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Month: March 2019

READING THE TBR, DAY 89: Warehouse 13: A Touch of Fever (2011) by Greg Cox

I bought this book a few years back when I was deep in a Warehouse 13 binge-fest, working my way through all five seasons. This is the only media tie-in novel released for the show, which is something of a shame, since its steampunky wackiness is almost perfectly designed for the written word, when a Syfy Channel special effects budget is no longer an issue.

The series follows the escapades of Agents Pete Lattimer and Myka Bering, dragooned into the world of the Warehouse and tasked with tracking down magical artifacts that have been imbued with great power by close association to historical personages and events.

In this novel, the artifacts causing trouble include Countess Báthory’s bathtub, Johnny Appleseed’s cider pot, a problematic totem pole, and Civil War nurse Clara Barton’s  gloves, among others, and Greg Cox does an excellent job of evoking the TV show’s general insanity while having dual crises to be faced by Pete and Myka, as well as archivist Artie and his computer wunderkind protégé, Claudia. All the usual Warehouse 13 beats are hit — the careless storage solutions that cause nothing but problems, one of our Agents in deathly peril, B&B owner Leena being largely useless and unnecessary — and Cox has a nice line in callbacks, mentioning early episodes frequently enough to prove that he actually watched and appreciated the show before signing on to this particular piece of professional fanfic, not always a guarantee in a media tie-in.

But Cox is a veteran of the form, having written for franchises like Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alias, as well as the novelization of multiple blockbuster movies, and so his success with this one should come as no surprise. I really enjoyed reading it, and more than anything it reminded me how much I enjoyed the show on which it is based. Enough to rewatch it? Probably not. But enough to appreciate this further adventure of these old friends? Absolutely. 


TBR DAY 89: Warehouse 13: A Touch of Fever by Greg Cox  
GENRE: Media Tie-in, Warehouse 13, Syfy, Steampunk
TIME ON THE TBR: 4 years. 
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 88: The Name of the Rose (1980) by Umberto Eco

This is one of those books that you see on someone’s shelf, and you are impressed that they have — presumably — read it. It is a cultural touchstone, a translated historical classic of Italian literature that made of Umberto Eco a must-own author for all members of the intelligentsia.

I’ve been meaning to read it forever, and actually bought a copy seven years ago, because I want to be in the intelligentsia, too. How depressing, then, when I tried to read it, grew more and more confused and, frankly, bored, and abandoned it only a few chapters in.

I felt like a failure at reading, but at the same time, really didn’t care.

But it’s still been on my TBR, of course, and I knew that I would have that enormous feeling of virtue you get from doing something worthy, if not especially enjoyable, should I actually make my way through it, so I have been reading several chapters most every day for most of this year, and at last, oh happy day! At last, I am done.

And, huh. Sure, I feel good about it. I get why it became one of those badges of popular intellectual honour. I mean, it has sold more than 50 million copies! But the book itself was very, very long, and very very over-written, with way, way too many soliloquies and far too much medieval internecine Catholic politics to make it on my personal list of favourites.

The story deals with Friar William, a religious scholar in the fourteenth century, who heads to an Italian monastery expecting to take part in a dispute between two Catholic sects who disagree about the role of the Pope and the necessity of that pesky vow of poverty they’re all supposed to take. Upon his arrival, however, he and his narrator novice assistant, Adso, become embroiled in a murder mystery, as their colleagues begin to drop dead over the succeeding days, and it has something to do with the library.

But it isn’t the mystery that takes up the majority of all those 500+ pages, it is philosophy and Bible study and extended speeches from supercilious clerics and a history of the Catholic church on the march towards Inquisition. There are long, long scenes in which Adso contemplates the sins of the flesh, and there are even longer ones when religious imagery is painstakingly poured out onto the page and then even more painstakingly explained.

Did I like it? No. Especially when the climax — and I totally guessed the killer, though not the method; very clever — takes longer to resolve itself than Return of the King. But, as I thought I would, I feel very virtuous having at last read it; moreover, there were times where it definitely held me gripped with its expansive ideas, and I quite enjoyed William’s fumbling attempts at detection. So I’m doubly glad to have read it.

Also, I do love a library as a setting. There should be more books set in libraries. It just makes sense. 


