The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

I got this book for Christmas! And because it got put at the top of the fiction pile, it was the one I read first.

First impressions: It was compared in the opening blurbs to One Day, which I adored. Stylistically, it is quite similar to One Day with relatively plain prose which somehow manages to be ordinary and meaningful at the same time. It’s also similar to One Day in the unexpectedly tragic reveal, and yet still hopeful ending.

….That’s all I have so far.

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The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

 

This is the book that beat Ready Player One for the Locus Award (Best First Novel). Now, I adored Ready Player One, so I had to see what could beat it.

……

Well, I definitely liked Ready Player One better, but I can see why The Night Circus won. Contests and prizes and general acclaim tend to go to subtle, ethereal, almost inscrutable writing, not stuff that’s more plot-based, no matter how well-constructed or well-written that plot is.

I did like The Night Circus, just not as much as Ready Player One. I found the use of present tense jarring at first, but after the first few pages I got used to it. (Sidebar: we have been so conditioned to past tense in prose that any use of present tense is going to be seen as innovative and/or disruptive. The very best example of present tense done smoothly and well is Bleak House, where the narrative switches between past and present depending on whether it’s first-person Ada or third-person omniscient narration. My personal favourite is The Rainmaker by John Grisham, which sucked me in before I fully realised it was present tense – and then when I did realise, about a third of the way in, I had to go back through and make sure it was deliberate and not just a proofreading failure.)

So the present-tense didn’t bother me. No, what bothered me were the short second-person passages. Now, I don’t know about you, but my exposure to second-person narration, and hence my initial reaction when faced with it, is Choose Your Own Adventure type books. As such, I kept waiting for some sort of disaster to strike “me” walking around the circus, and when nothing did I felt tense and disappointed. One review I read said that it put the reader in the middle of the circus, but it didn’t do that for me – it just took me out of the story and broke the connections I was forming with Celia, Marco, Bailey, Poppet, etc.  I found it unnecessary and pandering and even now, after finishing the book and thinking about it as a whole, I don’t think it added much, if anything, to the story or the structure. It tipped the balance and broke the story-bubble and, for me, one of the greatest strengths of the book was its balance.

For if we learn anything from the circus, it is that destruction follows imbalance. The entire point of the competition is to tip the balance between chaos and order and, in doing so, to destroy the other player. (Collateral damage includes destroying a part of yourself, and anyone else who may have unwittingly gotten involved.) Celia and Marco work best when they are creating together, when they are each enhancing what the other has done – for one of them to win would destroy not only what they have done together but what they would do in the future. And the only way the circus can continue is if the balance between them is maintained – if either one of them tips the balance, the circus and everything in it will disintegrate.

And the book itself, outside of the second-person interludes, is fairly well-balanced between the various threads: Celia, Marco, and Bailey; those affecting the circus and those being affected by it; exposition and events. But then the second-person interludes come in, describing things that haven’t been introduced yet, or things that were described better and more evocatively a few pages before, or things that you think should become significant but never reappear.

Maybe on a reread, this won’t bother me so much. But when I finished Ready Player One, I wanted to jump back into the world, to go deeper into the details and find the hidden meanings in references. I don’t feel the same way about The Night Circus or Erin Morgenstern’s writing. It was nice enough, but I’m not compelled to reread it or relive it. I won’t turn down another book by Morgenstern, but I won’t rush to read it, either.

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Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch

This book has been staring at me from Waterstones’ shelves for months, tempting me with its old map Streets of London cover and its back-cover blurb that makes it seem like a cross between The Eyre Affair and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The last time I went in, it was on special offer. What else could I do but buy it?

And it doesn’t have the intense wordplay of Jasper Fforde, or the detailed, heavy, parallel history of Susannah Clarke. But it does have an incredibly readable voice and an eminently reasonable approach that makes completely bizarre events seem perfectly realistic. Oh, and a touch of heartbreaking sadness, but not unresolvable sadness.

Because reason is what you need, and sadness is what you get, when you can sense residual magic, are given evidence by a ghost, and have to negotiate a peace treaty between London’s river spirits. Oh, and people are having excessively violent reactions to annoyances, and then their faces fall off.

