strange_complex: (Mariko Mori crystal ball)
One year ago, I embarked upon the project of recording in my LJ all the books I read and films I watched during the course of the year 2007. I'd written about things I'd read or seen fairly frequently before then, but had never done it systematically. I decided to start because I'd tried to look back over the books I'd read in 2006 when answering the end-of-year meme for that year, and was rather perturbed to find I could barely remember any. I didn't want the same thing to happen again, so the new year seemed like a good time to emulate many of my fellow bloggers in recording them all here.

One year later, I'm thoroughly glad that I did it. Looking back on the best of the bunch )

Quantities )

Content )

The blogging process )

So, here's to another year - and one with less middlebrow fiction, a postal DVD subscription and the occasional one-sentence film review.

strange_complex: (Tonino reading)
Read on the way to and from Verona.

I was given this book by one of my MA students when I left Belfast, which means that it's taken me two and a half years to get round to reading it - and even then it only really happened because my actual bedtime reading at the moment is rather large and unwieldy, and I wanted something light that I could fit in my bag on the plane.

The block was that I find fantasy hard to get into if it doesn't have a foot in the world I know. So Doctor Who, Harry Potter, The World of Chrestomanci, His Dark Materials etc. all suit me very well, because they all incorporate the world I actually live in into their universes. This excites me as a reader, because I feel as though the adventure I'm reading about could potentially happen to me, and it also means that I can be introduced to the fantasy world through the eyes of a character who is unfamiliar with it. Even in cases where the main character isn't actually from my world (most Chrestomanci books, HDM), they are at least generally an outsider in the world they are exploring, because they are a child, or haven't yet discovered their full potential - so the unfamiliar eyes effect is more or less the same.

Sabriel, by contrast, has a blurb which begins like this:
Sabriel is the daughter of the Mage Abhorsen. Ever since she was a tiny child, she has lived outside the Wall of the Old Kingdom - far away from the uncontrolled power of Free Magic, and away from the Dead who won't stay dead.
And even though a lot of people whose opinions I trust had told me it was a very good book, this had unfortunately really put me off. I saw no mention of journeys by ordinary children through magic wardrobes, mirrors, time-machines, vel sim - only a plague of Portentous Capital Letters, struggling to lend importance to things which I had no vested interest in. No thanks.

Now I've read the book, though, I'm in a position to say that this is a deeply unfortunate piece of marketing. Actually, it is rather good, and it meets my personal requirements from a fantasy novel a lot better than the blurb had suggested. No place in it is actually the world we know, but the very name of the kingdom of 'Ancelstierre' is a direct etymological equivalent of 'England', while its culture is a kind of 1920s-ish version of ours - rather like the non-magical culture in Chrestomanci's world (12a) in the Worlds of Chrestomanci books. And this is where the story (more or less) begins, and where Sabriel, the main character, has spent most of her life growing up - so that we do start out with something broadly familar, and our point-of-view character can play the role of unfamiliar outsider very nicely when she starts journeying into the wild and dangerous territory of the magical Old Kingdom (vaguely Viking / Scottish) beyond the border.

The language and style of the book isn't exactly high literature, but it isn't bad either - just fairly simple, direct and effective. The story was gripping, well-paced and very enjoyable to read, and Sabriel's character development very absorbing to follow. It certainly did the job of passing the time away nice and effectively while I was sitting around in airports.

There are quite a few questions left unanswered at the end of the book, like: What exactly was the 'blood price' that Mogget's true form wanted to extract from the Abhorsens? What would be the third of the three questions Sabriel could ask of her mother-sending within the current seven years? And what was Touchstone's real name? But I see that there are at least two sequels, so doubtless some of those will be answered there.

I'd definitely recommend this to anyone who likes fantasy literature, particularly if set in a bleak and dangerous landscape of snow, mountains and creeping dead things. It's not up there with the other series I mentioned at the beginning of this review, because it's a little more generic than most of them, and doesn't quite have the fine touches of detail and humour that they do. But still - a good read.

strange_complex: (Penny Farthing)
I read this book on the canal, and for a book group which has just started up at work. I'm actually not too sure how long I'll stay in the book group, for two reasons: 1) I didn't feel particularly drawn to any of the other people in it at our initial meetings, and 2) I was in a book group once before in Oxford, and ended up letting it drop because I read so slowly that as soon as I have to read one book a month for a group, I find that I have almost no spare reading time left over to read anything else that I want to read for myself. But I'll give it a proper chance for a few months, anyway. And in the meantime, I count myself better off for having read this as our first group choice.

