Sunday, January 31, 2010

Suzanne Collins: Catching Fire

My youngest daughter got a book from The Sisters Grimm series for Christmas and liked it, and eager to encourage this reading business I bought her the next two online, and couldn't resist buying The Hunger Games and the sequel, Catching Fire, for myself. Was very happy. Dove in immediately.

As with all sequels there is a slight tendency to be repetitive, but it's not too bad. Katniss is trying to settle back to her life after the Games, and work out if she loves Peeta or her old friend Gale, or no-one. However, she starts to discover that she is hailed as a frontperson for the new rebel movement, and needs to choose whether she wants to step up to that responsability or run. This becomes even harder when the Games celebrate an anniversary, and she and Peeta are forced to enter the Games again.

I was calmer about it this time, and can see some definite weaknesses, but I still love these books and look forward to the next.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Diana Wynne Jones: The Dark Lord of Derkhelm

The library didn't have that much by Wynne Jones that wasn't part of a series, so this was all I got. I enjoyed it, and it could, potentially, make a very interesting and slightly dark film, a bit Gaimanesque.... but it could also be completely ruined by a filmmaker, so I dunno... I'm thinking that a film could/would/should edit out some of the longer passages that get a little slow. (However, mustn't be too critical, she writes for kids).

A world of magic is held hostage by a businessman from another world (ours?) who forces them to arrange fantasy tours every year, something that disrupts everything. They're finding it harder and harder to bounce back from the havoc these tours wreck. By selecting the "wrong" people for key posts they hope to sabotage it enough to make the businessman uninterested and go away. Instead the effects become more far-reaching. Good, funny, sometimes disturbing. It'd be nice if she developed the darker bits more.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Annie Proulx: Fine Just The Way It Is

I'm falling behind, so I'm going to post briefly about the books I've read over the next few days. The posting, not the books. The books have been read, they're not going to be. Oh, you know what I mean.

This was my other Christmas book from my husband, and I, of course, liked it a lot. By now it's been weeks since I read it so I can't remember which short story was my favourite, sadly, but I do remember that my least favourite were the "funny" ones on the "Satan redecorates Hell" theme. Oh, now I remember my favourite, a really sad story about two youngsters at the end of the 19th century who get married and plan this great life in their remote cabin, and then it's all ruined. It's like a memorial over all those people in history who where nobodies and have never been remembered - only buried, if they're lucky. Very moving.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Michel Faber: Under The Skin

At long last, the last of my birthday books! I settled in expectantly to this story about a woman who daily cruises the roads of Scotland, obsessively picking up male hitch-hikers - if they meet the right physical specifications. Why, one wonders, and to tell you even a little bit of the because is to spoil it a bit, so I'm actually going to SPOILER ALERT, because you never know, there may be someone out there surfing for reviews who'd be upset by too much revelation. Okay? Highlight to read.

What for the first chapter or so seems like a serial killer novel with a twist turns out to be science fiction. I saw it coming, but I am accquainted with the genre, of course. Someone not used to it would probably be more surprised. It is also a moral story. A modern Animal Farm some reviewer has called it, and one gets a strong feeling that Faber is a vegetarian. For me as a science fiction lover the morality takes over a little, because like all true aficionados it is the Other Culture that really thrills me when I read - and I want my moral lessons to be more of a backdrop. It feels a little obvious, here. But the Other Culture is very well thought out, and not too overtly explained. And the strength of the story lies in the descriptions of the people in it, all of them. The woman, Isserley, and her quenched hopes and desires and suppressed pain, and the men she abducts, with their same feelings; not that Isserley knows. She thinks them dumb and slow, and doesn't probe further.

