- Terry Pratchett, Making Money: I was pleased to see Moist von Lipwig of the excellent Going Postal again, but I thought this lacked some of Going Postal's pizzazz. Ex-conman Moist has gotten bored with running the post office, so the Patrician offers him the job of running the royal mint. I didn't think Pratchett pulled the many plot threads together as well as usual, the setting wasn't nearly as good as the post office, with its ancient, whispering letters, and none of the new characters were tremendously interesting (especially the villain, who hadn't a patch on Going Postal's Reacher Gilt). Slightly substandard Pratchett is still entertaining, mind you, but this definitely isn't one of his best.
- Eva Ibbotson, A Company of Swans, The Morning Gift: Here's another pair of Ibbotson's romances, republished as YA; both were new to me. A Company of Swans has a lovely ballet background and a lush South American setting which I enjoyed, but the plot was hindered by the overuse of the Big Misunderstanding (not just once, but multiple times). The Morning Gift, which features a girl escaping from the Nazis via a marriage of convenience, was rather better in this regard, and I loved the natural history and paleontology as well as the beautifully realized and moving historical setting.
- Naomi Novik, Empire of Ivory: I loved His Majesty's Dragon, the first in this series, and liked the second and third books, although I felt that they had pacing issues. This book does, too; it starts very slowly with Laurence and Temeraire's return to England and discovery that all of England's dragons have fallen gravely ill with a mysterious illness. It's clear fairly early on that Laurence and Temeraire will have to go in search of a cure, but it takes an awfully long time to get them on their way to Africa. Once in Africa, things move more quickly, and Novik does some enthralling worldbuilding; the Africans and their dragons are very different from their European counterparts. Warning: the book ends on quite a cliffhanger, though that didn't bother me particularly.
- Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere, Stardust: In Neverwhere, after he stops to help a mysterious girl he finds hurt on a London sidewalk, hapless Richard Mayhew is plunged into an adventure in London Below, the fantastic city that lies beneath the real London. I loved the marvelously realized setting and assured, witty writing, but I found the plot and particularly the people not so engaging; most of the characters felt pretty flat, and the plot didn't have a lot of zing to it. Stardust (which is a reread) is better, although I still feel that its setting and writing are the best things about it. I don't recall especially feeling like that about American Gods or Anansi Boys; maybe I should reread them.
- Winifred Holtby, South Riding: I had been meaning to get around to reading this for ages, and now I'm sorry I waited so long. Holtby takes a community in Yorkshire and, using the framework of its local government, builds up a narrative which tells the stories of many people in the community, all intertwined. It reminds me a good deal of George Eliot in the organic feel of the community, how decisions and events affect everyone, and of Elizabeth Gaskell in the concern for social issues. The characterization is simply brilliant; there are a lot of characters, but I never once lost track of who was who nor forgot anyone's particular plot thread. Fortunately, Virago has reprinted at various times all of Holtby's other novels, which I will be tracking down soonest.
- Robert Charles Wilson, Spin: One night when teen Tyler Dupree and his friends Jason and Diane Lawson are out stargazing, the stars suddenly go out. Mysterious forces have erected a shield around the planet and enveloped it in a time discontinuity which causes billions of years to pass outside the shield while only thirty or forty go by inside. I thought this was very good, with an excellent balance of plot coolness and character development, though the second half drags a bit. Oddly, though, I find that I don't really care about reading the sequel, Axis, which came out recently; I got it from the library, read the blurb, and was struck with an attack of not-caring.
- Shannon Hale, Book of a Thousand Days: Dashti is a mucker girl, a child of the nomads of the steppes, who commits to becoming the maid of Lady Saren, sentenced by her father to be imprisoned for seven years in an isolated tower for refusing to marry the man he's picked out for her instead of the suitor she prefers, and then narrates, through a journal she keeps throughout the time she and Saren spend together. Dashti's voice is marvelously engaging, and I liked the relationship she establishes with Saren, who's so traumatized by her experiences as to be verging on disabled (though there are hints of recovery at the end), and also her romance with one of Saren's suitors, which is very nicely developed.
- Jo Walton, Farthing, Ha'penny: I read Farthing last year and thought it was brilliant. On rereading it, I still think so, and Ha'penny is just as good. Farthing's plot was a country-house mystery; I would call Ha'penny more of a suspense thriller, and full of suspense it is, right up to the explosive ending.
It follows on quite shortly after Farthing: Inspector Carmichael has just come off the Farthing case and has been assigned to a bombing which killed leading actress Lauria Gilmore. Viola Lark has been chosen to act Hamlet in a gender-switching production of the play, in which Gilmore had also been cast until her untimely death. As Carmichael investigates the bombing and ponders retirement from the police force, Viola is drawn into a plot to kill Hitler at the opening night of the play, along with Prime Minister Mark Normanby, the lead figure in the increasingly fascistic government.
