Back to the Books

It’s been a while since I posted here at the pond about my reading endeavors. Over the course of Fall 2011/Winter 2012 I have managed to finish reading nine books from my reading list (25% of the list! Woot!), made progress on two others, and I read some non-listed books just for the heck of it. So without further ado, culled from the pages of my reader’s journal and from the depths of my noggin, I present some short reviews on what I’ve been reading.

Berries in the sun by E.A. Schneider

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathon Swift & Mistress Masham’s Repose by T.H. White

This was pure serendipity reading these two back to back since Mistress Masham’s Repose is basically T.H. White’s gentle take on the satirical novel, Gulliver’s Travels. I really enjoyed both books. Gulliver’s Travels is often above my head in terms of what is being satirized and it was more “Gee, that’s funny,” in my inner monologue rather than actually funny out loud. I don’t think I have ever before seen a more bare knuckles piece of satire on human kind than Swift’s novel. I am shocked that anyone ever though of it as a piece of children’s fiction unless it is abridged and heavily edited beyond all recognition for such an audience. Then again, a child might just focus on the adventures and exotic locales rather than all the grown-up references. I do not share Swift’s extreme misanthropy as depicted by Gulliver, at least most days of the week. Certainly though he is an apt observer of our worst particles of character even if he can think little of our virtues. I know I will re-read this again someday. There is much I wish to thoroughly understand about the text and what it references. I am especially keen to understand the science at play in Laputa, i.e. what Swift is mocking when he discusses the foolishness of the Laputian scientists. As you might guess, I found myself profoundly disliking the Rational Horses. I dislike their cold life without affection or passion, their lack of individual names or character beyond coat color. I despised their caste system that seemed basically self-imposed and self-perpetuated. If that is an idyll of life Gulliver thinks we ought to aspire to I disagree with him. I am content being somewhere between a yahoo and a Brobdingnagian in both culture and stature. For one thing I like opposable thumbs and articulated fingers. I like art, literature, science, and having a name that is my very own, which tells no one what I look like the way a name like “Sorrell Nag” does among the Rational Horses.  Reading T.H. White’s novel directly after Swift’s was a stroke of luck. It was good to share a laugh at some of Gulliver’s antics as well as enjoy the book discussion about his adventures, albeit with fictional characters, right after finishing Swift’s novel. I really admire White’s prose, his humor, his humanity, the realism of his children, and the gentle but insistent quality of his literary criticism of Gulliver’s Travels. White also found the Rational Horses to be a cold lot. Through the voice of the Professor he takes to task Gulliver’s criticism of the Laputian scientists. Why criticize the dreamers for dreaming outlandish things when every invention and contraption cherished today was once an outlandish idea? White captures the dignity of the Lilliputians-in-exile as well as the solemnity, trials, and triumphs of a lonely child trying to do the right thing by her little neighbors. I value White’s morals about imperialism and fairness, the way he slipped them into the story made perfect sense to the narrative. I think he certainly is the master of the tutor-child relationship. I like the scatty but lovably gruff figures he devises with the Professor (in Mistress Marsham’s Repose) as well as Merlin and the Priest (in The Once And Future King). Someday I would love to try to craft such a character myself. In the meantime, I’m glad that I read these two books and I look forward to re-reading them sometime.

Queen Anne’s Lace in Fall by E.A. Schneider

Alone Against Tommorow by Harlan Ellison

Can a book be called a pleasant slog? Perhaps a better word is “challenge.” I tend to favor short fiction anthologies because I can pick them up and put them down if I get busy. I also like the fact that if one story isn’t a blue ribbon piece there is hope for the next one being better. Every short story is an experiment to a greater or lesser degree; this lights my scientist bulb since I love analyzing what parts or techniques of a story work and how. Alone Against Tommorow promised to be a tough read based on the title alone. The entire premise of the anthology is to explore the theme of alienation in modern society using speculative fiction as the medium. I started reading this early in the summer of 2011 and only finished it at the end of December. It was a challenge, not only due to Ellison’s vocabulary and structure but also the basic fact that the stories were oftentimes sad, an emotional gut punch really, that more than once moved me to a sick stomach and a wet pair of eyes. Yet as odd as this is to say two of my favorite stories, “In Lonely Lands,” and “Blind Lightning,” were really sweet. Calling Harlan Ellison’s work “sweet,” sounds wrong somehow but it’s true that those particular stories struck me so. What a writer. I like his surreal moments among the most ordinary things. I like Ellison’s harsh cynical sense of humor. Ellison writes about individuals, isolation, torturous sacrifice, the apocalypse, cruelty, unfairness, estrangement, secrets, and mysteries using aliens, mutants, gods, and ordinary milquetoast men. It is a wonderful anthology. I’m glad I read it and I know that I will need to re-read it.

