Thursday, March 15, 2018

March Magics: Believing is Seeing

Believing is Seeing: Seven Stories, by Diana Wynne Jones

Since the first story in this collection is "The Sage of Theare," I'm really only going to talk about six.  By the way, this collection is nearly identical to the earlier Minor Arcana, except Minor Arcana does not have "Enna Hittims" and does contain the very rare "The True State of Affairs," which I'll cover later.  Even the introduction is re-used for this volume!

"The Master" is one freaky terrifying story.  DWJ said it was a nightmare that she had to write out, and yeah, if I kept having that dream I'd have to write it out too!  The narrator is a vet, called out to an urgent case.  There's a forest, a murdered woman, and wolves right outside a very strange house. 

"Enna Hittims" starts off as fun but becomes frightening in its own way.  Anne has been ill and, to pass the time, tells stories to herself about tiny adventurers in the hills made by her blanket.  The adventurers come alive; they are not at all easy to deal with, and they have every intention of killing all the giants in this castle they've found.

"The Girl Who Loved the Sun" is almost a story from Ovid.  Phega is in love with the Sun, and she is determined to become the thing the Sun seems to love best -- a tree.  This is a tragic story that I really like.

Of course, "Dragon Reserve, Home Eight" is a real favorite of mine; I think it is for a lot of people.  DWJ said she wrote it while trying to work out the layers of worlds in Christopher Chant, but I tend to connect it with Hexwood -- I think because she uses a couple of names (Yurov, for example) that also show up in Hexwood, and really I think that the story would fit well in the Hexwood universe.  Siglin is arrested for being heg (having witch-like powers), but it turns out that heg abilities are the only thing that can save civilization.

I'm not a huge fan of cat stories, so "What the Cat Told Me" does not automatically endear itself to me, but it is a very interesting story.  The cat narrates a fairy tale from her own perspective; she was once a familiar to a wicked wizard who kept a servant boy.  Boy plans to escape with the cat, but he gets distracted by food and a pretty girl...

"Nad and Dan adn Quaffy" is a funny story in which DWJ pokes a bit of fun at herself (or possibly Anne McCaffrey!)  as a writer.  F. C. Stone, science-fiction writer, lives on coffee and writes a lot of scenes in which spaceship pilots hunch over controls and deal with complex space politics -- all fueled by alien coffee, of course.  Until the word processor talks back and calls her Captain.

Most of these are stories often seen in DWJ collections, and they're all pretty good.  But to my mind, "Dragon Reserve, Home Eight" is the best one!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Reading Ireland: The Third Policeman

The Third Policeman, by Flann O'Brien

Flann O'Brien was a pen name for Brian O Nuallain (O'Nolan) -- he seems to have had a few.  He was born in 1911 in an Irish-speaking home, where his father was reluctant to send the children to an English-speaking school; they could all speak English just fine, and he preferred that they be taught in Irish, but such a school was not to be found.  O'Brien became a comic, satirical writer -- and he drank a lot -- and The Third Policeman was his last novel, written in 1939 but not published until 1967, after his death. The blurb on the back cover says O'Brien was "one of Ireland's great comic geniuses" along with Joyce and Beckett.

The narrator, who never gets a name, is a young man, a fanatic scholar of the great philosopher de Selby, and he's going back to the family farm after university.  He's an orphan and the farm is run by one John Divney, who suggests they remedy their lack of money by killing and robbing Mathers, the local miser.  The narrator ends up in a conversation with Mathers' ghost, and then enters a two-dimensional police station, where two officers interrogate him about bicycles, teach him Atomic Theory, and plan to hang him for murder.  Also eternity is down the road a little ways, and the narrator has conversations with his soul, whose name is Joe.  The whole narrative is punctuated by long footnotes about de Selby's discoveries and writings, and in the end the narrator goes to find Divney...

I did not exactly find this novel to be comic or funny.  It's surreal and weird and odd, and interesting, but I wouldn't call it funny.  Maybe I don't have the right sense of humor.  I liked it fine, and I do think it fits with Beckett.  I haven't read enough Joyce to be able to compare (and my knowledge of Beckett dates from college and is rusty).

Friday, March 9, 2018

March Magics: Mixed Magics

 Mixed Magics, or, short stories of Chrestomanci

Yay, Chrestomanci stories!  DWJ wrote more Chrestomanci stories than anything else, but there are not enough of them.  The four short stories:

"Warlock at the Wheel" stars the Willing Warlock from Charmed Life, who escapes from the law to our world.  He steals a car, and from then on it's pretty much O. Henry's "Ransom of Red Chief," as a demanding little girl and her giant guard dog torment the poor Warlock into a breakdown.  It's funny, especially for younger kids ($5 says it also started as a bedtime story!), but not stellar.

