by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Reading”

Lifeline Bookfest 2012 (January)

Posted 17 January 2012 in by Catriona

Oh, Lifeline Bookfest. How I look forward to you every year. Well, twice a year, actually. And yet … and yet.

This year, I found the January sales just a wee bit disappointing. I suspect a big part of that was sheer exhaustion: my first full week (which isn’t a full week, for me) back at work after the Christmas season and seasonal chest infection, and I woke up with a splitting headache. So I wasn’t in a truly pro-Bookfest state of mind.

They’d also made what was, to me, a fairly significant change in the structure. The Bookfest has three sections: high quality, priced, and unpriced. Often, the unpriced section is fascinating: I have, in the past, found fabulous girls’ boarding-school stories there, because they’re not usually the types of the books that attract a high price tag. But the books in that section are also usually a bit grubby and often in poor condition. So, in recent years, I’ve stuck to the priced section while Nick winnows his way through the high-quality section.

And, as a cursory glance through my past posts will show, I tend to focus my attention on the children’s books, and then have a quick run through literature and paperback fiction.

(I only look at sci-fi and fantasy if I fancy being elbowed repeatedly.)

But this year, they’d stripped all the children’s books out of the priced section: they were only stacked in the high-quality and unpriced sections.

I should, of course, have gone straight to the high-quality section once I realised that, but I spent some dispiriting time in the unpriced section before I realised I really wasn’t going to find anything I could be bothered queuing up for. Then I went through the high-quality section.

As a result, I bought much less than I usually would.

I also resisted the urge to buy no fewer than three different versions of the Robin Hood stories, because they were all annoying in different ways. (Especially Roger Lancelyn Green’s version, in which Marian explained to her father that, yes, she considered herself promised to Robin and she was planning on going to live with him in Sherwood if her father continued to be a prat, but that she intended to remain Maid Marian until Robin’s lands and title were restored, which led me to assume that Marian was marrying Robin for the money and prestige. I don’t want to think that of Marian!)

As usual, the books are all children’s and young-adult fantasy, not least because I was exhausted by this point and couldn’t be bothered looking at the literature tables:

I really must get around to actually reading those Carole Wilkinson books at some point: I own three now (fortuitously, they’re the first three in the series, which is better luck than I usually manage), so I really do’t have any further excuse.

I’m also quite pleased about that Margaret Mahy: I’ll happily read pretty much anything by Mahy, and this one (“In a time not far from our own, a colourful group of travellers brave the twisting, tricksy landscape of the Remaking, after Chaos ripped the world apart. They are the magicians, clowns, trapeze artists and musicians of Maddigan’s Fantasia, healing the injured land with their gifts of wonder and laughter”) sounds delightful.

I’m also rather ashamed that I didn’t know it was based on a television series (whose concept Mahy developed), especially since spec-fic film and television is actually the focus of my current research.

Bad, bad researcher.

I have a sneaking memory, somewhere in the back of my head, that tells me I’d come across the Patrick Rothfuss somewhere before (an online review, or Amazon entry, or some such) and decided it didn’t appeal to me. But that vague memory only surfaced after I’d read the back, decided it did appeal to me, and bought it. I’m stuck with deciding for myself now, I suppose.

Still, to balance that, there’s always the Ursula Le Guin at the bottom, about a world in which reading, writing, and scholarship are punishable by death. Let’s face it: you can’t really go wrong with Ursula Le Guin.

Lifeline Bookfest 2011 (June)

Posted 18 June 2011 in by Catriona

A week! An entire week without updating you about my lovely, lovely Lifeline BookFest purchases! what an unforgivably slack blogger I am.

But, end of semester being what it is, these have just been piled up on a corner of my desk (on top of two books about George Orwell, a glossary of literary terms, two notebooks, an exam, two draft journal articles, and a critical work on Victorian thing theory) for a week, waiting for me to find the time to photograph them.

The collection this time is, as it’s been for a while, rather heavy on the young-adult speculative fiction:

Well, excluding the Kurt Vonnegut essays, of course.

The Sisters Grimm book on the top there I bought because it’s the first volume and I already own volumes two and three. I haven’t read them, of course, but I do own them.

And another Diana Wynne Jones that I don’t already have! Not as successful as January’s sale in that respect, but, hey: a new Diana Wynne Jones is a new Diana Wynne Jones.

The book on the bottom is the real excitement in this pile, though:

Admittedly, I already own at least two other copies of the Brothers Grimm household tales: one a complete set and one a Victorian translation with only the more popular tales in it. But neither of them is a version of the household tales illustrated by Mervyn Peake.

I couldn’t have turned that down.

