Tuesday, January 8, 2013

January 2013 - What I’ve Been Reading…

The What We’re Reading Wednesday meme is making the rounds. True to form, I offer up some reflections on what I have been and am reading Not On A Wednesday.

I’ve been slowly working my way through two series: Bernard Cornwell’s “Richard Sharpe” books and the Sookie Stackhouse “Southern Vampire” novels of Charlaine Harris. Each of these is a story in itself, about which more is forthcoming below. I say “slowly” because I want to make them last, so I ration them out a chapter here, a book there, with breaks for other reading.

The Cornwell is undoubtedly Ioan Gruffud’s fault. When my younger daughter still lived at home, we watched the A & E “Horatio Hornblower” series together (a precursor to her inflicting Dr. Who upon her unsuspecting mother, who then retaliated by knitting her The Scarf, but that’s another tale entirely). Years later, my husband – who normally does not care for movies in general and anything with fighting in particular – expressed willingness to indulge me with Friday night videos. We noodle around with every dramatization of the life of Queen Elizabeth I we could find and then advanced to Horatio Hornblower, both the series with Gruffudd and the movie with Gregory Peck. From there, it was just a hop, skip, and a jump to the infantry’s role in the Napoleonic Wars. Sean Bean’s “Richard Sharpe” to the rescue. Having watched the series, I of course grabbed for the books. They are interesting in many ways. For one thing, they aren’t written in order. The series begins in the early middlish part, when Sharpe has already saved the life of Sir Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) and become an officer “up through the ranks,” an elevation much frowned upon by both his fellow officers and the common soldiers he is to command. Then, after quite a number of adventures, Cornwell goes back to the beginning, as it were, fills in a lot of background, so you can read them in the order in which they were written or in chronological order. For another, each book centers on one battle. One battle! And has not a speck of flab anywhere.
After several books, the principles of warfare of the time – such as the relative advantages and weaknesses of infantry, cavalry, artillery – become part of the dramatic landscape. It was certainly nice to imagine a much younger Sean Bean when I read about Richard Sharpe, but I find I like the written character better.

That’s true as well for the Sookie Stackhouse books. I’d read a few before I caught the television series on DVD and found the casting choices interesting, not to mention the way bits of different books were conflated and put in a different order. In the books, Sookie has such a strong, distinctive voice that even her describing getting dressed is entertaining. I was a fan of Harris’s “Lily Bard/Shakespeare” and “Aurora Teagarden” mysteries and love the way she hooks me with the surface of the story while weaving in deeper, darker stuff.

As for new reading, I  had a wonderful time with Jim C. Hines’s Libriomancer. We book-geeks have always known that stories are magical, right? They take you far away, in the companionship of amazing characters and kindred spirits, to places you either want desperately to run away to or to never see again. Hines comes up with the premise that each reader’s experience turns that fictional story into a bit of reality, and the more bits, the more powerful it becomes. With the invention of printing (yes, Johannes Gutenberg plays a role!) came the potential for thousands – tens of thousands – millions! – of readers creating the same reality because they are reading the exact same text. A sufficiently trained person-of-magical-talent can then draw objects from a book into the ordinary world. Picture going “on assignment” carrying a small library of books instead of weapons or gadgets. It’s quite delicious.

More serious are Maggie Stiefvater’s two most recent books, The Scorpio Races and The Raven Boys. I connected better with the former, partly I think because I love the way our romantic ideas about horses and horse-like things can get twisted into really edgy stuff. Yes, these look like horses, the creatures that are being raced on the beach, but they are something very much darker. Stiefvater plays on the kelpie/water-horse myth. They’re gorgeous, sure, and inspiring and breath-taking and deadly. As in, rip the flesh off your bones if you blink deadly. I shared the book with a friend who’s owned horses for a number of decades now and she said it was eerie how certain moments in the book reminded her of being bitten by a horse. Not nipped, which is the worst a horse has ever done to me with teeth, but the full-on long-lever-jaw chomp. She said it gave her shivers. And yet, you keep hoping things will turn out and you don’t see how they could, but they do in ways you never expected. Stiefvater plays fair but packs a punch.

One of the delights of meeting people on the internet is crossing paths with those you might not otherwise hear of, and their work as well. I met Margaret Yang (half of the writing team M. H. Mead) online and invited her to write a guest blog on “a set not a series.” I liked what she had to say, how she thought about creating a series of interlocking but independent stories, and decided to check them out. The first one is Fate’s Mirror. It sounds like a generic title, but it really is specific to the story. I began without knowing anything about the story itself, and that got me past the initial neo-cyberpunk, sort of Neuromancer Updated. Like Charlaine Harris, Mead (the other half is Harry R. Campion), moves the action right along, throwing out one imaginative idea after another, while setting up themes and resonances that form deeper emotional connections. They take sfnal elements like direct interfaces between a human brain and the internet, the human proclivity for thinking metaphorically, computerized duplicates of human personalities, and throw in a protagonist with crippling agoraphobia – oh yes, whose house has just been blown up so he’s in the open and on the run. Part spy thriller, part cyber adventure, all with a touch of sweetness and snappy dialog, the story moves right along with smooth prose, some great characters, and nicely handled suspense. It’s well worth seeking out and I’m glad I discovered it.

I’m going to cheat and throw in what’s on my nightstand now (besides Ethics for a New Millenium by Dalai Lama): Kari Sperring’s luscious The Grass King’s Concubine. If you haven’t read her debut novel, Living With Ghosts, drop what you’re doing and read it now. If you have, you know that her work is complex, thoughtful, compassionate and literate without the least pretentiousness. She has the uncanny ability to take five abrupt turns while maintaining the seamless integrity of the story. We go from a world that feels like pre-Revolutionary France (or Industrial Revolution England) to the steppes of Central Asia to an underground realm of elemental nature spirits and it’s all a piece, it all fits. Some of her characters are sympathetic, others are incomprehensible. By far my favorites are “the twins,” two oversized ferrets who can and reluctantly do take human form and keep forgetting their clothes. It’s a thick book and that’s a good thing, for it is to be savored.

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