by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Books”

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.

Space-Saving

Posted 17 May 2010 in by Catriona

We’ve only a little house, and we’ve already filled it to the brim. Yet we keep buying things—not bulky things like furniture (at least, not often) but books and prints and the like.

And we’ve finally run out of room for them.

After buying another set of three prints.

So I’ve been wondering how to husband a little space for the new prints (which turned out to be bigger than anticipated), and I decided to hang my old family photos (only half of which I could display in the old location, anyway) down the spaces where my hallway bookcases meet.

I strongly suspect I stole this idea from somewhere, and I think it might have been the Canadian adaptations of Nero Wolfe, but I’m not certain any more.

I’m unconvinced by the result, myself. On the one hand, I like having them where I can see them as I pass . . .

But on the other hand . . . actually, I’m not even sure why I object to them. I think I think they make the shelves look rather crowded, but perhaps it’s just the shock of the unfamiliar?

Or perhaps it’s the head injury? (Yep, not done milking that just yet.)

As Nick suggested, I’ll leave them a while, see if they grow on me. I hope they do, but I’m still not sure.

Shades of Grey

Posted 29 April 2010 in by Catriona

These photos are the result of my belated discovery of the “colour accent” feature on my camera, which allows me to accent a specific colour in an otherwise black-and-white photograph.

With this function, I hope to one day make my fortune producing Hallmark cards.

I present them in honour (also belated) of the first book of Jasper Fforde’s new Shades of Grey series, which I hope to be able to wallow in at some point in the not-too-distant future.

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?

Books In Their Natural Environment, Part Three

Posted 12 February 2010 in by Catriona

Let Me Tell You How Much I've Enjoyed The Gallagher Girls

Posted 1 February 2010 in by Catriona

I know you’re dying to hear all about it.

Because you know me, right? (And if not, if you’re new to the blog, hi!) You know there’s nothing I love more than a good girls’ school story. Remember how excited I was when I discovered there was such a thing as vampire boarding-school stories?

This is like that time, only with spies.

The Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies is ensconced behind high stone walls, bears all the hallmarks of a posh private (or public, depending on where you’re reading this) school, even attracts the scorn of the town’s residents, who have perfected what the girls call the “Gallagher Glare” whenever they spot a student in the town.

But it’s a school for spies.

And it’s more than that: it’s a school for the daughters of American spies (and one girl whose parents are MI6, brought in at the discretion of the new headmistress). Some of the girls, the ones whose parents aren’t spies, have been brought in because of exceptionally high test scores, so, as far as their parents are concerned, they really do just attend a school for exceptionally bright students. But they’re training all the while for a future career in either the CIA or some other initialism-heavy organisation.

When I first thought about writing a piece on these books, I was thinking to myself, “It would be so easy to write one of those snippet reviews you find in the back of women’s mags. You’d just write, ‘Harry Potter meets Alias‘ and you’d be done.”

To some extent, that reading still feels accurate to me. These books are like Alias: the insane gadgets, the almost superhuman powers of the spies, the frenetic excitement of the job. And they are like Harry Potter, and not just because they’re set in a boarding school: there’s a point in the series when the focal character Cammie Morgan goes to CIA headquarters with her mother for a debriefing, and accesses the building through a hidden elevator in a department-store changing room. There are shades there, to me, of the way Harry Potter’s world existed alongside, beneath, above, or around our own, but never quite overlapped.

That delights me.

I don’t want spies to be sitting in rooms peering at computer monitors. I want them to be rappelling down the sides of buildings and if, like Michelle Yeoh, they can do it in high heels, so much the better.

Even the titles of the books delight me: I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have To Kill You; Cross My Heart and Hope To Spy; and Don’t Judge A Girl By Her Cover. (Apparently, the fourth one will be Only the Good Spy Young.)

Oh, don’t look at me like that: you know I love a bad pun from the time I wrote that blog post on Wuthering High (and its sequels, The Scarlet Letterman and Moby Clique).

But I’m not actually here to talk about puns. I want to mention instead the complex and fascinating way that these books negotiate interpersonal relationships.

The books are, according to Amazon.com’s method of categorisation, aimed at nine- to twelve-year-old readers, and that feels about right: there’s no sex, of course (unlike the Vampire Academy books, which are designed for older readers) and precious little kissing. They’re also distinctly heternormative: there’s no indication that any of the girls are attracted to other girls.

That’s not unusual for mainstream books in the 9-12 age range, of course.