It's basically the story of a terrible crime, told from the point of view of a nine year old boy who is slightly too young to really grasp the full enormity of what's going on, but nevertheless sees and discovers enough for an adult reader to put together the pieces which his narrative voice can't. This lends a great pathos to the story, because frequently it is quite clear to the reader that the entire quiet-if-impoverished lifestyle which he has known to date is about to be ripped apart - but he does not know this yet, and remains preoccupied with his childish hopes, fears and adventures as everything unfolds around him. I've rarely read a book which carries off a child's-eye viewpoint so convincingly and to such clever effect. The language used, the events emphasised, the emotions experienced, the narrow physical horizons of the story were all entirely those of childhood - and yet an utterly adult story was conveyed by them all the same.

Actually, given the child-like language especially, I rather wished that we were reading it in the original Italian instead of in translation, as I think that the short, simple sentences would have been at just the right level for me. Still, I can always read the Italian version for myself if I want to - and as I say, the English translation is well worth reading.

strange_complex: (Rick's Cafe)
I interrupted reading this book in July to read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in preparation for the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and then interrupted Half-Blood Prince in turn when I still hadn't quite finished it on release night. So for a while there, I had three books on the go at once, nested within each other - not something I normally do. I also actually finished reading it before going on our canal holiday, but just haven't had time to write it up before now.

Despite the interruptions, though, I enjoyed it very much, and didn't have any problem slotting straight back into the world of the novel when I returned to it. Greene manages to write with such compelling and convincing detail that the reader not only sees everything he describes, but feels it all as well. I'm sure I would recognise any of the characters from this novel if I met them in the street - and not only that, but I would feel as though I knew them intimately too.

I think my favourite aspect of his writing is the way his language manages to be fresh and unpredictable without getting pretentious or over-the-top. Here's a good example of what I mean:
Nine o'clock in the morning: he came furiously out into the passage; the morning sun trickled in over the top of the door below, staining the telephone.
There, the word 'staining' is surprising enough to make you notice it and think about it - but it's not intrusive or forced, because it also instantly makes you think "Yes. Yes of course, that's so right - that is what light does as it touches a dusty, half-shadowed surface." Plus it picks up beautifully on the themes of innocence and sin, shadowiness and scrutiny which run through the course of the novel. Incredible stuff.

I've yet to read a Greene novel I haven't liked, and will continue to work my way through his oeuvre as time goes on. To that end, I list here all of his novels which I've read so far, in the approximate order I read them, so that I can check back against it if necessary:
  • The Power and the Glory
  • The Human Factor
  • A Burnt-Out Case
  • Stamboul Train
  • The End of the Affair
  • A Gun for Sale
  • Brighton Rock
Still plenty to go, though!

strange_complex: (Chrestomanci slacking in style)
Thanks to this site, I have taken to reading short stories by Saki while eating my lunch-time sandwiches. I've enjoyed the odd Saki story in the past (my favourite probably being The Stalled Ox), but the Square Eye site offers the opportunity to read them systematically, collection by collection, so I have now read the entirety of Reginald - his first collection, published in 1904.

Reginald is cynically effete, and enjoys shocking the staider members of Edwardian society. He's the natural successor to Dorian Gray, though also beginning to nod a little in the direction of Bertie Wooster. I think my favourite story was 'Reginald's Choir Treat', in which Reginald is persuaded by a well-meaning vicar's daughter to take a group of choir-boys on their annual outing. Having set them to bathe in a local stream and sat upon their clothes, he proceeds to organise the naked boys, plus a handy nearby goat, into a Bacchanalian procession which he then sends singing and piping back into the village. "Reginald said he had seen something like it in pictures; the villagers had seen nothing like it in their lives, and remarked as much freely."

