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Rachel Hyland Posts

READING THE TBR, DAY 104: An Episode Under the Terror (1830) by Honoré de Balzac

Often I will buy a book not because I want to read it but because I think I should read it, and this slim, lovely volume is just such a case. I knew of French novelist Honoré de Balzac, of course. Not only are there are statues and tributes to him all over the world, but his name is just almost-naughty enough that it has been a lazy punchline for comedy writers across several generations.

But I’d never actually read anything of his, because while I could name the author I’d never even heard a title mentioned, which made me wonder, was Balzac even a writer? Maybe he was a philosopher? Historian? Artist?

Well, if this vignette is any indication, he was all three. 

It turns out that Balzac is best-known (and was, likewise, in his lifetime) for his multi-volume La Comédie humaine, in which he explores France after the fall of Bonaparte in 1815 and the restoration of the monarchy, through to basically his death in 1850. But this story — original title: Un épisode sous la Terreur, often translated An Episode During the Terror) takes place further back, when the French Revolution had its death grip on the nation and aristos and their sympathisers were being executed left and right. I knew this, of course — what I did not know was that at the same time there was a concerted effort to suppress religion during the same era, an initiative of the Committee of Public Safety that was a clear precursor to Communist rhetoric against the church. Now, look, I’m no fan of church, but killing nuns and priests is unacceptable, and that is what was apparently happening, and it is the reason the kindly elderly lady who is our protagonist is in hiding, immediately following the guillotine death of Louis XVI.

Masterfully, Balzac unravels the realities of post-Revolutionary Paris, and also seeds in a sinister air of menace that culminates in a shocking twist I did not see coming at all, it was so thriller-like and revelatory, even amid all the pondering of man and God and morality. It’s so satisfying, isn’t it, when you experience something — or by someone — critically acclaimed, and you agree, and can understand why the work has stood the test of time? (Unlike, say, James Joyce and all his nonsense.)  

I’m not saying I’m about to rush out and read Balzac’s dozens of novels, and even more short stories. I have no doubt they will be excellent, but also, this was depressing as hell, and I’m not sure how much of that I can necessarily take. But I am very pleased, and weirdly proud, to have read this one, and should another such book penned by him (and so pretty!) happen across my path, I will assuredly buy it on the instant.

And I might not even wait six years tor read it.

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TBR DAY 104: An Episode Under the Terror by Honoré de Balzac
GENRE: Non-Fiction, History
PUBLISHED: 1830
TIME ON THE TBR: 6 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Sidewalk book stall.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 103: The Mage’s Daughter (2008) by Lynn Kurland

Hmm. In the first of Lynn Kurland’s Nine Kingdoms novels, Star of the Morning, I found myself swept away in the romantical, fantastical land in which our luxuriant story is set. With its more-powerful-than-she-thinks-she-is heroine and her more-powerful-than-she-thinks-he-is swain, their road trip that ended in betrayal and… yet another road trip was pretty fun throughout.

This time, and maybe it’s just the sophomore slump thing, the story just did not grab me. Part of it was the spoileriness of the title, I think — if merc Morgan’s parentage is going to remain such a mystery for much of the book, why reveal all before we even start reading it? — but the other part was just that Morgan wasn’t super badass here, since she is recovering from wounds received in the previous novel, and she let her grandfather push her around WAY too much, especially since she just met the dude and had previously been unaware of his existence.

And then there’s Miach, her erstwhile suitor and prince of the realm who has been lying to her from the get go, and his successful pursuit of her in this book (in more ways than one). What the hell, Morgan? You got over all that in less than the space of a book? Who even are you? Do I even like you anymore?

Despite all this — oh, and EVERY GUY is in love with Morgan! Gaah! Stop it! — I still enjoyed this one for the most part, and I will doubtless carry on with the series, eventually, because I am curious enough about it all to see what happens next. It’s still a perfect storm of me-ness, all magic and romance and quests and Rightful Heirs. But Book 3 is going to have to offer up something a little different from this one if it is going to recapture the, well, magic of the first novel in the series.