The other pile is also young-adult speculative-fiction heavy:

I’m keen on reading that Gail Carson Levine (even if it is prominently marked “Ages 9-12”), because I’ve a bit of a soft spot for her after reading Ella Enchanted and realising it wasn’t at all what I expected. She’s not in the Diana Wynne Jones camp for me, though: I’m not interested in all Levine’s books, just the odd one that takes my fancy.

The real joy here, though—the single best find of the entire sale, one that would have made the trip worthwhile even if I’d bought nothing else—is on the top of the pile:

No, not the Doctor Who short stories. Believe it or not, I bought those for research purposes.

No, really.

No, honest: I’m writing a journal article.

No, it’s the George MacDonald short fantasy fiction. I mean, how utterly, utterly beautiful are these?

They’re ’80s reprints, but they’re absolutely gorgeous.

And, what’s more, they’re an entire box full of MacDonald’s fantasy. Definitely and completely worth getting up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday and trawling through millions of books before breakfast.

Vale, Diana Wynne Jones

Posted 27 March 2011 in by Catriona

I heard about Diana Wynne Jones on the weekend, during Earth Hour. We were sitting on the back verandah in the light of some leaf-shaped candles when Nick, reading his iPad, told me that she’d died.

I texted my older sister, another fan. “Diana Wynne Jones has died,” I wrote.

She didn’t reply. But she rang the next night to tell me she’d been at a dinner party. She’d read my text out loud to a room full of historians and one psychologist. Most of them weren’t familiar with Diana Wynne Jones, though one said he had enjoyed her books “when I was a child”.

“He can’t have been a real reader,” said my sister. “Real readers enjoy her books now.”

Then we chatted for an hour about how many times we’d read each book.

“I’ve only read The Pinhoe Egg about four or five times,” said my sister. “But it hasn’t been out that long. It’ll catch up to Charmed Life.”

I’ve written elsewhere on the blog about my feelings for Diana Wynne Jones. Only on Friday, I was talking about the delight of finding two of her books that I didn’t already own.

But, now, I think I’ll just follow the footsteps of other fans, and show you rather than tell you what Diana Wynne Jones meant to me as a reader.

Vale, Diana Wynne Jones.

Lifeline Bookfest 2011 (January)

Posted 25 March 2011 in by Catriona

Two months ago, Lifeline held their January Bookfest. It was shortly after the city drowned, and shortly before the months began haring past as though they’d made a bet to see how fast they could get to 2012.

I roused sufficient energy to write my name and the date in these, and to enter them all in Delicious Library. But since then, these books have sat in an increasingly unsteady pile under my desk, on the grounds that they were going to be blogged about one day.

Today is that day.

They’ve all been banished to various shelves around the house, some scientifically, some on the grounds that “Eh, you fit there. That’s good enough.” So now is the time to show you all how terribly restrained I was this year.

I’m always delighted to find a new Trollope, though rarely surprised, since the man wrote, at a conservative estimate, 1.5 million novels. This is one I’ve never read, and (in all honesty) won’t be reading any time soon. But I like to have them on my shelves for that day when I do feel like an orgy of mid-Victorian prose.

And two Chalet School books! One feels like a victory, so this feels like—is there something better than a victory? A rout, maybe?—this feels like a rout. And they’re early ones, too: when the school was still in Austria and we hadn’t moved on to the second generation of Chalet School girls. Sadly, one (A United Chalet School) is one of those annoying volumes that Armada produced where they only published half the novel, and coyly invited you to buy the second half separately.

Sods.

The L.M. Montgomery is the second of these little paperback collections of short stories that I’ve found at the Lifeline BookFest. Short stories aren’t really my cup of tea, but I’m a completionist at heart (or a completist? I can’t remember which Tim suggested last time he corrected my misuse of this word), and they’re worth having for that sake alone. But they also tempt me to pen a journal article on Montgomery’s cannibalism of her own early prose for her novels. Maybe one day I’ll get around to that.

Paula Danziger is someone about whose presence on my shelves I’m a little ambivalent. (Now, there’s some complicated syntax for you.) I loved the books when I was a pre-teen, but, then, I also loved Judy Blume, and I’ve somehow stopped myself from re-buying those. And, while they’re charming and make me want to live in Woodstock, Danziger’s books are pretty light reading when you’re (ahem) 34.

So why do I buy them when I see them? I don’t really know. I justify them on the grounds that they’re only tiny volumes, and I sometimes get a blog post out of them. But I wonder if that’s enough, when the bookcases are groaning and creaking all over the house.

The Rip Van Winkle, though: I was never leaving that behind. It’s one of a collection of classic children’s literature in facsimile reprints. I have about a dozen of them (maybe less) and I can never, ever resist them.

The Dana Girls mystery (Secret of the Swiss Chalet) was, as it turns out, a book I really didn’t need to buy.

