Coral Glynn

Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron

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Coral Glynn is about a nurse in postwar England who travels between families caring for the sick in temporary situations. When she is taking care of a dying woman, the woman’s son, crippled in the war, proposes to her rather suddenly. Coral and the Major are probably the two most awkward people of all time, and their courtship is almost painful to witness because of the constant stops and starts and misunderstandings. Coral always seems like a victim waiting for a predator, while the Major is depressed and suicidal.

The writing style is pared down, almost comparable to Hemingway. The vast majority of what is reported to readers is surface-level actions and dialogue; interpretations and meanings are left out. The “iceberg principle” definitely applies to these characters. That sometimes means that their actions seem weird and incomprehensible. The ending is reminiscent of The Age of Innocence, but nowhere near as mind-blowing. It’s a very strange book, one that might keep you thinking and wondering for a while after you put it down.

Lirael

Lirael by Garth Nix

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Lirael is the second book in the Abhorsen trilogy. In the first book, Sabriel, a vivid and entirely original magical world is created, fraught with danger. Sabriel inherits the title of Abhorsen, taking up the responsibility for keeping the Old Kingdom free from necromancers and the dead. Lirael splits narration between Sabriel’s son, Sameth, and Lirael, born to the Clayr, a family of female Seers. Sameth chafes under his responsibility to become the next Abhorsen, while Lirael resents her inability to See the future like the rest of the Clayr. They both get involved in a rescue effort with international and supernatural consequences, discovering their own destinies in the process.

The descriptive, evocative sentences are the greatest attraction of this series. What’s most remarkable is the way the dark atmosphere is tinged with occasional humor, especially from the “pet” characters, Mogget and the Disreputable Dog. Sam also has an engaging voice, if he is a little whiny. Both he and Lirael are ultimately admirable, heroic characters, who face their fears and draw on resources they didn’t know they had to help others. Even when they fail, their efforts and reactions show them to be determined, brave, and caring.

Sabriel stands on its own much better than Lirael does. The cliffhanger ending of this volume sets up the third book in the trilogy, while Sabriel‘s ending is complete in itself. A reader could enjoy Lirael without reading Sabriel first, but there are lots of references that make more sense with previous knowledge, in addition to the way being comfortable with this world makes picking up the sequel like visiting a familiar place. It isn’t only because of the cliffhanger that I’m looking forward to the last book in the trilogy.

A Clash of Kings

A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin

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This is the second novel in the Song of Ice and Fire or Game of Thrones series. It continues where A Game of Thrones left off, introducing a lot of new characters and adding a religious element to the conflicts. Much of the action simply follows logically from the events at the end of the first volume; the first third to half of this book was spent tying up plotlines from the explosive ending of A Game of Thrones. As this book opens, there are four men calling themselves kings, as well as a queen in exile and a rebellious island ruler who’s taking advantage of the chaos to assert himself.  They have some pretty epic battles and intrigues, including an assassination, a princess in hiding, a naval battle on a river delta in the middle of a city, and a couple child murders. This book was engrossing for all the same reasons that the first one was: a fast-moving plot with lots of interesting characters that a reader can easily become invested in. Even the unsavory ones have a coherent psychology that makes their actions understandable, if not wise or laudable. So much is happening that the books could probably be called “plot-heavy,” but they still have plenty of atmosphere, world-building, and attention to language on the sentence level. There’s even a good surprise at the end, a happy one to balance all the upsetting violence. Again, I strongly recommend this series to anyone who likes fantasy and has the time for a bunch of lengthy novels that are impossible to put down. I’m looking forward to catching up with the second season of the HBO series (I always try to read the book first).

Trickster’s Queen

Trickster’s Queen by Tamora Pierce

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This novel continues the story of Aly, the daughter of Alanna, the lady knight. Aly is a spy in a restless island nation about to be torn open by a revolution. She’s leading the efforts to depose a pair of cruel regents and put a new young queen on the throne, one who symbolizes the union of two ruling families and two races. The novel’s action covers her work toward building a spy network and uncovering information about the regents’ plans. One highlight is the perfect spy helpers: “darkings,” small creatures who act as microphones, radios, and cameras all at once. The love story that began in the last book, between Aly and Nawat, a crow who has become a man, is resolved after a time of separation, when Nawat returns and no longer seems quite so crow-like. Pierce doesn’t turn away from sex, from the deaths of important characters, or from asking big moral questions with the choices characters have to make.

