Wednesday 27 January 2010

Shiver, Maggie Stiefvater

It would be impossible to review this novel about a teenage girl who falls in love with a werewolf without comparing it to Twilight, so I won't even try. Indeed, there is a lot that is similar about the two books, including the peripheral mythical-creature characters who seem to have come from the same mould: benevolent father-figure, angry female, rather unhinged, angry one. However, it is a shame to me that Twilight is the one that is in the centre of teen culture at the moment, and that Shiver is overlooked as yet another paranormal romance, a bandwagon-jumper. I won't deny that it fits right into those categories, and don't claim that it is Great Literature, but it is, at least, better. (And not because I like werewolves, and am sick of vampires, especially of the Black Ribbon variety out of the context of the Black Ribbon.)
Firstly, the relationship between Grace and Sam is more than mere idolisation/"I want to drink your blood." When Grace was a little girl, she was attacked by a pack of wolves that lived in the woods behind her house, but saved by one of their own, a wolf with bright yellow eyes. As she grows up, she becomes fascinated by the wolves to the point of obsession. She is an introverted, lonely girl who longs for her parents to give her more attention. When she meets Sam as a boy her own age, and recognises by his yellow eyes that he is the same wolf who saved her, a werewolf, yes, it is a strange love-at-first-sight moment, she is obsessed with the wolf, so inevitably if he is also human and eligible, she can't do anything but fall in love with him. But when she was attacked, she was bitten. She should be a werewolf too, but for some reason she never changed. But there is something of the werewolf nature in her. She has this shared experience with Sam, and shared memories, even shared dreams.

We see their relationship developing as boy-and girlfriends, read about them making breakfast together, spending time in a bookshop, doing normal couple-things and coming to know each other. But Sam is struggling against his nature as werewolf. Unlike Edward "Mr Sparkle" Cullen, this battle is visible, not just his saying, "I'm dangerous. No, really, I am." Because the werewolves of Shiver are not subject to the phases of the moon, but the changing seasons. They are human in the summer, and wolves in the winter. Yet with each change, they lose a little of themselves. They stay wolves for longer each year, and shorter times as humans, until eventually they are wolves the whole year round. This is Sam's last year as a human, and it is a real battle to keep from changing that last time, to spend as much time as he possibly can with Grace.

Stiefvater's descriptions of the Minnesota setting as the year approaches winter are, in my opinion, the most vivid part of the book: atmospheric, isolated and chilly. The small details come together subtly, woven into the narrative so that I didn't really notice them until I realised that I knew exactly what Grace's home looked like: a large, wooden house with a long porch/verandah along one side. It is the only house visible, set back from the road with a large, frosty yard. Behind the house, all you can see is miles and miles of trees. It is not actually snowing in my mind's picture, but the frost is on the ground turning it white and crunchy.

Monday 25 January 2010

Relentless, Dean Koontz

For several years've had Dean Koontz on my to-read list, an author whose book blurbs have been appealing and intriguing, but until this weekend I had never got around to reading one. This time, I got past the back blurb and flicked open the book. The first three lines made this author and specifically this book shoot right to the top of the pile:

This is a thing I've learned: Even with a gun to my head, I am capable of being convulsed with laughter. I am not sure what this extreme capacity for mirth says about me. You'll have to decide for yourself.

Immediately I wanted to know more. I already liked this guy and wanted to know more about him, and how he came to be doubled up with laughter with a gun held to his head.

I wasn't quite sure what category Dean Koontz's novels came under. At work we file them under "Horror," but according to the back blurbs I've always understood them to be thrillers, though of course you can't know until you read one.

I was very impressed with Koontz's authorial voice. Relentless is written from the point of view of Cubby Greenwich, a happily-married family man who writes books and who cannot be trusted with the most basic of appliances. He has bonkers in-laws who call themselves Clothilda and Grimbald and seem to like living in an apocalypse bunker more than in their own home. His wife, Penny, is refreshingly normal, but his six-year-old son is a scientific genius.

The story begins when Cubby receives a vicious review for his latest novel, from a man who is well-known for writing vicious reviews. He's not so well-known for hunting down, torturing and murdering the subjects of his reviews, along with their families. From there on, the novel turns into your fairly standard staying-ahead-of-the-psycho-serial-killer story, but written with constant humour that keeps the story fresh. Being a serial-killer novel, there are gruesome, claustrophobic and desperately tragic scenes, and of course Cubby Greenwich is hiding a secret from his past. But there is more than just constant suspense which can become oppressive if not relieved.

Relentless is not at all what you would call a realistic thriller, what with an organisation dedicated to destroying people who don't write the sort of books they approve of, and a couple of unexplained science-fiction elements that don't quite seem to fit in (teleporting dogs, anyone?) But it was great fun to read, genre boundary-breaking, a mixture of intelligence and incredulity. I shall certainly be reading Koontz again.