They're all good, though. Many are in fact more snippets from Reginald's conversations than stories as such. His interlocutors serve simply as audience and foil – sometimes they get as much of an identity as 'the Duchess', but often they are simply 'the Other' – while the real focus is Reginald's declamations upon society. They're also all very short, making them ideal lunch-time reading, as there is always a natural break ready for whenever you have finished your sarnie. I suspect reading too many in one sitting would start to cause ennui – as can also be the case with Wilde or Wodehouse. But the odd lunch-time visit is much to be encouraged, and I shall certainly be working my way through more of them.

strange_complex: (Penelope)
I read this book because a) it is about me my mythological namesake, b) my Mum bought it for me two Christmases ago, knowing that it would appeal to me for that reason, and c) I've always vaguely thought I ought to read something by Margaret Atwood.

It's basically Penelope's side of the story, as the title suggests. She is the narrator, speaking from the Underworld, and she tells us how she felt, what she knew when and why she did what she did from her childhood up to the return of Odysseus. There's a special emphasis on the twelve household maids which Telemachus hangs on Odysseus's orders at the end of Book 22 of the Iliad. In Homer, they've been rude and insolent to Eurycleia (Odysseus' childhood nurse) and Penelope, and have slept with several of the suitors. In The Penelopiad, they were Penelope's secret eyes and ears about the house, and most of them had been raped. So Atwood sets out to tell their side of the story, too - and in particular breaks up Penelope's narrative with a series of Greek-style dramatic Choruses, delivered by the maids in formats ranging from the ballad and the sea shanty to the idyll and the court-room trial.

Thing is, that's about it. That's the plot and structure of the book, it's all done perfectly plausibly and readably, and I really don't have anything much else to say about it. There wasn't really anything in it which surprised me, wowed me or challenged me. Well, there was one of the Maids' Choruses, done in the style of an anthropology lecture, where I had to grit my teeth a bit as I was presented with a reading of Odysseus' return as the over-throw of a matriarchal society led by Penelope - an interpretation which Atwood credits in her closing note to Robert Graves' famously *koff* 'creative' The Greek Myths. But apart from that, it was fine. Just fine. Did exactly what it said on the tin.

I suppose I was hoping for something a bit more epic and creative. Maybe the problem is that Penelope - much as I would wish otherwise - is not really the most exciting of characters. Atwood chooses to keep her basically in line with Homer's characterisation, apart from having hidden feelings and motives which Homer and his male characters overlook. So alternate possibilities like her becoming the mother of Pan are out of the window, and you're left with a pretty passive heroine, really - even if you do grant her intelligence that Homer doesn't.

Oh well - anyway, I've read it now. Whether I'll read more Atwood is likely to depend on whether anyone particularly persuasive attempts to talk me into it or not.

strange_complex: (Leptis Magna theatre)
When I originally set out to record all the books I'd read this year, I stated that this was not going to include my work-related reading. This book, however, I read during my usual bedtime leisure reading slot, and primarily for my own enjoyment - although with the obvious secondary motive of broadening my professional expertise as well - so it counts as sufficiently non-worky to be blogged.

Cut for length )

These are the nigglings of a professional, though - for any normal purposes, I'd whole-heartedly recommend this translation, and indeed the book. As for myself, I think my next move should be to seek out a decent rendering of what remains of Petronius.

strange_complex: (Lee as M.R. James)
Read partly because I love Clueless, of course, but also because I very much enjoyed reading Pride and Prejudice at school, and have enjoyed the odd film or TV adaptation of her books here and there since.

Like Pride and Prejudice, what I liked most about it is the range of character types depicted, and the way their interactions allow Austen to demonstrate and explore her themes of character and society. I guess you could argue that some of them are a bit one-dimensional in both novels - like the flirty Lydia in Pride and Prejudice or the aunt who can't shut up (Miss Bates) in Emma. But they're also very comically drawn, which makes up for it, and in any case the principal characters (again in both novels) are much more complex, and really do change and grow over the course of the stories.

My Mum was pretty surprised when, as a teenager, I expressed enjoyment over reading P&P (by contrast, I hated Jane Eyre). She'd had to read it at school too, and couldn't believe how vapid the concerns and conversations of all the characters in it were. She's forgiven Jane Austen more recently, and started reading some of her other books (I forget which), but reading Emma with that perspective in mind gave me a wry smile every now and then.

