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Author: Rachel

READING THE TBR, DAY 210: Howl’s Moving Castle (1986) by Diana Wynne Jones

It is among my greatest shames that I do not like Studio Ghibli films. From Princess Mononoke to Ponyo to Porco Rosso, these Japanese animated features are considered masterpieces of the anime art, but for all that I have been steadily exploring that fertile playground over the past few years (hi, Tristan, my partner in weekly anime nights!), I still have not been able to work up the least enthusiasm for these .

Howl’s Moving Castle is yet another Ghibli film that I abhor, written and directed by the much-vaunted Hayao Miyazaki — in fact, I hate it so much I have never managed to get to the end of it, despite trying multiple times. So when I saw the book upon which it is (it turns out, loosely) based, I belatedly realized there was a way to find out what happened in the end without inflicting any more of that histrionic nonsense upon myself.

Told with great simplicity and no little wit, this very fairy tale-esque adventure sees a lovely young girl magicked into an old woman and forced to infiltrate a crotchety wizard’s ambulatory home in order to, perhaps, have the spell undone. We treat with family and friendship and not judging books by covers and abuse of power, and yes, there is a moving castle, which is kind of a dilapidated Hogwarts on chicken legs.

I really wish I hadn’t seen the anime so I could have imagined all of that for myself. 


TBR DAY 171: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
GENRE: Children’s Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: 4 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Already Read Bookshop, North Fitzroy.
KEEP: No, I’ll pass this on to an interested child of some kind.

READING THE TBR, DAY 208: My Father’s Dragon (1948) by Ruth Stiles Gannett

Last year, Netflix announced a forthcoming television adaptation of this American children’s classic, and the very next day I saw it on the shelf of a local secondhand bookstore. Never one to ignore a fortuitous coincidence, I bought it immediately… and, as always, left it far too long unread.

I feel like the most important detail to know about this book is that there really isn’t much dragon in it. It’s more about the journey to the dragon, to rescue the dragon, who is at the mercy of a lion, for no very understandable reason. The story is told by the son of the hero, Elmer Elevator, and he does not for a moment doubt the veracity of this childhood tale, and so we don’t either. We believe the talkative and sage alley cat who tells Elmer about the captive dragon, Elmer’s solo childhood rescue mission to Wild Island and the chatty lion who is fooled by Aesop’s Fable-style tricks.   

It’s all very cute and, unlike with many other American childhood classics — Love You Forever, The Giving Tree… ugh. Terrible. —  I very much wish I had encountered this one when I was of an age to be utterly enchanted, rather than just… find it cute.


TBR DAY 208: My Father’s Dragon (My Father’s Dragon #1) by Ruth Stiles Gannett
GENRE: Children’s Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: ~1 year. 
PURCHASED FROM: Already Read Bookshop.
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 206: Maulever Hall (1963) by Jane Aitken Hodge

About a quarter of the way into this book, I knew exactly where it was going. Our heroine has amnesia, and there is much mystery as to where she came from, who she is, why she was running away and who is the little boy she had with her, but who does not seem to be hers? When I tell you that she does not regain her memory until the novel’s overblown conclusion, hundreds of pages later, and that in the meantime she is proposed to multiple times by no less than three men, becomes engaged (halfway through the book!), is told that she is already married, survives multiple attempts on her life, and relies on the kindness of so many strangers she should be dead many times over even without the assassin on her trail, you will scarce credit it, nor should you.

The ending is even more nutty, in which our dismayingly foolish heroine a) believes a proven liar again, b) puts herself in harm’s way again and c) gives her psychopathic would-be murderer exactly what he always wanted, simply because he only decided to murder her and a child for the sake of love.  

This book is ridiculous.

Of course, Gothic fiction is ridiculous; it’s supposed to be outlandish and near-farcical. It’s also supposed to be creepy, though this one misses that mark almost entirely. I haven’t read a lot of Gothics — most of my experience is drawn from Northanger Abbey and Georgette Heyer’s The Reluctant Widow, both of which are gentle but merciless parodies of the genre — but I have read enough to know that this attempt is… less than stellar. 

Speaking of Heyer, I originally bought this book because Jane Aiken Hodge was her first biographer, and while that effort was not nearly as successful as Jennifer Kloester’s more recent chronicle of that elusive genius, I nevertheless was very curious about the quality of Hodge’s own historical fiction, and kind of ashamed of myself that I hadn’t even known such existed, let alone had read it.

