Tag: J.R.R. Tolkien

Review – Travel Light

Posted January 3, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Travel Light, by Naomi MitchisonTravel Light, Naomi Mitchison

I came across this because of Amal El-Mohtar’s NPR review; the idea of a book in dialogue with Tolkien, by one of the women around him who he encouraged and listened to, definitely appealed: I think just recently I was asking if anyone’s written anything about Tolkien’s female students, about whom I know very little except that I’m sure I have been told they existed. (Time for a woman to write a biography of Tolkien? Move over, Humphrey Carpenter, Tom Shippey?)

And this book delivered. It is rather slight — it’s short, and on first glance, rather fable-like. Naomi Mitchison resisted any urge to insist on a moral, though: while there are religious people in the story, and Hella’s travelling light seems a virtue in her, there are good people who struggle with faith, good dragons who keep out of the gods’ way, and though for a while it looks as though there might be a moral about Christianity in there, then there’s also a bit of a wry look at the church in Constantinople, and it ends with some more Norse mythology. I don’t think she honestly ever pushes any moral except finding your way through life and being good to people and creatures, and in the meantime she has an intriguing wander through different cultures and traditions.

Mitchison is a lot less sure than Tolkien about the period and the people she wants to write about, I think. Tolkien talked about creating “a mythology for England”, and I’ve argued elsewhere that Susan Cooper succeeds, but I don’t think Mitchison is as rooted in a place, an idea. Like her protagonist, she’s willing to wander. I wonder what a difference it’d have made to genre fiction now if Mitchison had a greater role, and Tolkien a lesser? Maybe we’d have less to worry about from the constant onslaught of medieval European fantasy.

It won’t scratch the same itch as The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, for sure. It’s a different sort of story — if you’re a fan of Le Guin, perhaps, it’s more like the stories of Earthsea. Or it’s like a more fantastical, more female Rosemary Sutcliff. Don’t read it for The Hobbit 2.0 — it’s something all its own.

Oh, and it can be quite amusing, too: Dragon Economics 101…

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Review – Greenwitch

Posted December 23, 2013 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

Greenwitch by Susan CooperGreenwitch, Susan Cooper

Greenwitch isn’t really my favourite book of the series, though it is the one with the most mystery — I wonder a lot about the background mythology, the legends of Cornwall that the Greenwitch brings to life and what lies behind each glimpse of part of a story. It occurred to me last night while reading that maybe Susan Cooper has come closer than Tolkien to a “mythology for England”. Granted, he’s closer if you’re looking at England as “the land under the rule of the Anglo-Saxons”, but Cooper has touched on the legends of the land, the real stories that matter, rather than inventing a quest and a ring. Her quests come organically out of the mythology she’s using, and the places where she joins on her own are pretty seamless.

(Tolkien has created a world of his own, I think, and people often put too much emphasis on the “mythology for England” stuff. I don’t mean to do that: whether or not he meant to achieve that, what he achieved in the end was great. I just think the idea of a mythology for England is maybe actually achieved by Cooper.)

Greenwitch also features one of the things I love most about this series — the characters. They’re people. Simon and Barney are good-hearted boys who get jealous and possessive when another boy of a similar age seems to encroach on their time and their friends. Captain Toms, an Old One of the Light, gets laid low by gout. And I liked that the Dark is personified in a single character, this one time — not as the tide of the Dark, but as a single man of the Dark. We see hints of individuality there; his bitterness when he says “I have no friends”, his genuine artistic talent. It’s another of those moments where I think the black/white Dark/Light dichotomy cracks a little.

There are also some gorgeous passages in this book about the beauty and danger of the sea, the amoral and uncaring world of the Wild magic (and then, again, that hint of the Greenwitch as a child, as a lonely creation in need of something to hold on to, of kindness).

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Books that define me

Posted December 20, 2013 by Nikki in General / 0 Comments

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.

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Auto-read list

Posted November 11, 2013 by Nikki in General / 14 Comments

A friend, Lynn, posted a link to and her version of an interesting question at SF Signal a few days ago, and I thought I’d join in as well.

We all have authors whose work, for whatever reason, inspire us more than the rest, whose books standout and can always be counted on to entertain, and even to comfort. These are the ones that we’ll instantly forgive a misstep or two (maybe even three), because we love them that much, and will buy, and read, anything that they write. So, we asked our panel…

Q: What authors are on your autoread list, and why?
I’m going to discount deceased authors, for this, otherwise you’d just get it filled up with Dorothy L. Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, Rosemary Sutcliff, and Raymond Chandler. Which in itself probably tells you a lot about me, but hey. To stick to the rules, I will also put Iain M. Banks in this group, although I haven’t read all of his work yet and haven’t quite adjusted to the idea that there will be no more.

