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Darker Fables

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Best Books: Spring/Summer 2018

I’m aiming to hit 100 books, so I’ve been reading heavily this year. Here are my highlights so far.

1. Sandra Gulland’s Josephine Bonaparte trilogy:
Dramatic, sweeping, emotional, and all-in-all a thoroughly engaging portrait of an extraordinary woman, who lived in an extraordinary time. First novel review here.

2. Kij Johnson’s The Fox Woman:
A+ character development, evocative writing, and shape-shifting foxes. Reviewed here.

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3. Camille Griep’s New Charity Blues:
A book unlike a lot of books. Ultra-subtle futuristic retelling of The Iliad, with elemental magic. Clever, with an interesting, original concept. Pleasant surprise.

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4. Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest:
Aliens, war, suffering. Detestable villain. One of the author’s best works, in my opinion.

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Working Girl (1988)

5. H.G. Wells’ The Sea Lady:
Badass mermaid versus Victorian society. An unexpectedly deep gem, and available for free download at Project Gutenburg. I still can’t fathom why this story is so unknown.

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Peter Pan (1953)

6. Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road:
A great deal less magical or lavish than anything else on this list, but the only book I have ever read which has led me to sympathy for lying snobs and cheaters.

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The Vampire Diaries (2009-2017)

7. Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens:
Fairytales, fairytales, fairytales are my favourite ever thing, especially the dark ones. Rapunzel meets Elizabeth Báthory.

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Hoping to get some more in-depth reviews done, but it’s dissertation season, so I make no promises, save that I’ll do another favourites for autumn/winter. Suggested reading always welcomed!

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Review: Sandra Gulland’s ‘Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe’

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Good Lord, this should have been posted sooner, but I have been in that nightmarish state of wanting to write but having no willpower to get tappity at the keyboard for anything besides assignments for weeks. 

But I’m back, and following on from Joséphine B., I dove straight into this trilogy’s next installment, which was solid. Tales of Passion does not veer from the established style of its predecessor, and offers little by way of surprise, but the strengths of the first novel are carried through, with Joséphine (the name Rose is sacrificed upon marriage to Bonaparte) remaining a compelling protagonist witness to the turmoils of a fascinating era.

Fame was the last thing I’d expected from marriage to Bonaparte. Strange, intense little Napoléon, the ill-mannered Corsican – a hero now, the Liberator of Italy. The man to whom kings bowed.

Whereas Joséphine B. follows a girl through adolescence and well into her adult life, Tales of Passion covers the much shorter period of time between Joséphine’s marriage to Napoleon and her ascension to the French throne.

The narrative is much more complicated, with a great deal more intrigue and political drama playing out around our protagonist, and embroiling her in its chaos.

This is not always a good thing, since Gulland’s writing often lacks the dexterity to handle these numerous intricate events. In places the novel has a glossing quality which makes me wonder why the the editor did not license an extra hundred pages.

“I told you, this will be bloodless.”

“There are other ways to ruin a man.”

That being said, however, Joséphine is an older woman in this text, and entering a phase of life in which age becomes a concern, which I found engrossing. I am so accustomed to historical novels which focus on women during their early years that it was refreshing to read about a woman slipping past childbearing, an era of womanhood which most novels, with their focus on young, developing protagonists, never explore.

Also, though there is some depth missing when it comes to the politics, this novel is effective in digging deep into its characters’ emotions. I found it interesting to see the late summer of someone’s life as the era in which romance enters. The problematic, passionate and powerful relationship between Joséphine and Napoleon is one of this novel’s greatest strengths, especially impressive since much of it is long distance during this installment.

I won’t go so far as to say I loved this novel – I do think it is the weakest of the trilogy – but as an essential part of a thoroughly engaging series, there is little I can truly fault.

Now, alone in my boudoir, I look through the thick file, the names of so many thousands of men and women, and I am overwhelmed. Can I do this? I pray for strength.

Review: Kij Johnson’s ‘The Fox Woman’

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I believe that multiple narrator novels are difficult to do well, so please pardon my jealousy as I sit here seething over how Johnson makes it look easy. 

The Fox Woman is set in ancient Japan, and follows Yoshifuji, a courtier who decides to retreat into the country after political disgrace, Shikujo, his wife, trapped by her determination to be perfect, and Kitsune, a fox living on their estate.

Anthropomorphism is something which, in my experience, either works very well, or is laughably bad. Johnson definitely fits the former bracket.

“…Art is itself, but also the thing it appears to be… Like the moon and its reflection in a puddle. The puddle does not have the real moon. If you bite it, it shatters, it is just water in the dirt. But every detail of the moon is there, so, yes, it is the moon. What was it of, this reflection?”