TBR DAY 88: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco  
GENRE: Medieval, Mystery, Philosophy, Religion, General Fiction, Historical Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: 7 years. 
KEEP: Definitely not, despite how impressive it would look to have it on my bookshelf, apparently.

READING THE TBR, DAY 87: Daggerspell (1986) by Katharine Kerr

I have owned this book for over 17 years. I bought it and six of its sequels in London, they travelled with me from there throughout many countries, and once I had them home they moved with me multiple times, and went into storage and out again more than once, as well.

I am now so, so angry that I have given them so much space in my life — not to mention in various baggage allowances — for so long. Because I finally read the first book in the series, did not like it at all, and will not be assaying any of the others ever

Okay, totally my fault. Still, frustrating as hell.

I guess I just assumed I would like this series. It’s a well-regarded Epic Fantasy written by a very well-regarded exponent in the field, and there are fifteen novels in the Deverry lineage (at the time of purchase, there were already eleven), which misled me mightily. As, I have to admit, did the gender of the author — I was very well disposed towards her, I suppose, and just always assumed that whenever I got around to reading these books, I would love them as much as I do the similarly fantastical flights of Mercedes Lackey and Kate Elliott and Robin Hobb, et al.

But I just… didn’t. The magic system is infuriating, I freaking hate reincarnation tales, the calf-love subplot of the prince and the pauper is just tiresome, and there is way too much slapping of Jill across the face. 

Should I give more details of the plot? Probably. Am I going to? Nope. I just don’t wanna. I don’t wanna think of this book anymore ever again. But perhaps I should look in the bright side. Yes, I had to slog through this disaster, but at least as I ended it, and flung it across the room in fury, I simultaneously cleared six books from my TBR in one stroke.

So… yay?


TBR DAY 87: Daggerspell (Deverry #1) by Katharine Kerr  
GENRE: Fantasy
TIME ON THE TBR: ~17 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: A bookshop on Charing Cross Road, London.
KEEP: Nope. None of them.

READING THE TBR, DAY 86: Don’t Panic: Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) by Neil Gaiman

This book was originally published under the title Don’t Panic: The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion in 1987, but my edition is the revised 2005 version. (I have just learned there is a newer updated version, published in 2018, and I kind of wish I had read that now. Oh well.) 

A galloping, captivating tale of the creation of this cult science fiction classic, and its sequels, featuring interviews with Douglas Adams himself, as well as sundry related personages, including those who were involved in the original radio program, and the original television adaptation, and also in the creation of assorted video games, this book painstakingly reconstructs the many different threads of the Hitchhiker’s franchise. As muddled as the time travelly, often mind-blowing paradoxes of the books themselves, Gaiman painstakingly lays out the complicated history of the story’s creation and perpetuation, while also acting as a kind of biography of Adams himself.

Gaiman — just beginning his own writing career, when he was entrusted with this work — brings a light, often sardonic, humour to events, which certainly suits the subject, but in no way intrudes himself into the narrative, instead focusing very distinctly on Adams, whom he clearly admires. (Even when he manifestly does not quite understand his hero’s inability to meet a deadline—which makes sense, as prolific as Gaiman has proven himself to be in the years since.)

But this is really a book, not just for fans of the Hitchhiker series… but for deep, deep fans. And for Gaiman completists, too, I guess.     


TBR DAY 86: Don’t Panic: Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Neil Gaiman  
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Entertainment, Biography
PUBLISHED: 2005 (originally 1987)
TIME ON THE TBR: ~13 years! 
PURCHASED FROM: Minotaur, Melbourne.
KEEP: Sure!

READING THE TBR, DAY 85: Patsy Walker: Hellcat (2009) by Kathryn Immonen

I’ve never really known too much about Hellcat, which is why I bought this book. Turns out she is a model who is also a superhero, and is sent to Alaska by Tony Stark to cover that huge territory on behalf of the Initiative, which organization she has only just joined.

Arrived in the tundra, Patsy becomes embroiled in some kind of shamanic, magic-infused ritual criminality, but I didn’t really get it and I certainly did not care for her vapid nonsense. The dialogue here is painfully unfunny, but it’s supposed to be funny, which just makes it worse. And the Young Person Speak is just total gibberish, and not in an I’m Too Old kind of way, just in a Poorly Written This is Not How Human People Talk kind of way.