Generally I think the books about Aly are stronger than the ones about Alanna. They’re longer, deeper, and more complex in terms of plot and character. The difference might have to do with Pierce’s improving skill as a writer and with changing expectations of the YA book market. I’m not even sure if YA as we now know it existed when the Alanna books were first written; they were probably categorized as children’s books, and it shows.

Property

Property by Valerie Martin

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Property explores slavery from the point of view of a plantation owner’s wife. Manon is angry and bitter, full of hatred for her husband and the house slave he has taken as a mistress. Unlike Claire Messud’s Nora, Manon is definitely unlikeable. She seethes with resentment, ruminating on how she’s been wronged, plotting revenge on a slave woman. Martin seems to be presenting her as an example of how slaveholding poisons the soul of slaveholders. Luckily, her repellant personality doesn’t keep her from being interesting. She is preoccupied with hating the slave woman who bore her husband’s two children. Most of the book’s conflict is about whether Manon will be able to escape her marriage. The most dramatic scenes are about a violent slave uprising. It’s a pretty short, first-person novel, and it doesn’t have a happy ending for Manon, but then, she doesn’t really deserve one.

The Outlandish Companion

The Outlandish Companion: In Which Much Is Revealed Regarding Claire and Jamie Fraser, their Lives and Times, Antecedents, Adventures, Companions, and Progeny, with Learned Commentary (and Many Footnotes) by their Humble Creator by Diana Gabaldon

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This large volume is not a novel at all, but a reference book to help readers understand and enjoy the Outlander series, a hard-to-categorize-and-describe set of long novels about a time traveler and the Scottish Highlander she marries, set beginning in the 1740s and spanning several decades (and centuries). This series has a cast of thousands, as the 30-page alphabetical list of characters attests, so a companion book like this could really help a reader who gets confused by very complicated and involved narratives. This companion book includes a lot of information on the setting and the extensive historical research Gabaldon has done. Some of the information is not meant to alleviate confusion, but to enrich reading through adding information about the writing process, the characters’ backgrounds, and a bibliography of books for further reading. It was written in 1999, so it’s pretty out of date, with an excerpt from a book that has since been published under another name, and information about websites that are surely long extinct.

When Gabaldon talks about her writing and her characters, she has an almost mystical approach, as if the characters were pre-existing and she merely discovered them, as if she is a psychic conduit for something bigger than herself, the story. It’s a way of talking about writing that I’ve heard before but which always mystifies me, because it seems so different from anything I think I could ever experience.

In this companion book, Gabaldon spends far too much time justifying things that I think a writer need never justify, like her inclusion of sex scenes and dirty language. A good reader can tell that these sex scenes are well-written and contain plot-relevant information, and that the “profane” language is not gratuitous, but reveals character and is realistic. The readers object to these passages on the principle that no good book, no real literature, could ever contain graphic sex or four-letter words. These criticisms are so obviously small-minded that I don’t think they’re worth dignifying with a response, but Gabaldon devotes pages to explaining why depicting sex is important in a series about a marriage and why particular characters would use certain words in very emotional situations. I guess it’s nice that she takes her readers this seriously, and it shows the amount of thought that goes into every decision she makes in her writing.

This companion book is nowhere near as enjoyable as the novels they explicate. I find the novels fascinating; they’re like a rabbit hole that just goes deeper and deeper. The next book in the series is Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, coming out in March next year.

Radical Homemakers

Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture by Shannon Hayes

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In Radical Homemakers, Hayes paints a picture of families that have at least one partner who is not traditionally employed, who farms and homeschools and cans vegetables and builds a community of like-minded people hoping to save the world through this environmentally conscious domestic work. They are not homemakers in the June Cleaver sense of the word, but people who have made careers of their home life through frugality, domestic skills, and ingenuity. In the first half of the book, Hayes outlines the theory behind the choice these people have made, why the American economy destroys families and the environment, and why opting out of it is the best, most sustainable and life-giving choice for these families. In the second half, she describes the practicalities of making this lifestyle work, including the tangible and intangible skills necessary.

I sympathize greatly with the anti-materialist, environmentalist aims of Hayes and her profiled homemakers. She is right when she critiques American culture’s obsession with stuff and status and the family-hostile inflexibility of the modern workplace. There are some passages in the book that are almost inspiring in their depiction of a life free from the “extractative” economy and its depredations of family life. It almost makes me want to follow their footsteps. However, I have no interest in gardening, urban or otherwise, or in any of the crafts that make these people’s lifestyles possible. This kind of work would be more grueling and unpleasant for me than my current job, or almost any job I can imagine having, so I cannot imagine making this choice myself. The book makes me feel kind of guilty to realize this about myself, as if it’s a moral failing of mine. I’m actively participating in making the world worse because I’m too lazy to plant a tomato. Wow.