But it’s also a stance that’s somewhat problematised by the books’ genre. Girls’ school stories don’t seem to be able to just adopt an unproblematic heternormative stance. Stories from the original burgeoning of the genre (from around the 1920s to roughly the 1950s) are frequently subjected to a kind of nudge-nudge wink-wink re-reading that draws on any hint of suggestiveness in the stories—I’ve done this myself, of course.

Sometimes the stories themselves are suggestive, as in the case of one I read that was a long moral tale arguing against passionate friendships with someone of your own gender: I wish I could remember the title of that one.

Perhaps that explains why more modern variants on the girls’ school stories foreground the heterosexuality of the pupils? In the Trebizon stories, for example, the girls are all paired off with their equivalent in the boys’ boarding school down the road, and the teachers encourage them to socialise together.

That would never happen at Malory Towers.

What happens in the Gallagher Girls series, though, is that these girls, who have been ensconced in a girls’ boarding school for the final seven years of their schooling, have absolutely no idea how to relate to the opposite sex.

None at all.

How would they? The only members of the opposite sex they’ve met since they were twelve—really, around the time you really start noticing other people as sexually or proto-sexually attractive—have been their teachers.

Most of them don’t even have a parental relationship as a model, because their parents are, by and large, spies out in the field. They don’t head home to home-cooked meals, family conversation, trips out to the zoo or shopping expeditions—they spend Christmas helping their parents trail arms dealers on the other side of the world.

Take the heroine Cammie, for example. She doesn’t even know how her parents met: it’s classified. So when she does meet a boy, she has no idea how to get to know him, except to treat it as a mission: she constructs an elaborate legend, presenting herself as a home-schooled, highly religious girl with a cat called Suzie, and she sneaks out of the school every chance she gets to meet this new boy.

It’s more complicated for Cammie, of course, because she’s what’s known as a “pavement artist”: her job is to trail suspects invisibly, or as near to invisibly as she can manage. And she’s good, too, but once she becomes aware of boys, she becomes rather more ambivalent: when a cute boy tells her he’d never have noticed her, she knows it’s a compliment, and part of her takes it that way, but part of her is hurt, too.

Cammie’s determination to pursue a boy who can’t know the truth about her school terrifies the teachers, who go so far, in a later book, as to arrange an exchange programme so the students can interact regularly with boys their own age.

Sure, much of what I like in these books comes down to the pavement-artist heroine, attractive but untrustworthy hero, the spy gadgets, the rappelling, and the occasional Code Red that locks the school down when out-of-the-loop parents drop by unannounced.

But I like, too, the way in which the books recognise that interpersonal relationships are complicated even if you do have a camera in your wrist watch and comms in your fake crucifix.

Re-reading Part One: Being Annoyed By David Eddings

Posted 24 January 2010 in by Catriona

I’ll be completely honest here: I have no particular hatred for David Eddings.

I first read Eddings in my early teens. I’d read many, many fantasy stories as a child, all the (cliche alert!) old classics: Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Lewis Carroll, C. S. Lewis, Diana Wynne Jones, and so on.

But I’d slipped away from fantasy for a while, and I came back to it through David Eddings—to Nick, I call him “gateway fantasy,” though I know other readers who’ve done the same through Robert Jordan (whom I’ve never read) or Raymond Feist (whom I’ve never finished).

I read Eddings (specifically, The Belgariad) when I was staying with my best friend at her father’s house up on the Northern Beaches. She’d been reading them over a previous visit, so she lay on one bed with book three and I lay on the other with book one, and we worked our way through the series like that, reading the funny bits out to each other.

And they did seem funny, at the time.

But the problem, for me, is that they don’t bear re-reading. I’m a big re-reader—hence this new series for the blog.

And Eddings doesn’t have any re-read value for me: when I re-read them over this Christmas break (out of desperation, since no one bought me any books for Christmas. Not one!), they just irritated me.

In fact, it was only sheer stubbornness that got me through The Mallorean, in the end.

So, do you want to know what really bothered me? And do you want it in list form? Of course you do.

1. Casual sexism

This is the big one, for me. Yes, there are powerful female characters in Eddings’s books, but their roles are severely restricted: they’re queens, sorceresses, witches, mystics, and priestesses. Not warriors. Rarely scholars. (And Eddings’s seeming contempt for academia is another big issue for me.)

They’re infrequently rulers in their own right and, when they are, they’re often ineffectual or powerless rulers like the drug-addled Salmissra.