Such a disappointment, especially as finding female comic creators writing female-led superhero comics is a relatively rare phenomenon, and I very much wanted this to be good. But it just isn’t. It’s mostly just dull, and felt like it took way too long to read, and given that this is a 5-issue comic book collection, that should just never be the case.



TBR DAY 84: Patsy Walker: Hellcat by Kathryn Immonen, art by David Lafuente   
GENRE: Marvel, Comics, Superheroes
TIME ON THE TBR: 4 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Kings Comics, Sydney.
KEEP: Nope. I’ll trade this one in.

READING THE TBR, DAY 84: My Beloved Brontosaurus (2013) by Brian Switek

My friend Austen loves dinosaurs. I mean, I love dinosaurs, but he loves them. It began with Jurassic Park in his youth, of course, and it is a fascination that continues to this day.

A few years ago, we decided to return to where it all began, and embarked on a Jurassic Park marathon. We talked throughout about our favourite dinosaurs (me: Triceratops; him: Velociraptor), and I lamented the loss of the Brontosaurus I used to adore, now rebranded Apatosaurus, having been originally misidentified. “It was as sad as Pluto not being a planet anymore,” I said sadly. Usually, Austen would laugh and shake his head at my flights of such emotional fancy; in this case, he agreed. We both really missed brontosauruses, and we didn’t care who knew it.

The very next day, I happened upon My Beloved Brontosaurus, and naturally I couldn’t leave it on the shelf, the synchronicity was simply too perfect. Of course, not too perfect to make me read it immediately — and so here we are, four years later.

I wish I hadn’t waited so long.

Part travel journal, part personal reminiscence and part accessibly-written text book, this extraordinarily interesting work of popular science takes us on the road with dinosaur enthusiast Brian Switek, a dino-lover since childhood and a passionate advocate for the importance of paleontology in our understanding of the cosmos. From the early days of dinosaur discovery to the development of newer theories in dino biology, pathology and sociology, Switek takes a joyous, almost giddy, look at his favourite topic, as infectious in his enthusiasm as he is informative in his deep, deep knowledge. 

In one sentence, he disposed of something that has bugged me since my days at a super-religious Baptist high school: the pictures of human footprints inside dinosaur tracks, which my Science text tried to convince me proved that our species had cohabited with the terrible lizards at some point in the past–namely, four thousand years ago. (I had dared ask the question “What?”, having come from a secular school and quite unprepared for this particular brand of magical realism, and had gotten detention for the first time in my life.) Turns out, when dinosaurs became a thing people knew about, forgers would carve human-like footprints into the rock to fake a shared dino-human past where one never was.

Those people, if they are still alive, should be ashamed of themselves.

This is simply one example of the fascinating facts, speculation and well-informed hypothesis that populate this gorgeous tome, and I am so very glad to have read it. It has reignited an interest in these beyond ancient creatures that I fear too much exposure to pre-schoolers and their obsession with same had previously dulled somewhat. (There is only so much Dinosaur Train a woman can take, as excellent as that show might be.) Switek takes himself to many fossil sites throughout his American homeland, and his adventures have me planning similar trips throughout Australia, and overseas as well.

That is some deep nerding, I know. Super excited about it.


TBR DAY 84: My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science and Our Favorite Dinosaurs by Brian Switek  
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Popular Science, Dinosaurs
TIME ON THE TBR: 4 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Readings Carlton.
KEEP: I think I’ll give it to Austen…

READING THE TBR, DAY 83: The Death of Grass (1956) by John Christopher

The White Mountains was my first introduction to a dystopian world. I read it when I was twelve, then read the two sequels in quick succession. One day, three books, aliens vanquished, and my eyes newly opened to the possibilities of science fiction. As a YA novel, it is pretty brutal, but still reigns in the worst possibilities of people desperate for survival.

The Death of Grass — aimed at adults — pulls no such punches.

A blight is affecting the world’s grass, killing off not only lawns but also wheat and barley and even corn. As a food shortage threatens and the trouble that first hit China heads towards the West, the comfortable people of England hear the news of frantic, murderous exoduses and the deaths of two hundred million people, and are still chatting about tea and football.

But then the blight hits England.