(I already own it. Don’t tell Nick.)

The Scott Westerfeld is another series that I’ve shamefully not read. But I have Uglies on my shelf, and I wasn’t leaving Pretties there to be snatched up by someone who might, you know, read it or something.

The Diana Wynne Joneses, though, are my greatest triumph of this sale. I don’t own either of them already, and it’s a rare day these days that I find a secondhand Diana Wynne Jones book that I don’t already own. I had to banish the His Dark Materials trilogy to the spare room to make room for these on what is now a dedicated Diana Wynne Jones shelf, and I still can’t fit on Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Still, if anyone deserves a dedicated shelf, it’s Diana Wynne Jones.

The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants is one of the mystery books of this sale: I don’t really know why I bought it, except that I always like to make my own mind up about hit books, and I don’t see why I can’t still do that here, even if I am about ten years behind the times. Still, Nick was relieved when I told him I’d decided to put the three sequels back.

Speaking of books I’ve shamefully never read, I’ve never read From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler. But now I own it, I can pretend I’ve read it, even if I don’t quite get around to it yet. I won’t pretend to have read it by reading the synopsis on Wikipedia, though. (That’s how I finished the Vampire Academy series, after the books got longer and my patience got shorter.)

Half the books in this pile have some degree of familiarity: The Worst Witch (really, far too young for me these days, but how charming!), Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows (never read it, but The Dark is Rising haunted my childhood, flanked by Lloyd Alexander and Alan Garner), Peter Pan (which I already own, but which comes with Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, which I don’t own), Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (which joins If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller and The Literature Machine in a corner of the study).

And then there’s Michael Molloy. I’ve bought a number of his books lately, and haven’t read a single one. If I read one and think it’s rubbish, I’m going to be really annoyed.

And, finally, some more speculative buys (except for the Charlaine Harris short stories). Celadine, for example, which is both an unknown quality and the sequel to a book i don’t own. And another Michael Molloy, but how beautiful is that artwork? I call all books of this nature “research”, though I doubt whether my novel will ever see the light of day again. (Poor lovely.) But the Richard Newsome really is research, because he was the inaugural winner of a prize that my fiction is (if it were a bit better) eligible for, and I wish to figuratively pick his brains. To be honest, it doesn’t look like my sort of thing, but I’ll give it a go.

When I was showing Nick my purchases that afternoon (a post-BookFest tradition), he audibly gasped when I showed him the Fu Manchu Omnibus. Sure, it’s horrifically racist by modern standards, though very much of its time. But the man happily watches and roars with laughter over The Talons of Weng-Chiang. And how can you have Li H’sen Chang without Fu Manchu?

I told him it was more than flesh and blood could stand, good Victorian scholar and feverish consumer of popular culture that I am, to leave that beautiful book behind me on a trestle table and just walk away.

Little Treasures: Part Three

Posted 25 March 2011 in by Catriona

Once we’d had time to look through (and swiftly re-pack) the Little Golden Books that Nick’s mother passed on to us, we rummaged through the other enormous box of books (knowing that there was at least one, if not two, more still waiting in her entranceway for us).

And that’s where we found the real treasures:

Sure, I normally prefer to read books that are slightly more in focus than this, but Asterix is Asterix, fuzzy or otherwise. And look how those books have been loved: half to death, poor darlings.

But then there are these magnificent creatures:

These are Nick’s father’s hardcover Tintin books, from the 1950s and early 1960s, and they are gorgeous, from their red cloth spines to their thick, matte pages. It’s not a complete set, but each one is a gem.

I promised Nick that these would go on a shelf, not in a box in the garage. Now it’s only a matter of deciding which books currently on the shelf will be sacrificed to make space. Whichever books draw the short straw, I hope they realise it’s nothing personal: we can’t all be vintage Tintins.

I, For One, Welcome Our New Rat Overlords

Posted 12 March 2011 in by Catriona

Nobody panic, but I think the rats have taken charge:

They have the power now.

Christmas Books

Posted 6 March 2011 in by Catriona

With all the natural disasters, exploding laptop batteries, exploding fridges, and other generalised excitement that this year has thus far flung in our faces, I never did have a chance to post about my exciting little pile of Christmas books.

Last year, I don’t think I received a single book for Christmas. This year, there were books ahoy, and then I went and bought myself more books.

Behold!

Hmm. Actually, the only one of those that’s a Christmas book is Struwwelpeter, which my mother bought me for reasons that are probably best known only to her. (Though it is rather a lovely little facsimile edition. Since she didn’t buy me any grooming products, I probably shouldn’t really take it personally.)

The others are all books I bought myself for various reasons—mostly because I have a compulsion to buy books.

