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Month: January 2019

READING THE TBR, DAY 30: The Mists of Avalon (1983) by Marion Zimmer Bradley

This is one of those books I have long been ashamed to have never read. Feminist Fantasy doesn’t get much more iconic than The Mists of Avalon, after all. But between its hefty weight — my copy is 884 pages, you guys! — and the fact that it treats with Arthurian legend, which is not my favourite at all, I just kept putting it off. And off.

I finally bought a copy back in 2011, after my good friend Kate waxed lyrical about the book in particular, and Bradley’s genius in general. Kate knows ALL THE THINGS and is a woman of great taste and discernment, and I aspire to be like Kate in most ways, so naturally I had to add this to my reading list after such an enthusiastic recommendation. But then… it just kept being so long… and so about Aruthurian legend… and I couldn’t do it.

I have finally done it. And I am furious about it.

This book. This book is dire. It is full of inconsistent characterization and brutality and bizarre mysticism, and I did not enjoy it at all. Oh, I understand what Bradley is doing here — history has not been kind to women; women can be manipulative masters of the universe, too; religion makes people crazy, and Christianity is especially bad for women; etc. — and it’s clever, sure. But it’s also such a damned slog to get to any of the remotely interesting messages, a slog through remarkably similar minds, none of which anyone can damned well make up. 

The story kicks off with Igraine, who has been given in marriage to one man against her will and is now instructed by her sister Viviane, Lady of the Lake — basically, keeper of the Old Religion of the Goddess, which the Roman conquering of Britain has brought into conflict with the patriarchy of Christendom — to seduce another, soon to be High King. Then Viviane sends Igraine’s daughter Morgaine, who is a priestess of the Lady, to sleep with her much-younger brother (Arthur, though he had another name as a child; people in this book keep having other names!), because he too will some day be High King, and the old ways have no prohibition against incest. They conceive a son, Gwydion, later named Mordred, and yes, the women of this book, and age, are highly ill-used, but so too is Mordred.

You know how the rest of the story goes, right? It just takes HUNDREDS OF PAGES to get there.

It’s hard not to blame Viviane for the tragedy of everything that befalls Morgaine, Arthur and their son, plus everyone else associated with them. She and “the Merlin,” which it turns out is a status not a name, denoting the chief druid of the Goddess, manipulate events because they claim it to be the will of their deity, but in fact it is all a bid for their personal power, and the ascendancy of their religion throughout the land.

And look, I like the religious aspect of the book. The pitting of old versus new, one way of controlling and manipulating people versus another, it’s all very well drawn, making mythologies of both. True, the religion of the Goddess is given to us as a real thing, with manifestations of Her divine purpose left and right, while the dogged, misogynist priests of the usurper Christ are not painted in a very good light at all. (Nor should they be. I’m no Medieval scholar, but I know that the plight of women in Britain was made far worse when powerful men started ranting about the sins of Eve.) But to get to that kernel of subtext/actual text/READ MY TEXT I AM MAKING A POINT NOW — it all gets far less subtle as the book goes on — one has to wade through chapter upon chapter of vacillating, infuriating women who alternately despise and adore the same person, who both do and don’t want to betray their husbands, depending on the day, who have the hots BAD for Lancelet, but also kind of hate him some of the time. It’s exhausting.

(Lancelet’s beloved and Arthur’s queen, Gwenhwyfar, by the way? One of the most selfish people alive, as presented here, and a freaking religious extremist, as well. I think I hate Gwenhwyfar the most.) 

Yes, the book takes place across decades, and our protagonists — I will not call them heroines — grow and age, and naturally we all change our minds about things over time. But at the root of pretty much every woman’s problem in this book is jealousy: jealousy over lovers, jealousy over children, jealousy over status, jealousy over youth, jealousy over beauty, jealousy over freedom. And I just don’t think women are solely driven by such a cruel mistress. Not even in a time when they were most valued for their looks and dutifulness and ability to provide heirs.

Of course, Bradley is constrained somewhat by the various retellings of myth passed down through the ages, and her scholarship throughout is obvious. Indeed, it is very possible that a big part of why I did not enjoy this book is explained by my reluctance to read it in the first place: Arthurian stuff bores the hell out of me. But, no, I mainly disliked it because not only could I not find anyone to cheer for in these pages — or, at least, not to continue to cheer for, when they turned into first class jerks a chapter later — I could not find a single woman within that I was not perfectly happy to see killed off, the sooner the better.

Quite frankly, when the regicidal, patricidal, slut-shaming Mordred is the most sympathetic character in your feminist retelling of Camelot, I think you’re doing it wrong.


