I will never catch up on reviews

…if I don’t do a bunch of short ones all at once. Thus:

The Golden Mean, Annabel Lyon

I checked this out on Gavin’s recommendation and because I love Alexander the Great. Your claims that he was a psychotic alcoholic have no effect on me because in my mind he is exactly the way Mary Renault writes him in Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy. The Golden Mean is about Aristotle when he comes to Macedon to tutor young Alexander. Though Lyon was clearly influenced by Mary Renault’s books, she gives a more nuanced picture of Alexander, showing a brilliant but disturbed young man who provides real heads for plays and mutilates the bodies of soldiers he has killed. Lyon uses modern language, with much swearing, and although that could have come across as stilted, it, er, it doesn’t. Hooray. Also, check out Ms. Lyon’s list of ten very good books about the ancient world.

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, Galen Beckett

Advertised as Jane Austen with magic, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent completely failed to satisfy me. Other reviewers have noted that the book’s three sections are dramatically different in tone, the first being quite Jane Austen and the second quite Turn of the Screwy, and the third more straight fantasy. This bugged me, and I didn’t care for the characters anyway, and the world-building felt lazy. So, not a success. This was for the RIP Challenge.

The Fall of Rome, Martha Southgate

Big yes to this one. I have been wanting to read it for ages, on Eva’s recommendation, and it didn’t disappoint me. Latin teacher Jerome Washington has been the only black faculty member at a Connecticut boarding school for boys throughout most of his career. His ideas about decorum and racial equality are sharply challenged with the arrival of Jana Hensen, a longtime teacher in the Cleveland inner city, and Rashid Bryson, a young black student trying to get away from a family tragedy. Beautiful, complicated racial and family dynamics and lovely writing, multiple narrators, Latin, and a boarding school setting. I wish Martha Southgate had written fifteen more books besides this one, instead of only two. Behold this quotation, which I think is great:

“Racial integration?” He nodded. “What about it?”

“Well, I’m not against it, obviously, or I wouldn’t be here, right? But there’s some problems with it that I just want to talk to people about. How this place isn’t really integrated enough. We – I mean people like me – are just here to round out somebody else’s experience. That’s what it feels like, anyway.”

American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and the American Prison System, Sasha Abramsky

The American prison system is awful. It’s just awful in every way, what with the insanely punitive mandatory minimum sentences, and the poorly-trained guards, and the lack of care for the mentally ill, and the shortage of educational programs, and the–look, just everything. It’s awful. Sasha Abramsky is a careful, clear writer, and I defy you to read this book and not feel furious at the end of it.

Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Alan Moore is just not for me. When I read his books, I think of how much in sympathy I am with his views, and how important a writer of graphic novels he is, but I do not think, Wow, this is an enjoyable read. I more think, Wow, this is rather a slog. Wish I could be reading something more awesome. Now and then an image or a plot element will catch my eye and please me greatly, but these never last long enough to make my reading truly enjoyable. I also found the conclusion deeply unsatisfying: just a big info-dump of cackling villainy. I was fascinated, as I always am, with the way the 1980s seem to have been predicated on the assumption that nuclear war with Russia was imminent. And then the Berlin Wall came down! Miraculous! This was for the Graphic Novels Challenge, which I have already been awesome at this year but I cannot stop being awesome at it because graphic novels are worthwhile! Even when they are not my particular cup of tea.

Glimpses, Lynn Flewelling

Glimpses is a collection of Nightrunner short stories, with lots of fan art. It was sent to me as an e-book by Reece Notley of Three Crow Press, for which much thanks. These are stories that fill in the gaps in Seregil’s and Alec’s history: how Seregil came to be Nysander’s student, a small glimpse of Alec’s life with his father, and like that. If you are a fan of the Nightrunner series, and do not mind lots of graphic sex (I admit I can be slightly squeamish this way), you should check this out. To me, the nosy girl who wants to know exactly how everything went down, this short story collection is an excellent addition to the Nightrunner world. Lynn Flewelling has a light, amusing way of writing, and I always enjoy spending time with her characters. But if you are a stranger to the series, do yourself a favor and read Luck in the Shadows and Stalking Darkness first.