The George Orwell books are all for my forthcoming study guide to Animal Farm (and, by the way, if you know a high-school student who’s having trouble coming to terms with the complexity of Orwell’s anti-totalitarian novella, do I have the book for you!), and the Alberto Manguel is something I’ve been meaning to read for years (though I imagine my main reaction will be a deep and life-altering state of jealousy, since I don’t actually own a barn in the French countryside that I can transform into the perfect library. Why? Why is this something that it denied to me? Is it because I don’t live in France?).

But this next batch totally contains Christmas books!

Well, one Christmas book. Nick bought me one of the Patricia Wredes: The Thirteenth Child. Then I bought myself two more Patricia Wredes at Galaxy Bookshop, and this sent Nick into a post-Christmas meltdown, because he’d apparently ticked the wrong book off his “List of things Treena has mentioned in passing that she’d quite like for Christmas” and was convinced I was buying a book I already had.

Needless to say, I was right and he was wrong. And it may be needless to say that, but I tend to say it quite often anyway.

Oh, and the Salman Rushdie? That’s the sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which remains one of my favourite books and one that delights me every time I read it. Luka and the Fire of Life is not, to my mind, quite as sparkling and gorgeous and caustic as Haroun, but I enjoyed it immensely.

Stitch & Bitch was a Christmas present from my sister, along with a pile of delicious (and extremely luxurious) hand-dyed Japanese wool, which I’m currently knitting into two shawls, in the hopes that this will somehow bring about a nice, cool, entirely non-Brisbaney winter.

A sort of wool-based cargo cult, if you like.

And the graphic novels are also from Nick (bless him! Now I have the bridge between the last time I bought a Jack of Fables trade and when I started buying them in the monthly issues. So far, the monthly issues were just proliferating unread on my bookshelf, because I was missing an entire arc and, as fast as Jack of Fables moves, that’s the equivalent of missing half a season of Deadwood and still thinking you can follow Al Swearengen’s machiavellian plotting).

He also bought me the Michael A. Stackpole, At the Queen’s Command. Apparently (for no, I have not yet read it), it’s alternate history, set during the American Revolutionary War.

I said, “Oh, good! I do hope we win this time.”

The Sheer Horror of 1920s' School Stories

Posted 1 March 2011 in by Catriona

Part of the fun of reading old books is finding the unconscious traces of old social, economic, even sartorial practices—like reading a nineteenth-century novel and discovering that train timetables were much more malleable than they are today. As long as you’re not reading this on a railway platform while waiting for a train that’s thirty-five minutes late, this is all great fun.

Then sometimes you read something that reminds you that our (over-inclusive pronoun warning!) ancestors were, well, jerks.

Like these passages from Elinor M. Brent Dyer’s The Rivals of the Chalet School (1929), in which another English headmistress has the temerity to bring her school to the banks of the Tiern See, in the Austrian Tyrol, inspiring a seemingly unnecessary degree of homicidal insanity from the pupils of the incumbent Chalet School.

Cornelia Flower, another American child, jumped to her feet. ‘Let’s swear a feud against them,’ she said.

‘Mademoiselle said we weren’t to,’ objected Margia.

‘Well, call ourselves the Ku-Klux-Klan, and then it isn’t a feud,’ put in Evadne. ‘it’s fighting for our right—and things.’

Margia knew very well that it would mean a feud only under another name, but she easily stifled the voice of her conscience, and nodded. ‘It seems an idea. What can we do? What did the American Ku-Klux-Klan do?’ (p.50).

You … what?

But, wait! Margia clearly doesn’t know what the Ku-Klux-Klan do. She doesn’t even know that the second wave of the Klan is peaking in the very 1920s in which she is speaking, rather than being the historical entity that she seems to think it is. So maybe we should cut her some slack. Let’s wait and see what she thinks after she reads about the Klan in that well-known and unbiased historical text, Elsie’s Motherhood (1876), fourth in the long list of Martha Finley’s rather dreary Elsie Dinsmore books.

The account of the doings of that far-famed ‘Klan’ as given in Elsie’s Motherhood thrilled them all, though they sometimes stumbled over the long words used and were bothered by the very elaborate style of the book.

‘Cut all that,’ commanded Margia when the reader came to any preachy bits. ‘Get on to the fun.’ (p.52)

It’s true, the ‘preachy bits’ really slow down the otherwise exciting record of homicidal xenophobia.

After Kaffee und Kuchen, they returned to their amusement, and by the time the bell rang for them to go upstairs and change for the evening, they knew all they wanted about the original Ku-Klux-Klan.

‘Only we can’t go round beating people or sticking up coffins against their back-doors,’ said Margia regretfully.

