I think the thing I really loved about this book was its masculinity.Early in the book, Winton's central c...moreThis was the first book to amaze me in 2010.
I think the thing I really loved about this book was its masculinity.Early in the book, Winton's central character, the 12-year-old Bruce Pike, describes watching older boys surf for the first time:
How strange it was to see men do something beautiful ... Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared.
This paragraph reminded me of Australian artist Shaun Gladwell’s Storm Sequence (2000) and Multiple Descent [Taranaki:] (2004); two video works where the careless grace of the young male body is exquisitely captured.
**spoiler alert** Absolutely inhaled this in one day during the summer break. The unique feature of the book’s setting - a planet infected with a ‘ger...more**spoiler alert** Absolutely inhaled this in one day during the summer break. The unique feature of the book’s setting - a planet infected with a ‘germ’ that has rendered all men’s thoughts constantly and relentlessly audible to those around them - is even easier to imagine after two seasons of True Blood. Not a classy comparison, but true.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the coming of age story - T.H. White’s ‘The Sword in the Stone’ remains one of my top 20 all time favourites, along with Dodie Smith’s ‘I Capture the Castle’ and David Mitchell’s ‘Black Swan Green’.
I came across the book through Unity’s Christmas promotions - pushing it heavily to the adult market (as they did Marcus Zuzak’s ‘The Book Thief’, which I haven’t read). Interestingly, after I gobbled this down in a morning and went in desperate search of the sequel (Unity being closed) neither Borders nor Whitcoulls were stocking either of the books.
The story is a series of grim revelations, balanced with slowly strengthening and sweetening friendships - as the central character Todd Hewitt loses faith in the community he has grown up with, the (effectively) ‘alien’ girl he meets becomes more and more important too him.
Reading 'The Knife of Never Letting Go' is almost a physical experience. It is hard not to live every moment with Todd - each frustration, each fear, each loss, each dawning realisation. Ness takes you on a rollercoaster ride, but between every long, thrilling drop there's a moment where you're perched at the top of the curve, waiting with trepidation for the next move, and you couldn't bear to be anywhere else.
A 30-ish year-old woman wrestles with her mother, her father, her father's wig, her job, and an angel. Didn't really know what was going on most of th...moreA 30-ish year-old woman wrestles with her mother, her father, her father's wig, her job, and an angel. Didn't really know what was going on most of the time, but Anne Enright's ability to use simple words in a surprising way, making sentences that sound brand new, is the kind of thing that makes me wish I could write. (less)
I read 'The Knife of Never Letting Go', the first book in Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy, in one breathless weekend, and repeated the feat with...moreI read 'The Knife of Never Letting Go', the first book in Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy, in one breathless weekend, and repeated the feat with 'The Ask and the Answer'.
'The Knife of Never Letting Go' is a book of discovery - of a new world (a planet only settled within living memory) a new trouble (men's relentless Noise, the ceaseless broadcasting of their every thought, and women's lack of it) and two new people, the central characters, Todd and Viola.
'The Ask and the Answer' gives greater depth to the world and the troubles sketched out in the first book. Todd and Viola are separated, on opposite sides of a horrific conflict; the theme of the book might be that war makes people - even good people, even people you want to love and trust - do terrible, terrible things.
While the surprise of Ness's narrative voice has settled in by the time you get to the second book, it still gives the book an astounding depth. It is unusual to understand more than one perspective in a YA book; Ness gives us at least four - Todd, Viola, and the leaders of the two opposing forces, the horrifying Mayor Prentiss of the first book, and the ruthless, steely Mistress Coyle we meet now. There are other dystopian series out there - The Hunger Games naturally spring to mind - but this is the first that for me rivals Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials moral weight and thoughtfulness.
Despite being a book of hardship, horror and tragedy, 'The Ask and the Answer' contains a few merciful spots of warmth and gentleness. One is the transformation that slowly and unspectacularly takes place within Mayor Prentiss's son Davy. Another is the quiet friendship between Todd and his horse Angaharrad - a mirror to Manchee in the first book.
In good second-book tradition, 'The Ask and the Answer' starts with one climax and ends with another. Along the way, Todd and Viola finish growing up, and move into active roles in the adult world. In the third book, they'll face the consequences of their choices. As we're reminded throughout this book, our choices are what shape us. I can't wait.(less)
It's described by the publisher as "A highly acclaimed, award-winning portrait of betrayal set against the backdrop of tragedy, slavery and war." And it certainly is.
