It’s butt-numbingly cold tonight. I’ve been sitting in one place for too long; I have to make a little cave with my hands and puff hot air in it to thaw my stupid cold nose every few minutes, and the bits of me that are facing up are all iced over. I could stand up and make a tea, but then I’d lose the precious heat in my last remaining warm body parts. Basically I’m sacrificing the right side of my body for the left. Frankly, rightie’s had it too good for too long anyway.* Also, my legs are so sore from training last night that the effort it would take to stand (and worse, sit down again) to make a cuppa or at least reach the wine bottle 3 feet away (why didn’t I train my lazy hounds to fetch my wine?) is not worth it.
But the beauty of a cold winter evening is in curling up in your onesie [Tigger pictured above, as Book Week here and the boys are currently obsessed with Winne the Pooh – Loony repeatedly borrows the complete AA Milne collection from his school library and hauls it home] – and getting some reading done. Alternatively, if you’re reading from the other side of the world, it’s summer! Perfect weather for relaxing on a hammock and getting some reading done! You know what, all weather is good reading weather.
I’ve had a lovely little gorge on books over the last couple of months, finally getting a chance to catch up on some I’d waited a long time to read. Thought I would pop up some reviews of a few. I’ve been procrastinating on finishing this blog post for AGES because I started it soon after the first half of my 2014 recommendations and then got sidetracked and then sidetracked some more and then it had been a long time and I looked slack so thought maybe it was better not to draw attention to it at all by finishing it, then I felt guilty and started it again, then got sidetracked, then finished one of the books I was going to write about and felt reinvigorated, then got sidetracked… etc. But as I’m trapped here on the couch until K gets home and can make the tea, I might as well knuckle down and finish.**
I recommended some books in various categories in an earlier post, and I’m naturally assuming you spent the intervening months ploughing through the last bunch (as well you should have), you’ll be ready for some more. Here are a couple, albeit less than I intended, because this always takes longer than I expect and really, it’s getting embarrassing, so I’m leaving it here. I may add some more in days to come!
As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes and Joe Layden
The Princess Bride is my favourite movie. It’s my favourite movie not just because it’s funny, fun (not the same thing), earnest and full of heart but also beautifully tongue-in-cheek, full of brilliant, quotable dialogue, gorgeously put together and acted and, unlike many other great 80s films, not dated. I mean, it’s basically perfect. But it’s more than that; it’s also because it is wound so tightly and positively into my childhood memories that it carries all the warmth of those years along with it.
I first saw the movie on my 8th birthday. We didn’t own a VCR yet but we rented one for a week while on holiday at the Gold Coast and as a birthday treat I got to choose a movie; my older brother suggested TPB and as I would, and did, literally sniff compost if he told me to, I happily agreed. It had a pretty much perfect first screening: we were on a great holiday, having a VCR and choosing a movie was a rare treat, and we all watched it together and everyone loved it. The following summer – or maybe the one after, I don’t know, but we owned a VCR then – one of Bro the Elder’s best mates who owned the movie lent it to me. I think I watched it every day (or close to it) over those school holidays. Then when it came on TV we recorded it*** and I had that tape and kept rewatching it until my last VCR finally chewed its last tape and I had to get it on DVD. For great swaths of my teenage years, maybe even into my 20s, I could have recited the entire movie from start to finish*****. I can still do the key scenes –maybe, at a pinch, I could still manage most of the film. I’ve never stopped loving it. If you admit to me you haven’t seen it I will drop whatever we are doing and make you watch it straightaway. If you don’t love it, I will not even do you the courtesy of hiding how much that has lowered my estimation of you.
There was no movie I was looking forward to showing my sons more. [I just did this, and they loved it. THANK SANTA.]
(Strangely, this is perhaps my only exception to the ‘book is better than the movie’ rule. Maybe because I had so thoroughly absorbed the movie over the course of many years before I ever read the book, I never felt for its more cynical, sharper origin-text what I feel for the movie.)
So with all that as background, reading Cary Elwes’ account of the making of TPB is like…I feel like there must be a word to express the warm fuzzies you get by finding that the pieces that made up one of your favourite things, the undersides of the rocks, are just as suffused with joy as the finished product. Is there one? Perhaps in German.
