Sunday, 22 May 2011

Assorted Books I've Been Reading

So, I know I haven't posted in ages, there isn't really a good reason for that. There's a reason, in that I've been depressed in the struggling-to-get-out-of-bed-because-everything-feels-pointless sense of the word, but I'm not sure that really qualifies as a good reason. In any case, one thing I have managed to do in the last few weeks is reduce the pile of books waiting for me to read them. I figured I'd share my thoughts on some of them, so in no particular order:

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
Reason for reading: Recommended by my mother. Well sort of, she said I probably shouldn't read it because she thought what I was writing was similar so I'd better not read it in case I ended up stealing ideas from it... so I figured that maybe I should read it, for hopefully obvious reasons. (As it turns out my mother seems to have latched on to some coincidence of clothing colour, otherwise there isn't a lot of similarity as far as I can see).
General impression: V for Vendetta for feminists, only not as good.
Stuff I liked: The central idea is fairly interesting, essentially the handmaid of the title is a woman forced into prostitution, except with the intent of providing babies rather than pleasure. Also what little is explained of the setting is thought-provoking, basically a projection of what would likely happen if the 'women belong in the kitchen cos the bible says so' subset of religious idiots got into power. Some of the imagery is nicely poetic.
Stuff that got on my nerves: Several things, but top of the list would be the epilogue, which isn't really part of the story at all, instead it's supposed to be a scholarly lecture by a professor who's been studying the tapes that the rest of the story was apparently on. I have a number of issues with this, for one thing it's completely unnecessary to have the story have been found on audio tapes, it's been established that the narrator can write (even though writing is banned for women), and it doesn't read like something that's been spoken, it reads like something that's been written, the dreamy poetic descritions of the flower garden for example, nobody talks like that, it's writing in a diary type stuff. The other main problem I have with this epilogue is that it feels very much like the author telling me what I should have been thinking and feeling about the story, it doesn't really add anything else. Well it does, it adds some explanations of what was going on from a historical perspective, which would have been entirely unnecessary if the narrator had ever bothered to mention them. Which, given that she was apparently recording her experiences for some future, unseen person, and she seems bright enough to realise that they might not know much about her situation (she actually comments that as handmaids are left out of family photographs so future historians might not know they existed) it's rather unnatural that she then doesn't explain. All right, all right I'll stop there.
Conclusion: Good but not great alternative history story, spoiled by a rant inducing epilogue.

The Conqueror's Shadow, Ari Marmell
Reason for reading: The author was on babel clash and was entertaining so I started following him on twitter and he was more entertaining so eventually I decided I really aught to check out his actual books.
General Impression: You know that thing in games where in the sequel your character from the previous game is now the villain? Well this is kind of that in reverse. Crossed with a kind of aging hero thing.
Stuff I liked: Villain protagonists, well all right they're pushed just over the line into being antiheros by dint of the actual villain being so much worse. Oh and also by the fact that, in theory, more or less, on average, they're saving the world. Still, one bloodthirsty former tyrant with a pet demon, one moody ogre and a canabalistic witch, this is not the hero roll call of your average disney movie now is it? And they're so much deeper for it, I especially liked the witch Seilloah. Also I really liked the author's take on vampires, all right they're never called vampires, but they drink blood and can only be killed by a stake through the heart plus decapitation combo, so yeah, vampires. Only ickier, they leave bloody footprints everywhere they go and magic people's blood out through their pores. I thought they were a well thought out attempt to make vampires scarier and more monstrous without taking away their intelligence.
Stuff that got on my nerves: The first couple of pages did not really sell the story to me, if I'd been flicking through the beginning in a book store I'd probably have bought something else instead. Maybe it's just an unfortunate coincidence that I've read a couple of other books that start that way, but it does seem to me that 'recently destroyed city at dawn' is the go to media res beginning for epic battles fantasy.  Apart from that I only have a couple of minor complaints, there's a couple of scenes near the beginning where the main character's relationship with his wife seems a bit cardboardy and there was one particular plot twist fairly late on that irritated me because of the way it was presented (the actual twist is pretty cool in hindsight, which is why I'm not spoiling it).
Conclusion:  I'm going to have to buy the next one now.

Persuasion, Mansfield Park & Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen.
Reason for reading: I have an ongoing sporadic quest to read 'classics' partly because I think I should and partly because sometimes they turn out to be really good. Mind you, having decided to try Jane Austen these were probably not the most logical titles to begin with, but Mansfield Park is the book Door is reading in Neverwhere and then Amazon suggested the other two.
General Impression: You know how popcorn doesn't really taste of anything but you keep eating until the bottom of the packet anyway? Like that.
Stuff I liked: Every now and then there was a line of dialogue that amused me or a description I particularly liked. In general the prose style is pleasant enough, I mean I got to the end of all three without actually dieing of boredom, but I can't really explain why not.
Stuff that got on my nerves: The beginnings, each of the three books begins with a long description of the heroine's family background before actually introducing the character round about chapter three. The endings, they don't actually end they just sort of fizzle out and then the last chapter is a 'what happened next' epilogue, which would be less annoying if 'what happened next' didn't include 'how the problems I've spent this whole book setting up were suddenly resolved'. That bit in Northanger Abbey where everything stops for a page and a half while the author rants about the depiction of novels in novels by other writers. While I get that applying 'show don't tell' to the adultery in Mansfield Park would have been way too risque for the time of writing, does it have to be told third hand?
Conclusion: I read these to try and find out why they're considered classics, I still don't know, I feel kind of guilty about that. Then again, I like Shakespeare, I like Dickens, it doesn't make me culturally barren if it turns out I don't like Austen too. Does it?

The Kitchen Daughter, Jael McHenry
Reason for Reading: People on twitter linked reviews of it, it sounded interesting.
General Impression: Like a bored cookbook had an affair with a dashing young ghost story.
Stuff I liked: The heroine, I like that she has a different way of seeing the world, it makes otherwise quite normal events into interesting story points. It also helps show how odd 'normal' people are in some circumstances. Makes you think twice about things that might otherwise have been taken for granted. The ghosts, both their individual personalities and the mechanism by which they're summoned.
Stuff that got on my nerves: I could include the heroine's pushy sister in this catagory, she most certainly did get on my nerves, on the other hand she's quite clearly intended to and the book wouldn't work if she didn't. Which basically leaves me with the vague sense of disappointment I had with the ending, specifically the disquieting feeling that after an entire book defending Ginny's right to be different the ending still had to be made happy by making her more normal, on the other hand I'm not sure how else it could have been ended and worked so hmmm...
Conclusion: Now have the paradoxical problem of wanting more stuff like this, when one of the major reasons I liked it is that (as far as I know) there is nothing else like this.

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