16 September 2012

Old-school frantic catchup post.

So sometimes, I've got seven books waiting in my to-be-reviewed pile, and they all deserve a full write-up, but I've been horribly fatigued and ache-y for weeks again (the doctor thinks it's fibromyalgia), and it's just not going to happen. So rather than skip over the books, I'm gonna give them woefully short shrift in a "HERE I READ THESE I LIKED 'EM" post.

The Ugly Duchess, Eloisa James: I'll admit, while I connected to this latest entry in Eloisa's brill fairytale series on a gut-and-heart level, I found parts of the narrative kinda silly . . . i.e., the hero becomes a pirate for a while. But y'know, I feel like romance is best measured in emotional terms, and gosh I ached for the heroine, Theo, a super-smart lady who's heard from meanies all her life that she's ugly, her breasts too small, her features too large. Specifically, they say she "looks like a boy." (Yeah, this resonates like crazy, since I weathered the same insults for a good chunk of my own experience.) Her worst fears are realized when she learns that her childhood friend, James Ryburn, has married her to cover up his wastrel father's embezzlement of Theo's fortune. She throws him out, and hears nothing from him for seven years, when he barges triumphantly into the House of Lords during the proceedings to declare him legally dead--sun-browned, scarred, and savage. He's determined to prove to her that it wasn't just mercenary motives that led to his proposal, but there's bitterness and mistrust on both sides to overcome. I do like reconciliation plots in romance, but I kinda thought it was a tragedy that young, sweet James had to become so growly and alpha-male to win back his Daisy.

The Fantasy Hall of Fame, edited Robert Silverberg: A found-on-the-street coup, this is a mammoth (500+ pages) anthology of fantastic tales, selected in 1996 by the members of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. I'd only read two of the stories before--"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" (Borges) and "The Lottery" (Shirley Jackson), both of which obviously bear rereading; the rest cover fifty years of imaginative writing, wildly divergent in prose style and subject matter. A lot of the authors were new to me, particularly the early ones (H.L. Gold, L. Sprague de Camp, C.L. Moore), and many were familiar names who I shamefully haven't read but now must all the more: Poul Anderson ("Operation Afreet"), Peter S. Beagle ("Come Lady Death"), Gene Wolfe ("The Detective of Dreams"), Roger Zelazny ("Unicorn Variations"), Robert Silverberg ("Basileus"). Weirdly, it seems to be out of print, but super-easy to find used. Or waiting on the sidewalk for a sharp-eyed fiancé, a gift from the city!

A Contract with God and Dropsie Avenue: The Neighborhood, Will Eisner: Speaking of pivotal genre figures, Eisner's one of the pioneers of the modern graphic novel--heck, the biggest American comics award is named for him. Both these titles are set on a fictional Bronx street; Contract contains four related tales set in the 1930s, among the mostly Jewish, working-class denizens of a single tenement. Here I had my usual problem with sequential-art-lit, which is that I read it too dang fast, so it ends up feeling slight, which I hasten to blame on my own text bias and not the medium itself. I liked Dropsie Avenue more, finding its historical ambition and Tolstoy-numerous cast much easier to follow with the aid of art. It follows the street from 1870s farmland through urban growth and sprawl and decay and renewal, through successive waves of immigrants, each in term weathering bigotry from the established inhabitants until they become the establishment: Dutch, English, Irish, German, Italian, Jewish, Hispanic, African-American, Romani . . . the grand sweep doesn't keep him from telling tiny stories as well. It's a great work of historical fiction.

Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard, Arthur Conan Doyle: Between trying to kill off Sherlock Holmes in "The Final Problem" and resurrecting him by popular demand in "The Adventure of the Empty House," Doyle spent ten years writing these charming comic tales of by Etiénne Gerard, Napoleonic soldier of great bravery and mustache, who, like Harry Flashman's good twin, manages to meet a litany of important figures and be privy to the real stories behind what the historical record believes. Gerard is delightful, a wonderful mix of full of himself and genuinely courageous and skilled, and as Flashman's chronicler George MacDonald Fraser says in his introduction, it's subtly subversive that Doyle's hero is from the wrong side of the Channel, allowing him to satirize French and English alike--Gerard's oblivious misreadings of English sport are particularly hilarious. We've got the zillionth iteration of the Holmes-Watson pairing hitting CBS this fall; surely someone can spare the time to make a miniseries with Doyle's second greatest creation? I'd love to see Thomas from Downtown Abbey with luxuriant whiskers . . .

The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, Kathleen Alcott: Loved the writing in this first novel! It hits my literary-fiction sweet spot where the Big Themes (family, memory, identity) don't overwhelm the relentless and ephemeral details of everyday life and personality.

Among Others, Jo Walton: This having won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards this year, I feel confident in not belaboring the praise--sci-fi/fantasy is way better than literary fiction at deserved awards. It is, as fifteen-year-old Morwenna would say, brill, both a great fantasy in its own right and a paean to dozens of the best writers (several of whom appear in The Fantasy Hall of Fame), books, and short stories of the genre. Thank Zeus for the Internet--someone with more stamina than me has already compiled a list of every book mentioned!

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