I love finding science fiction where I didn't expect it, and I can heartily recommend this. It is brutal and emotional while remaining detached, and despite the otherwordly slant it's one of the most realistic ideas I've come across. Recommended.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Diana Wynne Jones: Deep Secret

I have read Howl's Moving Castle at one time, but other than that I'm not accquainted with Wynne Jones and her writing. (Do have a look at the link there, to a Wynne Jones website. It's rather ugly but they've put up some of the talks she's held for example, and they are both entertaining and interesting!) Inspired by Spufford (I copied out a long list of authors that he mentioned in his book) I've decided to indulge my love for children's/young adults' fiction and read a fair bit of Wynne Jones - a good choice, because the library happen to have several of her books.

Wynne Jones has a great sense of humour and a fair bit of bite in her writing. She doesn't shy away from introducing something really dark, for example children being murdered. There's also a lot of respect for the reader, in that not everything is explained straight away, but instead introduced in bits and pieces to be more fully explained later. Sadly, in this book I did feel a bit too much of the "question-answer" method being used. You know, a one-page lecture from someone explaining things in full and filling in the details for another character who isn't in the know. This gets a bit tedious. I remember Howl's Moving Castle as being a lot tighter, as though it had, basically, been better edited and superfluous bits taken out.

The story is that there are multible universes, more or less aware of magic, and a certain number of magids who can control this magic and use it to influence events. One of these magids has to search for an apprentice, and narrows it down to a list of a few names. To test the candidates he arranges for them all to be at a science-fiction and fantasy convention. Events are more complicated than he anticipated though, and magic starts to get loose, as it were.

Entertaining on the whole, but the good ideas get a bit lost in transport, so to speak. Some bits are a bit dull frankly, but it's okay to skim.  I'll definitely be reading a bit more, I enjoyed myself.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Christine Falkenland: Vinterträdgården

Utan bokcirkeln hade jag inte läst den här boken, det är jag säker på, och det är ju bland annat det som är så roligt. (Vi har träff ikväll, därav inlägget.) Jag tror inte att jag blivit intresserad av en författare som först och främst gjort sig ett namn som poet, eftersom jag inte läser poesi. Alltså ... jag läser ju allt. Men jag väljer inte att plocka upp en poesibok bara sådär, för jag har svårt att ta till mig lyrik. Kanske för att jag läser för fort, så jag missar mycket. Jag har mycket lättare att ta till mig enstaka, kortare dikter som får möjlighet att "drabba" mig. Till exempel har jag uppskattat Szymborska väldigt mycket - fast, återigen, jag söker inte upp henne. Poängen är lite också att jag därmed har svårt att avgöra vad som är bra och dåligt, om det inte är rätt uppenbart. Detta gäller speciellt med modernare, obunden lyrik.

Och med det har vi kommit in på ett problem för mig med romanen - den innehåller väldigt mycket poesi. Laura är snart 40 år, barnskötare, och bor med sin far i barndomshemmet i Skövde. Hon har övertalats att börja på en skrivkurs, och börjar skriva ner sina korta dikter i anteckningsboken. Det blir alltså väldigt mycket dikter. En ny pojke börjar på förskolan, och Laura och hans mor, Sharzad, blir vänner och sedan älskande. Passionen är något nytt för Laura, och hon både omfamnar och värjer sig mot den, men slutligen underkastar hon sig totalt. Vad Sharzad känner vet vi mindre om. Laura exotiserar (är det ett ord?) henne, gör henne till sitt Höga Visan-objekt. Laura själv erkänner detta, men det känns inte riktigt som om det blir något av det - jag får inte relationen riktigt klar för mig. Enligt vad jag läste på nätet förklarar Lauras poesi förhållandets och Lauras utveckling, och framförallt det åtta sidor långa brev i diktform hon skriver till Sharzad när denna är på besök i Iran. Lilla jag förstår inte det där. Den enda gången jag begrep att Falkenland nog är en stor poet är när skrivarkursen avkräver Laura en haiku, och den är riktigt bra. Jag har alltid avskytt det där med att tvingas skriva haikudikter i skolan och så, och trott att det är för att formatet inte passar vårt språk utan är så specifikt japanskt (något Laura också säger). Men romanens var ju faktiskt inte dum alls! Det var en glimt av förståelse jag behövde, men den räckte inte.

