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Rachel Hyland Posts

READING THE TBR, DAY 154: Murder in Mesapotamia (1936) by Agatha Christie

I have either not previously read nearly as many Poirot novels as I had thought, or my memory is far, far worse than I fondly believe. Because this story was entirely new to me, in every particular, and since it is such an excellent one, I feel certain I would have retained, at the very least, a general feeling of goodwill towards it, and have remembered its title, had it ever actually crossed my brain.

For all that it is set in the sun-bleached sands of Iraq, at an archaeological dig in the desert that is, of course, being conducted predominantly by foreigners to the land — because, infuriatingly, the Middle East has long been an outpost of Empire — this novel takes on quite a chilling and even Gothic note, as a beautiful, beloved wife is found dead, and a shady cast of suspects keeps us guessing to the very end. Told mostly from the perspective of practical British nurse Amy Leatheran, of course Hercule Poirot shows up — why is he always around when these things happen? I have never once had a murder occur anywhere near to me — to get to the bottom of what is one of the more ingenious modus operandi I have ever encountered in detective fiction.

The story’s pace is gentle, but no less compelling for it, and I continue to be impressed by how well these books — if not the social mores and imbalances of the world they present — continue to stand the test of time.

The next Poirot novel, in publication order, is called Cards on the Table, and I am pretty sure I have never read that one, either. All this time, I thought I’d Poiroted all I could Poirot in this life — how wrong I was.  

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TBR DAY 154: Murder in Mesopotamia (Hercule Poirot #14) by Agatha Christie
GENRE: Mystery
PUBLISHED: 1936
TIME ON THE TBR: ~ 5 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Vintage shop.
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 153: The History of the Kings of Britain (1138) by Geoffrey of Monmouth

Following yesterday’s abhorrent, indigestible trifle, I thought I’d make with the scholarship and refinement today, which led me to select this venerable work from my (diminishing, but still overflowing) TBR shelves.

Almost nine hundred years old, and therefore missing out quite a few kings (and queens), Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history is… well, a bit unreliable, really. It’s like Philippa Gregory labeling one of her historical reimaginings — The White Queen, The Other Boleyn Girl, what have you — as non-fiction. I mean, Merlin is in this. King Arthur is in this. And I do not in any way mean to suggest that a writer of the 12th Century knows less about the history of his own nation than I do, close to a millennium later and living across the globe, but, really? Merlin?

This is not so much a history as it is a fantasy, but that’s okay. It’s lyrical and lovely, and evocative of an earlier, certainly more martial, but also more courtly time. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but I appreciated its sweeping grandeur, its scattershot attempt at a faithful record of events long past, and the sense of living, breathing ancientness that it brings along with it. Nine hundred years is a long time, and whenever I am reminded that the legacy of human creativity goes back almost as far as humanity itself, I am always grateful.   

Still pretty cheeky to call this a “history”, though.

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TBR DAY 153: The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth
GENRE: Classic, History, Non-Fiction (?)
PUBLISHED: 1138
TIME ON THE TBR: ~ 10 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Op shop.
KEEP: Yeah.

READING THE TBR, DAY 152: After (2014) by Anna Todd

I just can’t do it. I tried. Oh lord, I tried. I bought this book close upon its release, around four years ago, due to my sister Kathryn, who was in the grip of One Direction fandom (she is much, much younger than me), and I grew curious when she told me that this book began life as the world’s most read and loved 1D fanfic of all time. 

It’s weird how much 1D fanfic there was back then. Still is, I suppose.

Anyway, much as Fifty Shades of Grey started out as a story of Edward and Bella from Twilight, in this story’s original incarnation, the attractive, tattooed and pierced British student attending our drippy heroine’s Washington college was based on Harry Styles. Except Harry Styles always seems like such a nice lad in all those interviews (and his Carpool Karaoke), and the Harry… er… sorry, Hardin of this book is a total tool. 

Enough of one that I have to stop reading. I don’t care what justification there ends up being for his outright rudeness to the admittedly irritating Tessa. There is nothing that can excuse it, nor the painful writing style in which it is expressed.

I’m eight chapters in and I’m calling it. Time of Death: right fucking now. 

There is a movie based on this “book”, by the way. The end is most definitely nigh. 

