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Monica Furlong – Wise Child

January 2, 2010

I kicked off 2010 with a reread of my all-time favorite book, simply because I hadn’t read it in 2009, which may be one of the first years since I got it in the very early 1990s that this has happened.

Wise Child is YA historical fantasy set in medieval Scotland.  Wise Child, so nicknamed in semi-affectionate derision by others in her village for her precociousness, is abandoned by both her mysterious and beautiful mother and her seafaring father.  When the grandmother who cared for her through childhood dies, Wise Child ends up living with Juniper, the vilage’s healer–and its purported witch.

The heart of this book is Juniper’s relationship with Wise Child, which tests Wise Child’s loyalty to her village and her biological mother.  It is this relationship, build up through the often mundane but occasionally extraordinary routines of Juniper’s domestic life and then tested through a series of near-catastrophes, that makes this book such an excellent comfort read.  The underlying messages–be kind, don’t judge unjustifiably, your true family may or may not be composed of people to whom you are related–are commonplace, but the characters are too endearing to ever come off as mouthpieces for the story’s morals.

Wise Child has both a prequel (Juniper) and a sequel (Colman), both of which are lovely but not quite commensurate with the classic status that the original has achieved.  Colman, although the least well-received of the trilogy, is particularly notable as a rare YA book about male feminism.

Briefly, on Disgrace

November 16, 2009

J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace was a rather remarkable reading experience to me: the unraveling of a middle-aged white man rendered by an author who appears to possibly understand how irritated I am to be continually reading lit-fic accounts of the unravelings of middle-aged white men.

Robert Goolrick – A Reliable Wife

October 25, 2009
Robert Goolrick - A Reliable Wife

Robert Goolrick - A Reliable Wife

I’m back from a necessary hiatus (on posting, not reading).

Goolrick’s homage to the gothic marriage novel over-eggs its prose so much that the effect cannot be forgiven merely because it’s deliberate, but after some time to think it over, I’d say the pudding turns out anyway.  The chief strength of A Reliable Wife is its ability to take work elements from forebearers like Rebecca—the new wife desperate to gain entry into the isolated household and world of a husband with a too-lengthy past; the overprotective housekeeper who refuses to deliver up enough history; the perfectly-timed revelatory character twist that reboots the plot—into something that manages to feel both familiar and fresh.  Some of the more telegraphed plot turns will not be much of a surprise, but the real mystery comes in where the compelling relationship between the two central characters is headed—and that remains a point of suspense until the very (satisfying) end.

I also love the cover, although I’m not sure why.  Maybe something about the way the stark landscape makes the gold look frigid.

Speaking of Rebecca, between A Reliable Wife and The Little Stranger, I wound up visiting it via the Anna Massey-narrated audiobook, which is great.  These three make a fantastic autumn-into-winter paired reading, which might be even better with Jane Eyre tossed in.

Leaving Middlemarch

July 6, 2009

I finished Middlemarch last week, and now I’m at loose ends.  Appropriately enough, it feels a bit like I’ve spent twenty years in an affectionate but troubled marriage.  Or what I might imagine that would feel like.  Maybe A Cautionary Tale would have made a better subtitle.

Middlemarch.  Good for: slice-of-lifers, fans of sassy phrase-turning, bourgeoisie who think they are hip because they make jokes about the bourgeoisie.  Bad for: people with short attentions spans, the engaged.

Arundhati Roy – The God of Small Things

June 28, 2009

Disclaimer: yes, it’s a shame I haven’t read this before.  If owning a copy for years constitutes any defense, I’d like to assert it.The God of Small THings

A bare-bones plot summary—The God of Small Things is about the slow buckling and sudden collapse of a family under the pressures of caste, political upheaval, and personal resentment—makes clear that its story is neither new nor unpredictable.  But this is a story that’s strength in the telling, and especially the voice of its narrator and the dense, telling detail lavished on its setting.