  • Ursula Le Guin: I haven’t found all of her work memorable, and some of it I wouldn’t find worth rereading. Some of it I liked better on a reread than I did the first time. The thing with Ursula Le Guin is she’s willing to critique her own work in a way that inspires me: both in essays and by developing her themes further. The whole Earthsea sequence can be seen as a dialogue with fantasy tropes of male power which she first just accepts and then begins to work against. Or in some of her non-fiction collections, she’s critiqued some of the decisions she made in The Left Hand of Darkness to do with portraying gender and sexuality. She’s already prone to writing about diversity, and she’s willing to look back at her work and say, “Nope, screwed that up.” Except much more elegantly. What’s not to love?
  • Gillian Bradshaw: I haven’t read all or even most of her work yet, but Island of Ghosts told me all I needed to know about her attention to detail, her ability to make the historical engaging. I guess she’s comparable to Rosemary Sutcliff in some ways, though her novels are aimed at an adult audience and therefore perhaps less accessible. I should actually buy Island of Ghosts for my mother sometime, if there’s an ebook or larger print edition, because I think she’d like it too. (1)
  • N.K. Jemisin: This is precisely no surprise for anyone who knows me. Jemisin’s work is glorious, with diverse characters, exciting plots and strong world-building. I actually have a recurring dream element where somewhere in a dream about something else entirely, I will see a new N.K. Jemisin book on the shelves and have to read it. I can never remember when I wake up what the plot was about, but even my dreaming brain knows it’s gonna be good.
  • Michael Wood: Yep, this is non-fiction. All of his books are accessible, but detailed and as far as I’ve ever heard, accurate. I remember reading two of his books about medieval England while recuperating from my cholecystectomy, and I could concentrate on them even then, yet they didn’t feel dumbed down.
  • Scott Lynch: I suppose really he needs to write a bit more before I can tell whether it’s the world he’s created that I adore, or his writing alone. But on the strength of The Lies of Locke Lamora and its sequels, I’m willing to try anything he writes, and I’ve enjoyed a short story or two as well.
  • Jacqueline Carey: Okay, so I have Dark Currents on my shelf and haven’t got round to it yet, but regardless, I will eventually get round to everything Carey writes. There are many and varied problems I could point to with her work, particularly with how she deals with races other than the D’Angelines in the Kushiel books, but her work is satisfying in so many other ways. In the Kushiel books, there’s that push-pull relationship between Phèdre and Joscelin, there’s all that delicious loyalty stuff going on with Joscelin, there’s the permissiveness of their world, there’s politics and intrigue… And though many people don’t like them, I love Banewreaker and Godslayer for taking Tolkien’s pretty morally strict world and spinning it so we can see another side. (2)
  • Robin McKinley: I love what she does with retelling fairytales, I love her female protagonists, I love her writing style. Sunshine and Chalice are my favourites, but I’ve found something to enjoy in nearly all her work. Exception: Deerskin. It’s incredibly well written and all the emotions are wonderfully evoked, but it’s not a fictional space I was at all comfortable in. In a way it treats sexual violence much more seriously than, say, Jacqueline Carey. (3)
  • Joanne Harris: I started out life as a Joanne Harris reader with snobbery about Chocolat, only to discover that actually it was very readable, well written, and I fell in love with the characters. Harris actually has a genius for narrators, but also for making everything she writes a very easy read. Which she wouldn’t like me saying, if I recall conversations from Twitter correctly, but ’tis true nonetheless: I find that her books don’t throw up resistance to reading, but are easy to immerse myself in and just read. Which is, at least to me, a compliment.
  • Neil Gaiman: Periodically I come across people complaining about his privilege, or his wife, or his attitude toward women. Often I think these people have some good points to make. Regardless, his books have a similar quality to Harris’ in that I’ve rarely come across a roadblock. Anansi Boys being an exception, firstly because it made me wonder if my dad was secretly Anansi, and secondly because I got far too embarrassed for the characters. (4)
  • Ed Brubaker: At least if it has the words “Captain America” on the cover.
  • Guy Gavriel Kay: His prose is beautiful, and he’s one of the few authors who can frequently move me to tears.
  • [Previously omitted] Jo Walton: She wrote a book that felt just perfect for me, like she’d written it for me — I’m speaking, of course, of her Among Others. She’s written in a lot of different genres: dystopian alternate history with a detective story in the Small Change books; dragons in an Austenesque society in Tooth & Claw; fantasy based around the home and relationships in Lifelode; alternate Arthuriana in The King’s Peace/The King’s Name… She’s a versatile author who has yet to write a book that I didn’t enjoy, and The Prize in the Game is one of those few books that moved me to tears.
(1) I have several measures of admiration for books: do I want to give them to my mother, my sister, my partner, or all three? Island of Ghosts is probably more a Mum book than anything.

