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Rachel Hyland Posts

READING THE TBR, DAY 4: Getting Stoned with Savages (2006) by J. Maarten Troost

I have no idea why it has taken me so long to read this book. I loved Troost’s first quirky travel tome, The Sex Lives of Cannibals, which saw him and his then-girlfriend Sylvia spend two years on the small island of Kiribati, coming hilariously to grips with a whole new way of life and becoming one of the locals. Why, then, has their time in Vanuatu and Fiji lain unread so long on my shelf? Well, no, that’s not true. Not unread. Partially read. I got a few chapters in, I picked it up to read more multiple times, but then just kept… not getting very far.

I even read Troost’s later travel book, 2008’s Lost on Planet China, which is excellent and also the only travel narrative I have ever read that has made me not want to go to a place, when I stumbled across it several years ago, but still, despite its reminder of how good a writer he is, and despite this earlier book glaring at me almost daily from the “started, need to complete” stack of books next to my bed (we all have those, right?), and coming away with me on several trips both interstate and international, I kept only inching forward in the book, a couple of pages here, maybe a whole chapter there, for YEARS.

Today, I decided to go back to the beginning, taking out the bookmark from page 57 (57! In nine years!) and reading it straight through in one sitting. 

Getting Stoned with Savages is a vastly enjoyable memoir. It is filled with Troost’s singular humorous fatalism, a kind of “eh, the world is crazy, what are you gonna do?” amusement at all that is going on around him, as well as showcasing his natural charm and pleasing self-awareness. When Troost talks of “getting stoned” he is talking about his obsession with kava, the naturally occurring stimulant popular in the islands to which Sylvia’s aid work has taken them. The passages in which he describes his gradual dependence on the stuff are subtle but stark; the parts of the book where he talks to locals on both Vanuatu and Fiji, explores their complex and colonialized histories — the cargo cults of Vanuatu are particularly fascinating — as well as going int depth about some of the more opaque vagaries of custom and society on the two island nations is both informative and entertaining, as the best travel writing should be.

(The part where he is writing a book in here, though… he’s writing his book before this one, The Sex Lives of Cannibals. That hurts my head a little, in a meta, causality kind of way.)

So why did it take me so long to read this book? Why did I stop and start so much? Why did it take an act of will to actually complete it? There is no earthly reason for this in its contents, which are wry, erudite and at times even quite exhilarating, so I can only assume that the reason was me. The more I consider it, I think it’s just that not having finished this book had become a habit with me. Having it constantly by my bed, or as my travel companion, was comforting somehow, as though it were a beloved stuffed toy. I have only realized this now that I have completed it and find myself filled with an unaccountable sadness–which, again, has nothing whatsoever to do with the contents of the book.

It’s like, who even am I, if I am a person who has finished reading Getting Stoned with Savages? I have been in some kind of… of relationship with this book for nine years. And now it feels like this book and I just broke up. Happily for me, I’ve discovered that Troost has released two more books in recent years, 2013’s Headhunters on My Doorstep and 2018’s I Was Told There’d Be Sexbots. So perhaps I can buy those and have an equally problematic, semi-dependent, weirdly clingy attachment to them, as I proceed to not read them for almost a decade.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 4: Getting Stoned with Savages by J. Maarten Troost
GENRE: Travel Narrative
PUBLISHED: 2006
TIME ON THE TBR: Almost 9 years. My “You purchased this item on” notification on the paperback’s Amazon page tells me it was on January 29, 2010.
PURCHASED FROM: See above.
KEEP: Yes, of course.

READING THE TBR, DAY 3: Stargate SG-1: Female of the Species (2018) by Geonn Cannon

This is a very recent release, comparatively speaking to the rest of my TBR books, but in all honesty it has been something I have wanted to read since it was first announced some years ago. Indeed, since Geonn — full disclosure: I know him! — first mooted the possibility of this book on his social media, I was always going to read it. And not just because I know him. In fact, this book immediately landed on my Must Read list because not only did I really enjoy his previous SG-1 novel, Two Roads, but this book was going to be an adventure centered on Vala and Sam, and I love those women.

The story takes place during late-Season 10 of SG-1, when Vala’s quick-grown daughter Adria is ravaging two galaxies at the head of the malevolent religious organization (redundant?), the Priors of the Ori. However, it is not those diabolical false god-peddlers with whom the team must deal here, but with breaking into an unfindable, inescapable prison to free Vala’s old cohort, smuggler and thief Tanis (as seen in the sixth season SG-1 episode “Forsaken”). Along the way, maybe they’ll be able to dig up some dirt on the Lucian Alliance, the loose federation of criminals who have taken over the galaxy in the wake of SG-1 defeating pretty much all the Goa’uld, and who make up a decent-sized chunk of Stargate Universe‘s plot.

Yeah, you kind of need to know a lot about the various Stargate iterations before going into this one. But that is true of almost every media tie-in novel–particularly so, if the book is a good one.