Sequels are hard. Series are harder.

And I have officially thought about this book way too much.   

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TBR DAY 103: The Mage’s Daughter (Nine Kingdoms #2) by Lynn Kurland
GENRE: Romantic Fantasy
PUBLISHED: 2008
TIME ON THE TBR: 2 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Op shop.
KEEP: Sure.

READING THE TBR, DAY 102: Penny Pollard’s Diary (1983) by Robin Klein

I remember the jolt of pure joy that ran through me when I spied the distinctive tartan check cover of this book, its corner peeking out below an avalanche of others at a school book fair late last year. “Penny Pollard’s Diary!” I may or may not have exclaimed out loud. “I remember this book!”

I, of course, bought it immediately. (It was 50c. A crazy bargain.)

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that no, I actually didn’t remember that much about the book. I remembered loving Polly, in that she was totally different to any girl that I knew. But as I sent my mind back through the decades to that Grade 2 student who had re-borrowed the book so many times in a row from the school library that I was eventually banned from ever doing so again, I realized that I could not recall a single detail of the story, and resolved to read it again to relive that childhood obsession.

And I get it. I had good taste back then. This book is gold. Penny is THE BEST. She’d be diagnosed as on the spectrum nowadays, but in the 80s, she was just a bit of an eccentric, as she sorted and resorted her horse swap cards (swap cards! Oh, the flashback that gave me!) and refused to wear dresses and made friends with an elderly lady who is just as non-conformist as she is. 

Text-heavy for a picture book, and featuring actual photos that makes it all seem remarkably like a true story (if it is: where is the real Penny now, and why is she not my friend?), this “diary” features some Klein touches that are familiar to readers of her best-selling novel Hating Alison Ashley and — my favourite of hers — Halfway Across the Galaxy and Turn Left, like the perfect pattern card of ladylike virtue that our heroine detests for no real reason, but that is all part of its appeal. 

One thing of which I was utterly unaware until this very day is that there are FIVE sequels to Penny Pollard’s Diary that I guess my school librarian just never bothered to get in, because she hated me or something. How have I made it so advanced an age without learning that there was a sequel to a book that I — admittedly — didn’t remember, but did remember loving so very much?

We’re agreed, I do not need any more books to read. The whole point of this book-a-day TBR mission is to clear the decks of all the books I already own. But you don’t understand, I NEED these books more more than I need chocolate. More than I need air. They are now a physical requirement. My life will be incomplete until my Penny Pollard collection is, at last, now that I know that’s a thing, complete — and in original first edition format, too.

This is who I am. I can’t fight it, so I have to embrace it. I need to buy five kids’ books very, very much, and I will not be able to rest until I have found them and read them and they are mine. They’re currently running at about $13 each on eBay, by the way.

Turns out my 50c bargain is going to cost me more than $50. 

Totally worth it. 

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TBR DAY 102: Penny Pollard’s Diary (Penny Pollard #1 [!!!]) by Robin Klein
GENRE: Children’s Fiction
PUBLISHED: 1983
TIME ON THE TBR: 6 months. 
PURCHASED FROM: School book fair.
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 101: Death in the Clouds (1935) by Agatha Christie

So, as I continue my Poirot reread, I keep finding some of these books that are actually only-just-now-read novels for me, and I begin to grow further convinced that my mother did not have all of this series in her possession as I was growing up, despite her assurance to the contrary. (Or my belief of same.)

This is another corker for Christie,  and our good friend Hercules, as he is once again in the right place at the right time (for him, that is — not for the murderer) as a passenger airliner is rocked by the death of a wealthy, not-well-liked woman of dubious morals. A plethora of suspects, some cunning twists and, of course, some brilliant detection from the retired-but-not Belgian genius make for a speedy and satisfying mystery read.