Review: The Exception, Christian Jungersen

Buried in Print posted a review of Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life the other day, and as I was preparing jubilant remarks in my head to comment on the post, I saw that there was already a jubilant-remarks comment on the post, by Jenny, and I was like, Whoa, did I comment on this post in a fugue state? It freaked me out, so I hastily clicked “Jenny” and that is how I found….British Jenny! Hooray! (Hi, British Jenny!) British Jenny had just read a book that was translated from the Danish (I am trying to read more books in translation) and featured multiple unreliable narrators as well as numerous fun facts about genocide. You know I had to get on that.

The Exception is about the women who work at a (fictional) Danish institution for the study of genocide. They start getting threatening emails, which they assume at first to be the work of a particular terrorist about whom they have written in the past. However, they soon begin to suspect that someone at their own institution was responsible for the emails. This gives rise to some very unpleasant office politics and causes everyone to reflect on the nature of evil. Throughout the book, we get the points of view of each of the four women in the office, so that we are always having to re-evaluate what we thought we knew about them and the dynamics of the office they work in.

When you say a book is about office politics, that doesn’t necessarily send people dashing to the bookstore to acquire it, but I really enjoyed those parts of the book. Jungersen does it so well, the disputes about tiny things (keep the door to the library open or don’t keep it open) that begin to assume a disproportionate level of importance the longer they go unresolved; the way you hear a rumor about what’s happening to the office and its occupants, and suddenly everyone has heard the rumor and cannot stop whispering about it. What made all this even better (to me) was the “Can This Marriage Be Saved”-like way I was never sure which side of any conflict was the right side, because it looked so utterly different depending on who was narrating.

There was some psychobabble that mildly annoyed me, and I am not crazy about third-person present-tense – as Memory points out, how would that work anyway? – but seriously, this book is damn good, and overcomes its minor flaws to be awesome. You know, upsetting, but awesome.

Here is what I did that was stupid. I started reading The Exception in the afternoon on Friday (or Saturday maybe?), when everything was bright and cheerful, and then the book was absorbing so I carried on reading it as darkness fell. The book talked about the evil that lurks in the hearts of men. It talked about this, and also about scary torture techniques and breaking into houses and raping and looting. I took a short break from all the reading to let my puppy out, and she let out a barrage of urgent barks, which usually just means she wants to come back inside. So I let her inside, but she didn’t start barking. She stared furiously at the back door and barked her stupid puppy head off, and she did this at intervals for twenty minutes. And I was like, Aaaaaa, there’s a burglar, but I turned on all the outside lights and peered out the windows, and nope, no burglar. I was still sort of spooked, and the puppy continued to flip her shit for no reason, and I really didn’t want to carry on reading my genocide book.

But instead of putting aside my genocide book and reading Hilary McKay and L. M. Montgomery until bedtime, I foolishly thought about it a lot, and I decided that I wasn’t going to let fear dictate my reading choices, by God! I thought, I will never become brave if I don’t actively try not to be fearful. In retrospect I’m not sure why it seemed so important to finish reading The Exception right then rather than waiting for morning. All this to say, I do not know if this book would ordinarily count for the RIP Challenge, but since I read the last third of it with my heart racing, and my ears all alert for bad guys breaking into my house, and my stupid overactive brain imagining fifteen different (bad) ways that could play out, I’m counting it.

Other reviews:

All Lit Up (thanks for the recommendation!)
Ready When You Are, C.B.
Prairie Progressive

Let me know if I missed yours!

Review: Here Lies Arthur, Philip Reeve

All right, I give up. Philip Reeve isn’t for me, and Arthurian stories may not be either. Here Lies Arthur is the story of Gwyna (if you are expecting her to turn out to be Guinevere, like I was, revise your expectations now and save yourself some confusion), who is taken in by Myrddin, a healer and wise man traveling with conquering soldier Arthur. At once Gwyna is caught up in Myrddin’s quest to make Arthur a legendary king capable of uniting all of Britain. It’s my favorite kind of story: a story about stories.

And yet, and yet.