And this is a good one indeed. It is funny, it captures several of characters perfectly — Colonel Mitchell, Vala and Teal’c in particular — and it has a fast-paced and intricate action-y plot that could easily have been a real episode. (Probably a two-parter.) The other thing I really loved about this book is how SG-1’s fame is shown to have spread throughout the denizens of the galaxy. Their names are constantly being recognized, their deeds constantly being hailed as either heroic or demonic, and that is exactly how it should be.

My few quibbles with the book mainly lie in the characterization of my beloved Daniel — but he is difficult to capture, and I am rarely satisfied with his portrayal in these books — and with the way in which members of the team are constantly Leslie Knope-ing each other, delivering these long periods about how excellent the others are to their faces, which feels kind of out of place. But the thing about this licensed fan fiction is that it is wish-fulfillment at its finest, giving fans (and Geonn is a big SG-1 fan) a chance to rectify what they felt were the deficiencies of the series, as well as celebrate all that was great about it. And clearly, Geonn felt the team were not sufficiently complimentary to each other throughout the show. So he made that happen. 

Despite these minor, minor concerns, I know this is a book I will read again and again, much as I rewatch my favorite episodes of SG-1 over and over. And there is no higher compliment I can give to a media tie-in novel than that. 

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 3: Stargate SG-1: Female of the Species by Geonn Cannon.
GENRE: Science Fiction/Media Tie-in
PUBLISHED: 2018
TIME ON THE TBR: 3 weeks — but really two years.
PURCHASED FROM: Amazon.
KEEP: Yes!


* Incidentally, today I also read Peril at End House by Agatha Christie, the next Poirot book following Black CoffeeHoly shit, that book is amazing! I thought I had previously read all the Poirot books, but I clearly missed that one, because no way would I have forgotten its details. Such panache! Such a cleverly told, thoroughly unpredictable plot. From the winsome Nick, whose life is in peril, to the sundry suspects who never quite entirely trustworthy, to the little Belgian’s incredibly clever deductions, it is definitely among the best of the Poirot mysteries. Possibly one of the best mysteries I have ever read.    

 

READING THE TBR, DAY 2: Mortal Engines (2001) by Philip Reeve

I bought this book back in 2009 when it was announced that Peter Jackson was planning to helm a film adaptation of this award-winning YA steampunk novel… and then promptly forgot about it. This is weird, because I am an avowed adherent of Jackson’s adaptations (a marathon of The Lord of the Rings extended editions is, at the very least, an annual event at my house), and also YA steampunk is very much in my, if you will forgive the pun, wheelhouse.

Pun because this book (and the three that follow it, making up the Mortal Engines Quartet) are about cities on wheels. Specifically, we spend a lot of time in London, many thousands of years in the future, as it rumbles through the wastelands, gobbling up smaller cities on wheels and plotting world domination using old tech from the Ancients. (That’s us, obvs.)

I will confess that I saw the movie a couple of weeks ago, which I wouldn’t normally do, before having read the source material. Oh, there are plenty of adapted films I have seen without reading their basis, of course, but this is mainly because I had no plans to read said books. Or I was unaware the film was an adaptation until it was too late. (Don’t you hate it when you’re already in the cinema when the dreaded “based on the novel by” credit flashes up on the screen? This happens alot, nowadays.)   

I… didn’t love the movie. And I am hardly the only one. It is being called the biggest flop of 2018, or even the worst movie of 2018 in some quarters, which seems pretty harsh in a year that gave us Overboard and Future World. Yes, in my review for Romantic Intentions Quarterly, I called it “Mad Max meets Howl’s Moving Castle meets Stardust, and far less than the sum of those parts.” I said it was “a visually splendid but largely forgettable experience.” All of this is true. But there was enough that was good about it that I wanted to read the book that inspired it. I was certainly intrigued enough by the world we are shown, by the characters we — barely — meet and the hints of greatness sprinkled throughout that I dug out my long-owned copy of the book that began it all, and dove right in.

It really is very, very good. And I can see why Peter Jackson, a man with a grand vision and a penchant for taking risks, would want to try to bring it to life. But I can also see why he, by and large, failed to do so. Because boy oh boy, Mortal Engines is so many things at once — action adventure and allegory and revenge tale and dystopia and gigantic improbable cities on wheels, for goodness sake — that capturing all of that oddity and having it make any kind of sense was always going to be a massive undertaking.

Having seen the film and read the book in such close succession, I can see where cuts were made, characters were eliminated and/or conflated and events were twisted, and mistakes were definitely made there, no doubt about it. The standout characters of the novel — bookish Tom, firebrand Hester, noble Katherine, earnest Bevis, assorted fussy and venerable Historians — are given too short a shrift. In the book, you care about them. You’re invested in Tom and Hester’s burgeoning relationship. More than that, you believe it. I don’t think the same can be said for the film. Meanwhile, zombie cyborg soldier Shrike is great in the film, but so much better in the book. (And in the book, you properly understand that he is a zombie cyborg soldier.)