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TBR DAY 149: After by Anna Todd
GENRE: YA Romance.
PUBLISHED: 2014
TIME ON THE TBR: ~ 4 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Kmart.
KEEP: Certainly not.

READING THE TBR, DAY 151: Dead and Kicking (2015) by Lisa Emme

The heroine of this book is named “Angharad.” Harry, for short, of course. She is a witch who sees dead people, which comes in handy when dead people start cropping up all over the place. Soon, Harry is at the epicentre of a zombie plague, while also being pursued by her city’s powerful vampire lord and being attracted to/angered by a sexy shapeshifter cop. 

All I can say for this book is that it’s pretty much what I expected it to be: zippy and light supernatural fare with the occasional zingy barb provided by our first-person, often-oblivious-but-occasionally-kickass female protagonist.

And yep. All present and accounted for. It was… fine. I’d probably read another book in the series if it came in my way, though I’m not about to seek one out.

Especially not considering AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” is misattributed to Metallica in this one. That’s just sloppy.

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TBR DAY 149: Dead and Kicking by Lisa Emme
GENRE: Urban Fantasy
PUBLISHED: 2015
TIME ON THE TBR: 2 years or so.  
PURCHASED FROM: Op shop.
KEEP: No, I don’t think I so.

READING THE TBR, DAY 150: The Cosmic Computer (1963) by H. Beam Piper

I have a fondness for old SF paperbacks, and it is very hard for me to pass one by should I see it at a book sale or op shop or similar. This one came in a set of six vintage titles on which I successfully bid at filking convention’s silent auction in Atlanta — “filking” is, essentially, making music about nerd stuff, and I went to a convention of same because I was living in Atlanta at the time and Seanan MGuire told me to — and is the first one of them I have actually read.

Set on a world struggling to lift themselves out of economic collapse, it tells the story of the enterprising Conn Maxwell, who returns from a university stint on Earth and tells his compatriots that a long-rumoured super-computer known as MERLIN does, in fact, exist, and is buried along with much other disused weaponry in the planet’s wastes. He employs some people to help him dig, and more people dig, and all of a sudden the desolate planet with  no hope is buzzing with industry and purpose. It’s very pro-capitalism (there are a lot of ltd. companies created in this book, plus holding companies and shell companies and companies of every kind, really), and also very anti-worker’s rights — they get whipped, if you please — so that’s kind of problematic. I mean, I like capitalism as much as the next business owner, but come on.

Still, it’s a pretty inventive story from a stalwart of SF’s golden age, and as I have not read any of H. Beam Piper’s other works, and given that he wrote dozens of books and short stories, I am just glad to have, at last, sampled his offerings. I’m not sure I’ll be rushing out to read any more of them, however.

There are only so many board of directors’ meetings and formation of LLCs that a sci-fi fan can take, after all.   

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TBR DAY 149: The Cosmic Computer by H. Beam Piper
GENRE: Classic SF, SF
PUBLISHED: 1963
TIME ON THE TBR: ~ 9 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: A filking convention…
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 149: Cousin Phillis (1864) by Elizabeth Gaskell

I’ve slowly — by which I mean, over several decades — been reading all of the works of Elizabeth Gaskell (known in her lifetime as Mrs. Gaskell), whenever I happen upon one. I was handed probably her best-known novel, Cranford, by a knowing vintage book dealer when I was seventeen, and have searched out her others ever since.

This one is another Victorian delight, a pastoral reflection of country life at the dawn of the steam age that sees young Paul Manning, sent out into the wilds of a bucolic idyll by his bosses at the railroad, and forced to pay a visit on his aunt, who lives nearby.

Said aunt is married to a vicar, and is possessed of a lovely daughter — the eponymous Phillis, and I have literally read that name as “Phyllis” every time until just now, because my brain wants it to be that way — and while the ungainly Paul is not immune to her beauty, he soon settles into a familial relationship with her, acceptable to even modern readers. (Cousins get married all the time in books of this vintage, of course… and it’s never not squicky.) Meanwhile, both Paul and Phillis find themselves deeply admiring Paul’s personable boss…

Lyrical and lovely and sentimental and sad, with occasional leavening by some pointed humour, especially in the dialogue, this is the story of a particular time and place that perhaps never was, but that will live forever in these pages. Bucolic and timeless, the lifestyle this book captures is about to change dramatically, altered inexorably by the tide of progress that is about to spread throughout the land, and world. It’s like reading a book set just before the internet, or before smart phones, but one that sees the change coming and begins to envisage just what the world will be like at the same time the next year (or the next week, in the case of smart phones). 

