Saturday, February 27, 2016

Drowned Ammet by Diana Wynne Jones (1977)


The very first thought that occurred to me regarding Drowned Ammet was how Diana Wynne Jones captured the mind of a young terrorist.  This was written in the 1970s, before the advent Isis and Al Quaeda - but I would hazard a guess that Jones was writing (or at least dreaming up this story) in a scary  time in England, when young Irish males, not unlike Mitt, were branded terrorists by one side, freedom fighters by another side, and blowing up things and people for real.  I don't know what she was thinking at the time (I've tried to find out but haven't had any luck) but at least for me, there is this straight line between Mitt's actions and the IRA.  Reading it today, I kept thinking of the Boston Marathon bombers, particularly the younger brother, and how, like Mitt, he must have been prodded and encouraged into planting a bomb.  How romantic that must have sounded, how brave and courageous, to be a freedom fighter, fomenting a revolution against tyranny.  How sad it is that Diana Wynne Jones wasn't writing his life story (or the story of the people maimed and killed by the bombers); there wasn't a plot twist that defused the bomb in some way, and there wasn't a Hildy and Ynen in the life of those bombers to convince them their actions weren't courageous but cowardly, and that situations are always more complicated than the starry-eyed rantings of would be Internet revolutionaries.  

When DJW is good, she's good, there is no doubt about it.

Often for me, books I'm currently reading bring back memories of books read when I was an early literate young reader; in this case, the relationship between Hildy and Mitt brings to mind that of Aravis and Shasta in C.S. Lewis's The Horse and His Boy. An aristocrat (in this case two) on a journey with a peon to freedom in the north.  Like Shasta, Mitt has a hidden side to him that is revealed at the end, and like Aravis, Hildy learns to become more loving (although I imagine, like Aravis, she remains a wildcat; unlike Shasta, Mitt is a wildcat too; Shasta was no revolutionary save an accidental one).  DJW doesn't need to end with "and they lived together happily ever after" though; you can fill that in or not; also, there aren't any talking animals.

(Susan Cooper's Greenwitch kept popping into my mind too; they were written at about the same time.  But the only similarity between the two is share ancient customs, which I assume the two authors gleaned and formed from actual British customs).

Was DWJ a sailor?  She pictures sailing and the sea in such emotional and breathlessly beautiful ways; and her scenes of the three (and then four) at sea are like paintings.  Here is my favorite description in the book:  

"Wind’s Road had come gently past the green hump in the mist. The mist cleared steadily as she sailed. When Mitt looked away from the sailors’ faces, he was astonished to find they were sailing among islands—more islands than he could count at a glance. Some were green and steep, with gray rocks standing above the green and trees clinging to the rocks. Some were green and low. Some were quite small. Others, in the distance, were clearly several miles long. Mitt could see houses on nearly all of them, usually near the shore, as if the sea were their road and the island their farm or garden. Sheep and cows grazed in pastures that mounted above the houses. Smoke rose from the chimneys. The sea space round them was so sheltered that it was warm and calm as a lake. Mitt could smell the salt of the sea mingling with the smell of earth, smoke, and cattle, in a close, queer mixture. He looked round, sniffing, warm and delighted, wondering why he felt so happy and so much at home, and everywhere he looked he saw the astonishing emerald green of more islands."

Her descriptive prose made me want to visit the Holy Islands myself; and you knew by her loving details that this was a safe place; something good was going to happen.  She didn't need to tell us that either; she used her prose to let us know.

I kept wondering how she came up with the concept of these four books; they are very quite short books to contain such intricate and meaningful world building.  

Drowned Ammet (The Dalemark Quartet, #2)Drowned Ammet by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some of DWJ's beautifully descriptive prose in all of her many books happens in Drowned Ammet when she writes of her fictional Holy Islands; she certainly made me want to not only visit but dwell in these fantasy islands. Her descriptions of sailing, ships and the ocean gave my personal favorite writer about oceans, Richard Henry Dana Jr. a run for his money as well. But what really struck me was her perfect capturing of the mind of a young terrorist. I can only guess that when DWJ was writing this, she may have had young IRA bombers in her mind, egged on by revolution and patriotic stirrings against tyranny; I know I kept thinking of the Boston Bombers; Mitt is a likable young fool caught up in revenge and feeling grand and big; DWJ really sticks us right in his mind, and we both understand him and pity him and know he's an idiot, and empathize with him because sometimes we are idiots too, caught up in something we later deeply regret. We don't all have to be boys for that. A terrifically powerful book in a quirky series that should be better known because it's so good.