TBR DAY 30: The Mists of Avalon (Avalon #1) by Marion Zimmer Bradley
GENRE: Arthurian Legend/Fantasy
TIME ON THE TBR: 8 years.  

READING THE TBR, DAY 29: Carve the Mark (2017) by Veronica Roth

And with this we have my first DNF book of this TBR challenge. It is very, vanishingly rare for me to not finish a book I have begun. And if I get more than three chapters in, that’s usually it, I’m committed, no matter how much I am hate-reading by that stage.

But this one? Oh, no. I wouldn’t finish this book if you paid me. It is a slog, a torture, a freaking disaster of a YA space epic, far too long and far, far too boring.

I got about 25% of the way in. I gave it that much time, merely because Veronica Roth wrote Divergent and for all the problems I had with how that series progressed, at least the first one had a little something going for it, if only just the fun of taking the odd Faction Quiz. (I’m Erudite, in case you were wondering.) 

But then things were just getting worse, and I bailed hard.

Our story centres on two races who hate each other. The Shotet are brutal and warlike, kind of the TOS-era Klingons of our narrative. The Thuvhe are gentle and spiritual, the… I dunno, Bhuddists, maybe? And both are given a few identifying physical characteristics that make this book feel kind of… unwoke, perhaps? Certainly somewhat problematic.

Cyra is a Shotet, sister to their cruel ruler and his greatest weapon; she’s basically Jane of the Volturi from the Twilight Saga. Meanwhile, Akos is the abducted son of his planet’s revered shaman-style religious leader, and he has powers, too; he’s basically the Harry Potter of this story, except if Harry’s only value was speaking in Parseltongue.

I have no doubt the two of them will get together at some point. Usually, this kind of cross-culture, forbidden, damn-the-man YA romance would be my catnip. Here, I just don’t care.

Now, it’s possible that part of the reason I threw this book from me with extreme prejudice is that I — and this is revealing a lot about me, here, in the interests of fairness — am no stranger to chronic pain. So having it described as  part of Cyra’s “gift” kind of pissed me off. But I think I could have gotten past even that misrepresentation if I was even remotely interested in what else was happening. I was not. 

This book is itself a chronic pain. And, quite honestly, there are no nerve-blockers strong enough.


TBR DAY 29: Carve the Mark (Carve the Mark #1) by Veronica Roth
GENRE: YA Science Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: 2 years.  
KEEP: Absolutely not!

READING THE TBR, DAY 28: My Kind of Place (2004) by Susan Orlean

One of the best books I read in 2018 was The Library Book by Susan Orlean. It’s an astonishing achievement, all about a 1980s fire in an LA public library and the investigation into it, but also about the establishment of that library, and what we love about libraries, and books, and community. It’s hilarious, it’s thrilling, it’s thought-provoking, it’s sad. It’s just wonderful and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Imagine my delight, then, when I was going through my plentiful unread books, and in the Travel Narrative section (yes, my TBR is separated into sections, isn’t yours?) I came upon this novel by Susan Orlean. I remember buying it, too. I went through a flurry of travel narrative purchasing, a few years back, having read all of the books then-written by Bill Bryson, Peter Moore, Tim Moore and Brian Thacker, and wanting to discover another shining voice in the field. Also, I had decided to settle back in Melbourne at that point, after having lived overseas on-and-off for over ten years, and so armchair travel had become my vicarious paths not taken outlet.

But, as so often happens, I bought too many books. And then they languished on my shelves as I bought and read yet others.

This one is a treat, and while not exactly covering the “everywhere” the title suggests, it is a very satisfying collection of Orleans’s journalism from across the late-90s and early 2000s, with dispatches mostly from America, but also from Thailand, Bhutan and a trip to Iceland to visit Keiko, star of Free Willy on his way to being freed.

There is much to learn in here, as in all the best non-fiction: I did not know about Midway, Texas, home to the Bush family, nor the origins of Khao San Road in Bangkok, though I have of course been there.

And I had never heard of Thomas Kinkade, 90s painter of renown and extreme commercialism. (I have definitely seen some of his paintings before, however. I’m pretty sure some of my friends’ mothers have put place mats with those images in front of me more than once. And for sure I have seen them in hotels.) He’s the Steve Parrish of oil painted landscapes — or was, he died young in 2012, at the age of just 54 — and he had the gall to not only call himself the “Painter of Light” and trademark the phrase, even though the Painter of Light is obviously Turner. Gotta admire the guy’s hubris. Apparently, at his peak, there was a Kinkade reprint in at least one in every twenty American homes. He’s fascinating, and Orleans, as she does with every subject of her interest in this collection, gets the very most of out his story.