Everyone involved in the making of the film seems to share such positive memories of the experience and each other that it just makes the whole thing even more enjoyable. It’s full of fun anecdotes, cast antics, hidden injuries, accidental knock-outs and fires, and cool stories about the hard work that fed into amazing scenes like Inigo and Wesley’s beautiful sword fight. I won’t give examples and spoil it, but if you love this movie at all (and I know you do), you should read this and bask. It’ll leave you feeling warm and happy and it’ll increase the delight you take next time you watch the movie.
Afterwards – Rosmund Lupton
I read and adored ‘Sister’ a few years ago, but on advice from my own sister held off on reading her next book, Afterwards, on the basis that the style is very similar and it might lose impact reading two in close succession. I’m glad I did wait, because it is a very distinctive style and the gap meant it felt fresh again. Both stories are told in the form of a narrator speaking to another character; this one from the perspective of a badly injured woman observing, disembodied, her friends and family dealing with a tragic accident/crime – a little like The Lovely Bones, in that it is sort of a mystery/crime plot, sort of supernatural (the conceit of the narrator being a ghost-like presence is the only supernatural aspect) but at least equally a story about family, told from a loving but absent narrator.
I really enjoyed this for many of the same reasons that I loved Sister. The mystery/whodunit aspect is masterful, particularly in the last third of the book as the reveals play out – every time I thought I had the answer the rug would get pulled out from under me again. It also has some nuanced and insightful things to say about relationships, especially parenthood, and independence, which are rare for their ultimate optimism. (I get exhausted with all the stories exploring relationships cleverly but with a cynical eye, finding the ways that we fail, as people, to love each other properly).
On the other hand, it gets a giant thumbs down all the same for making me cry on an aeroplane, which is an extremely embarrassing place to cry (at home, the arrangement is that if either of us are crying at a book/TV show, the crier looks firmly downward, masks it with a sneeze or nose blow, and the other pretends not to notice. On an aeroplane, this is awkward. Yes, please, I would like that drink. No, there’s nothing wrong. *stares steadfastly at attendant’s shoulder until they move on*) I think I may have mentioned that since parenthood I am stupidly over-sensitive to parenting related tension – I find it really, really stressful now to read about or watch children or their parents in danger or worse. [Sidebar: I’m also looking at you, A Monster Calls, which is totally off topic, but also an excellent story but a bad choice for people who don’t want this particular stress].
Ultimately, while the style might be offputting to some, and the supernatural aspect likely a difficult thing to swallow for ordinary thriller/crime readers who don’t venture into the speculative fiction or SFF pool, this is a clever, engaging story and one well worth your time.
Watershed – Jane Abbott
I am lucky enough to know the brilliant Jane Abbott, so I got to read Watershed before it came out. And what a beautiful, gut-wrenching read it was – fast paced and intriguing, alternately depressing and hopeful.
The novel tells twin stories: one following Sarah as a (nearish) future Australia turns into a harsh, desperate dystopia and she and her family adapt and survive; the other years later, following her grandson Jem as an adult forced into a brutal livelihood. In many ways the converging stories are emotional and psychological opposites, connecting in unexpected ways.
I should note that it’s not a book for the easily shocked – it is regularly and extremely violent, and there’s plenty of swearing and sex if those sorts of things bother you. It is also pretty grim in tone, so factor in your emotions and general optimism being crushed.
Abbott’s use of language is alternately rich and blunt, stripped-bare and descriptive, but always evocative. Through this dystopia she critiques not only the environmental vandalism leading to her apocalyptic-dry continent but the social and economic realities driving it, and the nature of humans. It is a clever, tense, gritty novel, and an impressive debut. Highly recommended.
These are going to be pretty short cos I’ve read a bunch of great ones recently and I don’t want to leave them out because I ranted for too long about how great and underrated Kate Elliot is, so, here are some mini reviews of a broad range of SFF-type books I’ve read over the past few months.
The Traitor [Baru Cormorant] – Seth Dickinson
Ohhhhh, this was a goodun. I’d looked forward to it because it had some great pre-release buzz from people whose opinions I respect. The premise: a clever bureaucrat/accountant infiltrates the massive organisation which crushed her homeland and TAKES THEM DOWN THROUGH AUDITING. Maybe because I trained as an accountant and know and love several of them, but by god, who wouldn’t want to read that. I’m not even joking. I mean, it’s a long-game revenge novel (one of my favourite stories) based on subtlety, and cleverness, but also numbers and records! Fantasy does not, largely, recognise bureaucracy, let alone make it the main structure for a story and the source of mystery, suspense, conflict and tension, so the sheer freshness of this premise made me excited to read it.
