June 2009 Archives

C Kris Read

The Changeover by Margaret Mahy
fantasy, young adult
What I love most about this story about a girl who becomes a witch to save her brother the way the heroine wakes up to the world throughout the book. Everything develops identity and importance, even telegraph poles and toasters.

"Every telegraph pole stood centred on a single leg gathering wires up, looping them over little stunted arms, and Laura felt her way into being a telegraph pole, or a roof rising to a ridge and butting against itself. The Baptist church squared its concrete shoulders, its doorway touching its own toes, carrying a great weight of square, white blocks on its bent back."

And a brief warning: every edition of The Changeover is cursed with a terrible cover. Don't be fooled by it. It is your protection against people borrowing what will come to be one of your favorite reads; my own copy has a worse cover than most, which is the only way I've been able to hang onto it for fifteen years.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

I don't actually know if this book is considered a classic. Probably not. It's a Penguin Classic though, so that's good enough for me. I'd recommend this to anyone who's ever been annoyed by the lowering, hyper-sexualized landscapes of D.H. Lawrence. The novel is set in a similar landscape, the titular Cold Comfort Farm, where the Doom family has been breeding and hating and generally mucking things up for one another for generations. Enter the sensible Flora, who comes in asking politely for hot water and a reliable tea time and goes around tidying everyone up. She is a delight. This is also nice when the dust bunnies in your house have turned into dust Bunniculas and you need some inspiration to make you clean. Also, it's very funny.

"'Aye...woman's nonsense,' said Seth softly. (Flora wondered why he had seen fit to drop his voice by half an octave.) 'Women are all alike -- ay fussin' over their fal-lals and bedazin' a man's eyes, when all they really want is man's blood and his heart out of his body and his soul and his pride...'

'Really?' said Flora, looking in her workbox for her scissors.

'Aye.' His deep voice had jarring notes which were curiously blended into an animal harmony like the natural cries of a stoat or weasel. 'That's all women want -- a man's life. Then when they've got him bound up in their fal-lals and bedazin' ways and their softness, and he can't move because of the longin' for them as cries in his man's blood -- do you know what they do then?'

'I'm afraid not,' said Flora. 'Would you mind passing me that reel of cotton on the mantlepiece?'"

Come Play With Me by Margaret Hillert, illustrated by Kinuko Craft
children's, poetry
It's Craft's magnificent, eerie, slightly hippie illustrations that make this book so wonderful. Hillert's poems are very, very basic but Craft's pictures set your brain on fire. My favorite page reads:

"I like to help my mother work.
My mother likes it, too.
I like to help my father work.
Here's something I can do."

But the illustration is a gorgeous winged woman with her antenna-sporting child collecting the stars from the sky and putting them into a flower petal basket. Okay, it's a little twee. But it inspired many games of pretend when I was a child and I will not hear a word against it.

The Complete Saki by Saki, aka H.H. Monro
humor, literature
This should probably go under "S" instead of "C," but whatever.

"'Some one who Must Not be Contradicted said that a man must be a success by the time he's thirty, or never.'
'To have reached thirty,' said Reginald, 'is to have failed in life.'"

You'll love Saki's wry, fey irony if you like Oscar Wilde. And speaking of...

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde
literature, plays
I actually hate having all my Wilde in one volume. When I lived in my studio apartment and found myself alone of an evening, I would sometimes make tea and cucumber sandwiches and curl up to re-read The Importance of Being Earnest. But now I've got this great big book which refuses to be curled up with -- I should never have sold my individual Earnest. Still, it's nice to have access to Wilde-ian works I probably wouldn't own otherwise.

B is for Book

A Bad Spell in Yurt by C. Dale Brittain
This is the first in a six-book series of books about a hapless (and poorly dressed) wizard named Daimbert. They're filled with the kind of cocoa humor that makes you warm and cotton-headed rather than making you laugh. There's nothing in here to shake you out of your quiet evening: just a pleasant little kingdom, filled with nice folks and innocuous mystery plots, where you can snuggle into Daimbert's cozy study with roses climbing over the window and a fire crackling in the hearth. I like this book because nothing really happens.

