China Mieville – The Scar

 Author: China Mieville
Title: The Scar
Date read: 4 January to 12 January
Published: 2002
Publisher: Del Rey
Length: 638 pages
Genre: Steampunk/pirate
Why I picked it up: Liked the ‘first’ book
Rating: 4 stars
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This is the second novel written by Mievill set in the world of Bas-Leg, though it is not a sequel (though are minor references to the events of Perdido Street Station, which I read previously.) Despite the disconnect between the two novels, I have lots of thoughts in connection to Perdido. Just little things I can’t help but compare naturally… I wonder if the Ribs that I adored so much in that novel might be ribs from an avanc? I like to imagine so (although i suspect those ribs are smaller!). Again I noticed the word pusillanimous‘ Really, how many people just throw that word out in every day conversation? This time I also noticed weird and in-bred (re: animals of Armada) used quite a few times. Probably the main difference between the reading experience of Perdido Street Station and The Scar was that I didn’t have any emotional reaction to The Scar. I wasn’t expecting to, so…okay. That being said!…

There were some really fantastic scenes where I felt that drop in my stomach, I gripped the book a little tighter, and I chewed my lip in anxious anticipation. I was absolutely taken with the idea of an avanc. Mieville gives you just enough a taste of the creature to be totally fascinated. The two scenes that really got to me were when they raised the avanc and when they went down to it + what happened after.

Just noticed I’ve been writing this post backwards from how I normally would…here are some general thoughts on the book. The beginning was primarily slow build, the story doesn’t really get going until about 200 pages in. This early segment contains a lot of setting up characters and setting for the story that’s about to come, you really get this sense of ‘Okay, that’s who this person is…how they are going to mess with things later on?’. There are a good number of characters, probably slightly more than I’m used to (says the Tolkien fan…..). I wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have when they were all being introduced so I had a little trouble later on keeping track but Mieville individualizes them well. that being said, I feel that the strongest character (as was the case with Perdido) is the city. I don’t want to say too much about Armada, because that’s the best part of reading the book (in my humble opinion). Suffice to say Mieville knows how to craft a setting.

Humphrey Carpenter – The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

  Editor: Humphrey Carpenter
Title: The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
Date read: 30 December to 3 January
Published: 2000
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Length: 502 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I picked it up: Fan of Tolkien’s
Rating: 5 stars
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I thought I would breeze through this book and finish it in two days maximum. Not because it would be an ‘easy’ read, but because I had lots of time to read and I am highly interested in the subject matter. Not so! While the book only contains around 430 reading pages (additional pages of notes and index), the letters are so dense and filled with so much that it took me much longer to read. This is not at all a complaint; I was absolutely delighted to have so much to sink my teeth into.

I don’t read books about Tolkien to think ‘Oh, so that’s why he wrote it like this!’ I agree with him (in this instance, at least) that an author’s life should not be examined with intention of gaining insight with regards to authorial intent (have I phrased this sentence correctly?). I simply find him a fascinating person, for having created such a detailed and vast mythology. It really does delight me to read about someone so seemingly normal and yet so extraordinary. To be able to read hundreds of his letters, to read his thoughts, is a treat in itself. I would have read them even if they had been more dull! But this collection is not at all boring, it is a treasure trove. The letters cover so many topics, from troubles with translators, family matters, C.S. Lewis, religious debate, and of course, much on The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and Middle-Earth lore in general.

I didn’t make any notes while reading this, I was wholly absorbed in letting Tolkien’s words wash over me. Note taking will come on the reread! But there are a few letters that still stuck in my memory, such as an unsent response (Tolkien sent two versions to his publisher to forward; they did not use the one that appears in the book) to a publisher looking to do a German translation of The Hobbit inquiring if Tolkien is Aryan. He writes a clever and pointed response, not confessing any Aryan lineage and refusing publication. Of course, the lengthy letter he wrote to another publisher who expressed interest in publishing LotR and The Silmarillion, was fascinating. I also especially enjoyed the letters he wrote to enquiring fans – I doubt there any authors today who would put so much thought into their responses (let alone have that much information to impart about their imaginary worlds). These letters are chockful of highly valuable information to any fan of Middle-Earth  I do have to add a caveat – I’ve not yet read any of Tolkien’s writings besides The LotR and The Hobbit, so I can’t say how much of this information is exclusive but to read Tolkien’s own words feels very special indeed.

So this post consists mostly of me gushing…I might be a bit of a fangirl. But really, needless to say, this tome is a highly valuable read for anyone interested in Tolkien or his works.

Peter S. Beagle – The Last Unicorn

  Author: Peter S. Beagle
Title: The Last Unicorn
Date read: 17 December to 21 December
Published: 1968
Publisher: Penguin
Length: 212 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Why I picked it up: Favourite of Neil Gaiman’s
Rating: 3 stars
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This book started off very promising…I even made a Goodreads update around page 50 professing how charming I found the tale to be. But this eventually tapers off and we are stuck with too many humans. If I’m going to read a story titled The Last Unicorn, I want it to be about the last unicorn, particularly when the story starts off that way. I missed the unicorn. But oh, how touching and bittersweet ~159-60 is (avoiding spoilers…). I was not expecting such a poignant scene! I felt as though I had been kicked in the chest by Prince Lir’s late actions, definitely was not expecting that either. And then, there was one particular paragraph that I found beautifully written: Molly imagines a scene from above, as though the characters within it were playthings. Very well written.

Despite a dramatic change in tone, I still mostly enjoyed this book. I found it so light and lovely and rather sweet at the beginning, but by the end the story had become so sombre and heavy – I doubt I’ve ever read a book that transformed so much and in such a small span of pages. I felt uneasy at the ‘darker’ mood of the latter half of the book, even though it really wasn’t all that dark – only so in comparison.

