SF stuff that looked interesting. For Christmas so far, I got Jaine Fenn’s Principles of Angels and Consorts of Heaven from my friend Lo, and from my Librarything Secret Santa I got Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls and Jack McDevitt’s The Engines of God, which seem likely to prove very good picks.
I got Signal to Noise from Netgalley, presumably for whatever release is current or about to happen. It’s not great, reading it on screen: the resolution wasn’t great, and I think it probably looks better as a bunch of two-page spreads.
Nonetheless, it tells a powerful story, and it’s a very thoughtful one: this isn’t a graphic novel in the sense of comics with superheroes and over-powered fight scenes, bulging muscles, etc. This is a meditation on art and death, and consequently life. I’m not the greatest fan of Dave McKean’s art here, but it worked for this particular story.
Not super-exciting, but more made for slow reflection.
Some other blogs I follow do this meme, every Tuesday, and it seemed like a good idea. So! This week the top ten theme picked by The Broke and the Bookish is “top ten new-to-me authors in 2013”. This is pretty hard — I’m rubbish at picking top tens — but hey, with this one I just need to use Goodreads and look among my four and five starred books for this year, and hopefully I should be able to figure something out. They will not, I warn, be in any particular order.
Cassandra Rose Clarke. I loved The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, which reminded me of a more daring, personal The Positronic Man (Isaac Asimov & Robert Silverberg). All sorts of themes which I love, and there’s something so powerfully sensual about it, too — there’s a physicality to it that surprised me and moved me.
Georgette Heyer. I think I may technically have read one or two of her detective novels in 2012, but I kept away from her Regency romances, because I thought that was obviously not my thing. How wrong I was! The Talisman Ring, The Reluctant Widow and The Grand Sophy were probably my favourites. Heyer’s romances are actually way more fun (for me) than her detective novels, and often wickedly funny too.
Karen Lord. I’ve only read part of The Best of All Possible Worlds, but I’m enjoying it, and I really loved Redemption in Indigo. Folk-story type narration and structure, awesome female characters, etc.
Martha Wells. I’ve only read City of Bones, but I loved it. Non-traditional gender stuff, avoids the easy way out, lots of tasty, tasty world building. I think I’ve bought almost all the rest of her books as a result.
Franny Billingsley. Oh my goodness, Chime. Just, oh my goodness. I loved the narration, the magic, the things it said about abuse and surviving and living again. I also enjoyed The Folk Keeper and Well Wished — less so, and they’re less touching/heavy subjects, but they’re a lot of fun too.
Arthur C. Clarke. Yeah, I know, I’m a bit late on this one. But I really enjoyed 2001: A Space Odyssey. I didn’t realise that I’d enjoy his writing style so much — I had him sort of filed away as maybe like H.G. Wells, interesting for ideas but not quite entertaining. Wroooong.
LordDunsany. Yeah, again, I know. I read Time and the Gods and am determined to spend more time reading his stuff: it’s just the sort of mythic, rich stuff I can really dig into.
C.J. Sansom. I’ve been meaning to read his stuff for quite a while, but this year I finally got round to it. I enjoy his writing style, and while there are bones I have to pick with the Shardlake books, I do enjoy his way of portraying that time period and his choice of protagonist.
Chris F. Holm. About time another Angry Robot author showed up, doncha think? I love Dead Harvest, etc: it’s funny, it’s a good pastiche of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett et al., and the covers are amazing. I just had so much fun reading these books.
David Weber. He and Aliette de Bodard fought a fierce battle for this last spot, but he won. I loved On Basilisk Station, despite many flaws I could find in it. I mean, ten pages of exposition slap bang in the middle of an epic space chase/battle. WHAT. But still. I love Honor and I’m looking forward to reading more of the series.
I’m being good and sticking to the letter of the law: only a top ten. The top ten books I read in 2013 is coming up not next week but the week after: goodness knows how I’ll manage with that. But for now, off I go to bury my nose in the pages of I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (Alan Bradley).
I’ve been meaning to read Little Brother for a long time, so when it came up for the SF/F course on Coursera, it seemed like it was finally time. Maybe it got built up a bit too much over time, because I found it fairly disappointing. There’s something very immature about it — in some ways, that’s part of its charm, because it’s enthusiastic and straightforward and the characters/plot are earnest.