To me, the most unrealistic part of the book was the discussion of health care. Many of the homemakers have one partner with a ‘normal’ job that provides benefits for the family. Some others buy health insurance on their own. Some of them have obtained health care for their children through welfare programs. But many others have freely chosen to live without health insurance. They are quoted discussing how their all-organic diets are the best preventative medicine available. I think this was the point in the book where I stopped taking Hayes and her homemakers very seriously. For me, the sheer delusion that this choice evidenced, the insane daydream of believing that a catastrophic injury or illness will never happen to you undermined all of the homemakers’ other pronouncements.

This book challenged me and made me rethink some things about my own choices as a worker and consumer. I think if I were to apply this book’s lessons to my own life, it would look somewhat different–and less crunchy–than the homemakers’, and that’s ok.

Balthazar

Balthazar by Claudia Gray

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This YA romance novel is a spin-off from the Evernight series, which is about a school for vampires. It takes two minor characters from that series and continues their story after the end of the action of the previous four books. The vampire mythology of these books is both more complicated and more traditional than in some other vampire books. These vampires can’t cross running water, but don’t seem to have too much trouble with sunlight; they have a particular antipathy for ghosts.

Balthazar is a vampire who was ‘turned’ back in America’s early colonial days, and Skye is a human with some supernatural abilities, especially seeing ghosts. When a group of vampires comes to Skye’s town and starts stalking her, Balthazar protects her, and they become close and fall in love. In many ways, this is a fairly typical YA romance, with some predictable plot elements, like a passionate first kiss followed immediately by a rejection. It’s gratifying that Skye is not helpless, that she does a pretty good job of taking care of herself when she has to and even saves Balthazar at one point. It’s also fairly interesting and unusual for YA that Skye is not a virgin at the beginning of the story, and she and Balthazar get to have sex, though without graphic description. If you like YA paranormal romance and aren’t expecting something that will blow your mind, you’ll probably like this book, and the entire Evernight series.

The Human Stain

The Human Stain by Philip Roth

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Philip Roth writes prose that you can just fall into. It weaves around you and takes you in. His sentences are long and convoluted, nested in paragraphs that are even longer, and he fills that space with the kinds of details that make characters come to life. That’s why I enjoyed the time I spent reading this novel more than I do most books where less attention is paid to the language.

The Human Stain relates the tragedy of Coleman Silk, a dean of a small liberal arts college, who is ousted from his position after he mistakenly uses a racial slur in class. His forced retirement begins a downward spiral in which his wife dies, he begins an affair with a much younger cleaning woman, and eventually dies in an “accident.” The story is definitely presented as high tragedy, fatal flaw and all. The most interesting part is a twist that has to do with Coleman’s identity, about halfway through the book.

One thing about this novel that makes me somewhat uneasy is the presentation of “politically correct” language as trivial. The novel and the events in it could be used as an argument for what happens when minorities are over-sensitive about particular words: innocent members of the group in power get victimized. The hero, Coleman, is a pretty old-fashioned kind of academic, a “humanist” who probably wouldn’t like the different kinds of theory I learned in grad school, 10 years after the book’s 1998 setting. I’m not sure what to think of this aspect of the novel and its relation to the real world; it makes me want to read some criticism on the book to see what others who are smarter than me have said. Regardless of these issues, Roth definitely succeeded in making me identify and sympathize with Coleman, which is a testament to the quality of the writing.

The Passage

The Passage by Justin Cronin

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The Passage is first in a trilogy of post-apocalyptic vampire novels. The novel opens with the story of a friendless girl, Amy, who is taken up by an FBI agent who is to transport her to a secret facility where she will be a test subject. The scientists have been using death row inmates for their experiments on immortality. Something goes horribly wrong, of course, and the former inmates start attacking people. The FBI agent, who has forned a touching relationship with Amy, escapes the facility with her and hides in the wilderness.

The narrative then flashes forward about 90 years, and North America has been overtaken by the creatures. A few humans remain in a small community, and the story follows a few of these as they struggle to survive. They encounter Amy and eventually start to learn about the origins of the creatures and how they can be defeated. By the end of the book, the stage has been set for a war on the vampires that humanity actually has a chance at winning. The fast-paced story nevertheless has plenty of philosophical interludes and attention to language. The main characters are admirable, even heroic, but full of human flaws and failings. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is its explorations of the small societies that get set up after the world has ended. It’s a very long novel, at over 700 pages, but worth the time if you like thrillers and postapocalyptic settings.

The next novel, The Twelve, is on my reading list.