As in Farthing, Walton alternates voices chapter by chapter, between Viola's first person and Carmichael's third, and both are equally absorbing; I especially liked the reflections of Viola's mental state in her role as Hamlet, as she wavers about her involvement in the plot and treads the edge of sanity. As England slides further and further into fascism, Walton's alternate history, always convincing, becomes more and more frightening. I can hardly wait until Half a Crown to see how she resolves it.
(Also, as someone very interested in the Mitford sisters, I really liked Walton's use of them as a basis for Viola and her sisters. They're not exact analogues by any means, but there are clear parallels. Also also, now I really want to see this production of Hamlet.)
- Sarah Dessen, Keeping the Moon: Eek, I'm out of Dessen now! Good thing she's got another book coming out next spring.
Anyway, in this one, Colie Sparks is spending the summer with her eccentric artist aunt Mira in the small town of Colby in North Carolina, while her fitness guru mom tours Europe. Colie has never fit in -- first, because she was fat, then when she lost the weight, because of a bad reputation she didn't deserve -- and she doesn't expect to fit in here. But she unexpectedly gets a waitressing job and makes some friends, who help her see that maybe she's not as hopeless as she thinks. There are a lot of great characters, as always; I liked the friendships (between Colie and the other two waitresses) even more than the fairly understated romance. Dessen manages not to be at all preachy, which is nice, as this kind of theme can easily become dull or sappy; even Colie's perky mom is a real person, not just a dieting-and-exercise parrot.
- Margaret Forster, Keeping the World Away: Forster begins with painter Gwen John and a painting, painted while John lived in Paris and had a tempestuous affair with Auguste Rodin. (The painting in Forster's book isn't this exact one, of course, but a fictional early version.) Gwen gives the painting away to a friend, and Forster traces the painting through various owners, through over a century. I liked the book, but not as much as some of Forster's others (Lady's Maid and Diary of an Ordinary Woman). The portrayal of women's roles over the years was nicely done, but the viewpoint changed too much for my taste; I'd get interested in one woman, and bam, the picture would be passed along and her section would be over. I did like how Forster used the painting as a reflection of each woman's feelings, how each would see in it different emotions and meanings depending on her own situation. Still and all, I have been happier if the book had concentrated more on fewer viewpoint characters (especially Gwen John herself).
- Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph: This was Kennedy's second novel, and easily her most famous, a bestseller also made into a very successful play and movie. The title character is Teresa (Tessa) Sanger, daughter of bohemian musician and composer Albert Sanger, whose large family lives in the Austrian Alps. They have frequent visitors to their small chalet, including gifted composer Lewis Dodd, with whom Tessa falls in love; since she's only fourteen, though, she has to wait until she's older. Unfortunately, in the meantime, Lewis marries Tessa's beautiful, assured cousin Florence, who has come to help the family when Tessa's father dies. I think I'd have enjoyed the book more if I hadn't disliked Lewis so; I think his brilliance is supposed to be sympathetic, but I just felt sorry for everyone he came in contact with. I did like Sanger's vivid family and their eccentric lifestyle, and particularly Tessa, who's very engaging and not too consciously naïve; the settings are equally vivid, and the plot whirls along nicely. On the whole, though, I enjoyed Kennedy's Troy Chimneys more.
- Winifred Holtby, Poor Caroline: Caroline Denton-Smyth is an eccentric do-gooder, who dreams of reforming the film world through the Christian Cinema Company. She draws in a group of very different people with very different aims to work on her project, and Holtby observes them each in turn. Poor Caroline is a mix of satire and pathos, an interesting mix though I thought sometimes uneasy, with characters as sharply observed as in South Riding, on a smaller scale.
- Neil Gaiman, Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders: Okay, maybe it's just that I'm really not a short story person, but too many of the stories and poems here didn't grab me. Several are excellent -- the Lovecraft-meets-Conan-Doyle "A Study in Emerald", the very funny "Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire", the bittersweet "October in the Chair", and the American Gods-related "The Monarch of the Glen" (which I'd read before) -- but others simply feel sketchy, like the germ of a good idea not sufficiently filled out. (Again, I suppose this could be my preference for longer fiction.) However, the book was certainly worth reading for the stories I liked; I'll just know which ones to skip next time.
- Scott Westerfeld, Extras: I hate to say it, but I found the title a little too apropos. Extras is a fourth book in what was originally a series, and I don't think it adds a lot. After the events of Specials, the world has changed quite a bit, and everyone is figuring out how to replace the previous culture. (I'm trying not to spoil the first three books here, if I possibly can.) In Aya Fuse's city, the thing is popularity, or "face rank" -- whoever is the most famous has the most power. Aya is way down the face rank list, but she hopes to spring a news story which will rocket her to stardom. When she uncovers far more than she dreamed, she's rocketed into danger instead, and an adventure which might change the world again. Maybe, as with So Yesterday, I just don't care about faddishness or popularity enough to make the basic concepts here especially fascinating, particularly not when compared with the Uglies/Pretties/Specials concept, nor did I think the new characters as complex as the original characters. Tally and a few others from the previous books do play a part, and there's some interest in seeing her from a new point of view, but honestly, if there had to be a fourth book, I'd just as soon have followed Tally, David, and Shay.