I’m rather fond of this Kinkade riff, from artist Jeff Bennett.

Orleans’s style is conversational but in depth, she is objective when needful but also injects her own opinions and personality into every piece. “Homewrecker”, about the time Tina Turner didn’t come to stay at her apartment, made me laugh out loud. Reading this book was both an education and a pleasure, and those two things do not always go together.

I really wish I hadn’t looked up what happened to Keiko the Free Willy whale after her story on him, however.  


TBR DAY 28: My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been Everywhere by Susan Orlean
GENRE: Travel Narrative
TIME ON THE TBR: ~ 6 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: A library book sale.
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 27: The Scarlet Plague (1912) by Jack London

Towards the end of 2016, I spied a rack of books branded “Doomsday Classics” and, of course, I was drawn to it as surely as if it was a rack of free donuts. (Note to booksellers: promotional idea!) I am something of a student of apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, and so I was fairly sure that I would have read at least a few of those presented in this series… but, no. Not a one. Happily for me, the books were part of a 3-for-2 sale, so I bought six of them for the price of four.

Bargain books are my weakness.  

One such bargain was The Scarlet Plague by Jack London. “Jack London?” I remember wondering aloud. “Wrote science fiction? I have a copy of his Collected Works, but this isn’t in there.” (I should mention, here, that I was with a friend in that bookshop, and wasn’t just sharing this random thought with the air and/or my fellow patrons. Not that I wouldn’t…)

The book is indeed quite a departure from London’s usual style. True, its prose is stark and clean, as is true of London’s best-known tales, high adventure in the frozen north the likes of The Call of the Wild and White Fang. But while he is usually to be found setting his scene in new frontiers, brutal but conquerable to the brave, here an old man details the end of the world as we know it — as he knew it — in a comfortable 2012, and the brutality is so extreme that no amount of courage could withstand it.

He talks of a fast-acting disease turning people against each other, the only survivors those with a) the correct immunity and b) enough callousness. He tells of civilization crumbling, of men turning on men and enslaving women, of cruelty and violence unleashed when the rule of law vanishes. He also talks of telephones and radios and aeroplanes being commonplace — and okay, sure, also dirigibles; pre-Hindenberg visionaries always saw a future full of dirigibles —  and a world population of 8 billion by 2010, which is actually a pretty good guess, in a time before two world wars, before the Spanish Flu and the Holocaust among so much other unimaginable tragedy wiped so many out of the gene pool. In fact, not only does London presage our modern society in many ways, he also presages many tropes of post-apocalyptic tales that were to follow this one.

It’s not pleasant, of course. It’s kind of racist and classist, and the people who survive the outbreak are basically the worst. But it is visionary, and impressive, and utterly compelling throughout its short but action-packed length. It is a book that certainly belongs under the imprint of “Doomsday Classics.” Because it is a capital-C Classic indeed. 


TBR DAY 27: The Scarlet Plague by Jack London 
GENRE: Post-Apocalypse
TIME ON THE TBR: A little over 2 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: The Book Grocer, Brunswick.
KEEP: Maybe.

READING THE TBR, DAY 26: H.P. Lovecraft’s the Call of Cthulhu for Beginning Readers (2017) by R. J. Ivankovic

I have long-meant to reread The Call of Cthulhu.” I read it as a teenager, along with much more of the Lovecraftian tradition, and have to admit that I don’t remember a whole lot. Oh, I know all about Miskatonic University and Ry’leh and a whole bunch of other ideas now appropriated by the creators of Hearthstone. But I feel I should know more — these stories are, after all, among the first examples of horror and SF and many subgenres thereof.

What better way to reread it, then, than in this easily accessible style, which I received as gift last Christmas? It is just so well done! It is the story of Cthulhu, but in Seussian rhyme and with  Seussian pictures. Seriously, I went and read the original story after finishing this book, just to see how it holds up, adaptation-wise, and the answer is, it holds up ridiculously well. It’s clever, it’s jaunty, but still dark and creepy — it might even be made creepier, in fact, with the colourful illustrations acting as a counterpoint to the nightmares they convey. 

I always appreciated this book as pretty much the perfect gift for me. Now I appreciate it as the perfect gift for geeks like me everywhere. It’s funny and charming and just gets me, you know?

Well played, book. Well played. 


TBR DAY 26: H.P. Lovecraft’s the Call of Cthulhu for Beginning Readers by R. J. Ivankovic 
GENRE: Horror, Classic, Humour
TIME ON THE TBR: > 2 months.  
PURCHASED FROM: It was a gift.
KEEP: Yes, of course. It was a gift.

Happy Birthday to Me!