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Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Whim of the Dragon by Pamela Dean (1989)

The trilogy ends, except it does not, because another book called The Dubious Hills set in this same world has been published, which I've never read, and Pamela Dean is trying to have another one published, a sequel to both The Whim of the Dragon and The Dubious Hills.  At this point, I've probably beat sequels to a pulp in my writings, but Dean's sequels haven't been hideously bad or unnecessary. The two sequels to The Secret Country have felt natural and the writing has remained strong.  Still, if sequels are supposed to solve stuff, tie everything up in a bow, then The Whim of the Dragon  did none of this.  I read The Secret Country and come away with a total brainfreezing WTF just happened; there are so many puzzles within quotes within unicorns; it's all mind boggling literary and I love it.  And then The Hidden Land  is just an extension of this life that loveliness has to sell (I can quote poetry too, Sara Teasdale, although not well, I had to look it up and was going to quote it backwards; see:  smarty pants kids below), and it's even more boggling, and I'm still eating it up with a spoon.  And now The Whim of the Dragon, which is a third book and is supposed to solve everything, leaves the reader with even more questions, more brain punches, more feeling drunk of great writing and more wondering how something so incredibly impossible to fully understand could be so beautiful.  It's art.

Smarty pants kids.  Is it just me, or do the five children become more and more smart as the series progressed.  They were certainly never of average intelligence at any point in the first book, or the second,  but by the third, they are quoting poetry from memory like some sort of bard savant.  I think one of the things I secretly like about these books is a desperate wish to have wanted to grow up surrounded by Teds, Lauras, Patricks, Ruths and Ellens - and having just about as far away as possible from that existence as is possible.  I'm not sure these kinds of kids even really exist - I've certainly never met any.  But the dream of being reborn in the next life, surrounded by people who quote Shakespeare and mean it; but for now a raisin in the sun.


The Whim of the Dragon (The Secret Country, #3)The Whim of the Dragon by Pamela Dean
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How I could both be incredibly and continually and mind-bogglingly stumped after reading these three books, without a clue as to what the hell is going on most of the time, and still be head over heels in love with The Secret Country? I read the first book, several times since I purchased it in the 1980s golden age of fantasy paperbacks, always coming away from it with a sense of sweet strong-writing-induced oblivion; I read the second book, and remain in awe and anger at how beautiful and puzzling the prose could be; And then The Hidden Land is just an extension of this life that loveliness has to sell (I can quote poetry too, Sara Teasdale, although not well, I had to look it up and was going to quote it backwards, and it's even more inconceivable and strange, and I'm still eating it up with a spoon. I imagine in ten years or so from now, Ms. Dean will take me on this adventure again. This trilogy is like a medieval mizmaze for fantasy lovers. The mizmaze was a prayer labyrinth (google it); Pamela Dean's work are a sort of literary prayer labyrinth, forcing the reader to contemplate the beauty and complexity of storytelling and writing.


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The Secret Country by Pamela Dean (1985)

I wanted to read The Secret Country because of reading Arcadia by Iain Pears. It's complicated (read the book) but Pears has an invented fantasy world that through some science fiction (rather than magic) becomes real.  As I read Arcadia, I kept thinking of this old favorite of mine, and decided to re-read the series.

Hidden fantasy worlds that are connected to ours are always one of my favorite (sub) genres.  I've always loved Alice (and find the Carroll haters with their need to talk about pedophilia and drugs distasteful and ludicrous). Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci is wonderful.  Narnia, of course.  Harry Potter is definitely the modern take on this old fantasy.  The Secret Country didn't really add anything new; Pamela Dean was genre-bending (like Arcadia seemed to be doing).  But she did take a children's genre, and although the main characters are children, made it into something adult.  Not adult as in The Magicians trilogy with its college-aged wizards having sex and doing drugs; rather adult in the sense that Dean was writing up, writing for adults.  I dont' know if the term literary fiction existed in 1986 when the book was published, but Dean's The Secret Country veers into the real of literary fiction with her careful and elegant use of language, her ability to explore the character's depth and emotions, the density of her prose.