Jag ser verkligen fram emot de andras åsikter ikväll, för det här var inte min grej. Utan cirkeln hade jag nog bara konstaterat det och lagt boken ifrån mig och aldrig funderat mer på den. Jag upplever inte att jag får något grepp om personerna, jag bryr mig inte. Laura framstår som tjatig där hon går och rackar ner på sig själv och dyrkar Sharzad. Jag saknade en förtätning, en spänning, fördjupning - finns den där förstår jag den inte. Hm. En del åsikter på nätet går ut på vad fantastiskt det är med en Falkenland-roman i nutid, men jag tror att man redan måste ha läst hennes tidigare romaner för att se den röda tråden där. Jag ska kanske prova med Trasdockan någon gång. Det lär ju inte ta mycket tid i anspråk i alla fall.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Helen Fitzgerald: Dead Lovely

One of my Christmas books! As you may recall I had high hopes for this one, and so I am sad to say that I was disappointed. It's too uneven, the end is rushed, it changes narrative perspectives throughout in an unpredictable manner that doesn't seem thought-out... and it doesn't even give me a great sense of Scotland, which would have been a bonus. The story focuses on two best friends, Krissie and Sarah, who have stuck together since childhood. Sarah married one of Krissie's best friends, Kyle, and has since become obsessed with trying to conceive. When Krissie becomes pregnant willy-nilly (oh, I couldn't resist that one) it's a hard blow for Sarah. Her marriage is cracking already. Krissie finds it hard being a single mother. The three of them all go on a camping trip for a much-needed break, but everything goes wrong, and there is MURDER. On a personal note I found it hard that Krissie is so neglectful of her son - that always makes me unhappy. From a literary point of view though I am more unhappy that her PND and feelings aren't very well fleshed out, so it becomes a bit odd when she turns and becomes Caring Mum.

Fitzgerald might write a much better book some day though, she has plenty of experience in social work and as a parole officer. And she can be very witty, there are some funny episodes alright. Bit more balance and I'll like it more. I think mostly I'm disappointed because I'd been anticipating something better.

Francis Spufford: The Child That Books Built/Hur jag läste böcker och lärde mig leva

I've read this in translation, but decided to post about it in English anyway. It was another one of those accidental finds, I liked what the cover told me, that Spufford writes about all his favourite children's books and how they've helped shape him etc. However, the cover wasn't entirely truthful. I expected a trip down memory lane, sharing a few memories of books I'd read too, perhaps getting some idea of what I'd missed growing up in Sweden... well, there was that too, but there was also a lot of rather serious stuff like discussion of different theories on child development yada yada yada. It's not quite what I had in mind, and I was tired - reading on my night job or on the way home - and when one is sleep-deprived theoretical stuff like that is not really what makes you happy. But the bits I liked I did like. I liked that Spufford defends all the books he liked. He's shown me why a child can love the Narnia books passionately - I never did, but I now understand why. He makes no excuses for wandering into sci-fi as a young adult, and describes really well why LeGuin's books are better if they're early, but why they were criticized by feminists among others.

I found the translation a bit heavy, not that there was anything wrong with it really, but I kept translating back, inside my head. Annoying that! I have gotten lots of reading tips out of this too, so I'll have to make a list and start reading children's books again.


Sunday, January 03, 2010

Margaret Atwood: The Blind Assassin

Atwood prefaces The Blind Assassin with three quotes: one from Kapuściński's book Shah of Shahs, one from Sheila Watson's Deep Hollow Creek, and one from a Carthaginian funeral urn. It's this one that struck a chord in me. First of all, I only recently happened to see the second half of a TV programme about Carthage. Some Cambridge (?) scholar who is a bit of a prodigy I gathered wandered around North Africa and searched for the lost culture. Without watching this I'd have understood less of the inscription quoted, which reads:

I swam, the sea was boundless, I saw no shore
Tanit was merciless, my prayers were answered.
O you who drown in love, remember me.