"Stealer of Souls" is a fairly recent story, published in 2000 and only in this collection.  Tonino Montana visits Chrestomanci Castle, and Cat is charged with looking after him (this takes place some time after Charmed Life and just after Magicians of Caprona).  Cat is an utter brat about this and dislikes Tonino, but then they are both kidnapped by a terrifying evil wizard who has spent the last couple of hundred years collecting lives from nine-lifed enchanters.  With their memories stolen, and forced to cope on their own, Cat and Tonino become a team.  I love this story; I think it's a great addition to the Chrestomanci tales.

"Carol Oneir's Hundredth Dream" is another particular favorite of mine.  It's from 1986, which means it was written just before (or I think more probably at the same time as) The Lives of Christopher Chant, and in the timeline it takes place right after "Stealer of Souls."  Carol is only about eleven, but she's a highly successful professional dreamer.  When all of a sudden she can't dream any more, her father calls up Chrestomanci for a consultation.  Chrestomanci expertly dissects Carol's dreaming methods and delivers her from her stage mother as well.

There are two fun elements about this story: DWJ both explained and poked fun at her own writing methods with Carol's dreaming cover story and her real, inner thoughts -- which are both true, despite the contradictions.  Then, Carol's father is the Oneir who smashes Christopher's head with a cricket bat....and "oneiric" means "having to do with dreams."

"The Sage of Theare" is also one I'm very fond of.  In an extremely orderly parallel world, the gods are worried about the prophesied Sage of Dissolution, who will destroy them.  In a bid to stop him, the sun god finds curious little Thasper and takes him to another world, but that causes some serious difficulties.  Chrestomanci has to help Thasper and deliver a stern lecture to the gods.  This story is a standard selection and appears in a lot of the DWJ collections.

So, three really great stories and one fairly good one.

What's My Spin Number?

And the number is....3!

I will therefore be reading And So Flows History, by Hahn Moo-Sook.  It's a three-generational Korean family saga that starts in the late 19th century and continues until, I think, the end of World War II.  It was published in 1947 and does not include the ideological battles that turned into the Korean War.

Hahn Moo-Sook was quite a young woman when she wrote the book; she must have been about 30, and a young mother, when it was published.  Her daughter, Young-Key Kim-Renaud, is the translator.  (To clarify, on the book, Hahn's name is written in the Asian way, and Kim-Renaud's in the Western way.)

Should be interesting!  I'm supposed to finish and post by April 30th.  Surely I can manage that.  And it will count for South Korea in my Read All Around the World Project too!

Thursday, March 8, 2018

March Magics: Stopping for a Spell and other younger stories

 Stopping for a Spell and some other stories for younger ages

I thought I'd write about most of the younger stories all at once.  I started with them and figured on working my way up in complexity.

Stopping for a Spell has three stories, and I think they must have started off as bedtime stories for little boys who wanted a lot of laughs.  DWJ, after all, had three boys, and she said they always wanted funny stories.  "Chair Person" brings a family's hideous old armchair to life, "The Four Grannies" features Erg, who accidentally turns his four bothersome grannies into one great big Supergranny, and "Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?" has a horrible houseguest who is finally evicted by the fed-up furniture, since nothing less will shift him.

None of these are big favorites of mine, but I can imagine little boys in pajamas absolutely screaming with laughter over them.  They all feature outside intruders into family life, and the horrified parents are usually kind of helpless in the face of ridiculously over-the-top antics.  Even the kids can't always prevail!

Other stories for younger ages are scattered in Warlock at the Wheel and a couple of other books. 

I quite like "Plague of Peacocks," in which a new set of busybody neighbors move into the neighborhood and plague the life out of everyone else.  All the kids depend on little Daniel Emanuel -- once he gets fed up, there's no knowing what might happen.  "Fluffy Pink Toadstool" delivers a comeuppance to a mom who gets a little too into the Natural Lifestyle; this one does make me laugh.  In "Auntie Bea's Day Out," she drags everyone to the seaside and insists on heading out to an island despite the 'danger' signs, and the island dislikes her so much that it tries to get rid of her.  So those are all about awful adults who impose on everybody else and must be dealt with.

"Carruthers" is an odd story.  Elizabeth, rather a bullied kid, adopts an old walking stick.  She misunderstands some things and hopes that the stick will eventually beat her father so he'll stop being terrible, but instead Carruthers just complains and eats a lot, until burglars arrive.  "No One" reminds me a bit of Ray Bradbury; in a house of the future, No One is the robot charged with caring for 6-year-old Edward.  Kidnappers show up and No One organizes a comedic and messy defense with all the AI house appliances. 