Sunday 10 January 2010

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

I first attempted to read Jane Eyre when I was about twelve or thirteen, having seen a friend rehearsing a scene from a play of it, the part set at Lowood School. Being very much into school stories at the time, I revised my opinion of "Classics" which I had hitherto dismissed as dull and not for the likes of me. "Grown-up books." I started Jane Eyre three times during my teens, each time not getting much further than Jane leaving school and starting her life as a governess. (This is relevant, honest.) The fourth time, I determined to read to the end, and succeeded, but was unimpressed by the romance part, and the gothic atmosphere and the weirdness passed me by completely. I was glad to have got to the end, and decided that I wouldn't bother with this classic stuff.

That didn't last, of course. Perhaps it was seeing part of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility with my Mum on TV, and actually quite enjoying it. I still wasn't sure I wanted to read all the slushy stuff, however. I asked Mum for her recommendation of which Jane Austen I should start with, and she quite determinedly said that Northanger Abbey was the one for me. Not only do I share a first name with the heroine (though Miss Morland misspells hers) but Catherine seemed the most like me, as far as Mum was concerned. As she put it, "Catherine is always reading gothic novels and lets her imagination run away with her, thinking they're real." Why should that make her think of me, I don't know!

But anyway, I eventually gave Northanger a try, and enjoyed it a lot, though there was the slushy stuff. Being my introduction to Austen, I was pleased to discover that not only was it funny in places, but that I got the humour. And it was good to have a likeable, three-dimensional romantic hero, who, yes, can be a bit pompous but mainly light-hearted and teasing.

Northanger Abbey famously parodies the Gothic fiction genre, and in particular a novel called The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. I read that last year, and not only did it help me to appreciate Northanger all the more. And, having read Northanger Abbey, I could read the somewhat melodramatic and waffly Udolpho with a smirk on my face, to see the original old, creaking buildings with their long passages, mysterious servants and secret papers hidden in secret nooks and crannies. Udolpho's heroine is a virtuous, constantly-swooning orphan, its villain a tyrannical, money-grabbing uncle who does indeed torment and lock up his wife.

Austen opens the novel with a description of the many ways in which Catherine would not be classed as a conventional heroine: she comes from a normal, happy family without any tyrants in it, as a child she is a plain, scrawny tomboy, and she has more interest in playing ball games and climbing than engaging in embroidery and other sedate, feminine pursuits - even nursing sick birdies back to health! Austen's narrator comes in every so often to comment on the way the story is progressing, and how Catherine or events defy the expectations of the gothic genre. Catherine is exposed as having let her imagination run away with her when it comes to thinking that General Tilney is capable of horrors.

Henry Tilney acts as Austen's mouthpiece when it comes to the other extreme of Catherine's naivity - that (apart from her imaginings about General Tilney) she will believe only the best of people. Her ignorance when watching the flirtation between her friend Isabella and Tilney's brother is frustrating but heartwarming. Catherine is so honest and open herself that she simply can't see how anyone can be anything else. This incident is described as through Catherine's eyes, without any interjections from Austen's narrator. The reader witnesses the same scene as Catherine, yet how glaringly obvious the affair is, without any comment from the omnipotent outsider!

Though Austen satirises the gothic novel, it seems to be an affectionate attack. It is evident that she is very familiar with the books she pokes fun at, referring to specific scenes from Udolpho and other novels in the genre. Her more scathing criticism through the book is for hypocrisy - the hypocrisy of certain people found in town, who don't care a button about marrying for money, just so long as the person they intend to marry for love happen to have lots of it. It also attacks hypocrisy in literature: those heroines of novels who wouldn't dream of reading the type of literature that they star in.

And in the end, Catherine is let off the hook to a certain extent. True, General Tilney is not a murderer, but there is enough in him that recalls to mind the evil Montoni of Udolpho. Austen allows Catherine to conclude in her own melodramatic way that "in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character or magnified his cruelty." After all, Catherine's instincts were, if wrong in the details, correct in identifying somebody who was not what he seemed.

Friday 1 January 2010

2010: new reading challenges.

Last year I failed miserably in my target of reading 100 new books, managing only 82. This year, I am setting myself another challenge. All those books I intend to reread and never seem to manage more than one or two, I'm going to try to read this year. 2010 will be the Year of the Reread. Not that I am limiting myself only to this task. I want to read widely and around my chosen books, so, for example, as well as rereading Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, I intend to read, at the minimum, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and a biography of the Bronte family. My reading will come into several categories:

Category A. Classics:
I plan to reread all of Jane Austen's novels. Also, something by Georgette Heyer. That one shouldn't be a problem as I've got one on loan from a friend. Regency Mills and Boon novels are not included on the reading list.
As I mentioned, something by each of the Brontes.
A Tale of Two Cities, as one of my favourite novels of all time, plus a new Dickens that I've not yet read. I have the complete set, second hand from my Grandma, who was given them as a present from her first boyfriend's mother during World War 2. So should see that they get some love.