Which accounts for my sense of melancholy just now. These days, we’re constantly on the brink of a Brave New World. And, like the residents of this sleepy little hamlet, I’m never quite ready when it comes. 

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TBR DAY 149: Cousin Phillis by Elizabeth Gaskell
GENRE: Classics, General Fiction
PUBLISHED: 1864
TIME ON THE TBR: 5 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Op shop.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 148: The Vampire’s Photograph (2008) by Kevin Emerson

A middle grade book about a vampire world existing parallel to our own, with a vampire hero who feels different to those of his race — because he is — and the reckless human girl who endangers herself and others with her determination to prove the existence of vampires (because, sure), this book is weirdly addictive, mainly because the mystery surrounding its protagonist is so damned oblique.

Oliver Nocturne — yes, the vampire family name is Nocturne, what of it? — is 83 years old, but appears and acts 12, because that is how vampire biology works. They are not immortal but only slowly ageing, and also, New World vampires like Oliver are born, not made.

Except, what is up with Oliver? Why does he, alone, have to endure annual medical checkups, when the majority of the vampire race are so… well, vampirey? Why does he, in particular, have to fear getting caught on camera, when other vampires show up on film and are even work on TV? What is so special about him?

For all its silliness — and this book is very, very silly — I have to admit that I really, really wanted to find out. And when Book 1 ended, and this question was only partially ended, you better believe I was torn about embarking straight away on Book 2, also in my possession, because, whatever will happen next? Can Emalie ever forgive Oliver? Can Oliver ever forgive himself? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE?

But then I discovered that there are six Oliver Nocturne novels, and since I only own two of them, I would have to go out of my way to find the remaining four to get to the end of the story — and I’m not sure how committed I am to this vampire kid-lit world for me to go that far. You know how it is with series. Book 2 could very well resolve some of these dangling plot threads, but it will assuredly hint at more, and then where will I be? A grown woman desperately hunting for sequels to a middle-grade vampire tale. (And I am already a grown woman desperately hunting for sequels to a kids’ book — and I found one, Penny Pollard’s Passpport, in an op shop yesterday, for a dollar, by the way! That that, eBay!)

So Book 2 will remain on the shelf for a while. But in the meantime, I really am beset with lingering questions over this utterly unbelievable, outlandish, illogical and at times even flat-out stupid novel. Again, and as always, this says way more about me than about the book itself. But I can live with that.   

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TBR DAY 138: The Vampire’s Photograph (Oliver Nocturne #1) by Kevin Emerson
GENRE: YA, Vampires
PUBLISHED: 2008
TIME ON THE TBR: ~3 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Op shop.
KEEP: Maybe? Let’s wait till I read the whole series to make that determination…

READING THE TBR, DAY 147: Damnation Alley (1968) by Roger Zelazny

I have long loved Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, a sci-fi/fantasy series of depth and breadth and significant scope. But strangely, those ten books are the only Zelazny I have ever read, probably because I once attempted reading Lord of Light, another of his works, and couldn’t get past the first chapter. (It really is awful.)

But many years back I found this post-apocalyptic tale of his, and since I have something of a collection of those, I could not pass it by. And while it has its flaws — it’s a bit abrupt, and sometimes opaque, and its treatment of women is pretty lacking, of course — I am nevertheless very pleased to have it on my shelves.

The story: In a land blighted by nuclear war, with society in tatters and with a plague on the loose, convict Hell Tanner is given a pardon from all his many crimes if he will ferry a load of serum from Los Angeles to Boston – the oly two remaining functional major cities. The only way to get there is along Damnation Alley, a route laden with outlaws, the occasional hopeful township, the increasingly virulent plague, and giant monsters out of the worst radiation-based “When Animals Attack!” B-movie. Action-packed, but seeded with no little philosophy (and sexism), Tanner’s epic journey is a compelling series of near-disasters, proves him to be a pretty fascinating anti-hero in this future world where true heroes are few and far between.