There are some politicians, but they tend to manipulate their domains in much the way as they manipulate men. Because the sexism doesn’t just work one way in these books: women get their way by fluttering their eyelashes, and men are helpless to resist them.

It’s a wonder that anything ever gets done, really.

Somewhere in the depths of Polgara the Sorceress—though I can’t locate the actual page reference at this moment—Polgara mentions that she enjoys politics, but not in the sense of how kingdoms operate internally or externally. No, she likes politics according to the definition of politics that means (thought I’m paraphrasing here) “manipulating people into doing what I want them to do.”

But, then, if women understood politics, the male characters of The West Wing wouldn’t have anyone to info-dump on, would they?

I’m not even going to discuss the time that Belgarath says he’s jealous of his daughter’s suitors because all fathers are jealous—that’s just too Freudian and, frankly, creepy for me.

I wonder, too, why it’s necessary to protect the child-like Queen Ce’Nedra from any mention of anything to do with sex, when she’d been married for years and has a child. Yes, I agree you might not want your wife going into that brothel, Garion, but when it gets to the point where you can’t even mention in front of her that two secondary characters are lovers? Well, no wonder it took you so long to conceive an heir to the Rivan throne: it must be much harder when you can’t tell your wife what you’re doing.

But, you know, it’s not the sexism that bothers me so much as it’s the casual assumption of authority for the most dismissive and sexist of claims. So many sentences include some variation of the phrase “All women are” or “All men do” that you’re tempted to assume that, impossible though it is, the authors have never actually met anyone of the opposite gender.

I would write more on this, but when I got to the passage in Belgarath the Sorcerer where he apologised for calling his daughter extremely intelligent and then told her it was nothing to be ashamed of, my head exploded.

2. Casual racism

Actually, there’s nothing casual about the racism in these books, not when the plots are almost entirely driven by superficial but apparently extremely important racial differences. And while I’ve been drawing most of my examples from The Belgariad et al., this casual racism carries over into the later Elenium and Tamuli series, as well.

Add to that the general muddiness of definition between “race” and “culture,” and the whole angle of racism in the books becomes more confused. What we would often describe as cultural characteristics—such as the Arends’ overwhelming nobility—seem to be categorised as racial characteristics, which I find bewildering and just a little lazy. I’m also confused by how racial (or even cultural) traits work here: is it really possible for every single Arend to be as thick as two short planks? Every single one?

Still, the important point is this: for the life of me, I can’t figure out why it’s so important to the books that the bad guys are swarthy foreigners with almond-shaped eyes.

3. Casual cruelty

There are two key examples of this in the first hundred-odd pages of Belgarath the Sorcerer alone.

My first example is this: at one point just after Beldin—the deformed disciple of the god Aldur—arrives in the Vale for instruction, he’s telling Belgarath about how he was left exposed to die shortly after his birth, though his mother fed him until just after he learned to walk, when she either died or was killed by her people for sneaking out to sustain him. Thereafter, he learned to feed himself by following carrion birds and eating what they ate.

At which point Belgarath calls him an animal.

Well, possibly, Belgarath. Or possibly he’s a toddler who is trying to eat whatever he can find. Did you consider that possibility?

The second example is when Belgarath eviscerates an Eldrakyn (I’ve never been quite sure what those are, but something like an orc and something like a troll: intelligent creatures with the power of speech and the ability to domesticate other animals) and then laughs as the creature tries to hold its intestines inside its abdominal cavity.

But he feels “a little ashamed” when the creature starts crying, so that’s all right, then.

4. Idiot plotting

Here’s my favourite example: after the dragon-god Torak cracks the world in half during the War of the Gods, he is safe on the far side of the Sea of the East with Aldur’s Orb, his theft of which is the cause of the war. The people of the west spend two thousand years trying to cross the ocean before Cherek Bear-Shoulders and his sons find the land bridge.

But then they don’t cross the land bridge, because that’s the way Torak’s Angaraks will expect them to come. So they just walk across the frozen ocean instead.

I may have groaned out loud when I read that.

Was it a particularly cold winter? We’re not told that. But, then, the main characters do spend much of the books commenting on how stupid everyone else is. Perhaps that explains why crossing the ice never occurred to them in two thousand years.

Oh, but there are more examples. How about the fact that Chamdar the Grolim spends a thousand years searching for the heirs of Riva. He finally manages to get his hands on the newborn heir, burning the baby’s parents to death in the process. So this infant is the sole remaining heir of Riva—he will not have any brothers. He is the Godslayer whose rise Chamdar and his Grolims have spent a millennia trying to prevent.