But. While I enjoy Cory Doctorow’s non-fiction writing (he writes very clearly about copyright, piracy, etc), I haven’t enjoyed his fiction nearly as much. He seems to write still partly in a non-fiction mode: we get lectured about the world he’s setting up, rather than seeing it in action. It’s like a thought experiment, a way of playing out his concerns. There’s a place for that, of course, but it’s a lot easier to swallow when it’s wrapped up in prose like that of Ursula Le Guin. This probably is a fairly direct comparison to books like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland: it’s a story born of convictions more than of the urge to tell a story, I think.
For a reader who is used to Cory Doctorow’s work and already interested in this kind of thing, the narrator’s explanations are unnecessary, and even for those who are not, it’s a bit heavy-handed. Doctorow’s writing is clear, and he gets his points across… but for me, that was a trade off against flow and interest.
I don’t really see why people found this so fascinating and absorbing, I’m afraid.
One of my Christmas presents: a subscription to Flash Fiction Online. I was really interested in this, because flash fiction is something I’m good at and something I really enjoy: you have to be clever, and choose every word just right. You have to know just what to leave out. It’s not a form I’ve seen people pay much attention to, but it’s a form I love to play with, and to read when it’s done well.
Unfortunately, there was nothing really special in this month’s issue. The second story, Mercedes M. Yardley’s ‘Milk and Moonshine’ was probably the best, though it required a bit more editing (even a single typo will stand out in a piece of flash fiction). It is nice, however, that there seems to be a willingness to play mix and match with genres, and accept anything that’s interesting. I might end up submitting to this publication myself; it’ll be interesting to see it develop.
I read this for Bruce Holsinger’s historical fiction course on Coursera. It’s based on the true story of the village of Eyam, during the 1665 epidemic of plague in Britain, though Geraldine Brooks doesn’t stick too closely to the names and details of exactly what happened there, but rather tries to recreate the sense of it. For her own comfort, I think, even where she’s based her characters on real people, she’s taken them a step or so away from them so that William Mompesson becomes Michael Mompellion, allowing her to take greater liberties.
At times, it seems pretty melodramatic, to me. The whole situation between Michael and Elinor, for example, seemed completely unnecessary (and barely even seemed to make sense to me); sometimes it just seemed to pile too much into the story that on its own would’ve seemed to make sense. The ending was worse; it felt like a complete flight of fantasy beside the historically grounded, patiently explored situation in the village.
So… overall, parts of this are a very powerful exploration of the tensions and also the support in Eyam at the time, and of the faith and fear and superstition of the time. But other parts of it work against the simple, touching aspect that those things give the story. I know it’s fiction and flights of fantasy are all a part of it, but it didn’t feel right to me.
I’m somewhat torn on the subject of Flavia de Luce. I find the books fun to read, but the hail-fellow-well-met Englishness (as portrayed by a Canadian writer who never went to England prior to starting on the first book). It’s just a total fantasy, and I can never tell how seriously people are taking it.
As for the mystery in this particular installment, I figured it out relatively quickly, but it’s still fun to follow along, and I love that the main character is a young girl who is fascinated with science. It all has rather a Famous Five feel, ultimately, with Flavia de Luce playing all five (well, maybe the four humans — her bike, Gladys, or maybe her family’s servant, Dogger, could be Timmy): how a kid solved the mysteries the police couldn’t solve, with the police coming in at the end to wrap things up. I can even see Flavia’s father as Uncle Quentin…
One thing that is bothering me is Flavia’s relationship with her sisters. It’s played lightly, yet it’s frankly abusive. She’s constantly being told that no one loves her, no one would want to spend time with her, that she’s frankly unworthy of love… and I can’t tell how seriously people (including Alan Bradley) are taking that.
There’s more than a touch of Dahl’s Matilda in Flavia, but it never seems to get any deeper than that. At this point, I’m starting to want to know why Flavia’s sisters treat her that way, what effect this is really having on Flavia, whether this is just meant to build up a picture of a “quirky” family (ugh), or whether it’s meant to be leading somewhere. Playing pranks is one thing, even fighting, but psychological warfare? It’s really starting to get on my nerves.