I tend to like dense, puzzling books (Connie Willis, Diana Wynne Jones) that bloom afresh with each re-reading, and Dean has that quality in all the books I've read by her.  Although I haven't read any of her books in years, I remember those qualities in her books.  She also makes things emotionally difficult for her characters; this is in line more with Alice (although let's be honest, that's a prototype of this kind of book) than with Narnia (save for Eustace).  Those Pevensies seemed to fit into Narnia like a kid glove; their adventures were all outside their heads (Edmund arguably may also be an exception to this).  Laura & Ted & Ruth & Patrick& Ellen aren't exactly Eustace (or Edmund).  But they seem to get everything wrong, all the time.  This effects them physically, but it more effects them emotionally. It bothers them.    They know things they aren't supposed to (The number of steps to Fence's castle) and don't know things they should (how to fence, or that chocolate doesn't have sugar, or almost everyone's names and relationships).  This mentally turns them into something more unstable than they were when they stumbled into the real world that they had created as a fantasy game (at least they are unstable by the end of The Secrety Country).  That is what sets apart this book from Narnia or Nesbit.  That's the adult I'm talking about; that's what makes Dean such a complex writer and while I can appreciate and adore Naria, I can get deeply lost in Dean in a far different, less nostalgic way. (Diana Wynne Jones can fall into that category occasionally too; Lewis never does).

Dean is still a whimsical writer though; this isn't an Oprah book, all dark corners and abused children.  I don't think you can write a book about a magical world just around the corner from ours without having some shades of C.S. Lewis; but there's more than a bit of Nesbit at work here too.  There are five children, and the It is The Secret Country, as helpful and occasional spiteful as any psammead.  Dean's writing is magical that way.  It just occurred to me that a modern writer does this just as well (and maybe better sometimes):  Neil Gaiman.  They two writers are as different as night and day (or Aslan and the Cheshire Cat), but they definitely come from the same genus of writers (postmodern? Post-post modern?).  

On to The Hidden Land.

Note:  Whether on purpose or not (and I'm sort of disgusted with myself for being such a boring pedant), but The Secret Country is actually sort of a good metaphor for adolescence.   Like Laura, her brothers and cousins, young children play at being adults.  And like The Secret Country itself, when you reach adulthood, everything is almost the way you imagined it, but not quite right.  The well is pink instead of white, even though it's still a well.  Another example of the literary fiction I was talking about; the adult of this book.  Narnia has the Christian allegory (to quote Peanuts:  "bleah"); Dean takes us beyond allegory into deeper literary magic.

http://www.tor.com/2010/03/10/qeveryone-talks-like-shakespeareq-pamela-deans-secret-country-trilogy/


The Secret Country (The Secret Country, #1)The Secret Country by Pamela Dean
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Children discovering a fantasy world in the wardrobe or down the rabbit hole is, well, as old as Alice. Pamela Dean does take this trope and turn it on its head (like some of Neil Gaiman's work) but rather makes it into something more adult. Her Secret Country trilogy, taken as a whole, veers into literary fiction-land without ever properly leaving fantasy; it's like a magical blurring of the lines betweent the worlds. Unlike Lewis or Carroll (but like the more modern Gaiman), Dean's dense prose, her careful, elegant use of language, and most of all her exploration of characters emotionally stability is what sets her work apart from those that came before, and makes it much more adult (like The Magicians but without the sex and drugs). When Laura & Ted & Ruth & Patrick & Ellen fall down the rabbit hole into the world they created as a fantasy game among themselves, like those Pevensie children, they are kings and queens (or at least prince and princesses), and like Peter, Susasn, Edmund and Lucy, the physical world is a threat. But Claudia, the White Witch of this book, fucks with the their heads too; emotionally stable before, the secret country is a worrisome, adult place that turns them into something else. That is what makes this book such a delight to read; it's contains deeper (literary) magic. It's not an Oprah book though, not all dark corners and abused children. I don't think you can write a book about a magical world just around the corner from ours without having some shades of C.S. Lewis; but there's more than a bit of Nesbit at work here too. There are five children, and the It is The Secret Country, as helpful and occasional spiteful as any psammead. Jo Walton suggests on Tor.com that the three books in this series should be read as a whole; I heartily agree.


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Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Hidden Land by Pamela Dean (1986)

I don't remember when or where I purchased The Secrety Country.  I do know for quite some time (years in my mind), I only owned this book, and had no idea there were even sequels to it.  The Secrety Country ends with the five discovering that they had not broken the Crystal of Earth after all, and arguing about the ramifications of that, and then this:

"They looked at the Crystal of Earth for a long time, but its colors made no shapes or pictures, and no answers."