But when Belgarath catches Chamdar at the burning house with the infant in his hands, Chamdar throws the baby at Belgarath so he can escape quickly.

No wonder it took him one thousand years to locate him in the first place.

On a sightly related note, I often wonder about the argument that since the books relate to two Prophecies (Eddings’s caps, not mine) divided by an accident in the distant past, the same events are going to keep recurring until one Prophecy is chosen over the other. Really, that’s just a retroactive explanation for why the plot of The Mallorean is largely identical to the plot of The Belgariad, isn’t it?

In fact, I know it is, because the characters keep pointing it out during The Mallorean.

5. Fondness for slavery

Do you know, I can’t even bring myself to discuss this, and yet it’s such a central part of his writing that I can’t delete the item, either. I’ll sum it up like this: even if slavery is codified within a society, it doesn’t necessarily follow that slaves are happy.

6. Confusing attitude towards racial purity

I think what confuses me most in Eddings’s attitude towards racial purity is that he places great emphasis on racial differences that are, at their heart, ambiguous. Take the Alorns, for example: four different peoples—Drasnians, Chereks, Rivans, and Algars—descended from Cherek Bear-Shoulders and his three sons.

The kingdom of Aloria was only divided into the four separate kingdoms three thousand years before the events of the main story, but that’s fair enough: even the descendants of full brothers can deviate widely after three millennia in vastly different climates. So we know the sneaky Drasnians differ from the silent Algars, the sober Rivans from the carousing Chereks.

But then at other times—many, many other times—characters will sigh “Alorns!” regardless of whether they’re speaking about Drasnians or Rivans, and the question of racial difference becomes muddied again.

Not too muddied, of course, because we have to remember that the bad guys are not of the same race as the good guys. That’s the important point.

And that’s not even considering how one keeps the line of the Rivan King essentially Rivan for one thousand years, when you’re marrying the various heirs off to Cherek, Algarian, or Sendarian girls constantly. Of course, with the exception of Sendars, those girls are all still Alorns, but the books don’t say they keep him Alorn; they say they keep him Rivan. The Rivan blood would become diluted after a short while, wouldn’t you think? Not that that’s a problem—unless you’re in a fantasy world obsessed with racial purity.

Of course, if I were to consider how the term “race” is apparently synonymous with “religion” in these books, we’d be here for the rest of the day.

Lifeline Bookfest 2010 (Part One)

Posted 18 January 2010 in by Catriona

I know you’re all just dying to see what I bought at the Lifeline Bookfest. Aren’t you?

According to the omniscient Wikipedia, Howard Pyle was an American illustrator and writer of children’s stories, which explains how, despite my fascination with Victorian children’s fiction, I’ve never heard of him: I have read American nineteenth-century children’s fiction (Susan Coolidge and, of course, Louisa May Alcott), but not with the same assiduity that I read English nineteenth-century children’s fiction.

Or, at least, that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

Apparently (and by “apparently,” I mean “according to Wikipedia”), The Wonder Clock was published in 1887, and is based on European fairytales. That makes it right up my alley.

I’m also fascinated by the (it seems to me) particularly Victorian fascination with round-robin stories and long stories linked only by a single theme. Eliza Winstanley, for example, wrote one of the latter in the 1860s called “Voices from the Lumber Room,” in which various pieces of discarded furniture and accessories (a mirror, a chair, a fan) told stories about past members of the family.

Of course, “Voices from the Lumber Room” ended in a horrific holocaust, in which all the discarded but sentient furniture was chopped up for firewood, but they don’t all end so disastrously. Bow Bells used the idea of a round-robin story (in which various authors each wrote a chapter of a longer tale) or the loosely linked theme story (such as the one above) for their Valentine’s Day and Christmas Day special issues for years.

The Wonder Clock is along those lines: one story for each hour of the clock.

So let’s just say that this book, which I picked up entirely at random, hits a number of my fangirl buttons.

Now, the Jenny Nimmo book, Charlie Bone and the Time Twister, I’m partly really excited about, because it has the word “Academy” in the blurb, and that’s (excuse the cliche) a red rag to a bull for me. But I’m partly also rather annoyed, because it’s the second book. I couldn’t find the first book, and when I nipped into Angus and Robertson in desperation, I found it’s the second book of eight. So I’m in a for a serious commitment there, it seems.