Octavian Nothing, son of a black slave, is raised by a group of amateur scientists in America shortly before the Revolution, his upbringing a 'nature versus nurture' experiment undertaken to establish the true qualities of Africans. However, funding gets pulled, the experimental process changes, Octavian's mother dies under horrific circumstances, and he eventually flees, becoming a fugitive from his owners within the Revolutionary forces.
So yes, it's a "portrait of betrayal set against the backdrop of tragedy, slavery and war". It was well-reviewed and won notable awards. But I found it utterly unentrancing.
When I was researching YA books to read over summer I ran across an article - which I can't find now - talking about the unnecessary level of gruesomeness in some recent children's and YA books. I'm pretty sure Patrick Ness's 'The Knife of Never Letting Go' was cited in it.
Despite the character's dire situations, I felt no empathy for him; this may have be intentional on Anderson's behalf: Octavian is taught the practice of observation by the gentleman scientists, and the book is presented as a collection of documents and manuscripts, evidence of Octavian's life.
But the book left me cold, and completely uninterested in following up the sequel.
I got it out of the library at the same time as Tim Winton's 'Breath', and I think I was so blown away by that book that I totally forget 'The Pages'.
Like Lee, I found Bail's writing, and evocation of Australianess, beautiful and effortless. But like her, I could never decide whether I was meant to take the philosopher at the centre of the story seriously. I think this uncertainess is what stopped me from imprinting on the book.
I'm not usually a fan of the 'Like a mixture of X and Y with a dash of Z' although I would make an exception for Luca Turin, who described a perfume as embodying the child Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller didn't have. But the reviewer who described 'The Magicians' as the missing link between the Narnia books and Donna Tartt's 'The Secret History' was on to something.
As soon as I read the opening page of 'The Magicians' I felt like I was reading along to a New Romantic soundtrack, all cutting observations and floppy fringes. Brilliant and unloved, 17-year-old Quentin Coldwater is still secretly yearning for the imaginary world of the British 1930s fantasy series he read as a child - and still covertly re-reads - to be real. To quote Grossman's website:
Everything changes when Quentin finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the practice of modern sorcery. He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. But something is still missing. Magic doesn't bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he thought it would.
Grossman takes the magical world of JK Rowlings' Hogwarts and brings it back down to earth by making magic something hard, not playful, and filling the school with aggressively intelligent Type A overachievers who are going through the normal discoveries of university - drinking, drugs, sex, loneliness, metaphysics.
I think I might be 'The Magicians' target audience - the person who hasn't outgrown their love of CS Lewis, Susan Cooper, TH White, but feels like they were meant to move on to 'real' literature. Thank goodness for writers like Grossman, Gaiman and Chabon for making both things possible.
On this he treated the body of Hector with contumely: he pierced the sinews at the back of both his feet from heel to ancle and passed thongs of ox-hide through the slits he had made: thus he made the body fast to his chariot, letting the head trail upon the ground. Then when he had put the goodly armour on the chariot and had himself mounted, he lashed his horses on and they flew forward nothing loth. The dust rose from Hector as he was being dragged along, his dark hair flew all abroad, and his head once so comely was laid low on earth, for Jove had now delivered him into the hands of his foes to do him outrage in his own land.
Thus was the head of Hector being dishonoured in the dust. His mother tore her hair, and flung her veil from her with a loud cry as she looked upon her son. His father made piteous moan, and throughout the city the people fell to weeping and wailing. It was as though the whole of frowning Ilius was being smirched with fire. Hardly could the people hold Priam back in his hot haste to rush without the gates of the city. He grovelled in the mire and besought them, calling each one of them by his name. "Let be, my friends," he cried, "and for all your sorrow, suffer me to go single-handed to the ships of the Achaeans. Let me beseech this cruel and terrible man, if maybe he will respect the feeling of his fellow-men, and have compassion on my old age. His own father is even such another as myself--Peleus, who bred him and reared him to be the bane of us Trojans, and of myself more than of all others. Many a son of mine has he slain in the flower of his youth, and yet, grieve for these as I may, I do so for one-- Hector--more than for them all, and the bitterness of my sorrow will bring me down to the house of Hades. Would that he had died in my arms, for so both his ill-starred mother who bore him, and myself, should have had the comfort of weeping and mourning over him."
