Friday, October 21, 2005

Recent Reading Roundup

Yet another attempt to convince myself that AtWQ is primarily a book-blog.
  1. Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

    I had been curious about this book even before it got a controversial nod from the Lit-Blog Co-op, but that selection helped push me over the edge. Atkinson's 'literary mystery' revolves around sad-sack Cambridge PI Jackson Brodie, retained to solve three unsolvable mysteries: the 30-year-old disappearance of a little girl from her own back yard, the senseless murder of a teenager, and the current whereabouts of the runaway daughter of an axe-murderess. Frankly, I think the folks at the LBC could have done better--there's no question that Case Histories is well-written and engaging, but ultimately it is an underperforming little book, and for all its aspirations to the contrary, not great literature. In fact, there's something almost desperately snobbish about the novel, a sensation that creeps through Atkinson's admittedly lovely and lucid prose--'Look at me!', the book seems to be saying, 'I'm literary! I have characters who think in stream-of-consciousness and suffer from ennui!'--that leaves a bad aftertaste. Case Histories' ending is quite strong, including one very moving scene, but the book is hardly the greatest thing since sliced bread.

  2. The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick

    I've been looking forward to reading Swanwick's modern fantasy classic for several years now, and possibly that's why I found it so disappointing. Swanwick has an excellent premise--he turns the traditional tale of children spirited away by fairies on its head when he reveals that these children are made to slave away on a factory floor, making dragons--magi-mechanical war-machines. As we get a wider view of Swanwick's fairyland, we discover similar juxtapositions of the magical and the industrial--elves with credit cards, alchemists with microwave ovens. Unfortunately, Swanwick never came up with a plot to match the originality of his premise, and after a strong first third, in which the changeling Jane escapes her enslavement with the help of a decommissioned dragon, the book turns aimless. It certainly doesn't help that Jane is such a thoroughly unlikable character--the sort of person who genuinely believes that her own unhappiness justifies destroying the world--that her ultimate happy ending seems unearned and even a little disappointing. I imagine that when it was first published, Swanwick got a pass on Dragon's deficiencies because of the originality of his approach to genre clichés, but nowadays, when 'industrialized fairyland' is practically a cliché itself, the book falls flat.

  3. Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

    Mitchell's first novel is unquestionably a dry-run for his 2004 masterpiece, Cloud Atlas. Not only do the two books have similar structures--both are made up of a series of seemingly unrelated narratives that connect and intersect in unpredictable ways--but several of the themes that were so prominent in Cloud Atlas make appearances in this earlier book--ghosts, of course, but also comets, the meeting of eastern and western philosophies, the search for love, and the endeavor to make our damaged world a better place. As usual, half the fun lies in working out Mitchell's intricate network of connections, with the book becoming a puzzle. Unfortunately, Mitchell's writing in this earlier book isn't as polished as his masterful ventriloquism in Cloud Atlas, and his nine narrators aren't convincing as distinct individuals. Ghostwritten is a good book and worth reading, but I wish I'd read it before Cloud Atlas, and I'm a bit concerned that Mitchell seems to be writing the same novel again and again.

  4. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

    Gibbons' delightful parody of the 19th century novel starts with an introduction to no-nonsense orphan Flora Poste, who just wants a neat, well-ordered existence, and will do almost anything to make sure she gets one. Having decided to trade her small inheritance for a place with her Sussex cousins, the Starkadders, Flora encounters a host of melodramatic clichés--oversexed, movie-obsessed Seth, lovelorn wild child Elfine, and aunt Ada Doom, who once saw something nasty in the woodshed, to name but a few. With pluck and determination, Flora sorts out her cousins' problems, finding some romance for herself in the process. Despite missing a third act (Flora arrives at her cousins' and decides to fix their lives. She does. The end), Cold Comfort Farm is a pure joy of a novel, and highly recommended to anyone who enjoyed the similarly witty and romantic I Capture the Castle. I'll have to look up the movie, with Kate Beckinsale and Eileen Atkins.

  5. The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany

    This 1924 novel is considered a minor classic of pre-Tolkien fantasy, back when 'fantasy' still meant something fantastic and not something poured out of a mold. It's a beautiful book, written in a high poetic style, about the inhabitants of a quintessentially English town named Erl who send their lord's son to Elfland, by whose border they live (Elfland was rather obviously on Neil Gaiman's mind when he sat down to write Stardust), to marry its princess in the hopes of bringing a little magic into their existence. In the vein of books like Lud-in-the-Mist and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the inhabitants of Erl soon learn that 'a little magic' is an oxymoron, and that magic is not something to be summoned and then sent away. Before that happens, however, there's a sad love story between the elf princess, Lirazel, as curious about the lives of humans as they are about hers, and her mortal lover Alveric, as well as several humorous scenes centering around a troll who crosses the border between the two realms. The downside to Dunsany's high-falutin' style is a dearth of character exploration and dialogue, and as a result The King of Elfland's Daughter, for all its lovely writing and sentiment, falls short of perfection by a small yet significant margin.

