Friday, November 14, 2014

21. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This was recommended to me by ex-50 booker (though still fairly prolific reader) Buzby and since I am always on the lookout for Canadian "genre" authors, I went for it.  Also, it gave me an excuse to support a local sci-fi/fantasy bookstore in Toronto and it fits into my new trade paperback reading strategy.  Finally, it's a book that makes me feel contemporary and hip when I read it in public locations (in the train station, I carried under my arm in such a way that you could see the author's photo).  So many compelling reasons to read Station Eleven!

The book itself is definitely a page-turner.  It's an interesting hybrid of "genre" and "literary".  Mandel is walking the same path as Cormac Macarthy wrapping what are basically good stories of action and adventure in a package that will make it appealing to the medium-brow mainstream.  Station Eleven is a post-plague world without us novel that references pulpy graphic novels as a serious art form but is also an exploration of character and modern-day relationships.  One of the main storylines is of a band of travelling musicians in the rebuilding wasteland in conflict with a religious cult that has ninja forest skills, but it is told in non-linear fashion, interwoven with pre-plague narratives that slowly give us the backstory of various characters and weave the entire thing into an exploration of one particular character who dies before the plague even starts.

This hybrid form forced me to ask myself what I really like.  I feel like this is an honest effort and the author's understanding of comics, sci-fi and the dystopian sub-genre appear to be deep and personal, not just slumming it as we have seen with some mainstream literary authors (only to get skewered on the pen of Ursula K. Le Guin).  But in the end, I wasn't clear on what the point of this novel was.  It seems to be ultimately one of those meditations on character, where the narrative takes a back seat to the attempt at sharing some kind of "truth" with the reader.  That's a bit ungenerous on my part, as I think here it is more of a feeling about the worth of a life and how we impact each other in our interconnected world than a truth.  It was a pleasant book overall and left me with a nice feeling, but it also didn't live up to the promise of its premise.  When it was over, I felt that it was just over.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

20. Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart

I see now that several of her romantic
thrillers are published in this style. 
Collection addiction stimulated!
I'm very angry at myself, because I found this really nice copy in the dollar book bin in front of the same used bookstore where I bought The Deal.  This time, the owner was sitting on a stool just inside the doorway, writing prices on the inside cover of books from a new shipment.  The story is overcrowded at the best of times, but on this day there were so many stacks of books that I could not walk through without taking my backpack off.  Classic used bookstore owner.  But I digress.  I am angry at myself because after keeping the book safely on my shelf I stupidly put it into my jacket pocket when going out to a friend's house in case I got stuck with time to kill and no reading material.  And of course, the spine got bent.  I still have so much to learn about myself.

Anyhow, Wildfire at Midnight is a well-written thriller with a plucky and beautiful British heroine, which is undermined by a painfully sexist romantic demoument.  It was Stewart's second novel, written in 1956, so I can excuse the gender politics somewhat, but it was just so disappointing.  The heroine is a divorced model who decides to take a vacation in Skye, rugged Northern country that draws anglers and climbers.  When she gets to the isolated and charming country inn, after meeting an attractive local outdoors enthusiast on the boat ride over, she immediately discovers that her ex-husband is staying there.  She also learns that there has been a gruesome, ritualistic murder of a local girl on a nearby mountain.  What follows is a thriller as more murders happen and nobody staying in the inn is above suspicion.


The sexual politics that were so frustrating is that her ex-husband acts like a total dick the whole time, even to the point of being so aggressively creepy that she thinks he is the killer (and Stewart leads the reader into suspecting him as well).  Of course, it turns out that he isn't and he even sort of saves her and then there is this really terrible scene where he declares his love for her and she realizes she still loves him and its all suddenly hunky-dory.  The whole idea of being divorced is presented as an untenable choice throughout the book and that it is superior to marry the jerky manipulator than to just stay single even if you are a beautiful, smart, brave and hardworking woman.

The other disappointment was that the mystery of the murders wasn't complex at all.  There was no link between the murdered and the potentially interesting conflicts among the guests at the inn.  He was basically just a psycho.  So there was nothing for the reader to dig into and try and guess who or why was responsible.  Finally, I guessed it about halfway through because Stewart's double blinds were too obvious.  Again, only her second book and the descriptions of the locale (which I would love to visit) evocative and the characters rich.  And the psycho is into some old-school Wicker Man style paganism, which is cool.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

19. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

I follow some people on my Google+ feed who are big fans of gothic literature and it is from them that I learned of the Castle of Otranto, which is considered the first gothic fiction.  It turns out meezly had a nice paperback copy of it in her bookshelf (which is a growing source of potential good reads for me). 

This is a weird book.  It is far from gothic in tone.  It's actually quite absurd and funny.  Just to give you an idea, at the very beginning of the book, the sickly son of the Prince of Otranto, who is going to be strategically married to a neighbouring Duke's daughter, is killed by a giant plumed helmet that falls out of the sky.  What follows is a story of political and courtly intrigue as seen from the perspective of several characters. The Prince is the principal figure (to call him a protagonist does not capture what a maniacal asshole he is) and once his son is dead, he becomes obsessed with marrying Princess Isabelle (who was supposed to have become his daughter-in-law).  We also follow his wife and daughter, the priest (who shelters Isabelle) and a handsome, idealistic young foreigner.

The layout of the writing makes it difficult to read.  I don't know if it was this edition or that was the way it was orginally written, but there are paragraphs that last several pages, with back and forth dialogue and a lot of narrative all crammed in there.  Some of these passages, I suspect, are supposed to be quite humorous.  The dialogue involves one person repeatedly not getting to the point of what they said they were going to say while the other one keeps exhorting them to get to the point.  I found it tiring.  The action picks up in the second half and it ends up being somewhat enjoyable.

The gothicness of it is more in the themes and locations:  unknown birthrights, mysterious strangers, evil momarchs, the haunted castle, the catacombs underneath, a gloomy forest, etc.  I'm sure I am not doing justice to this book, as it is from the 18th century and has been studied extensively by scholars.  I'm glad I read it, though.