‘No; but it gives us a general idea of what they did,’ said Evadne. (pp. 52-53)

You … what?

I’ll tell you something, Margia. With an attitude like that, there’s an organisation coming your way in the next decade that you’re going to just love.

(All quotes from the 1952 Australian Dymock’s edition of the text.)

(For the record, Finley’s book doesn’t present the main characters as sympathising with the Klan, nor does it suggest that the Klan was a good or a necessary force during the post-war Restoration. So the blame is more on the schoolgirls themselves than on poor, dreary, pious Elsie Dinsmore.)

Bookshop Finds

Posted 20 September 2010 in by Catriona

I certainly posted the “Bookshop Porn” pictures from last weekend’s bookshop rummaging, but I never posted the actual books I’d bought.

I’ve photographed them against an enormous but completely anonymous pile of marking, just to really drive home the fact that I won’t get to read them any time soon.

This first lot owes itself to my second job. I’ve been working two jobs this semester, though it sometimes feels like more. I said to Nick the other day, when I was marking late into the night, “I feel as though I’m working two jobs.”

He said, “You are working two jobs.”

“Oh,” I said. “In that case, it feels as though I’m working three jobs.”

Anyway, this second job (the reason the blogging’s fallen off) entailed, at one point, reading through a great deal of information on the 1970s’ adaptation of Arthur Upfield’s Bony novels, and I thought to myself, “Hmm, I really must read some Arthur Upfield.” I think I have a couple of his other books on my shelf somewhere, but it would take me at least a week to find them, so I simply bought ones that looked unfamiliar.

It’s a technique that usually works.

Then there’s the compulsory pile of children’s fantasy, which I tend to call “research materials,” as though I might one day actually do something with one of my own novels. (Unlikely.)

But I’m slowly collecting the seven volumes in Garth Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom: once I have them all, I’ll start reading them. This one’s book five, so I can’t be too far off.

I like to pick up Margaret Mahy, because she has the career I’d like to have. Well, to be honest, I’d like to be Diana Wynne Jones, but I don’t have that in me, unfortunately. But I’ve spoken of Mahy before on the blog, so I’ll just slide straight on past her to the L. Frank Baum at the bottom there.

It’s always a delight to find one of these editions. I’m slowly—very slowly, far more slowly than with Garth Nix—buying up all the Oz books, and simultaneously trying to buy them all in facsimile reprints. (The theory is that I’ll then get rid of the non-facsimile versions, but so far that’s failed to happen. Obviously.) So this one is a double bargain, because I don’t have this in any form whatsoever and it’s a facsimile reprint.

Score!

But the real excitement is in this last photo:

No one who doesn’t read/collect Rex Stout can really understand the excitement of finding Rex Stout novels in a secondhand bookshop. It’s a rare and wonderful thing. I suspect that people rarely get rid of their Stouts, because they’re not like, say, Agatha Christie novels. I’m terribly fond of Christie and have devoted more than a shelf of my limited bookcases to her novels, but hers really are “whondunnits”: much of the fun is gone once you find out who the murderer is. But the whodunnit aspect is, to me, only part of the joy of Rex Stout novels: their re-readability comes from Archie and Nero and the devoted but uneasy partnership in the old brownstone.

No wonder people don’t give them away easily. And no wonder when my mother said to me, “Oooh, what did you pay for them?”, I had to say, “Do you know, I didn’t even check?”

Secondhand Books

Posted 24 August 2010 in by Catriona

Down in Sydney and back up in Brisbane, I did—naturally enough—a little rummaging for secondhand books. I’ve been meaning to post on them for a while, but I became trapped in a nightmarish maelstrom of uncharged rechargeable batteries and the villains (namely me) who keep forgetting to recharge them, and then thought, “Sod it. I’m just going to use my camera phone.”

(Wasn’t that a story worth waiting for? It had everything! Fierce weather! A villainous protagonist! An unreliable narrator! Batteries!)

So the images are a little fuzzier than usual. Fuzzier, but somehow atmospheric (she tells herself hopefully).

These ones weren’t Sydney purchases at all:

Poor Bettina! I found her in a local secondhand bookshop. I only hope she hadn’t been blundering around in there too long.

And the book under Blundering Bettina is The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, which is an old volume of mine that I rescued from my parents’ house before they could send it to Lifeline. Short stories rather than a novel, it’s perhaps my favourite Pimpernel book: much more rescuing aristos from the guillotine and much less agonising about his marriage. Oh, and the assassination of Marat, without which no lazy Sunday afternoon reading is ever going to reach its full potential.

The bottom book is The Daisy Chain, one of Victorian moralist Charlotte M. Yonge’s 160 works (“chiefly novels,” adds Wikipedia blandly, as though writing 160 novels in the days when “novel” meant “no fewer than two volumes, thanks” were no mean feat).