"[It] was a shapeless red velvet pullover, with some rather tattered white fur at the neck. It might have been intended to be part of a Father Noel costume. I was entranced. 'I'll take it! [...] It will help me strike the right note of authority and mystery.'"

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
You know how English clergymen are really entertaining? I mean -- not at all, really. But Trollope's six book series about the residents of a fictitious cathedral town manages to be an extremely fun read. If you like nineteenth century romances. Barchester Towers is the second book in the series and my favorite because it deals with the peerless Eleanor Bold and the exceptionally awful Obadiah Slope (think Mr. Collins but even more unctuous). Plus, I don't know whether you like saying "vicar" as much as I do, but here's your chance.

"His face is of nearly the same colour as his hair, though perhaps a little redder: it is not unlike beef -- beef, however, one would say, of a bad quality."

Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast by Robin McKinley
fantasy, young adult
Yet another book about a girl who loves to read -- are you starting to see the theme here? In McKinley's version, Beauty is an ungainly, unattractive, shy girl with spots who is given her nickname as a fond family joke. The difficult part of the story -- how a loving father could ever sacrifice a daughter to the Beast -- is smoothed over by the Beast's gentlemanly behavior to the father at their first meeting. After that the story goes on for several chapters about the delights of living in an enchanted castle and winds up in the proper way.

"'Rudyard Kipling,' I said in despair. 'This is a name? I've never heard of any of these people [...] What's wrong?'
'Nothing is wrong,' said the Beast. [...] 'Most of these books haven't been written yet. [...] But don't worry, they will be.'"

The Book of Jhereg by Steven Brust
This contains the first three books in the Vlad Taltos series which chronicles the adventures of a young assassin for hire in one of the most original fantasy worlds I've ever encountered. This is definitely not based on medieval England, or anything I've read about. I used to read them when I was a kid and then spend the afternoon pretending to be an assassin with my own flourishing assassinary business. Now I read them and wish I was a kid so I could play it some more.

"'He wants to meet with you. [...] He set it up for two hours past noon, tomorrow.'
'After noon?'
Kragar looked puzzled. 'That's right. After noon. That means when most people have eaten lunch, but haven't eaten supper yet. You must have come across the concept before.'
I ignored his sarcasm. 'You're missing the point,' I said, flipping a shuriken into the wall next to his ear.
'Funny, Vlad -- '
'Quiet. Now, how do you go about killing an assassin? Especially someone who's careful not to let his movements fall into any pattern?'
'Eh? You set up a meeting with him, just like the Demon is doing.'
'Right. And, of course, you do everything you can to make him suspicious, don't you?'
'Uh, maybe you do. I don't.'
'Damn right you don't!'"

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Long Way Home by Joss Whedon
comics/graphic novels
Buffy the TV series ended with a good solid bang (I'm referring here to the distribution of slayer power, not whatever may have happened with Spike in the basement), but if you are a Buffy addict you always want more. Enter the Buffy comics, which contain all the snappy dialogue and lighthearted relationships of the early TV seasons and (so far) very little of the make-you-want-to-defenestrate emotional vortexes of the later seasons. Plus, it's all drawn instead of real, so Xander is skinny again. Although Willow still inexplicably dresses like a Ren Faire reject.

Amy puts Buffy into a mystical coma that can only be broken by the kiss of true love...
Xander: "So this doesn't have to be someone she's in love with."
Amy: "No, I said. Just someone truly in love with her."
Xander: "But not friend-love."
Amy: "Right. Someone who wants to kiss her, like, they're passionate about her."
Xander: "And not a sister."
Amy: "Well, a twisted sister..."
Xander: "HA! But no, I hate you."

Bringing their "A" games

Today I begin my review of my top 100 books...

Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce
fantasy, young adult
A girl disguised as a boy sneaks into knight training school and dominates on behalf of her gender. This is the first in a four-book series notable for its beautifully three-dimensional heroine who likes fighting and riding and saving damsels and also likes wearing dresses and having sex.

"The gods willed you to be female and small and redheaded, and obviously silly as well."