The Iliad, Book XXII
This scene made such an impression on me as a child reading Greek mythology - most likely via Roger Lancelyn Green.
David Malouf's 'Ransom' does an extraordinary job of introducing Achilles and capturing the battle between him and Hector (my fingers immediately want to type something like "foremost of the Trojan warriors, shepherd of his people' - these were the hymns I grew up with).
While I found the rest of the book peacefully engrossing, it didn't measure up to the first 60 pages, except perhaps the story of Priam narrowly escaping death at the hands of Hercules as a small child.
It's a gentle and humane story that Malouf tells, and maybe that's why its hard to compete with the blood and thunder and sorrow of the original.
Worth checking out just for the map on the flyleaves ....
While the two central characters are a little flatly drawn - an (orphaned) princeling learnin...moreWorth checking out just for the map on the flyleaves ....
While the two central characters are a little flatly drawn - an (orphaned) princeling learning to mix with the common people and a plucky (fatherless) girl faking it as a boy to break into the masculine world of excitement - I was utterly seduced by Westerfeld's description of the fabricated beasts, especially the Leviathan. It reminded me of the power of Philip Pullman's daemons - an invention that is totally satisfying, something that makes you hanker for this imaginary world to be a possibility.
The one bum note overall was the fake swearing - "barking spiders", anyone? There's something a little fake about suggesting that your character speaks in a particular way, but then cleaning this up for a tidy G-rating by subbing in fake words. (less)
I still don't understand why a reviewer would compare this to Watership Down (epic journey aside). If anything, the Borribles are updated, juvenile-de...moreI still don't understand why a reviewer would compare this to Watership Down (epic journey aside). If anything, the Borribles are updated, juvenile-delinquent Borrowers, rather than rabbits.
Having said that, boy has this trilogy dated well. Published between 1976 and 1983, and set in a contemporary (but relatively timeless) London, the lives and environment of the Borribles - children who take to the street, grow pointed ears, and never grow up, like urban Peter Pans - the story of a group of children's struggle against the adult world (symbolised by growing up, working, and stockpiling money) remains contemporary and appealing.
I complained after reading Scott Westerfeld's 'Leviathan' that the biggest bum note was the fake swearing (I had the same problem with Battlestar Galactica - if it sounds like fuck and acts like fuck, just say it already). De Larrabeiti's characters (some of whom turned Borrible back before the turn of the 20th century) speak in a mixture of rhyming slang (I had to Wikipedia 'I should cocoa')and your common or garden expletives. The violence is unswervingly described, and the Borribles kill and are killed.
The first book - where a special team of Adventurers is assembled to attack the "Rumbles of Rumbledom" - is without a doubt the strongest; the third, with it's seemingly endless series of oh-here's-another-climax situations reminded me of the end of Speed (you know, the Keanu Reeves movie) with it's redundant ho! it's not over yet! subway scene.
I'm not sure why De Larrabeiti decided to take on Elizabeth Beresford's Wombles, but nicking the strongest trope from the Wombles - the gaining of exotic names - is one of those somewhat magical touches that the best fantasies have, like Pullman's daemons. The first book also stands out for the devious figure of Spliff; it's rare for children's/YA books to have side characters developed with more than one aspect to their personality.
I wonder if reading this book before Cameron's calculated tear-jerker came out was even more affecting than it was reading it afterwards. Like re-reading Pride & Prejudice this days and trying to keep the text separate from the filmic palimpsest that's layered over top of it, reading 'Every Man for Himself' without seeing Kate and Leonardo running about the place is almost impossible.
The protagonist - an un-named young man closely but mysteriously attached to J Pierpont Morgan - also reminded me hugely of the ill-starred young people of Waugh's 'Vile Bodies'. He half-sees and half-understands the complex relationships he moves through as he negotiates the first-class passengers, and observes those on lower decks. His role is primarily to tell the stories of those around him, and over four short, feverish days he holds you gripped until the inevitable end.
Book recommendations from a person you haven't met in person but have a certain simpatico with on Twitter are a funny thing. I'm giving this and the s...moreBook recommendations from a person you haven't met in person but have a certain simpatico with on Twitter are a funny thing. I'm giving this and the second book in the series a go because of a tweeted recommendation from such a person, based on a shared enjoyment of Luca Turin and Connie Willis (I mean, how could that go wrong?).