People are the worst. Literally a day after the Chun-Li virus hits the UK, the Government plans to bomb the cities to reduce the soon to be hungry population. At the same time, John Custance and his wife Anne head out of London with their best friends Roger and Olivia, assorted kids and diabolical gun shop owner Pirrie, along with his wife Millicent, bound for John’s brother’s distant valley farm, which he is sure will be safe.   

Within a week, groups of men rove the country gang raping and pillaging, life becomes cheap and young girls are given into “marriage” to killers, while all compassion and decency is considered a luxury. Everyone looks out for only themselves and their families, stealing and torturing and allowing others to perform the most heinous acts if it might advance their own chances of survival.

This is a truly horrid book. Oh, it’s remarkable, and brilliant, and utterly enthralling. But the veneer of civilization falls away so damn fast, and the rise of tyranny happens so abruptly, and the women are such targets, and the people are so cruel, it is just a horrible, horrible vision of the end of everything and make it clear that humanity just does not deserve to survive.

It’s awful. It’s probably true. I hated this book. It is a masterpiece. 


TBR DAY 83: The Death of Grass by John Christopher  
GENRE: Apocalypse, Post-Apocalypse
TIME ON THE TBR: ~ 8 years. 
KEEP: I don’t think so. It just makes me uncomfortable to even look at it right now.

READING THE TBR, DAY 82: Lost at Sea (2012) by Jon Ronson

I was flattered as anything when I received this book for Christmas a few years back. I had seen it on the coffee tables and book shelves of the intelligentsia for years, strewn carelessly about the swankiest of liberal-thinking, independent bookstore-patronising clever-clogs households. Because Jon Ronson is a journalist for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, of course. One of the last bastions of the fourth estate.

This is the first of his books I have read, but it will not be the last. A collection of more than a dozen of his articles from that hallowed publication, across several decades, it not only showcases his talent as a keen observer of human nature, it is also shows off his investigatory skill and ability to build rapport with his subjects. Some of the stories on which he reports in here are quite extraordinary. Some are poignant. Some are devastating. And some are very mysterious indeed.

I don’t often follow the news. If the outrage doesn’t make it to my Twitter feed, I rarely know about it. Years ago, I read a New Yorker article about the possible retrial of American Amanda Knox, convicted in Italy of murdering her flatmate under a cloud of dubious detective work, and I was so shocked I turned to my friend Brad and said, wide-eyed: “Have you heard about this Amanda Knox situation?”

“Everyone knows about that,” he replied. “It happened five years ago.” I must have looked startled, because he reiterated. “Rach. Everyone knows.

That is how little I know about what is happening. But the news is just too upsetting, usually. I avoid it when I can.

So most of the events in this book, which doubtless made worldwide news, were totally news to me. I’d never heard of the religious cult Alpha, or the Disney cruise worker who disappeared from the ship, or the child sex charges of music impresario Jonathan Kingsley. I’ve seen the movies The Men Who Stare at Goats and Frank, but had no idea they were based on real people and that Jon Ronson wrote their stories to begin with. So this book was a revelation about so many weird, wonderful and/or horrible things that I feel very well informed about… well, decades-old events, having read it. 

But more than anything I am conscious of a huge amount of admiration. Ronson has a unique journalistic voice. He’s a presence in the stories but aa self-deprecatory and patient one, as he lets his subjects lead the way and tell their own tales. The topics he chooses are uniformly interesting, and the manner in which he reports them feels thorough and genuine without ever becoming weighed down in too many erroneous particulars. His is a kind of subjective objectivism, and I love it. 

Also, I just love that I know so much more stuff now than I did earlier today. And it was a pleasure to learn.

Maybe I should pay more attention to the news, after all.


TBR DAY 82: Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries by Jon Ronson  
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Journalism, Travel Narrative
TIME ON THE TBR: 3 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: It was a gift.
KEEP: Yes!

READING THE TBR, DAY 81: The Arkadians (1998) by Lloyd Alexander

I love The Prydain Chronicles.  For me, as with so many others, they were the first true Fantasy novels I ever read, giving me a life-long love of the genre. They’re funny and exciting and thought-provoking and strange. I reread them at least once every couple of years and am taken back to childhood wonder every time.

This being the case, I have no idea why it never occurred to me till about five years ago that Lloyd Alexander might have written other books that I should probably check out.