And the book ends!  With Pamela Dean herself telling us there was no answers; all of the riddles of the book, how they got there, who was Claudia, the meaning of Laura's visions...  And I was completely okay with that!  I guess this is where I get my penchant for not liking today's lengthy and often pointless sequels - I once read a book apparently without a sequel, and didn't seem to ever care.  I just let the lack of knowledge wash over me, I guess, and thought "that's part of the story, the not knowing."

But Pamela Dean knew, and she wrote a sequel, and then another.  I haven't ever liked the sequels as well as the first one, although they are both just as beautifully and elegantly written.  They aren't bad books, but they fall into my perception of most sequels:  why write them?  Why not just make one wonderfully huge, dense book?  Financial reasons probably come into play here; also, maybe Dean wasn't ready at that point to write one big, dense book.  Fantasy comes in threes (The Lord of the Rings) or fours or fives; that's the way fantasy works.  

The Hidden Land is still a pretty good book; there are some haunting scenes (Ted going to the land of the dead is probably my favorite) but it lacks the strength of the The Secret Country.

The Hidden LandThe Hidden Land by Pamela Dean
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The middle child to The Secret Country trilogy, this is certainly not as strong as book as the first one; it's also somewhat shorter, which makes me wonder why it wasn't just tacked on to the first one. Unlike the stereotypical poor middle child though, this doesn't feel neglected; Dean writes elegantly, beautifully, full of grace and charm. And again, creates something dense and strange.


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Friday, February 19, 2016

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

I couldn't quite figure this book out; it's my book club book this month, and while I enjoyed reading it, some of it bugged me.  I'm a middle-aged, gay white progressive-leaning male, and some of this book was aimed at squarely at me, which made me restless and uncomfortable. Adichie occasionally used a sledge hammer to get some of her POV across, and at other times, particularly towards end, the book felt preachy (I'm particularly thinking about the dinner party scene, but there were some others).

At one point, one character tells the main character she acts self righteous, and I thought that was sort of what the book sounded like, and then I thought, is something meta going on, where Adichie is self aware and is giving the main character her own characteristics, all the while aware? 

I hated the ending so much though.  That makes me not like the book.  

AmericanahAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not sure about this book at all. I liked some of it immensely; other parts left me indifferent. Some of the book was preachy, but other parts interesting. A real mixed bag of a book.


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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Cart and Cwidder by Diana Wynne Jones (1975)

What makes Diana Wynne Jones so great?   She doesn't have to tell the reader every last thing. She uses clues, often what characters are thinking or saying or feeling, that allows the reader to infer important aspects of the plot, or the setting, or the character's motivations.  To be completely blunt, and rather snobbish, she's not a writer for dumb readers.  Take for example the concept of "The Adon"  or "Adon" in Cart and Cwidder.  In chapter one, dreamy Moril was pondering what it meant to be a northerner in the dangerous south, and how his favorite hero from legend was Adon, a former earl from the north. Later, his father Clennen, a singer and entertainer, tells his family that there have been two great singers in lands:  Osfameron, who could move mountains, and Adon; again, legendary characters from the past.  Jones is leading the reader to believe that these are Merlin / King Arthur type of characters, using a bit of explanation and the adoration of a young boy to fit these heroes into the narrative in one way; they represent all that was good about the past, and all that is wrong with the present, particular in the south, where author active lords rule with no king and an iron fist.  The days were better when Adon and Osfameron were there; we eventually come to find out that Clennen and his family are descended from Osfameron; Moril is actually named for the famous singer (Osfameron Tanamoril) and the Adon was the last king of the entire lands before dying and the chaos of the lords each ruling his own part of the land with brutality in the south.  Building the story of the Adon and Osfameron slowly into the narrative, as if they are merely legends from the better past, but also connecting them to present.  These are puzzle pieces; hidden Easter eggs almost, that the reader should be tucking away for future use.  The reader thinks that the excitement on the road - the death of Clennen, Lenina leaving them, trying to survive as musicians, the flight from Tholian is the main narrative and plot, and that' strut; but hidden within this is the puzzle of the Adon - it's a puzzle Moril has to work out, but the reader has to work it out with him too.  When Kialan is revealed as the present day Adon (after the death of his brother), then the brilliance of Jones shines through; she's tied these old stories - the completely made-up legends that came from her head but feel so real - she's tied them into the present story, but not neatly.  You, like Moril, has to figure out the significance.  "Yet Kialan was the Adon - or an Adon - all the time" Moril realizes, and you, like him, have to infer the significance of this.  What does that mean?  Does Kialan possess powers?  What are they?  Will be become king over all the lands again, is this where the plot is heading?  It's tantalizing - and also completely inferred.  Jones has not once said what or who an Adon is, other than telling some legends sprinkled throughout. She didn't let the reader know that Kialan was an Adon or the Adon until almost the end of the book.  In fact, in good Diana Wynne Jones style, she made him enigmatic and not very likable - a real character.  It's the other thing she does so very, very well; her characters have hidden parts to them that the reader often has to figure out; they seem very, very real; they motivations aren't always pure, even, especially the protagonists.  They are likable though.  Very very likable.  You want to cheer them on.