My favourite thing about this volume is the illustrations:

In this one, the child has been accidentally poisoned (by its nurse, obviously) with opium, which I guess makes this picture some form of Victorian necro-lithography.

Then there was the Berkelouw’s haul. This year, I took more photos of the inside of Berkelouw’s than I actually bought books, but I did snag these:

One would have to have a heart of stone not to buy a book called English Dialogues of the Dead, especially when it’s subtitled “A Critical History, An Anthology, and A Checklist.” How can my bookshelves be complete without that?

And The English Common Reader may actually have caused me to exclaim, “Score!” a little too loudly for the liking of all the ladies-who-lunch browsing around me.

Then there was the rummaging in Narellan Lifeline, which was punctuated by my over-excited younger nephew (he turned four that day) saying, “Auntie Treena, spin me round on this chair!” and (after I refused on the grounds of safety) adding, “I fell off, but I’m okay!”

Goodness knows what would have happened if I had spun him.

This is the fuzziest photo of the lot . . .

. . . but rest assured, almost every title includes one or more of the following: “castle,” “bone,” “time traveller,” “haunted,” or “mountain.” The exception is the top one, and since that’s called Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang, I think any mention of haunted, time-travelling, mountainous bone-castles would have been over-kill, no?

But my real joy is in the last pile:

E. Nesbit’s Tales of Terror. I’m pretty sure the scariest thing she comes up with is the protagonist finding out that he really is as middle-class as he’s always been brought up to believe.

Books I Didn't Buy At Kmart

Posted 25 June 2010 in by Catriona

And the strange thing? I’m not sure I was even tempted.

Of course, I’m always a little tempted by books in general, but this trend hasn’t really appealed to me. (And I’m as surprised about that as you are: after all, I’m still buying vampire boarding-school stories.)

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was fun enough, I suppose, though the random chipmunk thoroughly annoyed me. (So lazy.) But it doesn’t feel as though there’s enough inventiveness in the idea to spawn an entire genre of books like this.

And yet here they are.

So I didn’t buy them. Maybe, just maybe, if I had unlimited shelf space and weren’t already forgetting about half of what I own, then I might have bought them.

Or maybe just Little Vampire Women—I do find the idea of Laurie being desperate to join the undead March family slightly intriguing.

Slightly.

The Book I Didn't Buy At The Lifeline Bookfest

Posted 18 June 2010 in by Catriona

Despite the obvious temptation:

Do you think there’s a Dalek under that skirt? (I can’t see its appeal otherwise.) External evidence would seem to support my reading, no?

Lifeline Bookfest 2010 (Part Two)

Posted 18 June 2010 in by Catriona

This past weekend was the second Lifeline Bookfest for the year—cunningly coinciding with the last of my four major deadlines over the past month and the beginning of the World Cup, just to make my weekend the most relaxed I’ve had all semester.

I often find the June Lifeline Bookfest a bit disappointing: the January one is much bigger and brighter, and I generally find more wonderful things there (in both senses of the comparative—a higher quantity of wonderful things, and things that are just that much more wonderful).

Yep, I know I lost control of that sentence. Let’s move on, shall we?

I’ll get the classics out of the way, because the classics are far less likely to have sparkly holographic covers:

I see I’ve cut half the authors off here, but I’m too lazy to take another picture. Suffice to say that Hargrave is a Fanny Trollope, not an Anthony. (Though she’s Anthony Trollope’s mother.) You don’t often find Fanny Trollope novels lying around at Lifeline Bookfest, so I’m a bit thrilled by that one, especially since it’s a late novel.

(I notice from the Wikipedia page above that “Fanny Trollope” is actually the name used by her detractors, not only because the diminutive is a little insulting in itself, but also because it’s rather a vulgar diminutive. So should editors only be putting her full name on the spines of her novels?)

You also don’t often find Charlotte Yonge novels at Lifeline Bookfest, either, so The Clever Woman of the Family is another bonus.

You do find lots of copies of Doctor Zhivago, but I felt it was about time I had a copy on my shelf. Am I going to read it? Not right now. But who says the reason we buy books is to read them?

See, the same thing goes for Virginia Woolf here:

Am I going to read The Years right now? Probably not. But these are the sort of books I like to have on my shelves, for all that my classics shelves are already double stacked and I sometimes can’t remember what I have.

Case in point?

Great Expectations. I would have sworn I owned a copy of Great Expectations (and Our Mutual Friend), but I checked carefully on my mobile Delicious Library app—much to the irritation of the huffy old woman next to me—and I don’t. What a terrible nineteenth-century scholar I am.