Because so much of the plot turns on the characters’ many transgressions of social strictures, some reviewers suggest that Roy’s language, in which words cleave together and apart (“pocket money” becomes “porketmunny”; “barn owl” is rendered as “bar nowl”), key concepts Demand Capitalization, and rifts of phrase bob up and down throughout the narrative as recurring motifs, is intended to be transgressive too.  I found the language to be intriguingly regressive, the sing-song voice of a traumatized child.  I was glad to see that this seems to be high on the author’s mind as she composed it.

People seem to either love this book or hate it.  Roy’s deliberately repetitive tinkering with word and phrase is going to grate on some readers.  The story is a tragedy, and it’s almost impossible to ignore this fact at any point along the way when a child’s funeral is the highlight of the first chapter.  I’ll simply say that I can see what all the fuss is about—on both sides—but found immersion in the book’s language-play and melancholy to be worthwhile.

I am afraid it’s going to end in tragedy.  There’s both incest vibes and a Marxist movement, and to me these elements each spell novelistic doom.

Lawrence Block – Grifter’s Game

June 20, 2009

I picked up Grifter’s Game after reading an enthusiastic review on Bookshelves of Doom.  I guess that after The Lies of Locke Lamora, I wasn’t done with stories about con artists getting caught up in jobs that sprout unanticipated complications.

There’s a fair amount of “la la la”-ing necessary to gloss over the extremely skeevy gender and sexuality issues that date the book, but it’s those skeevy elements that make the surprise ending the most successful attempts at deliberate creepiness I’ve read in a while. The ending is also, to be necessarily vague, a great example of bringing a proverbial gun on-stage and making damn sure it gets fired.  (A proverbial gun, that is—the actual gun, and there is one, gets fired much earlier.)

I’m more familiar with homages to noir than with the genuine article, so I was happy to find that I enjoyed Block’s style without even having to maintain ironic distance.  I had been afraid that I would hear a parodic deeply-intoned voice-over in my head.  I didn’t.  When I was hyper-aware of style, it was usually to note and admire how much work gets done by each carefully-selected detail of setting and character.  Spareness never became an excuse for imprecision.

Scott Lynch – The Lies of Locke Lamora

June 16, 2009

lies-of-locke-lamoraThough I have some quibbles with it, The Lies of Locke Lamora merits the enthusiastic following it’s generated.  Lynch neatly dovetails a caper story, a politics-of-magic fantasy (one of my favorite subgenres), and a mob novel into something slightly greater than the sum of its parts.  The titular hero is the sometimes addled, sometimes superlative brains behind a troupe of con artists known as the Gentleman Bastards.  Locke’s merry band operates in the water-logged city-state of Camorr, a rough analogue of Renaissance Venice that exists in the shadow of five glass towers left by mysterious earlier inhabitants known as the Eldren.  The book begins by tracing a typical, if ambitious job that goes awry when the Gentlemen Bastards find themselves caught up in a struggle for control of Camorr’s underworld.

Probably the chief delight here was Lynch’s worldbuilding.  Camorr is as beautiful and brutal as the deadly glass garden that is one of its most remarkable features.  Although Lynch’s descriptions of the city, its people, and its politics occasionally wander into the overwrought, they’re compelling enough that he can be forgiven.  There are also broad hints of a secret history — the looming glass towers, a complicated pantheon — that appear ripe for exploration in future books.  I was slightly disappointed that, despite numerous flashback chapters, neither this history nor much of Locke’s own personal history were mapped out further, but seven volumes will be a lot to fill.

As for those quibbles: the solution to a show-down between Locke and one of the main villains is so obvious that I kept waiting for a take-back.  I don’t know why it took several hundred pages before the reader could be sure that women had any significant role in the story.  Finally, I wish the torture and fight scenes didn’t threaten to make the book slightly too much for some younger teenagers I know, because the best compliment I could give The Lies of Locke Lamora is that it would be a great fantasy gateway book.