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
fantasy, young adult
A little girl falls down a rabbit hole into what is either a hallucinogenic drug trip, a political satire or simply a weird children's story. (In Looking Glass, she goes through a mirror into a giant chess game.) Filled with quirky poetry, talking animals and a series of size problems for Alice that really resonate if you're the tallest kid in class, Alice is one of those books you can read for the first time when you're six and go on reading until you're a senior citizen.

"The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright --
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night."

Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia McKillip
This is a fantasy novel about a tall woman who works in a library, falls in love and (in her spare time) saves the world through reading. I'm not sure I need to explain any further why this book made my list. I also love McKillip's prose style, which is rich but never swamped with detail, not unlike the Kinuko Craft covers on her books.

"Within these stones she had grown her weedy way into a young woman, long-boned and strong, able to reach high shelves without a stool."

American Gods by Neil Gaiman
magical realism
What happens to a god deferred? According to Gaiman, they dwindle into undertakers, prostitutes, barflies and card sharks. American Gods presents a remarkably believable portrait of the American diaspora of the world's forgotten gods. This is at least partly due to the protagonist, Shadow, who passively slides through the underworld of gods, allowing the reader to slip into his mind and be present in the story more easily than we could with a more invested hero. Plus, gods who have to get jobs? Cool.

"'Call no man happy,' said Shadow, 'until he is dead.'
'Herodotus,' said Low Key. 'Hey. You're learning.'
'Who the fuck's Herodotus?' asked the Iceman [...].
'Dead Greek,' said Shadow.
'My last girlfriend was Greek,' said the Iceman. 'The shit her family ate. You would not believe. Like rice wrapped in leaves. Shit like that.'"

Amphigorey by Edward Gorey
comics/graphic novels, humor
The first of four volumes of Gorey's work, Amphigorey contains some of my favorite pieces, like "The Doubtful Guest," "The Curious Sofa" and "The Gashlycrumb Tinies," Gorey's hilarious alphabet of horrific child deaths. ("A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil, assaulted by bears...") It also contains "The Unstrung Harp," the story of a writer who struggles with his latest book. I often consult TUH in times of blockage.

"Mr. Earbrass has been rashly skimming through the early chapters, which he has not looked at for months, and now sees TUH for what it is. Dreadful, dreadful, DREADFUL. He must be mad to go on enduring the unexquisite agony of writing when it all turns out drivel."

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
young adult
This is a book about a chatty girl with imagination issues: it resonated. Everyone remembers the story of Anne, the plucky redheaded orphan who transforms the already idyllic town of Avonlea into an even more idyllic town, but you might be surprised if you pick this up again as an adult. Anne will reward your visit. And if you just can't get enough of her, there are seven more books in the series, plus countless similar heroines to be found in Montgomery's bibliography. Just remember to skim over the endless purple descriptions of Prince Edward Island scenery or your eyes may explode.

"I'm awfully sorry I ever criticized his prayers. I believe now he really does mean them, only he has got into the habit of saying them as if he didn't. He could get over that if he'd take a little trouble. I gave him a good broad hint."

Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins
magical realism
Moving about as far from pure-minded Anne as possible, we come to one of Robbins' greatest novels. This book has all the delirious, joyful, drug-addled prose one expects from Robbins, but avoids his frequent mistake of devolving into boring speculations about the inner lives of inanimate objects or conspiracy theories involving the pyramids. The heroine, Amanda, is one of the sexiest characters in literature, despite (or maybe because of) her marriage to fellow carny weirdo John Paul. Read this book when you feel like having sex on a roller coaster.

"Marriage is not a synonym for monogamy any more than monogamy is a synonym for ideal love [...]. A strange spurt of semen is not going to wash our love away."

On sale now!

Anyone pining for the long-distant giant SF library sale in September will be thrilled to hear that the library's expanded to a second annual sale which is going on this very weekend. The sale is smaller than the tried-and-true version but contains over 75,000 books, enough to fill an entire high school parking lot. There's some gorgeous stuff there, and with Michele and Christine's help I found several as-new hardback copies of beautifully illustrated children's classics for my niece. If you're in the Mission and looking for something to do, I recommend checking it out.

More info.