Fern in blue shadow by E.A. Schneider

All Alone in the Universe by Lynn Rae Perkins

This book deserves more commentary than I am equal to giving. All Alone in the Universe is a stellar book about friendship, connection, and what that means as we grow up. Perkins’ style is wonderful. It is direct, accessible, and funny. I like her heroine, Debbie, my heart hurt with her as she navigates the minefield of friendships in middle school. I definitely want to read more of Perkins’ work.

Birch bark by E.A. Schneider

One for the Money  by Janet Evanovich
Finally! I no longer feel like a lousy friend. Two of my girlfriends have been recommending the Stephanie Plum series to me for years and at last I have read the first book. The writing is snappy and salacious. The characterization, the settings, and the rhythm are all very solid and diverting. I can see why they are so popular. My favorite scene, Grandma Mazur shooting the roast chicken, actually got me to guffaw out loud. Stephanie Plum’s character arc is very satisfying. I like that she grows but every step is unglamorous and terrifying. Just like life. I particularly like that the arc of Stephanie Plum learning to use firearms was funny without being romanticized at all. By the end of the book I found myself glad that Stephanie was still sticking with being a bounty hunter. After all that work and pain and fight I would’ve been disappointed if she’d gone slinking off to the Macy’s makeup counter. The noir-ish vibe of One for the Money also made me smile. The next time I feel in the mood for a detective thriller I will definitely go to this series for my fix.

Leaves in the Sun by E.A. Schneider

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

This is a simply wonderful read. Sunshine is more similar to our contemporary world in certain details than the pastoral fantasy world of Damar featured in many of McKinley’s fantasy novels; it’s arguably sci-fi. There are cars and electricity but there is also a host of “others,” and magic. As usual with McKinley novels, I really loved and identified with the heroine, Rae Blaise/Sunshine. I love that Sunshine is a reluctant and cranky heroine, trying to survive with integrity and some humor. I liked her. She feels like a real person. The fact that the monsters are repeatedly, emphatically, and consistently described as monsters is also refreshing. Vampires are dangerous predators who will hunt, torture, and kill prey. They make human skin crawl in terror. There is no romantic fetishizing of vampires, no sparkles here. The one sympathetic vampire there is in the tale, wonderful character though he is, is unmistakably still a vampire. I really like that McKinley isn’t afraid to make that choice. I love how McKinley resists the temptation to provide too much exposition for every little thing or even some of the bigger things. Whatever price the reader pays in confusion is amply repaid by the pace and energy with which the story is told. You never have to leave the world in order to know how it works. I wish I were that talented of a storyteller. Reading McKinley makes me want to try though.  Sunshine also has a lot of quotable moments. Two of my favorites:

“Evil is a kind of oblivion, having destroyed everything on its way there.” –Sunshine by Robin McKinley

“What we can do, we must do: we must use what we are given, and we must use it the best we can, however much or little help we have for the task.” –Sunshine by Robin McKinley