There's one chapter, for instance (ch. 34), almost entirely devoted to a conversation between several of the female characters about how Jane Fairfax should not risk her health by walking to the post office in the rain. (You would be amazed by how much conversational mileage they manage to get out of this topic.) Now, obviously, from a modern point of view that sounds ridiculous. A typical woman (or indeed man) today might very well walk to the post office in the rain, give a lecture, chair a meeting, write a report, deal with a friend's personal crisis and go out to a party in the evening, all on the very same day. But I think it was supposed to seem just a little absurd to Austen's contemporary female readers as well. It's a comic parody of gossipy socialite conversation, it reveals quite a lot about the characters of the people having it, and it also actually does have quite important plot resonances later on, when you discover the 'twist' about Jane Fairfax.

Talking of the plot, it was of course also interesting to read in the light of Clueless. The plots of the two aren't exactly the same, and nor is the cast of characters, so knowing the one gives you a rather bizarre half-knowledge of the other. I could tell as I read that Frank Churchill in Emma had been the inspiration for Christian in Clueless, for example - but I was pretty sure he wasn't going to turn out to be gay! On the other hand, I was instantly struck by how much the light, breezy narrative voice-overs from Alicia Silverstone in Clueless actually do match the tone of the authorial voice in Emma. OK, so what they're talking about is a little different, and Jane Austen is remarkably free of Californian high-school lingo. But sometimes, it really was as though I could hear Alicia Silverstone reading the words to me in my head.

In short, an excellent read, which has also made me appreciate Clueless all the more. I've got Sense and Sensibility waiting on my bookshelf, so I think it won't be too long before I'm pursuing my Jane Austen trail a little further.

strange_complex: (Tonino reading)
Very enjoyable. I think overall I slightly preferred Wintersmith, mainly because its story-arc felt better crafted - some the scenes in the Queen's domain dragged a little for me. But I like Tiffany all the more now, and I warmed to the Nac Mac Feegles over the course of this book in a way I hadn't with Wintersmith.

I'm also now in a better position to appreciate the genesis of the unity of setting which I noticed in Wintersmith. People who've read Hatful of Sky can put me right if necessary, but it looks to me now as though all the Tiffany / Feegles books do the same thing. And this is great, because I've always felt that Terry Pratchett is extremely good at writing landscape - not just as some hills or rocks, but as a quasi-living entity which shapes the people who live on it. The whole of the Discworld benefits from this, but focussing on the Chalk in the Tiffany books really gives him the opportunity to bring it out to a new level - and I think it is actually the thing I like about them most of all.

The motif of the picture on the front of Jolly Sailor tobacco packet has left me with a puzzle, though. I'm sure I've read some other children's fiction book in which a rather isolated near-adolescent girl derives solace from a similar rugged tobacco-pouch sailor, coming to think of him as 'her Hero'. He may even have appeared as a real person in some form towards the end of the book. But I can't for the life of me remember what this book might have been. All I can say is that it probably wasn't by Diana Wynne Jones, because feel that I read whatever-it-was quite some time ago. That rules out all but the Chrestomanci books, and none of them have the right kind of isolated female character at their centre. I've browsed my shelves, but can't see any clues - and might not anyway, as quite a few of my older books are in storage with my parents. Can anyone else enlighten me on this?

strange_complex: (Lee as M.R. James)
Amazon page here.

Not the sort of book I would normally read - it's a historical thriller, and proudly proclaims on the front that it was 'shortlisted by Richard and Judy's Book Club 2005'. Quality!

Nonetheless, I did read it, mainly because it was given to me for free at the Diana Wynne Jones day I attended in Bristol last summer, and also because the 'American boy' of the title is no less than Edgar Allan Poe. Like most people of a somewhat gothique persuasion, I spent far too much time reading Poe's poems and short stories while I was a teenager, so couldn't resist reacquainting myself with him through the pages of the novel.

Unfortunately, however, he is only a fairly minor character in it, and besides is a perfectly normal boy of about ten years old at the time the action of the story takes place (1819-20), more intent on avoiding his Latin prep, ice-skating and finding buried treasure (which, OK, is a bit Poe-ish) than obsessing over lost loves and the possibility of being buried alive.