Today is my birthday.

Instead of reading, today is a day of film.

Just a couple of days ago, the 2019 Oscar nominations came out. Every year, I spend my birthday — which, happily for me, is always a public holiday in Australia; though, seriously, my country, Change the Date! — watching all the Best Picture noms I have yet to see. Usually, this is four or five films. This year, there are only two I have yet to see, BlackKklansman and Green Book, though I also screened The Favourite, a) because a bunch of my friends wanted to see it and b) because I missed 20 minutes of it in the cinema, because when Rachel Weisz started doing that crazy dance with Joe Alwyn, I couldn’t stop laughing, had to leave because I was disturbing everyone, and every time I thought I had it under control, I would remember that nonsense and lose it again.

Turns out, I really missed Some Stuff when I missed that twenty minutes. And yes, again, I had a hard time controlling my mirth during that dance.

Of the other two films, BlackKklansman was good, Green Book was great, but I still really want A Star is Born to win Best Picture.

It won’t, though. 

And I will need to catch up on an extra book at some point this year… 365 is still my target. I really didn’t think this through. 

READING THE TBR, DAY 25: Love You to Death (2010) by Gail Bowen

Before today, I had never read any Gail Bowen novels, but she’s well-known in mystery circles and I have long been meaning to check her out. So when I saw four of her books, with the words “Rapid Reads” on their covers — novella-length novels by famous authors, mostly in the crime genre, published by the good folks at Orca — at a garage sale, bundled for $2, I snapped them up. Bowen is known for her Joanne Kilbourne mysteries, and there are ten of those things. When I like a book, I want to read the whole series. So my theory was, “I’ll check out these shorter entries into her bibliography. If I like them, then Joanne Kilbourne gets added to my list. If I don’t, bye Jo!”

Hi, Jo!

This rapid read, the first in the Charlie D series, centres on the titular radio call-in counselor and his attempts to figure out which of his listeners is killing off rivals for his affection. To this end, he goes into erotomania, the obsessive love of a celebrity who is sending you secret messages, and that often leads to violent outcomes. He even touches on the stalker of Canadian star Anne Murray, which led me to learn something I never knew. Well, two things, really. One, Anne Murray is very talented. I just checked her out on YouTube. Honestly, I never knew who she was, except for as a line in a South Park song. (“Blame Canada!”) But the other thing was that the Barenaked Ladies song “Straw Hat and Dirty Old Hank” is based on her stalker. I have been singing that song for more than twenty years, and I had no idea what it meant!

(I should point out here that BNL is my all-time favourite band.  The kind of favourite where I have flown internationally in order to see them. Twice. And another time I went to New Jersey, and cried like one of those girls from an Elvis documentary when they came on stage. So thanks for the information I should already have known, Charlie D!)

I really like Charlie D. Charlie is a mensch. I also like his pragmatic radio producer, Nova. I like his dedicated and troubled fanbase. I like that he’s Canadian. And I really like the incredibly interesting manner in which this case is investigated, mostly on-air and in Charlie’s first person. Clever. And yes, it truly is a rapid read.

Also! Did you know that Sarah McLachlan wrote the song “Possession” about her experience with stalkers? I freaking love that song. One of her stalkers not only sued her because he claimed she used some of his love poetry in the song — she didn’t — but then also shot himself in the head and had the video of it sent to her. 

Ugh. Sometimes, you just have to wonder: why are people?


TBR DAY 25: Love You to Death (Charlie D #1) by Gail Bowen 
GENRE: Mystery
TIME ON THE TBR: 3 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Garage sale.
KEEP: No, I’ll pass this on to another mystery fan, I think.

READING THE TBR, DAY 24: The Darling Buds of May (1958) by H. E. Bates

When I saw this book on the op shop shelf, with its media tie-in cover, it brought flooding back to my mind the TV mini-series version, which I watched with my parents in my early teen years. That series was the adaptation of this novel, what I remembered was a montage of sunlit fields, the guy from Only Fools and Horses, and a straight-laced gentleman inveigled by the simply stunning Catherine Zeta-Jones.

I had periodically thought of that mini-series over the years. For one reason, because Catherine Zeta-Jones went on to worldwide stardom after it, and it’s always a pleasure to have just known someone was going to be a star before they made it big, isn’t it? (I feel the same about Natalie Portman and the film Beautiful Girls; my friend Megan and I predicted she was destined for greatness from the first scene she shared with Timothy Hutton). And for another, because I remembered the love shared among the large but simple family that is at the centre of the story being so heartwarming.