The two stories – the rivers and the violence – aren’t connected; they’re just simultaneous. Occasionally they coincide and intersect, but other than timing they’re completely separate. It’s absolutely great the way the stories intertwine without conflicting – not something that’s done a lot anymore, and Aaronovitch manages it well.

I really liked the glimpses into London’s physical history – the rivers and streams are all personified and their history and current status mentioned, including facts about the Thames area that I sort of knew of but didn’t concretely know before. And some of those details help with the investigation into the violence, which leads to a sort of cultural/social history touchstone that I vaguely recognised but didn’t know much about (Mr. Punch/Punch and Judy). I enjoy things that entertain as well as educate.

There’s a sequel (first chapter provided) which I’ll definitely keep an eye out for. It follows directly on from this one and absolutely acknowledges the events and their consequences. I think, as a series, it has great potential for continuation. In fact, I was thinking that it might make an interesting television show – the combination of police procedural and magic as presented here is so cool, and lends itself to serialisation very well. Producers, talk to me, I’ve got ideas.

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The Magician King, by Lev Grossman

This is the sequel to The Magicians, which I really enjoyed a few weeks ago. I compared it to Harry Potter meets Narnia, for grownups.  And I was really looking forward to the sequel – getting back into Fillory, finding out what happened with/to Julia, helping Quentin find direction and satisfaction with his life.

Well, we find out what happened with Julia. It’s really dark and disturbing, and she loses herself and her humanity and her ability to connect and relate to other people. Some of it is her own choice, sort of, as she chooses to pursue “underground” magical studies. Some of it is not, as unexpected consequences take her over. All of it is dark, with only occasional glimpses of light and sanity.

There’s a sort of implicit connection made in the book, especially in Julia’s story, between the underground study of magic and mental illness, especially depression. I don’t know if there’s a deliberate connection there -some sort of mysticism, irrationality granting access to a different realm, something like that – or if it’s just coincidental and implied. If it is deliberate, I’m just glad that i’ts not romanticized. Magic in this world is very cool, but it’s also presented as very difficult and dangerous – and the consequences of failure are devastating. It wouldn’t help to present it as glamorous.

Quentin also shows signs of ennui and depression – some of it is his general personality (he showed the same symptoms in The Magicians) and some of it is events – Alice’s death, etc. It makes me wonder whether the connection between magic and mental illness that is so prevalent in the underground (read: non-Brakebills) community is also a factor in the use of magic as a whole.

One o fthe disappointing things about  this book for me was the lack of adventures in Fillory. I find Fillory fascinating, in the same way that I find the actual world-building of Narnia fascinating (my two favourite Narnia books are Dawn Treader and The Magician’s Nephew, for the world creation and exploration), and I was looking forward to a kind of Dawn Treader-esque exploring tale, especially when the quest for the keys showed up. But instead Quentin keeps being dragged out of the situations that I’ve become invested in, and that he has. Because of this, I found the ending more frustratingly sad than poignant. Because I never got to see much of Quentin in Fillory – just his boredom and dissatisfaction – I never quite believed his desperation to get back.

The Magician King also throws in a lot of new levels to the magical world, and it’s a bit too much. I feel like the whole “Old Gods” story  and Julia’s story could have been expanded, the dragons could have been expanded, and more could have been shown of “normal” Fillory to increase the dramatic necessity of saving it/getting back to it. In some ways it felt like the second and third parts of a trilogy had been compressed into one, as if The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi had been merged: cutting Hoth down to one or two scenes, skipping most of Dagobah and only telling us about the cave scene (including its significance), cutting right from Han encased in carbonite to rescuing him on Tatooine and then going straight to Endor and the second Death Star. It’s entirely possible that if the book had been extended, even turned into two volumes, I’d be saying that it was too long and padded. But I felt like there were things introduced that are presented as deep and important, but in a tell-not-show kind of way.

Luckily, Lev Grossman is a good enough writer, and I became invested in the world enough during The Magicians that I wanted to keep going and try to recapture it. It never quite made it back to the level of interest that The Magicians did, but there were still glimpses of what the world could be.