These are mainly funny stories, but they have their themes too.  DWJ is pretty clear that she doesn't like meddlers; people ought to be left alone to do as they please.  Nearly all of these families are pretty average, pleasant groups of people, if sometimes kind of ineffectual -- if the intruder is a relative, it's nearly always somebody outside the immediate family circle.  "Carruthers" is an exception; Elizabeth and her sisters are really not treated well, the more so because they're girls and their parents have very limited ideas about what girls can do.  I think DWJ put her own family into this story more, albeit very toned down.

I hadn't read some of these for a long time, so I had fun.  Even when they're not big favorites, they're still full of great turns of phrase and insightful moments.  I am particularly fond of Chair Person's smashed-hedgehog beard and the nature-obsessed mother's insistence on floppy hand-woven clothing.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Chronicles of St. Mary's (I and II)

Just One Damned Thing After Another and
A Symphony of Echoes, by Jodi Taylor

These two books about time-traveling historians came across the donation table, and I nearly didn't take them, but then I did.  They turn out to be the first two books in what is now quite a long series, The Chronicles of St. Mary's.  They're more adult fiction than YA; that is, everybody in it is over 25 and it just feels more like adult fiction, plus people die at a fairly high rate.  The back blurb calls the series "madcap," so watch out, I guess.

Max is a historian with no family ties, which makes her a perfect recruit for St. Mary's, an outfit that secretly does historical research in person.  Max's training and first big assignment comprise the first book; she becomes close with all the other trainees and, once qualified, she and her partner head off to the Cretaceous to study actual dinosaurs!  But!  Tyrannosaurus Rexes are not the only danger.  St. Mary's has an enemy who is not above using history as a weapon.

In the second volume, Max starts off trying to catch a sight of Jack the Ripper on his last night of action, moves on to Thomas a Becket's murder, and ends up on a long assignment with Mary, Queen of Scots.  That's the tricky one; somebody is trying to introduce an anomaly into History, which normally squashes anyone flat if they try.

I thought these were pretty good reads.  They are witty and exciting.  The foreshadowing is on the heavy side; every other chapter ends with some version of "if only I had known that my world was about to be torn apart."  This happens far too often.

Time-travel books tend to have this problem of how to not mess with history.  If there isn't some mechanism to protect History as we know it, then the baddies can loot everything and the goodies can kill Hitler.  Taylor solves this in much the same way that Connie Willis does in her time-travel books; History simply doesn't allow meddling, and if something does go wrong, it corrects by any means necessary.

I'm not sure if I will read more of this series.  It was pretty good, but I don't yet know if I want to read more.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Green Unknown

The Green Unknown: Travels in the Khasi Hills, by Patrick Rogers

I was offered a review copy of a book about walking through part of India!  How could I pass that up?

Meghalaya is an Indian state in the far northeast, on the northeaster border of Bangladesh and not too far from Myanmar.  It's a steeply mountainous area covered in jungle, with the highest rainfall in the world, leading to waterfalls and floods.  The people live in villages scattered throughout the mountains, often having different dialects just a few miles apart, even though they travel around a lot.  Tourism is mostly confined to one or two points of view, but Patrick Rogers became fascinated with the area and wanted to explore more.

In particular, Rogers was interested in the root bridges that the locals have built over generations.  The native ficus trees have long, strong roots that can, over years, be trained into bridges spanning the chasms all over the landscape.  To the inhabitants, they're just a normal, inexpensive way to get around.  To the rest of us, they're an amazing meld of nature and craft.  There aren't as many as there used to be, though, and so Rogers got interested in documenting them (nobody seems to have a real idea of how many there are) and hopefully encouraging their preservation; he writes a good deal about local people trying to drum up interest.

Root bridge at Nongsteng.  Photo: Patrick Rogers

Rogers writes lyrically about the beauties and dangers of the Meghalayan mountains, and humorously about his own adventures therein.  It's a nice combination, and I really enjoyed the book.  He writes about exploring mountain paths (not always very safely), visiting villages, how to wait out a monsoon, and what to eat.

The Green Unknown is only a buck on Kindle, and that's a good deal. You can check out the book's website here; just watch out for the myriad photos of really gigantic spiders!  (I would really like to visit Meghalaya and hike around and cross a root bridge.  I'm doubtful about my ability to cope with conditions and with giant spiders.  Maybe if I cut all my hair off?)