There are some themes that tend to connect all the worlds of Jones.  Youth work in concert with one another, sometimes at odds with, sometimes together with, adults.  All great children's literature has these components.  I couldn't quite figure out Moril's actual age - somewhere between 10-12 perhaps, on the cusp of manhood.  But Jones gives enough clues about his teenager-hood  to know that he doesn't like the music of his elders; he wants to make his own music.  That's definitely a modus operandi of teenagers since they were born as a group in the early part of the 20th century; musical taste always sets them apart.  But this is also that idea that teenagers are growing and want to march to the tune of their own drummers; yearn to explore and be free from the past and branch out into their own future. "I don't see why old things should be sacred" says Moril, and he's right. 

Cart and Cwidder (The Dalemark Quartet, #1)Cart and Cwidder by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What makes Diana Wynne Jones so great? She doesn't have to spell out every last thing. She plants clue and connections throughout her plots, or often what characters are thinking or saying or feeling, that allows the reader to infer important aspects of the plot, or the setting, or the character's motivations. To be completely blunt, and rather snobbish, she's not a writer for dumb readers. That makes her book that most wonderful and glorious of things, immanently re-readable. Every time you re-read a Jones book, you get something new (and perhaps strange) out of it. And the feeling that you are very smart, although never quite as smart as Diana Wynne Jones.



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The Sorcery & Cecelia: Or The Enchanted Coffee Pot by Caroline C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer (1988).


My worn and much-loved copy
This is one of my beloved books, a top ten ("top ten" is on par with "trilogy;" as a trilogy can now include more than three books, my top ten is probably a hundred books or more, ever changing).  As with all my beloved books, I do not know how many times I've read The Sorcery & Cecelia.  I know I return to it every few years because in the pantheon of best books I love, this is definitely in the top tier, like a large,colorful icing floret on the tip-top of the many layered cake of my literary life.  If this were a wedding cake, the bride and groom may be Tolkien and Lewis (who both probably just rolled over in their respective graves at that bit of far fetched and vaguely inappropriate imagery).  But Sorcery ranks up there; perhaps a flower girl.  It's fitting that right off the bat, the the authors thank Tolkien - as well as Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, and Ellen Kushner; they are the allspice that peppers this book through and through.

When I finished Cecelia (in addition to wondering why Kate doesn't get any billing at all), I pondered what my other top tier books were.  I thought to make it to the top of the cake, they had to have been re-read over the years,  with equal parts delight, bemusement, a small dose (but not too much) of nostalgia, and a large ability for dynamic reading - does each re-reading change the meaning; does it remain important to me over time, but in different ways.  My beloved Tolkien, for example, who I loved so much that I have a Smaug tattoo on my body for the rest of my life, has fallen slightly in the pantheon.  Re-reading The Hobbit remains a joy; I love the characters and story, and always long to either read it aloud and share it anew, or meet with like-minded Hobbits and perform it together.  But the bigger, grander Lord of the Rings hasn't weathered (for me) as well.  I still appreciate the grandeur and scope, but I don't like the books as much as I did in high school; I find them tedious in parts, and occasionally the epic becomes almost heavy enough to collapse on itself.  Will it be the epic of our time that lasts through the ages?  I'm pretty sure that will be true, but Harry Potter, for example, is giving LOTR a run for the money (anathema, but true). 