It is redundant to say that Agatha Christie is good at this, but DAMN Agatha Christie is good at this! I’m very much looking forward to the next Poirot adventure… Wait, no. The next one in publication order is The ABC Murders, which I very recently played through as a PS4 game with my friend Lisa, so I don’t need to reread that one. Next, therefore, is Murder in Mesopotamia — which I have no idea whether I have read or not.

I’m not sure which option I’m hoping for.

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TBR DAY 101: Death in the Clouds (Poirot #12), aka Death in the Air, by Agatha Christie
GENRE: Mystery, Cosy Mystery, Crime, Poirot
PUBLISHED: 1935
TIME ON THE TBR: ~5 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Vintage shop.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 100: Under Cover (2015) by Craig Munro

This book is a fascinating and detailed history of the Australian publishing industry across the past five decades, as seen through the eyes of scholar and former University of Queensland Press editor Craig Munro. At times it may be a little too detailed, especially in the people it mentions in passing who were colleagues or rival editors or such, but of course, a book like this has to be careful not to slight anyone, and in some ways the painstaking attention to often superfluous detail adds to the veracity of the narrative.

There is so, so much in here that I did not know, had never considered, and probably never would have if not for this book. One thing it highlights more than anything is that I do not read enough works by Australian authors. There are literally dozens listed in this book of whom I have never heard. but whose work has best-sold and been critically acclaimed throughout the world over the last half-century and more. Oh, sure, Thomas Kenneally and Patrick White and Peter Carey. (The latter two of whom Munro not-so-subtly mentions he helped put on the map; there’s a fine line between reminiscence and name-dropping, and he walks that line adroitly, but sometimes cringily.)

But the other thing this book definitely highlights is the massive shift in publishing norms since it was released in 2015, let alone when Munro first embarked on a literary career in the 1970s. The red pencil of old has given way to Track Changes; the Express Posted cover proof has given way to a .pdf, the flowery correspondence praising an author’s work have given way to text messages. I love the simplicity of our system now — and especially that it has been democratized and is returning to the small press roots of the pre-conglomerate system, due to the ease of self-publishing — but there is also a lot that is attractive and romantic about the world described in here, all boozy lunches and hardcover print runs and international rights-buying trips.

The fact is, this book makes me nostalgic for something I never experienced. And a memoir cannot really earn any higher praise than that.

 (Oh, and a belated extra-thanks for the Christmas gift from… God, over three years ago, Louise! This proved to be a most excellent choice.)

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TBR DAY 100: Under Cover: Adventures in the Art of Editing by Craig Munro
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Memoir
PUBLISHED: 2015
TIME ON THE TBR: ~3 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: It was a Christmas gift.
KEEP: Yes!

READING THE TBR, DAY 99: Space: Punisher (2012) by Frank Tieri

I really love an alternate reality version of established Marvel canon, and this one is no exception. Giving us an inter-stellar hunt for the shadowy figures who murdered Frank Castle’s family, this reimagining of the tale brings in artificial intelligence and aliens as well as a space-suited Punisher determined to give no quarter to those he deems worthy of, well, punishment.

Featuring cameos by villains such as Ultron, Magneto and Red Skull, as well as my darling Deadpool, and Hulk, and those troublesome Watchers, this really is its own pocket universe, and one that could so easily be its own long-running space opera series, if the actionable names and recognizable powers were altered significantly enough.

The art here is particularly noteworthy, too, the extra-worldly aspect of the tale perfectly rendered, while the clever sight-gag Easter Eggs just keep on coming, and Punisher’s AI helpmeets are just THE BEST.

In all, a home run of a 4-shot comic limited series, and one that I wish had gone on for far, far longer.  

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TBR DAY 98: Space: Punisher by Frank Tieri
GENRE: Comics, Marvel, Superheroes, The Punisher
PUBLISHED: 2012
TIME ON THE TBR: ~2 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Big City Comics, Melbourne.
KEEP: Yes!