I highly doubt that there will be a third book in this world, because there aren’t really loose ends – not in the same way that The Magicians had loose ends. I almost wish there would be, because I still like what the world has, even if I found the execution less-than-perfect in this case. But a third book would either have to restart something or fill in the gaps between these two. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

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Redshirts, by John Scalzi

One reason that I like reading John Scalzi’s blog and short stories (sad disclaimer: this is the first novel of his that I’ve read) is that he writes about things that he has a genuine interest and delight in, and that comes through so very clearly. He has fun putting words together, poking fun at the tropes and attitudes of anything he likes (mostly sci-fi, but also politics and other things).

Redshirts is exactly that kind of book. It’s a book for anyone who laments hand-wavy science, character inconsistencies, Captain Exposition, and ridiculous MacGuffins in their television shows. Anyone who’s ever said, “wait, wasn’t he near death just last week?” or “Didn’t he profess undying love to that other character the week before?” or sighed when a new character with an emotionally involved backstory comes on, because he’s going to die before the end of the episode.

I think it’s gained plenty of cultural traction, but just in case – redshirts are the extras, the bit players, usually on sci-fi shows who are in a story situation with regular cast members. To increase tension, someone has to die, or at least be severely injured. It’s not going to be one of the regular cast members. If the bit player has an emotional tie to a main character, or more lines than, “oh, no, it’s a <gurgle> *thud*”, they may last until the third act. Otherwise, they’re dead in the teaser. [Geek moment – in the original Star Trek, redshirts weren’t always wearing red shirts. There was a prevalence of redshirts, but the redshirt-type character was sometimes wearing a blue or a yellow shirt instead. Red shirts were security, so they were most often the tag-alongs, but science/engineering and medical personnel were not exempt from the redshirt phenomenon.]

What makes this book different – how it subverts the trope – is that it turns the probable redshirt characters into main characters who then become aware that their function is to provide temporary emotional impact for the “regulars”. So, of course, they try to change it. Nobody wants to be horribly killed simply as a plot device, after all. And the whole thing turns into a send-up and homage to Star Trek and all other space-set science fiction shows, with a brilliantly tight ending and three codas. One of the codas only just escapes being a cliche, but the other two are perfect. It’s science fiction, because it’s mostly set on a spaceship in the future, but more than that, it’s about science fiction, what we expect from it and what we’re willing to accept from it.

I do have complaints, though. Well, one complaint. I didn’t find the characters to be very full – they had backstories but not really personalities. I guess that can be seen as one of the points, but I did occasionally find it difficult to remember who was talking, to hear their voice in my head. Except Jenkins. Jenkins was awesome. I think that’s the only thing, though. The science is very hand-wavy, but it’s supposed to be. It’s very story-driven, and moves very quickly, and some stuff gets glossed over, but I think the only real thing I had a problem with was the characterisation.

I will be actively looking for more of Scalzi’s stuff in the future – beyond, of course, Whatever, which is one of my daily must-reads on Google Reader. If you like funny stuff, sci-fi themed stuff, etc., then you should too.

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The Morville Hours, by Katherine Swift

This is another one, like Mr. Rosenblum’s List, that’s on my local library’s sort-of-book-club list. Unlike Mr. Rosenblum’s List, I had heard of The Morville Hours before.  It had always sort of intrigued me, but other things always had my attention. Plus, I’m not really a gardener, so it never seemed like the kind of book that I just had to read right now.

But I am a medieval connections afficianado, and when it’s on a book club list, you’ve got to at least give it a try. And I liked it – not that I thought I wouldn’t. But I did find it a bit soporific – I could read a full section at a time, but that was about my limit, and after finishing it this morning I slept for two hours.

I’m not completely blaming my narcolepsy on the  book – I’ve been very mentally and physically busy in the last while, and it’s been hot (highs around 90F, lest any of my US readers think I’m exaggerating), and I’m on a sort of down time until my job starts. But reading a book that is so imbued with the rotation of the hours, months, and years added to my sense of placidity.

The book combines descriptions and history of the medieval “book of hours” – a prayer book detailing the prayers and readings for the times of day (Matins, Vespers, etc.) – with the liturgical year, the agricultural year, the building of a massive garden (really a series of gardens) in a stately home over twenty years, and some of her own personal and family history. It’s organised around the canonical hours, and each of the chapters fits the emotional theme of the part of the day –  Matins is about beginnings, childhood, newness, planning, and Christmas and early winter, for example.