The Garth Nix Keys to the Kingdom series I’m slowly picking up one book at a time, because I can’t face buying all seven at once. But I really enjoyed the Abhorsen trilogy, so I want to read them. I now have the first four, so I won’t have to put off reading them for much longer.

I also found a copy of Nix’s The Ragwitch at this sale, so there’s much Nix-reading in my future.

I bought the Carter Dickson book despite a vague sense that I already have either this exact book under another title or another book by Carter Dickson with a disturbingly similar plot. Eh, c’est la vie.

I’m also fairly sure it was a Carter Dickson novel—but not, alas, one that I own—on which I saw the greatest blurb I’ve ever seen in my life: “He took his whisky straight, his women curvy, and murder in his stride.”

Genius.

That skinny little book on the bottom? That’s a facsimile reprint of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Nothing but the text and a two-page essay on the reproduction and original conditions of publication. Just lovely.

Does anyone else have very fond memories of Dick King-Smith? The Sheep-Pig (now, sadly, generally published as Babe, as my own copy is) is still one of my favourite books, though I am well, well, well past the age when you’re supposed to read it. And, when we were children, we used to listen to books on tape on long car trips, and one of our favourites was The Fox Busters, about chickens who fight back.

(Hmm. It just occurred to me that enjoying both The Fox Busters and Fantastic Mr Fox should have made me one confused child, at least as far as foxes are concerned. Still, it doesn’t seem to have had any lasting effects.)

I haven’t read The Queen’s Nose in years, and I’m really looking forward to reading it again.

Buying The Catalogue of the Universe is part of my ambition to have a comprehensive Margaret Mahy collection, an ambition stemming from when a friend made me read The Changeover, about which I have written elsewhere.

Irritatingly, the one book I haven’t managed to find yet is The Changeover.

One book I am excited about in this pile is The Indian in the Cupboard, because, embarrassing admission though this is, I’ve never actually read it. Isn’t that shameful?

On a similar note, I’ve not read Bridge to Terebithia for years. I’m not even entirely sure that I want to read it again: it’s a lovely book, but a distressing one. But I saw it on the table, and suddenly thought I really wanted a copy of it on my shelves, just in case I did want to read it again. Or maybe just for the feeling of actually having it. I’m not sure which.

This last little pile is a bit of a mixed bag, isn’t it?

I’m not sure where the impulse to buy Betsy Byars came from. I used to read her books assiduously when I was about . . . what? Maybe eight? Or ten? (There’s a branch of Internet bragging that would have me strung up by my heels for admitting that, you know: I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen discussions of literacy devolve into an exchange of “Oh, well, I’d read the complete works of Shakespeare by the time I was twelve”/“Twelve? I’d read them by the time I was eight!” Well, I hadn’t: I was reading Betsy Byars.)

I haven’t read Byars in years, but these three were together, and I suddenly couldn’t resist them.

And at least this pile puts me that much closer to my ambition of a full series of Billabong and Laura Ingalls Wilder books.

No, I don’t know why I have that ambition. I just do.

Dante's Inferno: The Book of the Game of the Book

Posted 17 January 2010 in by Catriona

You know, I don’t often use this blog as a response to things I’ve read on the Internet: it’s generally much more solipsistic than that.

But, do you remember, once upon a time, when I linked to the news about Dante’s Inferno becoming a video game?

And then I linked to the news about the rebranding of Wuthering Heights in line with Twilight?

Well, this post is something of a meeting of those two: meet the official tie-in version of Dante’s Inferno.

Bear in mind, though Kotaku are calling this the “novelisation” of the game, it’s not: it’s the original poem, in a nineteenth-century translation, in that cover.

Yes, that’s a half-naked man with a cross painted on his chest.

Yes, he’s holding a scythe made out of vertebrae.

Yes, it does say that it “includes an exclusive 16-page full-colour insert and a special introduction from [noted Dante scholar] the game’s executive producer.”

Yes, it is translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which means many people who buy this on the basis of the cover are going to be awfully disappointed when they open it up and find the poem inside.

Yes, it is tagged “the literary classic that inspired the epic video game from Electronic Arts.”

And, no: this is not a joke: here’s the Amazon page.

I shall leave the last word, as always, to Penny Arcade.

(But, just secretly? I almost think this would be worth having on my shelf just to boggle at occasionally. After all, I don’t have the Longfellow translation . . .)