Narnia still makes the top tier, if I can dump The Last Battle into the garbage.   I am aware of the problems with Narnia - blunt object Christian allegory, simplistic, sexist in parts, un-Tolkienish world building (Dryads and dwarves - fantasy heresy).  But for all the weaknesses, Lewis created unforgettable characters thrust into believable and exciting fantasy situations; maybe it was the first time as a child I read about children making their way in the world without adults, and thriving - they all become kings and queens, or defeat evil usurpers, or rescue captured princes. I didn't discover E. Nesbit until later in my literary life, so her works seem Lewisian to me rather than the other way around; but that chatty, never talking down, often pointed but often soothing style that Lewis adopts from Nesbit is also what makes these books so utterly re-readable.   I can return to Narnia again and again, and try as I might, any holes I poke in the Aslan balloon just never feels right to me; I always feel guilty.  If I'm on my deathbed, and I want to read one last book, I'm hoping the Chronicles of Narnia are right there to comfort me and send me home for the last time.

Not every book in the top tier is a children's novel, although many are:  Aloha Susan by Helen Hoyt comes to mind; The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink; Escape from Warsaw by Ian Serrallier. The Changeling by Zilpha Keatley Snyder still resonates for me.  The Headless Cupid I would have added, but I don't think it rings as bright for me anymore; I think The Witches Sister by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor has as similar feel; second layer books, still important but as time has gone by, not as influential.

Howard's End by E.M. Forster sits up there with Tolkien and Lewis.  It's a perfect book, in my opinion, incredible writing like a orb spider web outlined in dew, strong and completely beautiful.  Characters that are memorable (not particularly lovable), that sit in your brain and talk to you forever about connecting with others, about love and marriage and family and middle class.  That's a book.
The Age of Innocence by EdithWharton has occupied that place for me;   My Antonia by Willa Cather still sits there too.  Each are books I re-read periodically, not as often as Howard's End, but enough  to call them first tier (albeit towards the bottom).  Influential.  Magnificently written. 

Terry Pratchett and Anne McCaffrey are authors like that for me (although not every single book).   Agatha Christie too.   I'm re-reading Pratchett, and finding him to be as wonderful as I remembered; certainly our best satirical writer, a modern day Swift.  Christie I'm re-reading as well; she's definitely not a writer of classics, but her plots and characters are superb.  Not just genre writers can learn from Christie about how make characters believable and plots move.  McCaffrey, I haven't read in many years; it may be time to return, although I have so many more I'd like to read.

Connie Willis and Jo Walton are both literary muses of the highest order; I have yet to dislike a single book they've written.  A literary world without them is a sad place. I used to really love Sherri S. Tepper; but these two have supplanted her.  If Tolkien and Lewis are the grooms at the top of the literary cake, I'd like Willis and Walton to be the brides.

There are others, of course, Michener comes to mind.  Margaret Mitchell, although now find her racist portrayals repugnant.  Mary Poppins and A.A. Milne and E.B. White and Frog & Toad.  Robert Silverberg's Majipoor Chronicles.  Steven Saylor's Roman mystery series.  His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (at least The Golden Compass; I was less a fan of the other books).  Some Will Durant. 

Diana Wynne Jones.  She needs a line all her own.

Sorcery is one of those books.  I don't particularly have the same feeling for other books by Caroline Stevermer and Patricia C. Wrede.  Stevermer's other books I've liked better; they are set in a world I enjoy reading about, that's similar enough to the Georgian magical England the two of them created, but not as lighthearted.  Wrede's other books haven't ever worked quite as well for me; I've enjoyed them without falling deeply in love with them.  Wrede and Stevermer wrote two more Cecy and Kate books, but they lacked the freshness of Sorcery.  That's always what the book feels like to me, even after re-reading it a dozen times:  fresh.  I always think what a great idea this letter game must have been, how devoted they were to it, how much fun it must have been, how I wish I had a friend to do that with, and knowing full well I couldn't pull off anything as exciting.  I love the setting.  

This was new territory to me when I first read it, so many years ago.  Diana Wynne Jones was doing a similar type of book in 1988, but I had probably only just discovered Witch Week.  The only hedge magic I knew about was Betwitched from television; Magica de Spell from Uncle Scrooge comics is a Miranda type villainess,but she's a duck and a comic strip character;  Sabrina and Wendy were comic book witches too.  I don't recall any other kinds of this funny, witty, fresh, sometimes scholarly magic before this time.  Everything about this book felt unique to me, and still does.  I had not yet read or scene Pride or Prejudice, nor heard of Georgette Heyer.  Fantasy back in 1988 was still very male:  Tolkien, Tolkien knock-offs like Shannara, Piers Anthony.  Pern wasn't a magical world, even though it contained dragons.  I hadn't yet discovered Pratchett.  The Witch's Sister and Miss Switch approached this area.  I knew of Bedknobs and Broomsticks from the movie, but hadn't read the book.