(2) Carey’s Kushiel books would be a I will give this to everyone in the world recommendation if it weren’t for the overabundance of kinky, often violent, sex which can’t be skipped because sometimes it’s plot relevant and it’s usually emotionally relevant for Phèdre in some way. Mum, if you read these books, a) no you cannot borrow my copies, you’d damage their spines, b) for the love of god, I don’t want to know if you read them, c) yes I am a prude, d) I’m twenty-four, I really need to stop addressing parts of my blog posts to you like you get to approve or disapprove! I think you gave up trying to regulate my reading material by the time I’d chewed my way through two libraries at the age of twelve anyway.

(3) Mum — and Lisa, if you haven’t read it — Chalice.

(4) Thing about Anansi in Gaiman’s work: if he names something, that name sticks. This can be observed with my dad and the local wildlife, teddy bears, people, or whatever else you can think of. These names somehow spread beyond the immediate circle who should know about it, so that by some alchemy I am Squeak to people who’ve never met my dad and who I don’t recall telling that story to.

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Reading and rereading

Posted October 19, 2013 by Nikki in General, Reviews / 5 Comments

I was thinking about the sort of content I can post here, and how to make sure there’s always some content going up at least once a week. I’ve pretty much decided that all reviews of ARCs will go up here, and any reviews of books I found particularly interesting. There’ll also be some giveaways, I’ll have my readathon progress posts here, and then there’ll be posts like this one: random topics related to books.

And what is this post about? Well, I was thinking today that I couldn’t actually pick my ten favourite books ever. But I could tell you the ten books/series I reread most. I am a rereader: it never actually occurred to me that was an odd thing until someone on Goodreads treated the idea with scorn. But while there’s so many books out there for me to get round to reading, there’s always more to find in the books I’ve already read — at least the good ones. So without further ado, and in no particular order because it already pains me to come up with a top ten in the first place…

(Well, okay, a bit extra ado — I’m adding links to reviews of these on Goodreads. If you have an account, I would super appreciate you clicking the like button there, if you do like them. It helps me get more ARCs, etc.)

#1 – The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

As a kid, I loved The Hobbit, and agitated for the day when my mother would let me read LotR. When she finally did, I was hooked. I probably read it at least once a year ’til I was about sixteen, and then I sort of caught the general bug going round about the various things wrong with Tolkien and lost interest. For a while. It was Ursula Le Guin’s essays in The Wave in the Mind that got me thinking about Tolkien again, and rediscovering his work; it was my MA that really got me digging into it. And god, guys, there’s so much there. I can actually understand people who find it boring, people who are troubled by his (lack of) portrayals of women, of non-white people, etc. But the sheer scale of the world he created, the seriousness he treated it with, I can’t help but love. I’ve reread LotR twice this year, I think — and I’m partway through a third time.

Reviews (from when I read the three books in twenty-four hours!): The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King.

#2 – Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay

Or probably just about anything by GGK. I actually usually have a problem getting into his books in the first place: his style takes some getting used to, for me, and some aspects of it annoy me (especially in his early novels). I love the world of Tigana, though, the characters and their intense feelings, the criticisms of colonialism that’re going on, and the way that he makes no promises of a happy ending. He walks a line of moral ambiguity quite well, allowing you to sympathise with both sides of the fight (at least in most cases; there is one unequivocal villain, but he isn’t really at the emotional heart of the story anyway).

Review.

#3 – The Dark is Rising Sequence, Susan Cooper

I suspect people who know me well are probably surprised this wasn’t the first one that came into my mind. I’m kind of surprised, too. I first experience The Dark is Rising through the BBC radio adaptation of the second book of the sequence — the cast was excellent, just perfect, and it gave me chills. I didn’t actually read the series until I was older, maybe about fifteen. And then I fell in love. It helps that the last two books are set in Wales. People who claim it’s morally black and white aren’t reading closely enough: there’s an absolutely lovely scene between John Rowlands and Will Stanton where they talk about that very issue, and conclude that while the Light and the Dark are like that, humanity is all shades in between.

The Arthurian elements help, too.

Reviews: Over Sea, Under Stone, The Dark is Rising, Greenwitch, The Grey King, Silver on the Tree.

#4 – Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, Dorothy L. Sayers

Particularly Strong Poison and Gaudy Night, where Peter and Harriet first meet and where Harriet finally agrees to marry Peter, respectively. I have a huge soft spot for all forms of this: the books, the tv series, the radio adaptations… Edward Petherbridge and Ian Carmichael were both such perfect Peters in different ways. When I was in hospital recovering from having my gallbladder removed, and I was having serious panic attacks (my blood oxygenation % was in the low 80s, I believe), they wouldn’t let my mother stay with me, so she put a Peter Wimsey audiobook on and left it by my pillow. I have no idea which book it was or even which narrator, though I think it was Edward Petherbridge, but I closed my eyes and focused on that and up came my blood oxygenation levels. Like magic. I love that Peter is mentally ill (PTSD), I love that he’s such an ass but he cares so much, I love his relationship with Harriet… the mysteries are second for me to the characters.