“Of us, Grandfather,” Brother said.

There was silence for a long breath. “That is bad.”

There is a long list of things I like about this novel, from its sumptuous prose and magical themes to its fantastic storyline and distinct characterisation of the three protagonists, but the main thing for me was the character development. Yoshifuji starts the novel selfish and blind, Shikujo secretive, vain, and Kitsune arrogant. By the end all are changed.

The story is, at first glance, the story of Kitsune and Yoshifuji. Kitsune’s love for this man, and the terrible things she is willing to do to have him. But I think the true heroine of the novel is Shikujo. Certainly I found her transformation the most compelling, and the truest to what seems to be the message of the book – the difference between being alive, and living.

For this moment, I am wholly myself, unshaped by the needs of others, by their dreams or expectations or sensibilities. But I am also lonely. With no one to shape me, who stands here, watching the moon, or the stars, or the clouds? I feel insubstantial, as if the wind might suddenly dissolve me, like a weak mist.

And the writing. I have already said sumptuous, but that does no justice. Captivating, romantic, rich, dark and lascivious, Johnson’s prose is a literary treat.

My one qualm is that I do feel Yoshifuji started the novel a fool, and though he was a different man by the end, I still felt him to be incredibly foolish, something which made him a little unconvincing as a love interest, next to Kitsune’s burgeoning insight, and Shikujo’s intelligence.

But overall, I loved it. I am looking forward to sampling Johnson’s other work, and based on this (as well as The Guest Cat), I am really in the mood to sample more Japanese-themed literature. Any suggestions will be welcomed!

Life is better lived as an adventure than as a work of art, I think.

Review: Takashi Hiraide’s ‘The Guest Cat’

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This novella (just 136 pages!) was recommended to me by a friend. Despite its short length, it took me a long time to get round to it. I think because the premise didn’t inspire great expectations.

The Guest Cat has a loose, inconsequential plot. A Japanese man and his wife live on the grounds of an old estate. The neighbours have a cat who starts to visit.

There are no compelling events in the narrative, and the human characters are shade-like, drifting on the edge of the writing as their lives flow around Chibi and her antics.

When a girl who often passed along Lightning Alley stopped and crouched to gaze at the cat, it did not run away. But as soon as she attempted to touch it, the cat quickly slipped off, avoiding contact at all costs. The cat’s manner of rejection was like cold, white light.

This is a quiet novel. The prose is poetic, but reserved, and the cat at its centre remains enigmatic, physically and metaphorically slipping through the narrator’s fingers.

There is something deeply compelling about this read, however. It expresses the subtle nuances with which animals can enhance our lives, and our lives with one another. I was delighted by it, and though it’s a foray into different territory for me, it’s a venture I’m glad I made.

A concise and muted text, but buoyant, sad, and beautiful, The Guest Cat is a genuine work of art.

I stood there alone for a while. The old man and the old woman were gone. My wife and the cat were no longer there, and I too was already gone.

Review: Kaui Hart Hemmings’ ‘The Possibilities’

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Hmm… I’m not going to lie. This wasn’t as good as I hoped it might be.

Last year I read The Descendants, by the same author, and it was one of my favourite general fiction reads ever. Probably, my expectations of this were unrealistic from the start.

The Possibilities is a first-person novel following Sarah St. John, a forty-something shopping channel TV host, and her experiences as a newly grieving mother.

I’ve become stormy and difficult, mean and sad. If I was confronted with someone like myself I’d feel sorry for them. Then I’d get bored by them, and then I’d hate them for their sad, sad story.

She’s not the most likable protagonist. Her thoughts, and not just as a result of grief, are often unkind, and her treatment of other characters is frequently careless. However, I don’t think that’s a failing. She is well-fleshed, complex, and her development through the stages of grief is mature and convincing.

I don’t know though, it just didn’t do it for me. Somehow the delicate undertones of feeling that made The Descendants so strong were muddled here. The tension was uneven, and I couldn’t share in the sentiments, as I felt I could with the other novel.

The plot wasn’t the focus, so I can forgive it for being predictable, and there were moments that hinted at the emotional punch this novel fails to deliver. However, it was all a bit like the smell of next door’s cooking on an empty stomach. Tantalising, but ultimately unsatisfying, and more than a bit frustrating.

It’s a beautiful day, I realize. I live in a beautiful place. The surrounding pines, so impossibly tall, sparkle with snow. I tilt my face up and inhale, willing my surroundings to enter me somehow and to remind me how small I am.

I liked most of the secondary characters, especially Sarah’s father, and I think from an empirical perspective the novel is effective in exploring the different ways people mourn, but there was no one I adored.

The humour, also, is an acquired taste (but maybe that’s cultural – it’s no secret American humour doesn’t always work so well across the pond), and the prose is an inch from average.