The book was turned into a film in 1977 (starring Jan-Michael Vincent, who pretty much is the 70s), which I shall now be looking up. And, not long before, UK band Hawkwind delivered themselves of this:

Amazing!

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TBR DAY 146: Damnation Alley  by Roger Zelazny
GENRE: Science Fiction, Apocalypse
PUBLISHED: 1969
TIME ON THE TBR: ~8 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Op shop.
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 146: Warbreaker (2009) by Brandon Sanderson

This book so, so, so long for me to get into it. And it particularly confused me as I read, because I felt like I knew the world in which it lay, or at least kind of did, but I was certain I’d not read this book before, and it was most assuredly a standalone novel.

After a few chapters I realized that it reminded me of other Sanderson works, specifically the two novellas he wrote based on the iOS video game Infinity Blade. Not having played the game, I have no idea how much of its mythology is manufactured by Sanderson in those stories, but it was certainly disconcerting to me, for a while at least, that so much of the book felt so familiar.

Once I got past that feeling I then had to contend with just how slow everything was, and how generally confusing. But eventually, painstakingly, the world began to captivate, and by about the 30% mark I was inhaling it, swept away on a current of magic and mayhem.

It is a tale of politics and magic and people coming back from the dead. In a divided kingdom, long-ago taken over by the “gods” who are those returned to life after death (for no discernible reason, so it must be because they are divine), two princesses and daughters of the One True King become embroiled in the difficult politics of a capital city, the gods who rule it and the priests who actually rule it. Eldest princess Vivenna has the hardest road, and learns the most, while Siri (this book predates the iPhone assistant; it was actually self-published on-line by Sanderson, one chapter at a time, in 2006) goes from much-despised sacrificial youngster to revolutionary queen with a serious case of Stockholm Syndrome.

One of the things I liked best about this book is the magic system, which is all colour-based, and while I don’t really understand it, I don’t need to, because it’s magic and that is all I need to know, as long it is consistent. (Which, here, it is.) There is also one particular pair — two “gods” of this odd earthly pantheon — whose banter is top-notch, and that really added to my enjoyment of the book, as well.

Warbreaker is far from my favourite Sanderson novel, and may actually be one of his worst, but when you’re dealing with a writer of his calibre, his worst outstrips most people’s bests by a long, long way.

Incidentally, my copy bears the legend “A Sci-Fi Essential Book”, which is weird, since a) it’s pretty obviously a Fantasy, and b) it’s not.

The reasons for this? a) Sanderson has long contended that all his works take place on different planets in the same universe, or “Cosmere”, and thus are inherently SF even if they are very much just F in their presentation; and b) it refers not to science fiction at large but to the then-Sci-Fi Channel, since between 2005 and 2010, the channel had a weird cross-promotion thing with Tor Books, which included this puzzling branding.

The more you know! 

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TBR DAY 146: Warbreaker  by Brandon Sanderson
GENRE: Fantasy
PUBLISHED: 2009
TIME ON THE TBR: 10 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Minotaur, Melbourne.
KEEP: Yes…

READING THE TBR, DAY 145: The Last Book in the Universe (2000) by Rodman Philbrick

My stepmother Angela gave this book to me for Christmas several years back, and it is a mark of how well she knows me that it is exactly in my wheelhouse. It’s a post-apocalyptic dystopia, told through the eyes of the ickily-named Spaz, who ekes out an existence in the slums and fights to save the life of his one-time foster sister with the help of the elderly Ryter, an adorable orphan child, and a privileged scion of the utopian Eden.

This book could have been written specifically for me.

It’s compulsively readable, even with — or perhaps even because of — all he future slang and determined classism. It’s hard to quite understand the economy of this world, especially in the halcyon “proov” enclave in which everyone is genetically engineered and disdainful of the “normals” struggling for life outside the radiation-proof dome of Eden, but that doesn’t really matter when the message of the novel, of equality and conscience how politically active youth can change the world, is so powerful.

There are tears, of course, and not many laughs, but it is a thoroughly immersive experience, both heart-breaking and hopeful, and one I shall not soon forget. 

Thanks, Angela!

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TBR DAY 145: The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick
GENRE: YA, Post-Apocalyptic, Science Fiction
PUBLISHED: 2000
TIME ON THE TBR: 4 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: It was a Christmas gift.
KEEP: Yes!