Bruce K. Hanson – The Peter Pan Chronicles

  Author: Bruce K. Hanson
Title: The Peter Pan Chronicles
Date read: 21 December to 26 December
Published: 1993
Publisher: Birch Lane Press
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I picked it up: Interest in Peter Pan
Rating: 2.5 stars
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I wasn’t going to write a ‘full’ post on this book, but once I started writing it came out longer than I expected so here are some thoughts! I came across this book while doing research for a paper I was writing on Barrie last year. I didn’t pick it up at the time, since it wasn’t relevant to my paper, but I took a bit of time to read it over my holidays.
On adaptations of Peter and Wendy – I have seen the musical, the Disney film, the ballet, read the book, read the play, but somehow I have never seen the play! So, for me this was a kind-of, not-really-intriguing read about the various adaptations throughout the years with a heavy focus on the actresses playing Peter.
The format of the book is fairly repetivie, with the author recounting each production in a similar fashion. I’m not suggesting that there be a better way to write such a book, the format fits for this kind, but as I said – it gets repetitive. I also found the author’s judgements and opinions in the later half of the book intrusive and overstated. The author writes, ‘It is inconceivable that one can not hum the beautiful “Never, Never Land” or even be able to sing a line or two of “I Won’t Grow Up” after the first hearing.’ This is a vast generalization, the credibility of which can be question, as the author offers this opinon after writing that the ‘the score was generally not credited as an element for the success of the musical.’ Perhaps the author could have included his own opinions in a separate section of the book, as an afterward or something of the sort. I feel that they detracted rather than added to the book (I found his opinions annoying and excessive, frankly.)
On a lighter note, the parts of the book I enjoyed best were the little anecdotes about performing the play from the actresses. Eva Le Gallienne shares a story of how she sent one little girl, who cried ‘No!’ when the audience is asked if they believe in fairies, hiding under her seat after giving Eva gave the girl many stern glances throughout the rest of the play. These anecdotes are few, however, and seem to be buried under lengthy descriptions of the actresses’ careers beyond their roles as Peter Pan.
Overall, the book is a decent introduction to various productions of Peter Pan, but much of the writing is superfluous and made the book less interesting than I think it could have been.

Jose Saramago – The Double

*The following information applies to the English softcover edition. (the novel was originally published in Portuguese in 2002). *  

  Author: Jose Saramago
Translator: Margaret Jull Costa
Title: The Double
Date read: 1 December to 7 December
Published: August 2012
Publisher: Harcourt Books
Length: 324 pages
Genre: Magical realism
Why I picked it up: Favourite author
Rating: 3.5 stars
Buy:  IndieBound Chapters | Check your local bookstore!
~This book was completed during the 3rd Annual Holiday Readathon hosted by Liz @ WhoRuBlog 🙂 ~

Another Saramago book! This one I didn’t pick up for any particular reason…I found a copy in the discount books section at my independent bookstore so I bought it.  

One of the aspects of Saramago’s writing I love is his ability to expand on a notion, pulling on threads to see where they go, even (especially!) if they lead to a only marginally related tangent. Not everyone will be a fan of this style. I know I wouldn’t tolerate it, this chasing after every little thing and expanding on minute irrelevant details, unless it was done well – I find Saramago is one of those writers who can pull it off.

I also think Saramago can be a very good example of the only writing rule I consider to be steadfast but often necessarily broken (oh, isn’t that nice contradition…) – ‘show don’t tell’. I marked a passage near the start of the book where Tertuliano is changing out of his work clothes:

…pulled a sweater on over his shirt, but left his tie, because he didn’t like his to leave his throat exposed, then went into the kitchen. [Pg 9]

Now that I’ve typed it out, perhaps this is actually a better example of showing and telling. Saramago shows us the tie is left on and tells us why, but both of those points combine into a larger instance of showing something about Tertuliano’s character. This is what I like.

I enjoyed the inclusion of Tertuliano’s common sense as a character who crops up every now and then, adding something a little different and unique to the story, giving it a bit more flavour. (I didn’t mark it, but a piece of dialogue between the two made me laugh: Tertuliano: Well, I will see you later, Common Sense: Oh, I doubt it).

[Tertuliano starts] Well, it seems to me that common sense has a very chauvinistic way of expressing itself, That’s not my fault, it’s just the way I was made, That’s hardly a good excuse from someone who does nothing but offer advice and opinions, But I’m not always wrong, This sudden rush of modesty suits you, Look, I would be better than I am, more efficient, more useful, if you helped me, Who, All of you, men and women, after all, common sense is just a ind of arithmetic mean that rises and falls according to the tide…[Pg 224]

Last point: I read a review on Goodreads that compared Saramago to Haruki Murakami, another one of my favourite authors. I don’t think I would have noticed the similarity if someone had not suggested it, but I think I would agree. The story is relatively mundane, with the extraordinary being handled in a very ordinary way. Notably, this review made the comparison in a disparaging manner, arguing that Saramago merely replaced Murakami’s tropes with his own. I wouldn’t think so. Saramago has a very distinct style and I think this sort of story fits with what he writes – it doesn’t seem out of character or like he was trying something different. The story felt naturally Saramago; similarities to Murakami being coincidence. That being said, I think the two (Murakami’s overall body of work and Saramago’s The Double) are rather similar in how I felt about the plot – a bit dry and dull and lengthy in the middle, with an exciting final 50 pages or so turning around how I felt about this book. Everything really came together towards the end and that’s why I’m giving this book 3.5 instead of 2.5. If you manage to stick with it (though I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t), then it is a good read!