I did love this book, but not for the reasons I thought I would. Revenge plots tend to have a dark backstory but the actual story usually has some fun, some hijinks, and ultimately positive resolution. Not necessarily lighthearted, but at least imbued with a kind of heisty satisfaction. Baru is not this story. It is clever, definitely, and surprising, but you should be prepared for it to also be really, really, gut-wrenching. It’s beautifully written, the setting is brilliant (god, the setting is SO different and fresh for fantasy!), the characters – and particularly their relationships – are deeply nuanced, but this is a solar plexus punch of a book that follows no comfortable, familiar formula. One of the best SFF I’d read in ages, and far and away the most impressive debut.
Black Wolves – Kate Elliot
Out late last year but I only just got to it, Black Wolves is the start of a new trilogy. Beginning in a kingdom in its early stages, the story quickly jumps forward several decades and 2 generations, and explores the politics of colonisation, conflicting cultures, power structures and family. I love intelligent, political fantasy, and this fits the bill. When you combine it with original settings, challenges to assumptions often ingrained in fantasy (eg the reverence with which hereditary rulership is generally treated) and a network of scout-sheriffs flying with GIANT EAGLES you’re sure to satisfy me.
The viewpoint characters range in age, gender and experience: an old spy/soldier brought out of retirement; the king’s aunt, head of the Marshals (aforementioned eagle flying contingent, who are something like grown-up Valdemar Heralds), and three young people of wildly different backgrounds who are forced to adapt to – or just survive – lifestyle upheaval. The plot is clever and complex, the world immersive (does anyone worldbuild better than this?) and the characters and their motivations deeply thought through and executed. It’s particularly notable how much agency the female characters have in Elliot’s worlds. Women in this world are demonstrably driving change – that is, women (including but not limited to the three main female POV characters) have unapologetic power and agency (including sexual agency) even though all are in very different social structures (some quite segregated). I’m seeing this more and more in modern SFF, and it is great. But here’s an author who’s been doing it for decades, often without much acknowledgment.
I mentioned above that Kate Elliot is underrated. I didn’t realise how much until relatively recently, because to me she had always been one of the giants – she writes big, fat, epic-in-every-sense fantasy, it was part of every SFF selection at every bookshop, and I always rated her enormously. But I’ve been amazed since taking a more active part in fandom over the last few years how rarely she is included in recommended reading lists, or shows up in awards, or is given the credit I think she’s due. Why, people? She is the biz.
Masque – WR Gingell
In a completely different vein, Masque was a decidedly light-hearted and easy read. A fun fairytale mashed up with a murder mystery in a high society setting, Masque follows Lady Isabella Farrah, Ambassador’s daughter, as she sticks her not-inconsiderably-nosy self into a murder investigation. The ‘Beast’ of the story is the permanently masked Commander of the Watch (who suffers from an uncomfortable family curse). However, although the banter and good-naturedly antagonistic relationship between Belle and her Beast is a highlight of the novel, it’s not the focus; rather, the story follows the murder, the dark magic involved, and the political ramifications, so it’s not strictly a retelling.
I found this charming and a lot of fun. The world-building, while light-touch in fantasy terms, reveals an interesting world I’d enjoy revisiting (some might complain that it is too light, but I think it suits the tone of the book, which would not have borne too much time being wasted on setting). Isabella has a strong, distinctive voice, and is both very clever and unwilling to take shit, but also unashamed of her femininity (women can like dresses and pretty hair and perfume and still be a Strong Female Character™, who’d have thunk?). The minor characters are also entertaining, particularly Isabella’s young maidservants, and the dialogue excellent. Probably my only complaint was that while I enjoyed the characters, even with Isabella’s occasionally frustrating fussiness, as readers we are kept at too firm a distance to truly understand and engage the characters. For example, although the murder victim in the opening pages is described as being an old friend of hers, we readers don’t get much of sense of grief or anger at his death from Isabella. It kept me from getting as invested as I might otherwise have been.