It's an absolutely lovely thing to have on a gravestone - or urn, in this case. So beautiful and sad. (That's the second reason for the chord-striking, of course.) Thanks to the programme I know that Tanit was the main goddess in Carthage, and that they most likely did not sacrifice children there. I love how life is composed of such coincidences - I haven't thought about Carthage in years, not since latin class probably, and here two instances pop up quite close together.

Another funny thing is that we apparently bought The Blind Assassin for my father once, but I'd forgotten. I had a massive Atwood phase in my teens, read all she's written that the library had, but then I dropped her. Like with most such infatuations I'm afraid to revisit them, convinced that if I was so enamoured in my youth it can't be that good. But The Blind Assassin is very very good. Never spotted it when we cleared up Daddy's things, or I might have nabbed it.

The Blind Assassin is a novel in this novel, written by Laura Chase and published by her sister Iris after Laura's suicide. The novel has become a cult book and Laura acclaimed as an iconic modernist author. An old woman now, Iris wants to tell the truth and share the complete story about herself and Laura. The only one left who has a right to it is her estranged grand-daughter Sabrina, so in the hope and fantasy that Sabrina will read it, or perhaps even suddenly appear on her doorstep, Iris starts writing her memoirs. There are three stories in the story then, Iris now, Iris's story in the past, and exerpts from the fictional The Blind Assassin. The latter is the story of a married woman who meets her lover in secret. The lover is clearly on the run, living in various places and scraping by, and the woman is wealthy and afraid of her husband. He starts to tell her a story, about a planet far away, where children who go blind when weaving sumptious carpets for the rich become assassins for hire. It's a science fiction/fantasy story, which, I've understood from reading a bit online, has annoyed some readers, because they think it breaks the flow of the book. It doesn't fit in. Well, I think it does. This escape into the imagination is a wonderful contrast to the starkness of Canada during the Depression, of a loveless, exploitative marriage, of a drunken, idealistic father who gradually loses everything, of the relationship between two sisters who have nobody but each other really.

There was this bit I wanted to quote, from where Laura's and Iris's mother dies. I found it painfully truthful.

(What fabrications they are, mothers. Scarecrows, wax dolls for us ti stick pins into, crude diagrams. We deny them an existence of their own, we make them up to suit ourselves - our own hungers, our own wishes, our own deficiencies. Now that I've been one myself, I know.)
[ . . . ]
I wanted to say that she was mistaken in me, in my intentions. I didn't always try to be a good sister; quite the reverse. Sometimes I called Laura a pest and told her not to bother me, and only last week I'd found her licking an envelope - one of my own special envelopes, for thank-you notes -  and had told her that the glue on them was made from boiled horses, which had caused her to retch and sniffle. Sometimes I hid from her [ . . . ] Often I got away with the minimum required.

But I had no words to express this, my disagreement with my mother's version of things. I didn't know I was about to be left with her idea of me; with the idea of my goodness pinned onto me like a badge, and no chance to throw it back at her (as would have been the normal course of affairs witha  mother and daughter - if she'd lived, as I'd grown older).

As we read we start to guess what the truth is, the truth that Iris wants to share before we die, yet it still comes as a catharsis. It's also a great description of Canada during hard years, a country of which I frankly have dim ideas -  apart from Degrassi High of course. I feel so strongly for Iris and Laura, growing up under the weight of their parents' idealism and the notion that the family has money more than the actual fact. A housekeeper/servant is the true mother figure for the sisters. Her aphorisms and sayings have stayed with Laura her whole life and she is the only one who is truly loyal to the girls. In the end Iris feels like she has betrayed both her sister and surrogate mother. There is such a powerful sense of loneliness about Iris, it's almost tangible. Great book, highly recommended. I might have to go on a new Atwood binge soon.