Category B. Children's:
The Chronicles of Narnia. These I've already made a start on, and I've got as far as The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
All of my LM Montgomery books: I have the Anne and Emily books and The Blue Castle. Also intend to add Pat of Silver Bush novels to the collection.
All the Little House on the Prairie books.
Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, Winter Holiday, Pigeon Post and The Picts and the Martyrs, my favourites of Arthur Ransome's sailing books.
All of the Katy books.
Things like The Railway Children, A Little Princess and The Secret Garden. Also Alice in Wonderland. In short, most of the books that make it onto the "classic" shelf of my children's books' bookcase.
School stories: all of the Chalet School that I've got, plus Malory Towers and St Clares.
Selected Famous Five and other adventure stories by Enid Blyton.
And of course, Harry Potter.

Category C. Gothic Fiction
Most of the reading list of the course from university, though I won't bother with the "male and female" gothic of the last couple of weeks, as they weren't quite the same. I will, however, include The Historian and Interview with the Vampire in relation to Dracula, as well as John Polidori's The Vampyre that was missed off the reading list. Also I will add Ivanhoe, or possibly start of with that, which was pre-gothic, but links in quite nicely. Will read a couple more Poe stories, and reread The Little Stranger, which already makes itself quite at home in the Gothic canon.

Twilight is not compulsory reading for this module.

Category D. Fantasy
A few years ago, rereading Lord of the Rings was required reading every winter, first in preparation for the films, in 2002 and 2003, then for a couple of years just out of cosy habit. But as it came to the truth of So Many Books, So Little Time, it lay neglected for a few years. I picked it up again in December, and am currently mourning Gandalf outside Moria. I don't read much within the fantasy genre nowadays, but have a few series which I was fond of back when I was in the sixth form.
David Eddings' Elenium trilogy. If you've read one Eddings story, you've read them all, but this was my first .
Julia Gray's Guardian Cycle. Prophecies, madness (of a generally benign kind,) long-lost twins, floating islands, valleys buried beneath cloud... this was a wonderful world, and I lost two days of study leave for my A-Levels reading the last two books in the series.
Robin Hobb's Farseer, Liveship and Tawny Man trilogies. Also to read her Soldier Son trilogy, which I have not yet read, preferring to wait for the entire series to be published and in paperback.
At least two Pratchett rereads, plus one I've not yet read.
Also, I intend to finish Cecelia Dart-Thornton's Crowthistle Chronicles. I loved her first series, long-winded and verbose as it was, but when I came to read her second series, I had to take it one book at a time, as she was still writing them. When the third book came out in paperback, it had been so long since I had read the predecessor that I couldn't even finish the first chapter. The series is finished now, and I really ought to see how it ends!

Robert Jordan's twelve-volume Wheel of Time is not required reading.

Category Ei: Books I've been meaning to read for ages:
The Gormanghast trilogy

Category Eii: Wide reading
More generally, I aim to read books in various genres, including non-fiction (aiming for one travel, one biography, one history book and one literary criticism.) Also, books from all over the world, as most that I read seem to be written by authors from and set in the USA or England. This year I'm after books from or about Australia, Canada, Ireland, Africa, Asia and historical USA.

Finally, I intend to have less unread books on my shelves by the end of the year than I have at the moment. To read more than I buy new.

Now, I'm sure this is several reading challenges rolled into one. I don't even know if it would be physically possible to read and reread all that I've planned, but I'll give it my best shot. And if New Year's Eve comes along and I'm only half done, then I'll give myself another year. Or two.

In the meantime, I'd better get back to my book.

2009: an overview in books.

For 2009, I set myself the personal challenge of reading 100 books which I'd never read before, of which I managed 82. A couple were cheats, being unabridged versions of old books, another was one I knew I'd read long ago, but couldn't remember a thing about it. 13/82 were non-fiction, against 69 fiction. 14 kids' books, if we use the term loosely, and 68 adult.

The year's highlights for me were:

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
The Little Stranger
The Book of Tomorrow
Being Emily
and The Earth Hums in B Flat. One set in Guernsey, one very, very English, one Irish, one Scottish and one Welsh.

The books I'd always intended to read and finally got around to it in 2009 were:
Gone with the Wind,
Wyrd Sisters (I had seen an animated adaptation but never read the book)
and Brideshead Revisited.

The disappointments were:
Confessions of a Fallen Angel, which I had completely forgotten I'd read until I saw it on the list.
Dance with Wings.
The Believers. There was not one character there that I liked.
Undead and Unwed. Too much like chick-lit, with fangs.
The Birthing House. Yes, it scared me, but although I wanted to know what would happen, I had to skim-read it because if I'd put the book down, I'd never have picked it up again.

The books I started but didn't finish:
Spitfire Women of World War 2. I intend to pick it up again in 2010.
Revolutionary Road (it came immediately after The Believers and I suspected it was another book without sympathetic or likeable characters. I didn't want two in a row like that.)
Small Island. Again, intend to pick up again.
Finally, oddly, Rilla of Ingleside. I just felt too unhappy to carry on with it.
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