At this point, I am trying to reserve judgment, but not feeling that positive.(less)
A slim, perfect book about love, death, friendship, being 12, and time travel - and a love letter to Madeleine L'Engle's 'A Wrinkle in Time' to boot....moreA slim, perfect book about love, death, friendship, being 12, and time travel - and a love letter to Madeleine L'Engle's 'A Wrinkle in Time' to boot.
I ordered Stead's book through the public library after finding out it was the winner of last year's Newbery Medal. When I picked it up and saw the big print, I felt disappointed; I'd been excited, but thought that even with my growing passion for children's and YA novels, this was going to be too simple.
I took it home anyway, figuring I'd give it a few pages. And I was immediately hooked. The book might be aimed at 10 year-olds and up, but it's completely engrossing. Miranda, the central figure, is one of the most appealing female characters I've found in a long time, and the book is beautifully and tautly written, managing to be both a straightforward narrative, and a mystery with time-clues dangling throughout.
Rebecca Stead also includes, in Miranda's voice, two of the loveliest evocations of the way you can feel about a book when you're 12:
'The truth is that my book doesn't say how old Meg is, but I'm twelve, so she feels twelve to me. When I first got the book I was eleven, and she felt eleven.'
'I was getting annoyed. The truth is that I hate to think about other people reading my book. It's like watching someone go through the box of private stuff that I keep under my bed.'
If you have a daughter, you should buy this book for her. No matter how old she is.
I found out about Melvin Burgess's 'Bloodtide' after following a thread of articles online (mostly on the Guardian, bless 'em) about the "issue" of vi...moreI found out about Melvin Burgess's 'Bloodtide' after following a thread of articles online (mostly on the Guardian, bless 'em) about the "issue" of violence in children's and YA books, which spiked around Patrick Ness's 'The Knife of Never Letting Go' (truly terrific book which apparently got some people raging about knife crime, because yes, books about a kid coming of age in a futuristic agrarian community when the men have been infected by a virus that makes all their thoughts audible is *exactly* the sort of thing that causes kids to go out and stab each other) but which I imagine has always bee around.
It was this piece that got me on to Burgess (it also mentioned the Borribles, a 1970s/early 80s YA trilogy that I've recently ripped through). The writer had me at Volsunga Saga - I'm a soft touch for anything Greek or Norse mythology, Robin Hood, or King Arthur.
The book is an epic, in the mythic sense - two warring families, in a broken down society, who arrange a treaty by exchanging a child bride. It is gruesome (characters are chained to an iron girder and devoured by a mutant pig; there's torture, betrayal and a healthy dose of incest). It did leave me thinking that these are topics that somehow are managable, and can be dealt with with a certain level of grace, even nobility, when they're cast in this way. I wonder why?(less)
God, I'd forgotten how much I loved this book. Actually, not how much I loved it - how much reading it in my late teens defined me. Re-reading it over...moreGod, I'd forgotten how much I loved this book. Actually, not how much I loved it - how much reading it in my late teens defined me. Re-reading it over a sickly weekend wasn't so much like coming home, or slipping into something comfortable, as reacquainting myself with my younger me and finding out I still liked her.
The characters feel less like old friends than like mythological figures, each with their accompanying adjective and mystic power: mole-ish, startle-haired Roland; splendid, icy Maud; snake-hipped devious/deviant Cropper; dusty Scottish Blackadder; woolly woebegone Beatrice; overabundant, overwhelming Leonora. And Val, whose transformation from bedraggled and shrewish sparrow to sleekly satisfied has always been one of my favourite subplots.
Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash remain just characters, ciphers - as they're meant to be (although I was still moved to tears by the last few pages). One of the nice things about re-reading this book a few times is that you get to skim the poems, or skip them altogether. It interests me that the feminist literary theory that's such a part of the book has become as much a period piece as the Victoriana - I wonder if she knew that would happen?