For all the movie’s flaws, I have to say that I am glad I saw it, if only because it led me to read Mortal Engines. It is a whirlwind of a book, a treasure of a book, with a fascinating (if outlandish) premise, a cast of likable and/or relatable characters, quite thrilling action sequences, and it is not afraid to pull any punches or kill any darlings. YA dystopia is a vast and varied playground in which I have spent many a long year and many a happy/sad/frustrating/glorious hour, but Mortal Engines has now taken its place among my very favourite examples of the genre.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 2: Mortal Engines (Mortal Engines #1) by Philip Reeve.
GENRE: YA Dystopia/Steampunk
PUBLISHED: 2001
TIME ON THE TBR: 9 years.
PURCHASED FROM: Borders! Somewhere on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. That is how long ago it was that I bought this book.
KEEP: Yes. And I will definitely be reading the sequels.

 

READING THE TBR, DAY 1: Black Coffee by Agatha Christie and Charles Osborne

In preparation for clearing this book from my TBR pile, I have been re-reading Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series across the last couple of weeks. Although Black Coffee was originally published in 1998, I had never heard of it nor seen it listed in any Poirot bibliography until I found it in a second hand bookshop a couple of years back, as it is an adaptation — by Australian novelist Charles Osborne — of a 1930 play, the first penned by Christie.

Some cursory online research suggests that she wrote this play because she was unhappy with the stage version of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, adapted by Michael Morton in 1928 and renamed Alibi for some reason. Or perhaps the reason was that the stunning denouement of Ackroyd might have kept playgoers at home, because they already knew it, whereas with a new title, they might have mistaken it for a different tale entirely. 

Incidentally, I just reread Ackroyd last week, and even knowing how it all plays out, it is still an incredible read and a truly remarkable achievement in mystery writing. 

Anyway, displeased with how her Hercule was portrayed in Alibi, Christie decided to write her own stage version of his adventures–which led to her second career as a successful playwright. Arguably the most successful modern day playwright, given that The Mousetrap is the world’s longest-running play, with in excess of 26 000 performances given since its opening in 1952.

The plot of Black Coffee is a simple one. There is a secret formula for some kind of nuclear reaction, an austere physicist who rules his weary family with an iron fist, and a cast of dubious characters, both foreign and domestic, who may or may not have means, motive and opportunity to steal the science and kill he scientist. Most notable about the book is that its stage genesis is apparent, since most of the action takes place in pretty much the same room. Really, aside from a short (and somewhat out of character) rumination from Poirot as the book opens, in his London apartment, pretty much everything occurs at the scene of the crime. The very room that is the scene of the crime! 

And you know what? It works. 

Aside from the early weirdness, Osborne captures both Christie and Poirot admirably. Captain Hastings is also familiar and well-done, and the mystery unfolds with great style and purpose. The final gotcha scene is particularly well-rendered, and in all, it is a very successful Poirot novel very well told.

I like to read books in publication order, and giving it a 1930 pub date, this one comes right after 1928’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, and is the seventh Poirot novel overall. Next is 1932’s Peril at End House, which I don’t think I have read for at least fifteen years, and can’t quite recall what happens. I’m looking forward to tackling it — though, as it isn’t technically on my TBR pile, the remainder of my Poirot reread (which I am enjoying the hell out of) will have to be in addition to clearing out my many shelves as yet unread.

Oh, how ever will I cope?

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 1: Black Coffee by Agatha Christie and Charles Osborne.
GENRE: Cozy Mystery
PUBLISHED: 1998 (based on a 1930 play)
TIME ON THE TBR: Approx. 2 years.
PURCHASED FROM: Grub Street Bookshop, Fitzroy.
KEEP: Yes! And the Poirot reread continues…

READING THE TBR: 365 Days, 365 Books

Hello. My name is Rachel Hyland, and in 2019, I refuse to allow so very many books to lie unread on my shelves any longer. Instead, I am going to clear one book from my To Be Read pile every damn day, until finally I… well, no, there’ll still be a bunch of them there at the end of a year, but at least I will have made a significant dent in the insanity.

These books encompass pretty much all genres — well, except True Crime. Fuck you, True Crime! — and are all books I definitely want to read. I just… haven’t. And then I buy more books. And that’s not even considering the audiobooks and the ebooks that end up on my assorted devices. Not to mention that I review books (many, many books) for Romantic Intentions Quarterly, as well. 

Nevertheless. Each day, I will read and review at least one book that has been languishing on my groaning TBR pile for far too long. Who am I kidding? It’s a TBR bookshelf. Well, okay, two TBR bookshelves. And a super-cool TBR revolving library stand, too. There are, quite literally, more than a thousand of them to choose from.

Today is a day for making resolutions. And here is mine. Reading. Next year (tomorrow!), I am going to read a book from my stash. And every tomorrow after that, for the whole of 2019.

Here I go…