Now, I do already own a copy of The Water Babies, but it’s only a ’70s paperback, and this is one of those lovely hardback facsimile reprints that I collect intermittently and casually—I have Mrs Moleworth’s The Cuckoo Clock, E. Nesbit’s The Magic City, The Romance of King Arthur, and Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno in the same editions.

I’ll get rid of the paperback Kingsley. No, I promise.

But, as usual, I spent most of my time at the children’s fiction tables:

Four Chalet School novels. Four. Okay, The Chalet School and Rosalie isn’t really a novel, or at least not by my standards—it’s less than a hundred pages long. And A Rebel at the Chalet School is barely ten pages longer, although it’s a very early one (1934). But they’re four Chalet School stories that I don’t have already, and that’s sufficient for me.

I also already own a copy of High Wizardry (sadly, on one of the shelves I haven’t actually got around to adding to Delicious Library), but I talked Nick into letting me keep this one the basis of the awesome cover.

And my little pile of Margaret Mahy books expands apace, but can I find a copy of The Changeover? No: no, I can’t.

I did, though, find a copy of an L.M. Montgomery that I’ve never read:

It’s a collection of themed stories (fairly loosely themed, I imagine: I suspect they’re gathered together from newspapers and journals, rather than published originally as a single volume). I already have a full collection of L.M. Montgomery’s novels, so this really just satisfies the completionist in me.

I’m not sure that “completionist” is a real world, but you know what I mean.

Alice in Wonderland and The Patchwork Girl of Oz are also books that I already own—in fact, I may own at least three other copies of Alice in Wonderland. But this is Martin Gardner’s annotated edition: you can’t argue with a good annotated edition. And I talked Nick into letting me keep The Patchwork Girl of Oz on the grounds that it’s a facsimile reprint: I’m slowly collecting all the Oz novels in facsimile editions, though I prefer them in hardback. I was, however, terribly restrained and didn’t buy the little paperback facsimile editions of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Ozma of Oz.

(I already own those in facsimile reprint.)

(But it was tempting, anyway.)

And that edition of Birthday Letters on the bottom there is a key example of why you should always check inside the books too. I have no idea how someone managed to managed to scribble so much on the inside without damaging the outside. Still, no harm done: I can ignore pencil scribbles, and they went easy on the highlighter.

Finally:

These are all speculative (not a pun), which is the big advantage of the Lifeline Bookfest: the books are priced so low (even now, when prices have been increasing) that you can always take a punt on something you wouldn’t necessarily pay twenty or thirty dollars for.

And sometimes you might pay twenty or thirty dollars for them—like Carole Wilkinson’s Dragonkeeper, which has won so many awards the medallions barely fit on the cover and which sounds absolutely fascinating. Maybe I would have paid full price for that one. but I’m equally happy to pay $3.50 and also buy facsimile reprints of L. Frank Baum and annotated editions of Lewis Carroll.

The Existential Horror Of Boarding-School Life

Posted 2 March 2010 in by Catriona

Most of the horrors of boarding-school life are fairly well understood: horrible food, snoring roommates, abject bullying, indoctrination into a rigid and aggressively snobbish middle-class ideology . . .

Actually, that last one might just apply to Enid Blyton.

But have you considered these other, less well-known risks to boarding-school life?

Impromptu fiddle performances by sickeningly cherubic classmates:

Risk of shipwreck:

Compulsory victory parades:

Assessable antiquing:

And the greatest threat of all:

That’s right: uncontextualised pointing.

Re-reading Part Two: Charlaine Harris

Posted 24 February 2010 in by Catriona

(Part One of this extremely intermittent series, in which I am annoyed by David Eddings, is here.)

Whenever you Google “literary fiction versus genre fiction,” as I’m sure we’ve all done at some point or another, you find people defining literary fiction as “character-driven” and genre fiction as “plot driven.”

Like most statements predicated on the construction of monolithic categories, this is more than a little problematic. And if you want to see genre fiction that is as character driven as it is plot driven, try Charlaine Harris’s Lily Bard Mysteries.

Oh, sure: they’re murder mysteries, and I’d be pretty disappointed if we didn’t, at the end of the day, find out whodunit. But these five books are as much about the slow warming of Lily as they are about the murders.

Lily, you see, has become nothing but the sum of what happened to her. Abducted, raped, mutilated, and subjected to prolonged media exposure, she’s trapped by her own victimisation. When people say to someone, “Well, it could have been worse,” their eyes slide over Lily and away again: she’s the worse that could have happened.

So she leaves. She leaves her small home town, her job, her family, and she moves from small town to small town in the southern states of the U.S., always leaving when her past becomes known—until she reaches Shakespeare, Arkansas, a town founded by a home-sick, literature-loving Englishman, and which she picked off the map because her own name is Bard.