I discovered this when I heard rumours of a Prydain followup, a short story collection that contained some of his other scattershot thoughts on that magical world. I went searching, and sure enough, found not only The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain (hurrah!), but also a bunch of other unrelated Alexander works.

I bought the lot.

This is the first one of them — except for The Foundling, of course — I’ve read.

And… well. The Arkadians did not quite capture me. Which is unfortunate, since not only is it by Lloyd Alexander, whom I would confidently have called one of my favourite writers for over three decades, but it is also a retelling of Greek Myth, and I can’t get enough of those.

This one is only tangentially tied to that pantheon, in fact, and perhaps that is where my expectations and reality collided, lessening my enjoyment of the book. There are references, sure, and even discussions, and there is some pointed parody of mythology in general that is amusing in places, but on the whole this isn’t so much a book about Greek Mythology as it is using mythological devices to tell an original story about Lucian, an accountant who is just too good at accounting;  a poet who was turned into a donkey and is searching for a cure; and the forthright Joy-in-the-Dance, an oracle who insists on calling Lucian “Aii-Ouch”, after he greets her with the involuntary exclamation at their first meeting, and which is at first funny but gets kind of tiresome after a while.

Just like real joking-but-demeaning nicknames, I guess. 

It’s not that I didn’t like this book. I did. It was… fine. It had originality on its side, despite its Ancient pedigree, and I liked that Joy-in-the-Dance had agency and was not afraid to use it. In fact, all the female roles were punched up way more than they are in much of mythology, which makes me think perhaps this is a kid lit Greek Mythology version of The Mists of Avalon. (Ugh. No wonder I didn’t love it.) I also thought it was very clever that this story was kind of a meta commentary on myths themselves, how they morph and grow over years of embellishment and should not be taken as faithful representations of events. (“If a storyteller worried about the facts, my dear Lucian, how could he ever get to the truth?”)

But I guess I was expecting something different, and that led to my disappointment. 

In a kids’ book.

Yes, that is a thing that just happened to me.

I’m cool with it.


TBR DAY 81: The Arkadians by Lloyd Alexander 
GENRE: YA, Mythology, Greek Mythology
TIME ON THE TBR: ~5 years. 
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 80: Lost for Words (2017) by Stephanie Butland

I was browsing a bookshop with my friend Maura when I excitedly handed her a copy of Eleanor Olyphant is Completely Fine. “Have you read this?” I demanded. She hadn’t. “You must read this!” I enthused, describing it in concise, non-spoilery terms.

She nodded, disappeared to talk to the clerk for a minute, then came back with this book in her hand. “And you must read this,” she insisted. We left with several books each that visit, including both recommendations.

Yesterday, Maura finally read Eleanor (it’s gotten very popular, almost ubiquitous, since I made her buy a copy) and wrote to rave about it. It was only right that I returned the favour.

I can see why my short precis of Eleanor made Maura think of Lost for Words. Both feature a socially awkward, misanthropic heroine damaged by childhood trauma and finding love in unexpected places. Lonely, sardonic, self-reliant, both Eleanor and Loveday share marked similarities. (The books came out within months of each other, Lost for Words first.)

Loveday works at Lost for Words, a thriving antique and second-hand bookshop in Northern England, and yes, it’s set in the present day. (Fortunately, she explains that the shop’s proprietor, the gregarious and charismatic Archie, has other sources of income, otherwise this novel might cross into the realms of fantasy.) Completely resistant to relationships following a recent experience with a controlling jerk, she is drawn to magician and poetry fan Nathan, who may or may not help her heal her heart.

The story is a little overlong in its closing act, but is largely enjoyable nevertheless, in all its heartbreak and gradually unravelling mystery and romance. Loveday’s first person perspective is quite gripping, and while she is sometimes infuriating in her vacillation, especially at the end, it all comes from the early psychological damage she is so sure she can never overcome. 

She is also often very funny.

For all their similarities, Lost for Words is very much its own book, charming and upsetting and clever and addictive. I quite loved it, really.

Thanks, Maura!


TBR DAY 80: Lost for Words by Stephanie Butland  
GENRE: Women’s Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: 1 year. 
PURCHASED FROM: Hill of Content, Melbourne.
KEEP: No, I’ll pass this one on to other fans of Eleanor Olyphant.