Garden statue by E.A. Schneider

The Enchanted Castle by Edith Nesbit

This is an absolutely splendid book. I like the ensemble cast of children, the way they function as a unit of personalities. I like Nesbit’s higglety pigglety blend of magic and reality that culminates in the magic of reality. The story is transportive. I felt like a little girl again traipsing through fields of fancy and imagination as I read its pages. I found myself thinking of Allerton park in Illinois when imagining Yardly Towers. Allerton became a favorite place of mine over the last four years. I took hundreds of pictures of its grounds, magical pictures which I cherished, but now are sadly trapped in limbo on a busted hard drive I hope someday to repair. If you click the link you can get an idea of some of its components. The passages in The Enchanted Castle referring to the marble statues coming to life and frolicking about were my favorites. Who has looked at a statue in a garden, especially gardens such as those found at Allerton, without thinking to yourself: “What if they come alive?” And what better time could there be for such enchantment than the light of the moon? Of course I can’t ask a question like that without devising some answers. Some favorite options of mine include: rain on a sunny day, snow in August, or that moment on a clear sky afternoon when you look up and see the moon shining with a pale glimmer even as the sun beats down warmly on your limbs. Those times are also magical. I’m also fond of the moment when the wind suddenly shifts and your hair blows back. I don’t foresee a sculpture actually coming to life for that but maybe, if you look fast enough out of the corner of your eye, one might just smile. At any rate, I am thrilled to have read The Enchanted Castle. I look forward to reading more of her novels and exploring more of her enchanted realms. I think I’ll tackle the “Five Children,” trilogy chronicling the Bastable children’s adventures when I compose my summer 2012 reading list. C.S. Lewis loved to re-read the series and it is hard to find higher praise for a book than that.

One of the Chinese musicians of Allerton park by E.A. Schneider Doesn’t he look like he is laughing a little?

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

Several people recommended this book to me after my summer reading list got declared freshly pressed. It is a splendid read. The metamorphosis the heroine, Valancy, undergoes is beautiful. Trampled by family and social convention Valancy radically changes her life when faced with the prospect of only having a year left to live. The plot is incredibly contrived, culminating in a transparent wish-fulfillment fantasy of spinsters and lovelorn individuals all over. No doubt some people might see those aspects as defects. I say: no. Why would something entitled “The Blue Castle,” be realistic? I would be disappointed if it were. Although the exact details of Valancy’s tale are ridiculously improbable the steps she undertakes in her journey are not. It is perfectly probable that a person of such habits and potential, when faced with a very limited term on this Earth, would find the pluck to stand up and say “I’m not going to just exist—I’m going to find a way to live.” Valancy’s revolution of behavior and lifestyle is very satisfying high fun to anyone who is sick of sacrificing personality for politeness and social expectations. The romance that Valancy finds is realistic.  I like that Valancy and her beau swear, complain, and laugh at awkward moments. I like following the course of love blooming from friendship, common interests, and laughter. No love at first sight here. At best there is some lust at first sight but the love comes much later. This makes me ecstatic. Montgomery also does a lot of lovely nature writing that is shown in the text as a series of quotations and excerpts from the work of her character, John Foster. Let it not be counted as the least of The Blue Castle’s virtues that the tale made me laugh out loud repeatedly. I’m really glad my readers recommended this to me. It is a treat.

Blooming Violet by E.A. Schneider

The Deception at Lyme by Carrie Bebris

I am a huge fan of the works of one Jane Austen. I have read all her novels many times and will read them many more. Like all the best books, they have become dear friends and companions to me in times of joy and of sorrow. I know I’m not alone. Many people all over the world share this abiding love of Jane Austen’s novels, Carrie Bebris being one of my favorites. Bebris actually has the talent to turn her love of Jane Austen’s work into a career of mystery novels starring Mr. & Mrs. Darcy that are not only actually good but really rather fantastic. The Mr. & Mrs. Darcy series is the best kind of popcorn reading. It makes you think about the source material while reveling in the adventure at hand. I particularly love Bebris’ historical detail. The nuances of the time that Austen would never have thought significant to include are used by Bebris to create a rich world grounded in details. The dialogue between Mr. & Mrs. Darcy is fantastic. Bebris really captures the repartee and chemistry between these two in a way that feels authentically Austen, a triumph of verisimilitude. I have enjoyed all six books immensely, The Deception at Lyme, is no exception. Unfortunately, Bebris has now run out of Ausen’s published novels and I don’t know if she will continue the Mr. & Mrs. Darcy sleuthing adventures or not. I have to admit that I hope she strikes out on her own with the Darcys in a whole new adventure. As characters, Bebris’ Darcys are strong enough to carry a book on their own. I suppose Bebris could write a Mr. & Mrs. Darcy version of Sanditon or something based on Austen’s Juvenilia but I can’t help but hope that Bebris gives us Austenites something totally new. I am confident that she would do it well.

Fall blooms by E.A. Schneider

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