But I liked it. I did. The portrayal of female friendships is actually quite exceptional. I just didn’t like it as much as I thought I would.

Review: Sandra Gulland’s ‘The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Joséphine B.’

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My first read of the year, and I’m pleased it was a good one.

I have been told that long titles are a no-go if you want people to actually read your work, but I would like to object to that. I have been eager to read this book for some time, and it did not disappoint.

Joséphine B. is the first in a historical fiction trilogy, styled as the diary of Empress Joséphine, or Rose, as she was known, up until her fateful marriage to Napoléon Bonaparte.

The historical accuracy is to be praised, and Gulland does an excellent job of covering an extremely complicated time without losing readability.

“You will be unhappily married. You will be widowed… You will be Queen.”

This is not a faultless text, and its diary format suffers some serious pitfalls, by far the least of them the fact that Rose’s writing voice does not noticeably mature between her teenage years and the age of thirty-three.

It is also by nature episodic, and given the number of years covered in 431 pages, the pace is a little manic.

However, Gulland does succeed in evoking the spirit of a remarkable woman, whose life needs no embellishment to make a fascinating story. As a tribute to Joséphine, or Rose, this book stands as a great achievement. Although I know the eventual fate of the characters, I am looking forward to reading the next installment.

‘The woman I saw was a stranger to me. Her gaunt face was lined, aged, without colour. Her teeth were black, her eyes sunken – furtive, fearful eyes.’

One of the great strengths of this book is the way Gulland does not romanticise its protagonist into a Venus-like figure. Rose is written with her bad teeth and wrinkles, and her sufferings affect her, particularly her months of imprisonment during the Terror, after which her own children did not recognise her.

As a character, this woman who was told she would one day marry an extraordinary man is written as kind, ruthlessly intelligent, and utterly selfless in her pursuit of saving others, even at great cost to herself. Gulland’s portrayal of her makes her one of the most likable characters I have ever read.

Also worthy of note is the diversity in this novel. I do think it is sometimes difficult to include ethnicity and sexuality in historical fiction without pushing these characters to the fringe, or denying the unpleasant treatment many were subject to, but Gulland makes an admirable effort. This book features a host of black secondary characters, and allusions to the queerness of many a French noble.

I liked it a lot, basically. I’m hoping the next part is just as good…

Review: Paolo Bacigalupi’s ‘The Water Knife’

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A solid 3.5. Far from the worst book I’ve ever read, but nothing groundbreaking.

The Water Knife is a three-protagonist speculative fiction novel, following the intersecting lives of Angel, a hired thug who ‘cuts’ water from those who don’t pay up, Lucy, a freelance journalist, and Maria, a refugee. The three converge in the ravaged city of Phoenix, Arizona, some years into a water crisis which has rendered the United States at war with itself over the limited resources.

It’s a very geopolitical novel, and has a lot to say, but personally I felt there wasn’t much being said that hasn’t been said before.

“This dust” – he shrugged – “it’s hard to get relief here, even with the filters over in the Taiyang. Everyone cuts corners. They’d never get away with shoddy work like this in California. No one’s really investing long term. Not even the Chinese. Not long term, anyway. It’s a doomed place, after all.”

The Water Knife reads as something in the same vein as Mad Max: Fury Road, though it’s a little less crazy, a little less exciting, and the characters are a little less compelling.

That being said, I did enjoy it. It is an intelligent novel, and the writing is, for the most part, not half bad (although whether the sex scene falls under the umbrella of quality prose is questionable).

Of the three characters, I found Maria to be the most interesting. Her desperate efforts to stay out of prostitution left me rooting for her, and I found her attitude to the dark world of this novel convincing. With Angel I was less invested, mostly because Bacigalupi really tries to make this man ‘cool’, and therefore renders him a bit of a bore. And with Lucy I didn’t really care whether she lived or died.

In the midst of the conversation, she’d seen the guards ushering someone out. She’d sipped her coffee, watching as it happened. Pitying the person but not really feeling their desperation. 

The plot is uncomplicated, though it disguises itself beneath layers of scientific and political jargon. It’s not a bad one, but to be honest the opening shows more promise than the novel actually delivers.

A cursory glance on Goodreads for other reviews suggests that a lot of people see this novel as a kind of voyeuristic depiction of extreme and sexist violence. In places I agree it’s overdone, but although The Water Knife features a spectrum of gristly themes, I’ve read worse.

The things I take the most objection to are the fact that only one of the three protagonists is a protagonist worth following, and the weird smut. As a depiction of the world we are perhaps heading towards, it is pretty harrowing, but it’s not more, or less, harrowing, than many other books out there.