READING THE TBR, DAY 98: The Shade of the Moon (2013) by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Wow, this series took a turn.

Very often, post-apocalyptic fiction will lead into burgeoning dystopia, and with this book, we get a glimpse of that already happening. Four books in, and only four years after the cataclysm, life has gotten very disturbing for our friends, with classism rearing its ugly head and corruption taking its toll on pretty much everyone.

But it is made even worse here because we see all of this unfold as we follow the adventures of Miranda’s youngest brother Jon, now seventeen, who is one of the favoured few living in a comfortable safe town — where he plays soccer to pay his way, if you please — and he has turned into a total asshole.

Jon and his step-mother Lisa (the kids’ Dad is dispensed with in the early passages of the book) live in a rarefied enclave with little Gabriel, into which they gained entry due to the largesse of Alex, of the last two books fame. They are known as clavers, the upper class, who employ servants and look down on the working class, who are commonly called grubs — Alex, now a bus driver, and Miranda, a greenhouse worker, are grubs now. There is supposed to be a metaphor here, about how easy it is for people, given even a modicum of power or status above others, to begin to lord it over their fellows, and yeah, that is true, and I totally get it. But it is brutal to see it happen to a character we have liked for the past three books — and one, moreover, whom we now learn is a serial sexual predator.

The final third of the book is supposed to be Jon’s redemption, having him see the error of his ways through the eyes of his new love, the vaguely egalitarian (but absolutely infuriating) Sarah, and realize that hey, actually my family are just as good as I am, and girls are not my playthings, and also, this town’s caste system is fucked the hell up. But by the time we get there, it is all so bleak and horrific and the disasters have been enacted so thoroughly — along with a Handmaid’s Tale-esque twist — that it is nigh on impossible to forgive him, nor the book itself. 

I wish I hadn’t read this book. It has utterly ruined the (uneven, but withal enjoyable) trilogy that came before it. It is no wonder that the series ended here. Indeed, according to her Author’s Note, this was apparently Pfeffer’s second attempt at this book.

What on the blighted Earth could have been worse than this, we can only speculate.

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TBR DAY 98: The Shade of the Moon (Last Survivors #4) by Susan Beth Pfeffer
GENRE: YA Post-Apocalypse
PUBLISHED: 2013
TIME ON THE TBR: ~5 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Amazon.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 97: This World We Live In (2010) by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Idiot kids.

This is a refrain that ran through my head pretty constantly throughout this book, after our new friend Alex, from the previous novel in this quartet, meets with our old friend Miranda, from the original book in this quartet, and of course they are into each other, because they are the only age-appropriate teens either has spent much time with, and are not related to.

In this book, we’re back in journal mode, with Miranda relating elder brother Matt’s precipitous marriage to the designing Syl; the clan’s continuing battle for survival; and the arrival of Alex and his sister Julie — in company with, hey there Dad and Lisa! And nice to meet you, baby half-brother and road buddy Charlie!

Of course, disaster strikes, because the end of the world sucks, but more importantly, these teens are troublesome as hell and manage to make the end of the world even worse. (Eldest brother Matt as much as any of them, this time out.) Meanwhile, the religious element of this entry is very interesting indeed, as those who were once atheistic, or at the very least agnostic, are won over to devotion, as they seek comfort in a world that is devoid of same.

By turns infuriating and fascinating, This World We Live In brings together the action of the previous two novels perfectly, ups the angst level considerably, and oh, boy. That ending. It is full on.

Next up is the fourth and final installment in the series. I am equal parts excited and anxious to get to it.

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TBR DAY 97: This World We Live In (Last Survivors #3) by Susan Beth Pfeffer
GENRE: YA Post-Apocalypse
PUBLISHED: 2010
TIME ON THE TBR: ~5 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Amazon.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 96: The Dead and the Gone (2008) by Susan Beth Pfeffer

The Dead and the Gone departs from our sweet Miranda of Life As We Knew It, and instead introduces us to New York City native Alex Morales. Second in his class at an elite Manhattan academy, he is looking forward to going to Georgetown and getting away from his pesky younger sisters, but when the moon is knocked out of its natural orbit, he and his family must find a way to survive in an increasingly dangerous city, with their parents MIA and Alex now in charge.