If this is any indication of her general standard, though, I really haven’t been missing much.  


TBR DAY 206: Maulever Hall by Joan Aiken Hodge
GENRE: Gothic Romance
TIME ON THE TBR: 3 years.  
KEEP: Maybe, but only for Heyerian reasons.

READING THE TBR, DAY 205: Mystery Men (2011) by David Liss

“Introducing Marvel’s all-new, never-before-seen heroes of the 1930s!” So begins the blurb of this comic, and is the reason that I bought it. I didn’t quite understand how there were these long-lost characters from the 30s that had gone unseen for so many decades, especially since Marvel Comics was not even founded until 1939, which proved to me, yet again, that I am not nearly as smart as I sometimes think I am.

Because of course these are not characters from the 1930s. They are characters set in the 1930s.

In my defense, that is a very deceptive sentence.

The adventure depicted in this pulp-esque noir-ish mini-series follows a fairly typical dark thriller plot that could easily have been written in the time in which it is set — there’s an innocent man framed for murder, corrupt politicians, organized crime run riot and people wearing hats. The Lindbergh baby makes an appearance, and a few other hallmarks of the era, and it’s all pretty oppressive and bleak, because damn, the 30s were, apparently. It wasn’t called the Depression for nothing.

Our superheroes — five in all — are conflicted and suffering from every societal issue of the time, from racism to sexism to daddy issues (okay, so those are pretty timeless issues, unfortunately), and also must battle against monsters, because yeah. When you think noir, obviously the supernatural is the next thought that comes to mind.

I really enjoyed the Aviatrix (whose sister was murdered, and who is the possessor of a pair of Falcon-style mechanical wings for no apparent reason) as a nascent superheroine, and the Surgeon’s dark and creepy one-liners genuinely made me wonder if he was being set up as our villain instead. (“When I’m finished cutting away, they won’t recognize you.”) I always hate an innocent-patsy-on-the-run tale, so that wasn’t my favourite, but that aspect of the story did add events a certain tension throughout.

And the art — which is fantastic — made up for a lot.

In short, this is a pretty fun pulpy ride, enough so that I kind of wish the aforementioned superheroes, along with the equally troubled Operator, Revenant and Achilles, really had been created in the 1930s, after all. I would have loved to see the reboot. 


TBR DAY 205: Mystery Men by David Liss; illustrated by Patrick Zircher
GENRE: Marvel, Comics, Superheroes
TIME ON THE TBR: ~6 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Minotaur Melbourne.
KEEP: Why not?

READING THE TBR, DAY 204: Nanny Returns (2009) by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

As someone who has worked with children a lot over the years, there was a good deal in 2002’s The Nanny Diaries that really resonated with me. I mention no names, as that would be unprofessional and unseemly, but I’ll not deny that there was a lot that was familiar about Nan’s interactions with assorted disinterested yet jealous parents and their somewhat spoilt but very lonely offspring. 

This sequel is of a similar quality — in that, it’s unspectacular, yet has a certain appeal — and describes life for Nan ten years later, when her former charge, Grayer X (see: no names), reenters her life demanding to know how she could have left him like that. (Er… it was her job, and she got fired, bud. You think she should have abducted you?) Then Grayer needs Nan’s help to lie to the boarding school he wants his little brother to go to, to get him away from their crazy Mom, and Nan just… does it? Even though now she is a consultant at the ritzy Manhattan school that Grayer happens to attend, and definitely no one’s nanny anymore? There are scandals, there are petty rivalries, there are way too many school board meetings, and it’s all very Upper East Side privilege as written by those who haven’t much experienced Upper East Side privilege.

It’s all a bit ludicrous, but then, I watched six seasons of Gossip Girl, and this book is certainly no worse than that, all Bergdorf’s and multi-million-dollar converted lofts and kids who summer in St. Barts or whatever. Nan isn’t that great, and her husband Ryan — whom I remember she called HH in the first book, though I can’t remember what that stood for — is worse, campaigning to knock her up but absent so much for his work that it is clear she would be doing the bulk of the parenting, when she isn’t even sure she wants kids, and as for Grayer, he’s a Poor Little Rich Boy, and Nan is not helping him at all by basically indulging his every whim. But for all the book’s deficiencies, I raced through it in a state of frenzy, dying to see what would happen next and always happy to renew an acquaintanceship with a barely-recalled characters from the first one.