All in all, distinctly average.

Review: Anne Rice’s ‘Angel Time’

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Oh, but this was baaad

Angel Time is my first experience of Anne Rice, and it utterly dashed my high hopes of her writing, because this novel is nothing but a poorly written, Bible-thumping drag. And that’s to say nothing of the two-dimensional plot device of a protagonist.

It was just so disappointing, on every front, from its stilted, unnatural dialogue to its overcooked, purple descriptions.

“And now my tender darling, brought to this strange city of Norwich, and beloved of all who laid eyes on her, has died, helplessly, of the iliac passion as we stood by unable to save her…”

I’m not so narrow-minded that I’m not open to books with religious themes, but with this one I felt that a good story had been sacrificed in favour of zealous Christian fervour. A bad beginning wound up with bad ending, and things were no better in the middle.

Our protagonist, Toby, an assassin with a chequered past, had little potential to be interesting. There were over fifty pages of meaningless exposition before we even got to his clichéd backstory, and after that the meagre scraps of originality which might have redeemed this novel were squandered on an utterly inconceivable, shockingly simplistic, and imaginatively poor plot.

Don’t even get me started on the dullards who peopled the secondary cast.

“I want you now,” he said. “But your redemption lies with The Maker, with your faith in Him. The faith is stirring in you. You know that, don’t you? You’ve already asked for forgiveness…”

The lack of subtlety in this novel is almost offensive, and in its crude, juvenile devotion to the Christian redemption rhetoric it seems less a sincere expression of the author’s faith than a trite piece of conversion propaganda

I just could not take it seriously. I’m really hoping this was just a poor choice of Rice novel on my part, because if Interview with the Vampire is even half as bad as this, there are accountancy documents I would go out of my way to read instead.

Angel Time: to be more aptly remembered as a waste of time.

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Gran Torino (2008)

Review: Gaston Leroux’s ‘The Phantom of the Opera’

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Well. That was different to the film.

Oh, I know. Sinner, sinner, sinner. How could I commit such a monstrous wrong as to not read the book first? The answer is even worse.

For a long time, I didn’t even know there was a book.

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Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

But find out I did, and I have since made amends by reading the thing.

It’s a strange old novel, which I liked more than I disliked, and which I think perhaps I didn’t entirely understand.

‘Oh, tonight I gave you my soul and I am dead!’ Christine replied.

‘Your soul is a beautiful thing, child,’ replied the man’s grave voice, ‘and I thank you. No emperor ever received so fair a gift. THE ANGELS WEPT TONIGHT.’

The Phantom of the Opera is not the romance it is made out to be, but a Gothic novel about an outcast genius and his obsession with a naïve young singer, whose virginal personality is more like that of a child than an adult woman.

As far as the classics go it is, in my opinion, easy to read, and the writing is in places very beautiful, making this a highly quotable text.

The plot is also by turns exciting, inventive, and unusual. Unfortunately, it falls down on realism, with over-dramatic dialogue and a cast of (mostly superfluous) two-dimensional characters.

And, despite the care which she took to look behind her at every moment, she failed to see a shadow which followed her like her own shadow, which stopped when she stopped, which started again when she did and which made no more noise than a well-conducted shadow should. As for Raoul, he saw nothing either; for, when he had Christine in front of him, nothing interested him that happened behind.

This is a good book, but in my opinion it’s not one of the best when it comes to Gothic literature. As sort-of-fascinating a character as the Phantom is, I think this novel lacks the depth and nuance of its contemporaries.

Also, for all its romantic themes (love between father and daughter, young love, selfish love, obsessive love, etc.), I found this book quite cold. In my opinion it lacks tenderness, and as such there was no one I really ended up rooting for.

And then there’s The Persian, who is the definition of a plot device in character form, endlessly appearing to deliver his lines, and then disappearing, without need for motive, convincing backstory, or indeed, an actual place in the narrative.

‘I have invented a mask that makes me look like anybody. People will not even turn round in the streets. You will be the happiest of women. And we will sing, all by ourselves, till we swoon away with delight. You are crying! You are afraid of me! And yet I am not really wicked. Love me and you shall see! All I wanted was to be loved for myself. If you loved me I should be as gentle as a lamb; and you could do anything with me that you pleased.’

However, The Phantom of the Opera does feature some delightful description, particularly in regard to the setting, which is an exaggeration of the Paris Opera. I have actually visited the Palais Garnier in real life, and I can tell you, this book really does it justice as an otherworldly, magical palace in which all sorts of strange, glamorous things might happen.

And I did enjoy the plot, which is a good deal quicker-paced than most classics.

So, all in all, an inch shy of disappointing. Not the best, but not the worst. I’m glad I read it, anyway.

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