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Long Utopia and The Long Cosmos

The Long Utopia and The Long Cosmos, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

I finished the Long Earth sequence just in time for March Magics! These are the last two in the series of five, and Baxter notes at the beginning of the last volume that, sadly, he had to finish the last one on his own.  It's a nice tribute.

The Long Utopia, again, jumps a decade or so forward and has several storylines that follow our protagonists.  Joshua, is learning about the father he never knew and some weird family history, and he's also called to find out about a new phenomenon -- the Next, superintelligent (and not terribly empathetic) humans who are no longer quite human, and who get together to build their own society and discuss: what to do with the regular humans?  Maybe cage them for their own good in a utopia?  Lobsang has retired to a remote world and is trying to live as a human with a family, but he winds up running straight into a problem that requires Next help.  Alien insects have discovered his world and are mining it from the inside.  What if these aliens discover the rest of the Long Earth?

In The Long Cosmos, a message is broadcast along the entire Long Earth: "Join us."  Join who?  The Next figure out that the message contains instructions for building a massive artificial intelligence machine, but they need human help to do it.  Is this a good idea, or not?  Joshua, meanwhile, is about 70 and goes on one of his lone treks -- but this time he gets smashed by an animal and is saved by a troll band.  Living with them, he learns previously unguessed-at aspects of their society and discovers yet more strange worlds.  Then the final adventure: stepping to alien planets with the help of the Machine....

One interesting aspect of both books is an emphasis on replicators; AI machines that can reproduce themselves.  The alien insects seem to be replicators, possibly ones that have gotten out of control.  An English teacher decides to bring Shakespeare to the entire Long Earth, and uses a self-replicating book to do it, but he doesn't quite grasp the implications.  And the Machine becomes self-building after a while.  I like how Pratchett and Baxter look at several different replicator possibilities.

This is a great sequence of novels, one I really enjoyed, and I think most of my family members would like it too.  Now if I could just get them to read it...

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Classics Club Spin #17!

Woohoo, it's time for another Spin!  I've done all of them, so you know I can't miss out.  I love the Spin, and if you're not familiar with it, the rules can be found here, at the Classics Club blog. Join us!

We'll know the Spin Number on Friday, the 9th. 

Nearly all of these titles are books that are in my house right now, whether they're on my TBR pile or on the library shelf.  I have far too many books waiting around to be read to have any business bringing more in (which I do all the time).  But these are a good mix of titles from all over the world, some scary and some I'm looking forward too, with a couple of chunksters thrown in.
  1. The Glatstein Chronicles
  2. Jurgen, by James Branch Cabell 
  3.  And So Flows History, by Hahn Moo-Souk
  4. Revelations of Divine Love, by Julian of Norwich
  5.  Walls of Jericho, by Rudolph Fisher 
  6. To Live, by Yu Hua 
  7. The Plague, by Albert Camus
  8. Miss MacKenzie, by Anthony Trollope
  9. The Dawning, by Milka Bajic Poderegin
  10.  Franny and Zooey, by J. D. Salinger
  11. The Green Face, by Gustav Meyrink
  12.  The Obedience of a Christian Man, by William Tyndale
  13.  Amerika, by Kafka
  14.  Stories/essays of Lu Xun
  15. The Journal of a Tour Through the Hebrides, by Boswell
  16. Pan Tadeusz, by Adam Mickiewicz 
  17.  The Sea and Poison, by Shusaku Endo
  18. Subtly Worded, by Teffi 
  19.  Palm-Wine Drinkard, by Tutuola
  20.  Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange (Medieval Arabic stories)
Let me know what you think of my list, and may the odds be ever in our favor in the Spin.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Upcoming March events!

I'm quite excited about March reading.  There's some good stuff coming up....

What better month to read Irish literature?  Cathy at 746 Books is hosting Reading Ireland Month!  It just so happens that I recently picked up a copy of The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien, so I'll read that.  Head on over to Cathy's place to see the plans.

Of course, the highlight of March is always March Magics, the event dedicated to Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett!  Kristen We Be Reading is hosting this year, and the theme is "All the Shorts" -- I'm not sure what I'll do for Pterry, since I read A Blink of the Screen just two years ago.  On the other hand, I can't actually remember most of the stories, so maybe it's time to pick it up again!  And I will undoubtedly just binge right through every single one of DWJ's shorts.  I have all the collections, and I can't wait to read that nightmarish one about the magician and "Dragon Reserve, Home Eight" and "Everard's Ride" again. 

So I hope you will join me for both of these events!  I'm feeling quite excited over the prospect!