- Cornelia Funke, Igraine the Brave: This is a charming but rather slight tale of a girl who wants to be a knight and must save her family from an evil wizard, set in a fairly generic fairy tale setting. I liked the spunky heroine, but I think I should stick with Funke's YA books; her books for younger readers don't quite hold my interest (I felt the same way about Dragonrider).
- Rachel Kadish, Tolstoy Lied: University professor Tracy Farber disagrees with Tolstoy's famous beginning of Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Is only unhappiness interesting, she wonders? Cannot a happy person have a story worth telling? Her thesis is tested out in her personal and professional life as she gets romantically involved with a new man and fights for job tenure. Given the premise, one does have to expect a happy ending, but the way Kadish gets there is absorbing and not too predictable, and I liked her characters and the academic setting a lot.
- Joyce Ballou Gregorian, The Broken Citadel, Castledown, The Great Wheel: When eleven-year-old Sibby breaks into an old, mysterious house, she enters a window to another world, which she is fated to visit three times over the course of her life, each time becoming more and more entwined with its people and its conflicts. The excellent worldbuilding is particularly of note; occasionally I wanted Gregorian to unpack it a little more, as I sometimes felt I wasn't quite getting all the allusions, but even that speaks to just how fully the world is imagined. The characters are equally rich and developed over the course of the books, and I loved how Gregorian handled the unpredictable and wonderful romance. Each book has a fairly self-contained and resolved plot of its own, but there are overarching characters and story arcs which carry on throughout, so I wouldn't recommend reading them independently of each other. I'd definitely recommend reading them, though, if you can find them all; they're out of print, and it took me a while to track all of them down. (Thank goodness I waited until I had all of them to read them, in fact.)
- Sarah Monette, The Bone Key: My god, this was a good book to read on Hallowe'en. Almost too good, in fact. I finished reading it in daylight, but the atmosphere it created was with me well into the evening.
Kyle Murchison Booth is a museum archivist, bookish, erudite, awkward, and painfully shy. After a reluctant experiment with necromancy, in the collection's first story, "Bringing Helena Back", he finds that he has opened the door to the world of the supernatural, beginning a series of encounters which will bring him into contact with ghosts, ghouls, demons, and the mysteries of the human soul. The stories are all excellent -- subtle, witty, atmospheric, and quietly bone-chilling -- but it's Booth himself whose presence pulls them together and makes them remarkable. He could choose to ignore the odd events around him (some of them, anyway -- some demand his attention), but he can't; his compassion for others and most of all, his deep need to know and understand compel him to investigate the mysterious happenings around him.
I wasn't sure I'd like The Bone Key, as I'm not generally a fan of horror or ghost stories, but I was willing to give it a try because I love Monette's other books. I'm very glad I did. Once I started, I couldn't stop; I wanted to draw the stories out longer, but I couldn't tear myself away, even when I told myself it would be nice to save some for this evening to read while waiting for trick or treaters. If I had to pick out favorite stories, I would say "The Venebretti Necklace", which has a wonderful secondary character among other virtues, or "Elegy for a Demon Lover", which brought tears to my eye, but honestly, they're all absorbing.
Also read this month:
- Joan Aiken, A Cluster of Separate Sparks (reread)
- Maeve Binchy, Scarlet Feather (reread, and more rereadable than I thought it might be)
- Dante, The Divine Comedy, La Vita Nuova (tr. Mark Musa, Penguin edition called The Portable Dante)
- Alexandre Dumas, The Black Tulip
- Margaret Gaskin, Blitz: The Story of December 29, 1940
- Patricia Kennealy, The Silver Branch, The Copper Crown, The Throne of Scone (rereads)
- Nigel Nicolson, Virginia Woolf (reread)
- Elizabeth Peters, The Copenhagen Connection (reread)
- John Scalzi, Old Man's War (reread), The Ghost Brigades (reread), The Last Colony
- Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (favorite reread)
- Elizabeth Taylor, In a Summer Season
- Stella Tillyard, A Royal Affair: George III and His Scandalous Siblings
- Jo Walton, The Prize in the Game (reread), The King's Peace, The King's Name (rereads): Gosh, these are good, even better than I remembered them.
- Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, The Waves
Total books read this month: 44
Total books read this year: 369
Last updated 17 December 2007.
All text and photographs © George Mitchell and Margaret Johnston, unless
Comments, questions, suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.