When I read 'The Children's Book', I was struck anew by Byatt's rich style: she piles on and piles on and piles on the detail and the observation, but you only ever feel like you're floating in it, not drowning. One of my favourite passages:
The bathroom was a long narrow rectangle, space-saving, coloured like sugar almonds. The fitments were a strong pink, tinged with a dusky greyish tone. The tiled floor was a greyish violet. With little bunches of ghostly Madonna lilies - they were of Italian design - on certain tiles, not all. These tiles extended halfway up the walls, where they met a paisley vinyl paper crawling with busy suckered globules, octopods, sea-slugs, in very bright purple and pink. There were toning ceramic fitmets, in dusky pink pottery, a lavatory-paper holder, a tissue-holder, a toothmug on a plate like those huge African lip-decorations, a scallop-shell holding pristine ovoids of purple and pink soap. The slatted, wipe-clean vinyl blind represented a pink dawn, with rose-tinged bulbous cumuli. The candlewick bath-mat, with its hide-like rubber backing, was lavender-coloured and so was the candle-wick crescent snugly clutching the lavatory pedestal and so was the candlewick mob-cap cushioned protector worn by the lavatory lid. On top of this, alert for house-sounds, and urgently concentrating, perched Professor Mortimer P. Cropper. It was 3.00am. He was arranging a thick wad of papr, a black rubbr torch, and a kind of rigid matt black box, just the size to fit on his knee, without bumping the walls.
And my most favourite, when Roland and Maud go to Yorkshire and slowly warm to each other, talking sexual theory but not acting sexy at all. The picture that remains for me above all in this book, all these years on:
He disposed himself for sleep. The sheets were white and felt slightly starched; he imagined that they smelled of fresh air and even the sea-salt. He moved down into their clean whiteness, scissoring his legs like a swimmer, abandoning himself to them, floating free. His unaccustomed muscles relaxed. He slept.
Oh my gawd y'all - I just downgraded A.S. Byatt by two stars.
I'm a big Byatt fan. 'Possession' and 'The Biographer's Tale' would probably both make my...moreOh my gawd y'all - I just downgraded A.S. Byatt by two stars.
I'm a big Byatt fan. 'Possession' and 'The Biographer's Tale' would probably both make my Top 25 list, if I ever drew it up. But I think my love for some of her books perhaps clouded my retrospective judgement.
Today, 'The Virgin in the Garden' feels over-worked and a bit clunky (the obvious bits of authorial voice most particularly). And the plot around Marcus Potter and Lucas Simmonds just bored me this time round; the denouement is still powerful, but the endless pages about the Nousphere lost me.
Byatt does get you wound up in her characters though. I still dislike Frederica, so book-smart and so people-stupid. I still feel the dark mass of Daniel, and the helpless fastidiousness of Alexander Wedderburn (gosh, Byatt's adjectives really rub off on a girl). And I am still so angry over her treatment of Stephanie Potter, in the way that you can only be if you have a sneaking suspicion that like her, you might be letting your brain slowly degrade in a welter of daily concerns.
And so I'm moving on to 'Still Life' - just to see whether I can get the magic back.
Reading through the reviews on goodreads, I'm interested by how much this book divides readers. (My favourite comment, by the way, was the person who...moreReading through the reviews on goodreads, I'm interested by how much this book divides readers. (My favourite comment, by the way, was the person who described it as a 'perfect gift for an expectant woman'. In the book, there are three mothers: Daniel's mother, a ghastly, needy woman, about as welcome in the house as cancer; lost lonely frozen Winifred, who can't relate to any of her three children; and Stephanie, 'sunk in biology', struggling to keep her intellect alive as it drowns in the swamp of domestic life, and who - well, that's a spoiler, but if you know the book you'll share the disbelief. Oh, actually, there's a fourth mother, an out-of-sight character who neglected her child to death. It's an absorbing book, and maybe that's what you need when you're pregnant, but it's hardly cheerful).
Having gone off on one myself, I'm now going to criticise Byatt for her tangents in this book. Like 'The Virgin in the Garden', I think the authorial asides in 'Still Life' - wholly appropriate in the throes of 1980s literary criticism and the emergence of post-modernism - have aged badly. At the time I'm sure they felt like sharp interpolations into the modern (1950s) intellectual landscape this series maps, but today they feel tiresome. Where in 'Possession' Byatt melds literary talk seamlessly into the characters' internal lives and interactions, here it feels like bad icing on a good cake.
The good cake are Byatt's characters. I can think of few other writers who can keep developing and revealing their characters the way Byatt does. I am as sucked in as I was the first (second, third? goodness knows how many times I've read these books) time round, and will keep going. However, as I'm about to embark on a 467-page-long book about cancer, my next fiction choice is going to be deliberately light: we're taking a break from Byatt for the rest of May.(less)