Selected reviews: Clouds of Witness, Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night.

#5 – Sunshine, Robin McKinley

If you can read this and not end up craving cinnamon rolls and all such things, I don’t think you’re human. I love that here we have a vampire who is a good guy and is still unsettling as anything. It’s not easy for him and Sunshine to get along — and Sunshine is a strong heroine and a real person who is scared and unsure and doesn’t know what the heck is going on, and doesn’t want to. Sometimes, she even does really stupid stuff. But you’re with her all the way, anyway.

Review.

#6 – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, anonymous

My partner refuses to read this on the grounds that if she didn’t like this, I’d probably break up with her. It’s not quite true, but I would be pretty upset. I didn’t think that much of it… and then I did a module devoted to it during my BA. We focused closely on the language, picking apart all of it for the rich tapestry of allusions and influence and… It’s just genius, and it’s awfully fun to read aloud, too. My favourite translation is probably the least accurate one, by Simon Armitage, but there are several other good ones. I own at least seven different translations, plus one with the original Middle English.

Selected reviews: Simon Armitage’s verse translation, J.R.R. Tolkien’s verse translation, W.R.J. Barron’s prose translation.

#7 – The Inheritance Trilogy, N.K. Jemisin

The first time I started reading this, I finished the first book that evening and pounced on the next book as soon as I could. I love the diversity in these books — race, gender, ability, sexuality, class… I just fell in love with the world right away, and never looked back. I’m less of a fan of her Dreamblood duology, but The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and its sequels are wonderful. She has a real knack with creating interesting narrators, and with telling a story that’s gripping and involving even if you don’t 100% like the characters. I would happily buy any of Jemisin’s work without even stopping to check the blurb, in future.

Reviews: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, The Kingdom of Gods.

#8 – The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, John Steinbeck

It actually starts out fairly weak, but as Steinbeck found his voice, he began to make the stories really live for me. They’re amusing and tender and fresh all at once — and yes, freshness is kind of hard when you’re working in the Arthurian tradition, especially when you’re retelling a specific version (in this case, Malory). This is one of the few versions of the story where I sympathise with Guinevere and Lancelot. Steinbeck never finished or properly edited this, and yet it’s still so powerful… I’d be almost scared to read it if he’d finished it. I’d definitely cry.

Review.

#9 – FAKE, Sanami Matoh

This was one of the first series of manga I ever read, and one of the first LGBT stories I ever came across outside of fandom. I loved Dee and Ryo and the development of their relationship, and when I’m feeling down, I often feel tempted to grab the first volume and dive right back in. What I really liked is that it isn’t just about how much Dee wants to bone Ryo: they take care of each other, they have personal crises and work crises, and they fight crime. And they fall in love. And it’s funny.

(I don’t have a good review to link to, for this series.)

#10 – Sword at Sunset, Rosemary Sutcliff

Technically, I’d be happy to read the whole series over and over again, but the arc from The Eagle of the Ninth is pretty tangential in this book — I wouldn’t be surprised if most people don’t notice it. I love the relationships in this book, the way that Gwenhwyfar and Arthur so honestly try to love one another, the way that Bedwyr and Arthur (and most of Arthur’s men, in fact), so palpably love one another. The intensity of that friendship… well, it can definitely be read as bordering on homoerotic. It’s also heart-wrenching, and just… the whole thing is beautiful.

Review.

And I could go on… I won’t, though. I will add two books that I suspect will make this list in future, though.

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern: I thought it was just gorgeous, the language and the ideas and the imagery and the relationships and the magic and, and, and…
A Face Like Glass, Frances Hardinge: It actually reminded me of The Night Circus, for a younger audience, in some undefinable way, that same sense of magic and wonder. I loved every scrap of it. I bought it on a whim and read it all in one go, and then started buying copies for everyone else — and asked for Hardinge’s other books for Christmas without even checking the blurbs, which is pretty rare for me. They’re still sat on my shelf, waiting for when I really deserve a treat…

The minute I post this, I will realise I’ve left someone off and agonise about who I could strike out to add them in. In fact, make that before I’ve even posted it — obviously Ursula Le Guin deserves to be in the list, probably more than a few of the others. The Earthsea Quartet is another of those series I could read over and over. My favourite thing about it is probably the way that throughout the stories, Le Guin recognises what she’s lacking (female characters, female power) and begins to critique her own work through adding to it.

You see what I did there? I snuck in thirteen books/series in all. Hah.

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