In contrast to the atheist Miranda, the Morales clan are very devout, enough that it causes more than one difficulty for them throughout the months that they linger on in a dying New York. The kids attend Catholic schools and they pray, er, religiously, for salvation and peace. And Brianna — foolish, deluded Brianna — is punished mightily for her unquestioning faith. Ooh, that made me so mad at her! Almost as mad as the time Alex slapped his little sister across the face because she dared talk back to him. (Fuck you, Alex!)

The unsavoury side of humanity makes itself far more evident elsewhere in this sequel, too, with evidence of that “societal breakdown turning men into monsters” theme that post-apocalyptic fiction almost always explores. Terrifying, really. And terrifying that it feels so accurate.

Told in third person, rather than first, and dealing with much grittier fare than the original, The Dead and the Gone is as bleak as its title implies, and proves to be a pointed contrast to its predecessor. Reading of Miranda’s tribulations, you couldn’t help but feel awful. But reading of Alex’s much more horrifying reality, you realize that she and her family had it all relatively easy, making it clear that there is always someone who has it worse than you, and to be grateful for what you have.

It is very well done indeed.

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TBR DAY 96: The Dead and the Gone (Last Survivors #2) by Susan Beth Pfeffer
GENRE: YA Post-Apocalypse
PUBLISHED: 2008
TIME ON THE TBR: ~5 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Amazon.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 95: Life As We Knew It (2006) by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Back in 2014, Amazon.com was kind enough to inform me of the release of Susan Beth Pfeffer’s The Shade of the Moon, which its algorithm was pretty sure I would enjoy. Said algorithm neglected to mention the three books preceding that novel in the Last Survivors series, either by accident or on purpose, but once I discovered them for myself, I ordered all four.

Amazon really does know me disconcertingly well.

Life As We Knew It takes the form of a diary, in which we read the first-person thoughts of one Miranda Evans, who witnesses the destruction of the moon’s orbit from her small and prosperous Pennsylvania town. Through months of uncertainty and stockpiling and illness and privation, she and her family eke out an existence in a world much changed, but one that remains remarkably civilized, all told. Certainly, there are rumours of mistreatment of women, some tinpot dictators get their kicks out of some limited power, and Miranda sees some kids with guns potentially bent on some kind of mischief. But here, the people of the town grow to be self-interested but not malignant, and the biggest conflict Miranda faces is with her mother, who really is spectacularly unfair at times — at least, according to her teenage daughter.

It’s a blessed relief, from all the horrors of lawlessness inflicted mostly on women in other examples of this literary field.

One of the more interesting, but little-seen, characters we meet during Miranda’s struggle is her childhood friend Megan, who has always been religious, but on whom the end of the world has worked a kind of pious overload, so determined is she to see the goodness of God even amid all the death and destruction. It’s a subtle piece of writing, especially when Miranda confronts Megan’s manipulative, patronising preacher, a man clearly not suffering the same hunger as his parishioners.

Miranda herself is a mixed bag of teen angst, especially in the early days of the disaster, when the extent has yet to make itself plain and relative comfort can still be maintained. But she is quite likable, very relatable, and only grows more so as she must set aside childish things to take the reins of her much-beset household.

I am very pleased that I took a chance on this whole quartet before even testing out the first one, as I am now very eager to see what happens next to our heroine and her family, including two brothers as well as the aforementioned Mom, in this much-altered — but maybe steadily improving? — world. I cannot wait to keep going.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 95: Life As We Knew It (Last Survivors #1) by Susan Beth Pfeffer
GENRE: YA Post-Apocalypse
PUBLISHED: 2006
TIME ON THE TBR: ~5 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Amazon.
KEEP: Yes.