As indeed it is, as the source material has now assured me. This book is darling, indeed, as it deals with wheeler dealer Pop Larkin and his large brood, especially the beautiful Mariette, a girl with a zest for life almost unequalled in the annals of 50s fiction. Into their lives comes a tax inspector, Mr. Cedric Charlton, whom Pop soon christens “Charley” and who is swept off his very inexperienced feet by the confident charms of Mariette, who is in need of a husband and believes he will do very well. Throughout, Pop and his wife, the bountiful Ma, show extraordinary understanding of their children’s foibles, especially Mariette’s many neighbourhood dalliances, as well as a total lack of understanding about their obligations to Her Majesty’s Tax Office. All of the Larkins have vast appetites — for food, for love, for new friends and new words (Pop’s admiration of his dissipated Brigadier friend’s use of “adamant” and of Charley’s use of “status quo”, for example, are beyond adorable) — and their sheer cheekiness is a joy to behold.

There are four other books in the Pop Larkin series, and I very much look forward to reading them all.


TBR DAY 24: The Darling Buds of May by H. E. Bates 
GENRE: Humour, Classic, Fiction, Literature
TIME ON THE TBR: 4 years.  
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 23: Rip Van Winkle (1819) by Washington Irving

I thought I had read Rip Van Winkle. Until I saw this sweetly-bound vintage copy of the book, I think for my whole life I thought I had read it as a kid, because I thought it was a picture book. Indeed, before today, when I thought about this story, what I saw in my head was nothing but a cartoony picture of a small man with a long, long white beard awakening from a long sleep, covered by leaves.

It may even have been a Bugs Bunny cartoon or some such that is in my head. I definitely did not read this book.

It’s short — indeed, nothing more than a glorified short story — but it’s packed so full that it feels longer. The basics remain the same from the picture book/cartoon version I feel like I already knew: a man goes to sleep in the mountains, and when he returns home it is twenty years later. Where this original creation adds to the drama is in the temperament of Rip (he’s a lazy good for nothing), in the temperament of his wife, Dame Van Winkle (she’s a bit of a nag, according to Rip), in the Dutch history of his home in the Kaatskill Mountains (it actually was once spelled that way, and still sometimes is, I checked), in the magic of his long sleep, and in how freaking weird it was for Rip when he not only awakened twenty years in the future but also learned when he did that he had become a citizen of the United States of America and was no longer a subject of George III. (“You’ll be back/Soon you’ll see/You’ll remember you belong to me…”)

Also, he totally feels like he dodged a bullet — having missed twenty years, he’s missed twenty years of his marriage, and now his wife is gone and he is taken in by his grownup daughter, responsible for nothing and no one.  

This, in fact, is no kids’ story, and I really don’t understand how it came to be considered one. I guess it’s much like Irving’s other American Classic, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, another short story which has been turned into a horror tale down the years, and is yet somehow also featured in children’s stories, but in its original form really isn’t either of those things. 

I also just learned, looking into it, that both stories were first published as part of a collection called The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, which was serialized from 1819 – 1820. 

And here I thought I was supposed to be removing books from my TBR with this challenge, not adding them. Damn.


TBR DAY 23: Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving 
GENRE: American Folk Tale
TIME ON THE TBR: 2 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Alice’s Bookshop, Carlton.
KEEP: Yes. My copy is gorgeous.

READING THE TBR, DAY 22: 5 Ronin (2011), written by Peter Milligan

Another Marvel alterna-history comic, this one sets variants of superheroes Wolverine, the Hulk, Punisher, Deadpool and Psylocke (for some reason) in Ancient Japan, casting them as ancient Japanese warrior-types, on the hunt for revenge.

Because ancient Japanese warriors always want revenge. Even monks. (Hulk is a monk, in this scenario.)

This five-issue run is perplexing in the extreme. Yes, the art is gorgeous, and since I own this collection in glorious hardcover, I will keep it, because it looks good on my shelf. But what the actual hell is this? A disjointed and frankly bizarre reimagining of some of Marvel’s most beloved of anti-heroes (plus, again, Psylocke: just, WHY? Nice to have a female in the mix, I suppose) as wronged Japanese legends. It’s so weird it’s almost genius.


But, hey. It’s a speedy read, and if nothing else, you have to admire the sheer left-field creativity that somehow got this story greenlit, and turned it into a page-bound version of Monkey Magic-meets-Chushingura.

And for all that Psylocke is a very strange inclusion, her story is pretty badass.


TBR DAY 22: 5 Ronin written by Peter Milligan; illustrated by 
GENRE: Comic Book/Superheroes/Alternative History
TIME ON THE TBR: 5 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Minotaur Melbourne.
KEEP: Yes, because it’s pretty.