Was anyone writing this particularly kind of fantasy before then:  the alternate history in which magic exists in and interacts with actual historical events and persons?  Sorcery does just this; Wellington, the Prince Regent, Lord Melbourne and Lady Caroline Lamb and Lord Byron.  This the backdrop, albeit with a tingle of magic about the whole thing.  It's so brilliant, so absolutely gobsmacking brilliant.  Since devouring this again and again, and finding others, not quite as good (Or hideous;  Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell can go fuck themselves; Sorcery is a superior book in all ways).    I had decided in the parallel universe where I am a writer, I'm writing this exact kind of book that witty and full of funny characters, some light comedy, a bit of adventure, and a punch of almost melodramatic doom,.  Sorcery says nothing about the human pysche or middle class mores, and history.  But it is full of teachable moments on how to craft a perfect novel - and how to co-write a perfect novel.   I will return to this well for refreshment again and again the rest of my life.


My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In the parallel universe where I'm a writer of fantasy fiction, I hope all the books that I write are almost as good as Sorcery and Cecelia. I say "almost" because nothing I could write in any universe can possible surpass this, one of my favorite books of all time. I'm not an expert, but I am going to guess that when this book was first published in 1988, it was delightfully unique. Alternate history, with magic, and epistolary fiction on top of that. All of this has been done since, some of this had been done before - but there isn't many books out there that do this so well. I own the original Ace paperback, and was one of the few back in the good old days that was even aware of this book, before it was re-released, before the two (sort of humdrum) sequels. Sorcery is so brilliant, so absolutely gobsmacking brilliant. I devoured this again and again over the years, and it always feels fresh and new each time I re-read it. It's like visiting old friends. I have read many books I love, but this one is definitely among the cream at the top.


Monday, February 8, 2016

Arcadia by Iain Pears (2016)

You know that end of Chronicles of Narnia, in The Last Battle when Susan turns her back on Narnia in favor of "nylons and lipsticks."  I hate The Last Battle for many reasons; this is just one.  Iain Pears doesn't exactly re-write Susan's life, but he does give us a taste of a Susan-like girl, Rosalind, who likes nylons and Elvis, is smart but squashed down by conventionality, who stumbled into a fantasy-land and then kicks-ass.  Of all the characters in Iain Pears's Arcadia, she is far and away my favorite.

A close second is Angela Meerson, the psychomathematician from the future, who interacts delightfully with early 1960s England.  She's chic and calculated, cool as a cucumber, and a genius.  The interactions between Rosie and Angela are pure joy, in this perplexing and convoluted (in a good way though) novel.  Pears was content in writing a dystopia of The Hunger Games variety; rather he's mashed up dystopia, science fiction, fantasy, and thrown in some John le Carré Cold War thriller espionage to spice it up even more.  Even Tolkien and Lewis make appearances, albeit just out of scene.  

There is a lot going on there, almost more than one book could handle, but really, that just made it all the more fun.  

The book really reminded me of Connie Willis; because of the time travel elements.  Also, some of it is really witty - quite funny.

ArcadiaArcadia by Iain Pears
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If like me, you are anxiously waiting for the next Connie Willis book (and it's out who-knows-when), then Arcadia by Iain Pears can stand-in for a rollicking good read in her place. Pears isn't content with writing a The Hunger Games style dystopia; he takes the now almost tired trope of the other side of the end of the world, adds some smart science fiction, some delightful fantasy, and dose of John le Carré Cold War espionage and ends up with at times thrilling, at other times witty novel; there's also a great and puzzling mystery and the plots zigs and zags literally through time and place. What's Willis-ian about the novel is the time travel setting and plot (I don't want to give too much away though, and spoil the mystery), the humor (like little pin pricks throughout the book) and especially the characters. Two of them stand out: Angela Meerson, a 1960s chic, cool as cucumber, stylish and brilliant psychomathematician (you have to read the book to understand what that even means), and Rosie, a 15 year old girl that would have been kicked out of Narnia for her love of Elvis and boys, who Pears allows to be adolescent and funny and bossy and terrific. If you like your genre straight, then you'll hate this cocktail. If you don't mind some genre-bending, dive it!



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