I really hope there won’t be a third one, though.


TBR DAY 206: Nanny Returns by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus
GENRE: Women’s Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: ~5 years.  
KEEP: Probably not.

READING THE TBR, DAY 203: An Apple for the Creature (2012), edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelner

Thirteen short stories, most of them tied into existing Urban Fantasy series, loosely tied together with the (often even looser-ly applied) topic of education make up this often entertaining, sometimes tiresome, collection.

The highlight for me was definitely Ilona Andrews’s “Magic Tests,” in which teen Julie is forced by her guardian Kate Daniels to attend a private school for the magically gifted, where she uncovers a deadly mystery. (Because Kate Daniels is her guardian.)  There’s a perfectly serviceable Sookie Stackhouse story from Charlaine Harris — not a favourite, but okay — and a decent entry into Faith Hunter’s Skinwalker series. I always enjoy Amber Benson’s Calliope Jones stories, and this was… another one of those, slightly snarky, kinda silly, mostly a good time.

I also really enjoyed the tech-meets-magic thriller that was “Spellcaster 2.0” by Jonathan Maberry, who is an author I had never read before, but will be checking out his back list now. (Great. More books.)

The other stories were… fine.

Anthologies are like that, right? Gold sifted from among the dross — and what is precious to some will be insignificant to others. The awesomeness of Julie’s story, though. Surely everyone can agree on that one.


TBR DAY 203: An Apple for the Creature, edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L. P. Kelner
GENRE: Urban Fantasy, Short Stories
TIME ON THE TBR: 5 years.  

READING THE TBR, DAY 202: Tears in Rain (2011) by Rosa Montero

For all my love of science fiction, I have never been particularly drawn to cyberpunk as a subgenre. Of course, I have read Neuromancer and Johnny MnemonicSnowcrash and Altered Carbon among other such, not to mention a bunch of applicable Philip K. Dick. I’ve seen every iteration of Blade Runner that exists on film (and that is a lot). But I think there is something about its generally bleak vision of the future — that technology and progress will overtake us so implacably that we will be powerless to prevent society’s inevitable descent into cybernetics, dehumanization and, above all, loneliness — that makes me unutterably sad.

This novel echoes those themes in spades, but also gives it all a Spanish flair — it is set in New Madrid in the too-near future — while also giving us a face-tattooed artificial life form as our detective heroine, who rejoices under the unlikely moniker of Bruna Husky.

Bruna — who is more usually referred to as “the detective” and “the rep”, which is kind of annoying, to be honest — is employed to get to the bottom of a suspicious death, and before long she gets drawn into a far-reaching conspiracy against her race (“rep” is short for “replicant”, and yes, the title is indeed a reference to Blade Runner; it is even mentioned in the text) and the very controlling government. There are aliens in this world, and a barely-sentient, very cute pet-type creature who speaks,  but all of this is thrown at us as though it’s really no big deal. Maybe it isn’t.

The book is perhaps a tad overlong, and Bruna’s investigative skills aren’t exactly top notch, her method being distinctly of the “crash around until someone tries to kill me” school of detection, but the book held my attention throughout, and I liked its contemplation of what makes us individuals, what makes us human, and how important our memories are to our sense of self. Despite myself, and her, I even liked Bruna, debilitating drug addiction and frank sexual encounters and all.

Bruna Husky #2 was translated into English and released in 2016, but the third in the series, released last year, does not yet have an English version. I’ll wait.


TBR DAY 202: Tears in Rain (Bruna Husky #1) by Rosa Montero
GENRE: Science Fiction, Cyberpunk, Spanish Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: 4 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Minotaur Melbourne.
KEEP: Yep!

READING THE TBR, DAY 201: Claudine at School (1900) by Colette

Vicious, violent and vindictive, Claudine is a manipulative little hellcat with little regard for anyone and a profound belief in her own inherent virtues.

I love her.

Told under the guise of her journal, from her final year of school in the French countryside (not, as I expected a boarding school; well, it is one, but not for Claudine, who is what Enid Blyton would have called a “day girl” in her school books, Claudine details the tempestuous love lives of the school’s staff and visiting dignitaries, many of whom make advances on Claudine, fifteen and winsome, with such eyes and oft-tossed curls.