One of the problems was all me, and I have this reaction to every Arthur story I read. When an Arthur story gets started, I start trying to figure out which version of the story the author’s going to be telling. Here Lies Arthur uses Welsh spellings, so with each character I had to first work out what the names were meant to be–and I won’t lie, I translated them all into Monty Python, which made it hard for me to take Bedwyr seriously (“Ah, but can you not also make bridges out of stone?”). And then I had to remember all the stories I know about them, from the cassette of King Arthur stories I had as a kid, from scraps of Mary Stewart, from Gerald Morris, from Malory, from T. H. White, and only after I’d done any of that could I pay attention to the story again. So that’s my thing. It’s not Philip Reeve’s fault. In fact, this is the bit that Philip Reeve does well: He shows us, through Gwyna, how all those different stories grow and thrive, how there can be a dozen versions of the same story without the listeners losing belief in them. But my restless unspoiled brain kept fretting over it.

Another problem that was all me: I want King Arthur to be wise and good and just and brave. I always do. When he’s not all that in the stories, they do not sparkle for me the same way. A lot of King Arthur retellings want to make Arthur be stupid, or an oaf, or a thug. Oh nasty and unscrupulous modifiliers! Leave me my knights in shining armor!

But I like to blame my bad reading experiences on other people, so let’s turn to the things for which Philip Reeve was responsible, shall we? The book was highly episodic, which I tend not to like, and at times this got to feeling like the author was trying to get in, hit each Arthur story (Guinevere, Grail, Green Knight), and get out. Gwyn(a)’s voice was inconsistent, and now and then she’d slip in a colloquialism that felt jarringly different to the rest of her narration (“We weren’t the first to go there, neither”). The book would switch suddenly into present tense for no apparent reason, and slip back out all casual-like, but I noticed and did not approve. What’s even worse for me, because I love point-of-view switches when they are done well, was that it also occasionally slipped into other characters’ perspective, when the narrative didn’t require it.

What do you require from King Arthur stories? Or do you not like King Arthur?

This has been for the R.I.P. Challenge. More books to come, and, I expect, better ones for me. 🙂

Who else has read it:

things mean a lot
Gaskella
Confessions of a Bibliovore
Bart’s Bookshelf
Book Nut
Susan Hated Literature
A Bookshelf Monstrosity
Vulpes Libris
The Page Flipper

Tell me if I missed yours!

Challenges and a request for advice

As you have probably all heard, the R(eaders) I(mbibing) P(eril) Challenge has returned! September and October are the months for the blogosphere to be reading books that are spooky and mythic. I have made up a tentative list of books for myself, and I shall pick the best ones to read this month and next month.

On Jellicoe Road, Melina Marchetta
Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton
The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, Galen Beckett
Here Lies Arthur, Philip Reeve (does this count? I can’t decide)
Affinity, Sarah Waters
Blue is for Nightmares, Laurie Faria Stolarz
The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
…and others as they occur to me

My personal challenge for the month of September is to be spoiler-free all month. I will be reading books in the right order. I will not be looking up what happens in films and TV shows on Wikipedia while I am watching them. So far this is going okay. It is much like reading in the wrong order, except that it sucks slightly more. But I’m hoping that as the month progresses, I will find virtues in this style of reading.

And now, a request for advice. I have unpierced ears, and I have always been perfectly happy with this state of affairs. My main reason for leaving my ears unpierced is that earrings would just be one more thing to worry about in the morning, one more thing to store on my dresser, one more thing to box up and transfer from place to place when I move. I am grossed out when I behold people taking out and putting in earrings. I have heard many horror stories about ear-piercings and do not want them to happen to me.

BUT.

I was at an arts event the other day and I saw the most beautiful earrings I have ever seen in all my life. They were made out of old watch parts, and they dangled in a fetching, steampunk-aesthetic sort of way. I covet them.

Please advise. Those of you without pierced ears, how come? Those of you with, did you have similar fears to mine and find them unfounded? Or find them very founded indeed? Is it worth it to have one pair of earrings that I love, when I am mainly unmoved by earrings? Would I, once pierced, find myself in love with other earrings although I have never felt this way before? Help help help.