For mystery/crime readers the clues might make guessing the villain fractionally too easy – Isabella is otherwise presented as being so switched on and good at reading people that I felt frustrated with her missing the murderer for so long when it seemed obvious to me. On the other hand, it’s actually a bit of commentary about her being rather too sure that she knows how to read and manipulate people, ie her strength and her weakness, which is quite clever, so OK I’m reversing my position on this, and it’s fine. :). Anyway, all things considered, a very well presented and enjoyable read.
The Lives of Tao – Wesley Chu
And another change of pace here- the Lives of Tao is Wes Chu’s debut, a few years old now, that I’ve been meaning to get to for a while (he’s a blast on Twitter).
The novel begins with the death of a Bondesque secret agent at the hands of a trusted ally; but he’s no ordinary agent but rather the host of Tao, an alien symbiont who lives within him. Tao, an ancient being who has inhabited many historical figures, is forced to find a new host in a hurry, and ends up in an out of shape IT worker, Roen Tan. The story follows Roen/Tao as they try together to turn him into secret agent material before Tao’s enemies find him.
The premise of the story is a lot of fun, and reminded me strongly of a much-beloved TV show, Chuck: both feature socially awkward main characters who, after the death of a competent spy, end up with powerful material in their head and a hyper confident female handler to whip them into shape. It’s an idea with a lot of potential.
The book has a lot of things going for it. The pace is mostly good, it’s often funny, the action is great, martial arts are not lazily described or expressed (as a long term martial artist, I really appreciate a book which understands and acknowledges the difference in styles and how fighters can find a match to the right one for them) and the development of series potential well thought through. In technical terms the prose is easy to read, if sometimes clunky, but it’s a first book, so I imagine this is probably ironed out in later ones.
My major gripes were with the emotional arcs of the story. Tthere is a storyline about Roen’s lack of investment in Tao’s quest which felt like it should have been a serious peak of the book, but completely fizzled. Likewise, while his relationships with Tao is well done and highly enjoyable (their back and forth conversations in his head are a highlight of the book), this only serves to contrast with the ones with the women, which are underdeveloped. One female character (the ‘Sarah’, if you’re a Chuck-watcher) is given a kind of ‘mysterious competent female on a pedestal’ treatment, and Roen’s workplace love interest gets minimal page-time and basically no personality at all. I also grew increasingly frustrated with Roen’s man-boy personality. This is not a complaint about the writing, because I know he accurately reflects a real personality type, who really do think about life and women in this way, but it grated on me. Essentially, I like a good flawed hero as much as anyone, but Roen lacks the kind of genuine warmth and earnest charm that makes Chuck endearing as a ‘hopeless nerd’ sort of character. At one point, during which a prospective father in law gives a nauseating speech to Roen about men growing more appealing as they age (like fine wine, ugh) while women hit their peak between 20-30, and this speech is presented as being wise and not revolting, I did make a loud angry groan and put the book down to complain for a while to … well, no-one, actually, because I was sitting alone on the beach at the time, but the hermit crab on the ground probably enjoyed my dark muttering.
Anyway, complaints aside, I finished and enjoyed the book overall, and will read more – I’m just hopeful that the kinks in the story and the writing improve substantially in the later books, because he’s obviously got a great eye (fingers?) for action and entertaining concepts.
OK, that’s gotta do it for now. Happy reading everyone!
*Except, it is only fair to say, for right thumb, who puts in all the spacebar work and yet has to share credit with lazy leftie who just sits there, laughing it up and hovering over the bar. The shiny smooth patch on the RHS is proof you’re living a lie, leftie!
** Knuckle down, in this context, means check twitter, read the news & a few blogs, send a couple of texts, play a game of scramble, check twitter again… I’m thirty six years old, you’d think I could get a grip by now, but apparently it’s just been 36 years of practising being a bloody idiot so actually I’m just really good at it now.
*** 80s/90s problems: when you record your favourite movie, carefully cutting out the ads, but then have a meltdown when it suddenly stops recording and starts rewinding during the Pit of Despair bit because SOMEONE DIDN’T REWIND THE TAPE BEFOREHAND***** and then you miss 5 minutes of the movie while it rewinds and then for literally the next ten years you have to watch said favourite movie by watching, rewinding, watching some more and then fast forwarding to the start again for next time.
**** Me, possibly.
*****Minus the five minutes that I never mastered because my bloody tape was missing them