This book could not be further from Blyton’s Malory Towers (a firm favourite with me, from ages 8 – 11) and its ilk, especially in the frankness with which it treats with sex, and most especially with lesbian relationships. Claudine’s own inclinations run mostly in that direction, and much of the book is taken up with the open secret of two schoolmistresses living in connubial bliss and the neglected schoolgirl who’s crush on Claudine both annoys and gratifies her. (She pinches and slaps her way too often for my liking, I have to say.)

The book’s brilliant pace lessens somewhat in the second half, especially when Claudine and her classmates take exacting final examinations that will lead some of them to go onto careers as teachers themselves—though Claudine’s wealthy, far too indulgent, rather absent father means she can avoid such a fate, which she describes as among the most dire that could befall her. But it is nevertheless a masterpiece, and has me eager indeed to explore more of Collette’s body of work, most especially the three further volumes dealing with the tempestuous, troublesome, wholly captivating Claudine.


TBR DAY 201: Claudine at School by Colette
GENRE: Classic Fiction, French Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: 16 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Borders, Singapore.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 200: If I Fix You (2016) by Abigail Johnson

Two sad kids with at least one terrible parent each bond over having terrible parents in this strangely engaging YA novel about sixteen-year-old Jill, her two best-friends, and the age-inappropriate boy — handsome, and dangerous, and so, so broken — who moves in next door to her.

Weirdly unpredictable, the story moves easily in the head of our much-beset Jill. There is romance, violence, melodrama and an occasional flash of humour, and Jill’s mechanical expertise, as she assists in her father’s garage (not the terrible parent, in her case), wordlessly makes her one of those Not Like Every Other Girl girls that so populate YA fiction, and a good thing, too.

The book does deal with some big themes, most of them abuse-based, and while one troubling sexual harrassment storyline is significantly underplayed, and not at all properly dealt with (which it surely would have been, had the genders of the people involved been reversed), it must be said that, for the most part, these important topics are dealt with both candidly and with sensitivity.

Why I bought this, I can’t really say. It just… called to me, somehow? I think it was the title. We all like to think we can fix, that we can help. No one really fixes anyone here, though, they just listen, and show they care.

And maybe that’s the point.


TBR DAY 200: If I Fix You by Abigail Johnson
TIME ON THE TBR: 2 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Readings Carlton.
KEEP: Probably not.

READING THE TBR, DAY 199: On the Edge (2009) by Ilona Adrews

Having belatedly discovered, and been enraptured by, Ilona Andrews’s long-running Kate Daniels series — a post-apocalyptic world in which magic has overtaken technology — I needed to fill in some time while awaiting the tenth and final book in the series, and decided to do so with other Urban Fantasy outings from the same author. (Who is, it turns out, a husband-and-wife duo. Huh.)

I began this one the day it arrived, but then ceased reading pretty swiftly, because I was just furious with the “hero”, Declan, who arrives in the Edge, an area of not-quite-magic that borders his home (the Weird) and our human world (the Broken) and is so high-handed and jerkish I desperately wanted to reach into the book and strangle him. Alphaholes are just not my favourite.

The fact that our heroine Rose, for all her umbrage at his high-handed behaviour, was beginning to allow herself to soften toward him, was enough to infuriate me further, and I laid the book aside, I thought perhaps forever, equally as disappointed by this development as I had been when Kate Daniels inexplicably decided to take her husband’s name when she got married. I mean, what?

Yesterday, my friend Leanne and I were discussing our mutual love of Urban Fantasy as a genre, and, when considering the Andrews oeuvre, I mentioned how I had DNF’d this one. She was sympathetic, having felt the same way, but encouraged me to continue. “There is a reason for it,” she insisted. “You will forgive him.”

And, yeah, there is, and I do. It just takes, like, 95% of the book to get there.

In the end, I didn’t hate Declan, or the book, and I do like Rose. I also like that magic in this world can be learned, and perfected, rather than is only a matter of genetic luck. There are also some adorable kids involved in the tale, pretty well-written, and I am a sucker for those. But there are three more books in this series, which I own (I bought all four at once, convinced I would like them, such is the power of Kate Daniels), and I can’t say I’m in a hurry to read them. 

I think I’m still kind of bitter about that first 95%.


TBR DAY 199: On the Edge (Edge #1) by Ilona Andrews
GENRE: Urban Fantasy
TIME ON THE TBR: ~2 years.  
KEEP: Oh, probably.