Lessons I Have Learned From Reading Various Teen Romances

Posted 24 October 2009 in by Catriona

1. If you don’t want to pressure your girlfriend to sleep with you, but you also know you’re (cliche alert!) “not willing to wait forever,” you probably shouldn’t be dating a fourteen-year-old girl when you’re in college.

Seriously.

Keep the May-December romances for when you’ve reached a commensurate degree of sexual and social maturity, okay? It’s just common sense.

2. If your immortal boyfriend says he’s loved you through all your various life cycles even though you’ve never managed to consummate your relationship, and he’s therefore willing to wait forever for you to be ready, you have about half a book before he

  • tries to take your pants off.
  • becomes really irritated with you and starts disappearing for long stretches of time
  • drinks your best friend’s blood
  • flirts with the school bully
  • wipes your memory
  • all of the above.

3. The important lesson to take from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is that Meg Murry definitely had boobs. Because, after all, she already had glasses and braces, right? So no benevolent deity would also make her flat-chested, okay? That would just be mean.

4. If you say you’re a feminist, there’s nothing to stop you also fantasising about literally being your boyfriend’s property, including wanting to wear a bracelet engraved with “Property of [Boyfriend’s Name]” and justifying this by saying that it’s just like the fact that your cat’s collar has your name on it.

5. As a corollary to the above, the statement “I’m a feminist, right?” is so powerful that you only need to say it once every two or maybe three books to completely negate any unpleasant after-effects of statements such as the above.

6. That cute boy you just met? Chances are he’s either

  • your brother
  • immortally bound to his actual sister, so he has to marry her eventually. Even though she’s his sister.

7. If you’re fifteen and you haven’t started your menstrual cycle or, in fact, ever seen your own blood, even after injuries, you really should think about that. Sure, we don’t expect you to realise you’re a fairy, but you know you’re not a competitive gymnast. And you didn’t know anything was odd? Seriously?

8. Wherever there’s one cute boy, there’s always another one. It’s just a fact of life. Sure, one of them’s probably a vampire or a fairy or something, but you’ll just have to deal with that, because love triangles are inevitable.

Apparently.

9. Interspecies dating is no more complicated for teenage girls than it would be for a tiger who happened to meet a rather attractive lion. Trust me on this. Just don’t wonder whether your children will be sterile, because that’s not something that’s usually covered by the literature.

10. Boys like girls who have some kind of quirk. So if you’re not a fairy, or able to see fairies, or a vampire, or the spitting image of a vampire’s long-lost love, or, at a pinch, a Catholic schoolgirl, you’re just going to have to get a tattoo.

Books In Their Natural Environment, Part Two

Posted 20 October 2009 in by Catriona

The Books of the Circulating Library

Posted 4 October 2009 in by Catriona

I’ve mentioned before my struggles with Delicious Library 2, and my belief that, while it’s a wonderful invention, adding my back catalogue to it might actually kill me.

(Okay, I may not have phrased it quite that way, but I was thinking it.)

So this brings me to the new link I’ve added to my blogroll over there to your right: a slightly inaccurate link, since it’s not a blog, at all. It’s my library, which I’ve uploaded to space on the Internet.

Partly, I’m looking for a way to catalogue my books offline (though, having cleverly downloaded the app. before Amazon removed the rights to their catalogue for mobile apps, for reasons best known only to themselves, I do also have a copy of the catalogue on my iPhone).

Partly, though, it’s because this is, after all, the Circulating Library. I talk about my books here. I even fetishise my books here (and, honestly, everywhere else).

And linking to this catalogue means you can take a wander along my shelves, if you so wish.

The application does set the books out on shelves, so it feels as much like browsing a library as you can get on the Internet.

The application generates a primary shelf, which includes (in alphabetical order by author) every book you enter, and then allows you to create sub-shelves by author, genre, or any other category that helps you make sense of the chaos. When you’re dealing with a large number of books, the sub-shelves help keep the system saner than it often is in real life: they contain everything that’s on the primary shelf, but in small, easily digestible packets.

I chose only to publish my sub-shelves. I store some items on multiple shelves, so, for example, vampire boarding-school stories turn up under “Children’s Fantasy and Science Fiction” and “Girls’ School Stories,” just so I can always be sure of finding them. And some categories are under-represented, so far—like “Art”—because I haven’t made my way around to the bookcase on which they’re stored yet.

These 1800 books are not a complete record of all the books I own: it’s a library catalogue in progress.

Feel free to browse.

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