In addition to giving the history of the garden, and herself somewhat, and the liturgical calendar, Swift gives us the history of the house and the area. The area has been settled since Celtic times, with a fortification from the Saxons and a castle and stately home since the Normans. It was important in the Civil War, saw the transition from farming to mills and factories to industrialised unemployment. The house itself shifted from family to family over the centuries, as these things often do, and those families are also touched on in some of the chapters.

It also, as it’s a book about a garden, has descriptions and histories of some of the plants. I have to admit, I’m not very good at botany. I always wish I were better at it, but I’m really not good. I’m an inside person primarily, who looks at flowers and plants and goes “how pretty!” but usually doesn’t know or remember the names (either common names or Latin names) beyond “tulip” or “rose” – and only those if they are blooming. That said, Katherine Swift’s descriptions helped me see the plants, even if I didn’t have a good cultural memory of what she was describing. She’s a very evocative writer; I found myself living in a Shropshire village through the seasons even though I’ve never been to Shropshire in any sort of weather.

It’s a good book; I don’t think I’d read it again except as a reference for some of the liturgical and monastic references, but I’m glad I’ve read it once. It flows very well, moving seamlessly between the garden and the history and the personal anecdotes. Especially if you like gardens, it’s one you should pick up.

 

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Ladies of Liberty, by Cokie Roberts

We hear a lot in the US about the Founding Fathers – the Revolutionary War heroes who wrote/signed the Declaration and the Constitution, who dedicated their lives to the country and shaped the nation we have today. We hear less about the Founding Mothers – the women who subsumed their relationships and sometimes their own preferences into the politics and struggles of the new country.  Oh, sure, we know a bit about Abigail Adams, maintaining a Massachusetts farm while her husband was creating a country, and Dolley Madison, who saved the portrait of George Washington during the War of 1812, and sometimes there might be a collection of biographical sketches of First Ladies – but there’s not even close to the depth of research given to the Presidents and other major male figures.

Cokie Roberts is trying to redress the balance with this book. It’s extensively researched and documented (as far as I can tell) without ever being dry and dusty (for more than a few sentences at least). Overall, she does an excellent job of bringing the women to life.

And it’s about more than just the First Ladies/White House hostesses. Obviously they make up a bulk of the book, being the female focal points of their respective administrations, and they are covered in detail during – and sometimes before and after – the relevant administrations (except for Elizabeth Monroe, who seemed to have been private and sick most of the time), but the book also covers the Ursuline nuns of New Orleans, the free black women societies who made huge strides in educational access, Theodosia Burr, and other wives, socialites, reformers, and writers of the first six administrations.

Structurally, it’s fairly straightforwardly chronological, with one chapter for each presidential term from John Adams until the election of John Quincy Adams. The women thread into and out of the book much as they would have in the national consciousness of the time – which can seem a bit chaotic but does give a sense of the real-time history. There were quite a few personalities that probably deserve their own biographies – and not just the obvious candidates like Abigail Adams, Louisa Adams, and Dolley Madison.

There were some timing coincidences for me during my reading. I’d just finished reading abut the War of 1812 in the book when one of my favourite podcast series had an episode about the Bombardment of Baltimore, and BBC History podcast had an episode about the War of 1812. And reading about Theodosia Burr made me want to reread Burr – and then I heard that Gore Vidal had died.

(I also wanted to reread The President’s Lady when Rachel Jackson came up, but she never played a big role in society and the book ends at John Quincy Adams’s election.)

This book definitely gave me a new/different perspective on key, well-known figures. I think of Thomas Jefferson, for example, as a man of refinement and education, so to see him derided as a sort of hick with no manners was a bit startling. (Not Cokie Roberts’s derision, I should point out, but public opinion at the time.) I also lost a bit of respect for Abigail Adams for her vehement support of the Alien and Sedition Act, the PATRIOT Act of its day, if not worse. I also found Louisa Adams incredibly fascinating and contradictory, and want to read more about her  (when I’m next in an early-America mood).

It’s not a book for American history beginners, and it was easy to put down – but it was also easy to come back to, and I definitely learned a lot.

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