The story was readable enough, but the book was very much plot-driven, rather than character-driven, and the plot was hammered home fairly heavily. In case readers were too stupid to pick up the various 'clues' scattered through the narrative, points of recap were offered every now and again to remind them. E.g. on p. 172:
"Dansey had an intuition, but it occurred to me that I had more substantial grounds for caution: the manner in which first Mr Frant and now Mr Carswall had entangled me in their affairs; the codicil that had cost Mrs Frant an inheritance; the mutilated cadaver at Wellington-terrace; and the severed finger I had discovered in David Poe's satchel."
The writing style was about as subtle, with metaphors repeated about three times each to ensure their significance was recognised. Oh, and the thing there in the extract with 'Wellington-terrace' instead of Wellington Terrace? Judging by an interview with the author appended to the back of the book, this is the result of a rather over-studied attempt at authentic early 19th-century language: "The book has a first-person narrative, and perhaps foolishly I wanted the language to be as authentic as possible." It was applied to every single street name in the book, and remained incredibly annoying the whole way through.

What did I gain from reading the book? Honestly, nothing much other than an undemanding wind-down at the end of each evening. Still, that's mainly what I want from my bed-time reading, so no complaints really. The book'll probably make its way to the charity shop before long, though - unless anyone here tells me they want it?

strange_complex: (Alessandro tear)
This book is generally spoken of on castrati mailing lists, message boards, etc. in glowing terms. It's the book everyone's supposed to read, the essential reference guide, the book Patrick Barbier's The World of the Castrati failed to supplant.

Well, I agree that Barbier's book could be better, but at least he cites his sources! Heriot just doesn't bother. At all. If you're lucky, he'll name an author, or maybe even a publication. But there's no need to assume that that author / publication will be listed in his bibliography. Half the time it isn't. As for specific page-references - forget it! Footnotes, as far as Heriot is concerned, are for crow-barring in tangentially-related stories he couldn't find a good place for in his main text.

There's also very little attempt at any meaningful analysis of the subject-matter. The text is descriptive, with the emphasis on anecdotes - in essence, what Heriot wants to do is tell us all the great stories about duels, diva-esque behaviour, sexual antics and partisanship in the theatre that he can get his hands on. That's OK so far as it goes, but it makes the lack of references all the more frustrating. He's obviously drawing on a wealth of amazing primary material to do all this, and he quotes quite a lot of it at length. But as a reader, you're never sure how much authority he has for his more generalising statements, and you'd be hard-pressed to follow any of the material up on your own account. Personally, I'd much rather just read a straightforward source-book.

Add to that the fact that what analysis there is is dated and simplistic. The castrati themselves get away more-or-less OK, but women get a very rough deal indeed. They are portrayed consistently either as air-headed, hot-tempered or simply naturally less able and professional singers than their male counterparts. And where I was in a position to compare his analyses of particular events with those of others - e.g. on the formation of the Opera of the Nobility in 1733, or the story of Sorlisi's marriage - I'm afraid I found them sadly lacking.

I don't regret reading it, because it is an easy reference point for the basic stories of most of the best-known castrati, it does at least give clues as to where one might find out more, even if not proper pointers, and hell - if you're in the mood for colourful anecdotes, it's a great read. But it really doesn't deserve its general reputation.

strange_complex: (Tonino reading)
Ever wise in the ways of both literature and livejournal, [livejournal.com profile] rosamicula today announced her intention to record the books she reads this year on her journal. Even more wisely, she states from the start that she will probably "record rather than review" most of them, neatly swatting aside the burdensome obligation to write pages and pages of intellectual analysis for every book.

On those same terms, I've decided to emulate her venture: mainly because I was shocked when recently filling out the 2006 question meme to find that I could barely remember a single book I'd read for leisure during the entire year, and don't want this to happen again.

This endeavour isn't likely to be terribly wearisome for the rest of you, since I'm an embarrassingly slow reader. My leisure reading mainly happens when I retire to bed at the end of a long day spent doing nothing but reading and writing, so I'm usually lucky to get through more than two pages a night before I fall asleep. I don't intend to record my work-related reading because that would be too much like, well - work - and my responses to it would be better channelled into my academic output anyway. So I'd be frankly astonished if there are more than twenty entries in this series by the end of the year, and in any case most are likely to be fairly short. But we'll see what happens as I go along.

So, without further ado: entry #1, Terry Pratchett's Wintersmith.

Cut, because this one's recent, and people are almost certainly still reading it )

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