Here she chooses to stay when her past is revealed, when her scars are (quite literally) revealed. Here she works on her body-building and her karate, so that, as she says to a small girl who praises her strength, no one bothers her now. From here she can even go back to her home town to act as maid of honour for her sister and cope with the anxiety and distress her presence always causes her loving family.

I always want to know whodunit.

But with the Lily Bard Mysteries, I’m far more concerned with watching Lily move away from her self-defensive, self-protective pose, a pose marked by an extreme lack of affect, to one that’s warmer, more engaged, more open—all the while remaining a woman plagued by bad dreams, a woman who walks and walks on nights when she can’t sleep, a woman who can’t brook any form of restraint for reasons so horrific that we don’t want to think about them.

Or how about the Harper Connelly Mysteries? Unlike the Lily Bard Mysteries, these have the supernatural element for which Harris is probably best known in the wake of True Blood.

But something about Harper breaks my heart. Struck by lightning at age fifteen, Harper can now find dead bodies, tracking them by a buzzing sense that grows more intense the fresher the body is. The only one she can’t find is her sister Cameron, who disappeared aged eighteen somewhere between her school and the family’s trailer in Texarkana.

Like Lily, Harper is damaged, but for different reasons. Harper’s is a riches-to-rags story: lawyer parents who become enamoured of the lifestyles and vices of the people they represented, and who shed each other on the way from white collar to blue collar and below. Ultimately, Harper’s mother marries a man with two children of his own and they have two more children: until Cameron disappears, the older children work to care for the babies and prevent Child Services from finding out what’s happening in the Texarkana trailer.

Part of the damage to Harper comes from that: any teenager would carry scars if their mother had tried to sell their virginity for drugs.

Part of it comes from the lightning strike. Harper was kept alive by her stepbrother Tolliver, who performed CPR until the ambulance arrives. The lightning strike leaves her with a series of weaknesses and symptoms rejected by the general medical community, who maintain that there are no long-term effects to a lightning strike, despite the weakness of Harper’s right leg, the shaking in her right hand, the severe headaches. It also leaves her with an explicable fear of natural disasters: when Tolliver asks what the chances are of lightning striking twice, she merely asks what the chances were of it striking once. And it leaves her with a more generalised fear of the unknown and unexpected, a tendency to panic when faced with a disruption to her usual pattern.

And part of it comes from her work. When she finds a body, Harper can also see how they died—just a brief flash of their last moments from their perspective. The work is draining. If she weren’t accompanied by her manager and stepbrother Tolliver, she wouldn’t be able to accomplish it.

So they travel constantly, from job to job. Most of their work is in small towns in the southern states, towns that are usually fundamentalist communities. Most people with whom they deal believe they are con men. Some think they are genuinely evil. Harper is threatened, sometimes struck, shot at, and on one occasion actually stoned.

Is it any wonder she breaks my heart a little?

Even Sookie Stackhouse, from the comparatively light-hearted Southern Vampire series, is a damaged heroine, abused by her great-uncle as a child and so limited by her uncontrollable telepathy that the townsfolk assume she is insane or developmentally delayed. Sookie doesn’t fall into sexual relationships with vampires because it’s fashionable (though it is) or because they’re sexy (though they are): she does it because she can’t read their minds. They’re about the only creatures with whom she can enjoy a normal relationship.

And those vampires!

Vampires in Harris’s world are as powerful and potent as they are in most vampire fiction. (Much more so, in fact, than in the television adaptation where Eddie found, heartbreakingly, that he wasn’t any more successful at picking up men as a vampire than he had been as a man). Indeed, their blood is a literal drug, with a staggering street value, leaving them as vulnerable to “drainers” as they are to the fundamentalist, vampire-hating Fellowship of the Sun.

But vampires in Harris’s world are also a bit naff. They run clubs called things like Fangtasia (just as the werewolves congregate in a pub called Hair of the Dog), where the sell such merchandise as T-shirts emblazoned with blood-dripping fangs or “Hunks of Fangtasia” calendars. They hang out in New Orleans, amusing the tourists. In short, they both exploit and revel in every stereotype about vampirism that humans can imagine—all the while being entirely dangerous and not at all human.

Am I arguing that Harris is flawless? Of course not. Her continuity errors, for example, are myriad: minor characters flip from one side of the family to the other, or shift names, or forget key plot points between one book and another. (Or, in one case, forget what kind of animal they shift into.)

But I am arguing that she’s not only enormous fun, she’s a writer who specialises in making damaged characters well-rounded and engaging; who offers a detailed revisioning of small-town life in the southern U.S.; and who recognises that vampires are both appealing and naff.

What’s not to like?

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