  6. Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

    I've read nearly everything Neil Gaiman has ever written and, except for a few of the Sandman volumes, I've admired his fiction but never loved it. Anansi Boys is a welcome exception, probably the most charming, most romantic, most fun book I've read since either Angela Carter's Wise Children or Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle, and the funniest Gaiman has been since Good Omens. There's a chuckle, or a snort, or often a guffaw on every single page, but in between there's also love--romantic love, but mostly familial love, as our protagonist, Charlie Nancy, learns to accept his impossibly infuriating father and brother, as well as himself. Big thanks to my friend Hagay for not only buying the book for me and shipping it to Israel, but getting it signed as well.

  7. Looking for Jake: Stories by China Miéville

    Although I would classify Miéville's longer fiction as fantasy with strong horror elements, most of the stories in Looking for Jake are straight-up horror, usually of the 'trusted, inanimate staple of modern existence turns malevolent' type--as in "Details", in which a witch discovers a demonic entity looking out at her through the random patterns of tree branches and cracks in walls, or the novella "The Tain", probably the best story in the collection, in which humanity is attacked by its own mirrored reflections. As so often happens when collecting stories published over a long period of time, this repetition of theme begins to grate, and although most of the stories in Looking for Jake are good (with the exception of the pointless graphic short "On the Way to the Front"), only a few of them are superb, and those usually the ones I'd already read--"Reports of Certain Events in London" from McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories or "Familiar" from Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists. Despite what I had previously thought, only one of the stories in the collection, "Jack", takes place in Bas-Lag, and even this story doesn't reveal a great deal about that universe's demented Robin Hood character, Jack Half-a-Prayer (certainly not as much as we learned from the puppet theatre scene in Iron Council). Looking for Jake is a good collection, but not a must-read for anyone but hardcore Miéville fans. (Two of the stories in the collection are available online: An End to Hunger and 'Tis the Season.)


Tim said...

Hi Abigail. Discovered your blog via Bookslut. Been having a browse - there's some great stuff here. Look forward to reading more.

Jenny Davidson said...

Isn't ANANSI BOYS great?!? (I stop in here periodically to read your stuff, always really like your sensibility, was just jogged to come here again by Bookslut linking on Austen. I teach Austen and am MADDENED when people tell me how I should go and see new Keira Knightley adapt. because it is so wonderful and heart-warming, thanks fr yr sensible comments.)

I couldn't read the Baroque Cycle books, BTW; I absolutely loved CRYPTONOMICON, but then read the sample chapter of the first Baroque one at the end of that paperback, and since I do this eighteenth-century lit stuff just balked at the prose style--couldn't read MASON & DIXON either for the same reason--I just can't stomach the comic anachronism bit when it's for my particular period that I know.

Dotan Dimet said...

Before I read Iron Dragon's Daughter (back when it was cool and fresh), I read an excerpt that ran in Asimov's, the opening sequence in the dragon factory. The excerpt had me all excited, both from the sense-of-wonder sparking glamour of Swanwick's hard and shiny Fairypunk, and with the anticipation of "what happens next". The book itself disappointed by abandoning the narrative thrust and meandering into picaresque, but I already got the brunt of dissapointment just reading plot details in reviews. Although it never recovers the momentum of the moment when Jane escapes the factory, even when storming reality.
I think Swanwick is very deliberate and methodical in frustrating the reader's expectations from fantasy and genre in many ways, with his anti-plot, the Cyberpunk/Dickens bleakness, the nihilism, the unsympathetic characters and lack of easy answers and closures. He's chosen to tell a very uncomfortable fantasy. The undeserved happy ending works into that, seeming as arbitrary as anything else, because the point is that no one (not even the universe) cares.
Hmm. I think Jack Faust is even more extreme in this regard.

I read The King of Elfland's Daughter a year ago or so; Dunsany's writing is wonderful (he makes me want to read his work aloud every time), and the book is filled with passages of great beauty, surprising humor and quotable cleverness, but I found it hard going, probably because he really doesn't have a plot or a protagonist in the conventional sense; there's the story of the romance you mention, but this is just the first act, and the second act the story switches between Alveric's long, quixotic and frustrating (at least it reads as long and frustrating) quest to regain Lirazel and the story of their hunt-obsessed son and the enterprising troll. It's pretty, but cold and very lacking in momentum.
I think both Swanwick and Dunsany have done better in short form.

Anonymous said...

Oh, finally, someone who appreciates the wonderfully talented Stella Gibbons. She is so overlooked.

I own both versions of the film (mini-series & theatrical version, I should say) and know you will laugh yourself silly when you see the theatrical version. I can't begin to tell you what a treat it is to watch and how very faithful it is to the book.

Mark Simmonds said...

Reading about halfway through Ghostwritten, where comes the ghost to the center, I am interrupted by the concurrent (I want to say, concourant) style and approach to folktales as they are told both in this book and Anansi Boys. If this keeps plaguing me, I believe I'll need to write Gaiman and ask whether Mitchell's book was influential. Thanks for letting me share this with you here and thank you for all of your reviews. They are in every sense of the word, terrific.

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