Monday, February 27, 2012

The Leper of Saint Giles by Ellis Peters

The Leper of Saint Giles
by Ellis Peters
MacMillan, 1981
223 pages

After a Cadfael outing I found rather lacklustre in Saint Peter's Fair, I'm pleased to report that I was back on happy footing with The Leper of Saint Giles. I read this book extremely quickly -- starting it one night and reading it halfway through, then finishing the next day -- which is certainly one way to read with a baby in the house. The other way seems to take weeks. I am not finding much room in between.

This is the fifth book in the Chronicles, and once again we have a romantic relationship at the heart of the story -- this one a forbidden, between a bride-to-be utterly beaten down by her draconian guardians and the squire of the groomsman. There is murder done, of course, but the pace in this book is very measured and we spend more time pottering around the countryside and learning about herbs and leprosy in the first bit of the book than investigating any crimes. This is fine by me; it's all very interesting, and I like spending time with Cadfael no matter how he's spending it. A little under halfway through, there is a murder -- don't read the blurbs on this book if you don't want to know who gets it in advance -- and then Cadfael, at his own pace, investigates and sees justice done.

I liked this novel not necessarily just for the investigation (which is great, if a little predictable again; at least Cadfael does a far better job of being an active sleuth and observer than in his last outing) but also for the other aspects -- the gentle ruminations on religion and human nature, the vivid supporting characters, and the wonderful setting. Once again, Peters has -- historically accurate or not, though the little reading I've done on this suggests to me that it's more accurate than not -- made life in the Middle Ages accessible and real to the reader, not just a listing of dates and grand names. It's the pacing that I like so much; it's not all deadly danger or dashing battles or unrest. These things are happening or have happened, but as is true today, life continues with its comforts and challenges; people get on. Of course, this being a mystery, sometimes people get offed, too. But it's not necessarily for some grand reason; it's more likely to be something incredibly petty than something on which rides the fate of nations.

In The Leper of Saint Giles, unsurprisingly we learn about those unfortunates who have contracted leprosy or various diseases that look quite like it, and who are legislated away from all contact with healthy people. We learn about how they were treated, some of how they were viewed, and the way they lived. Or at least the way they lived in leper hospices, tended in this case by monks from the nearby abbey. Cadfael, once again, shows himself to be both practical and compassionate towards the unfortunate around him.

I enjoyed the secondary characters this time around as much as ever: unflappable Abbot Radulfus, odious Prior Robert (who isn't given too much leeway to be too odious here), gentle Brother Mark who has taken over care of the leper hospital, having graduated from his position as Brother Cadfael's assistant, and we missed a few -- Hugh is only mentioned in passing, to my chagrin, but I'm sure he'll be back. We're also introduced to Avice of Thornbury, a new sister at a nearby cloister, of whom I'm sure we'll be seeing more. I do so like this gradual ebb and flow of characters around Cadfael at the centre. It feels organic, and very real. Some characters appear and disappear in one book; others hang around and stay connected.

Another win for Brother Cadfael. I need to remember that when I'm having trouble sticking with anything, there are a few authors I can go to for a good read, and Ellis Peters is definitely one of them. I also need to remember that it's okay to go to them, that I don't have to stick with a book I feel I should read at this point, over a book that I know I will be able to enjoy all the way through.

Earlier books in the Brother Cadfael Chronicles:
1. A Morbid Taste for Bones
2. One Corpse Too Many
3. Monk's-Hood
4. Saint Peter's Fair

Monday, February 20, 2012

Garden Making magazine

Okay. So this blog is called "a book a week." Let's just say for the sake of argument that books are anything with printed material, otherwise I'm not going to be able to keep up my most excellent streak of posting once a week. I've had a lot of trouble staying with anything longer than a magazine article over the past couple of weeks. I do have a couple of books I'm working on, which may or may not get finished for review: Lauren Chattman's Bread Making, the second Cardcaptor Sakura omnibus volume, Karen Armstrong's Twelve Steps to Compassion, E. M. Forster's A Room With a View. All of these have various things to recommend them, but I'm having a hard time finding the energy when I have the time to read much. Even a graphic novel, you'll notice.

But this is all okay, because I have Garden Making. This is a Canadian magazine, and it's an excellent magazine. It's got all the lovely garden and flower photos, but additionally it has interesting, meaty articles. There are garden profiles, plant profiles, design articles, gardening columns, how-tos, book reviews, tool profiles, and so on. For my money this is the best home and garden magazine on the market, and I flip through plenty of them.

My favourite thing? The articles are long, sometimes several pages, so there's depth and space for thought and interest. I like that it's not a list of things I need to buy to have for my garden or to complete my life, nor is it a series of chirpy tips that bear little resemblance to my gardening experience or that I've already heard/seen many many other places, nor reams of lists of things without context or sufficient information to make them relevant. The writing is excellent by and large, and the photography plentiful and pretty. And the layout! It's not confusing or distracting -- it's clear, perhaps a little staid, but it bears more resemblance to something like The Atlantic than other home and garden magazines I've seen and I like that. It's a magazine I can take seriously and read comfortably, without sacrificing attractiveness.

I don't have many subscriptions. Well, at this point I only have Garden Making. I used to have others, but this quarterly publication is the one I most look forward to and the one I can't let lapse. It's not an old magazine, it's only been around for a couple of years and I believe I've been subscribing since it's fourth issue. But I definitely hope it will stay around longer, so I can read more of Patrick Lima's plant profiles (the spring edition has a big article on peonies by him: I vacuumed it up and went back for a second reading), and Judith Adams' design suggestions, and Lorraine Flanagan's interviews.

Recommended for gardeners or people who wish they had a garden. Its relevance is Canada-wide, and certainly extends to the northern States as well. It's by far the most useful and most pleasurable gardening reading I do these days. It's so refreshing to see such a gorgeous, fat print magazine in these days of internet and e-readers; I hope they can continue to be profitable so I can enjoy it for years to come.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
by Catherynne M. Valente
Feiwel and Friends, 2011
256 pages

After reading On Basilisk Station I was kind of desperate for something that would feel more me, but I wasn't feeling like a re-read. I've had my eye on Valente's stuff for years and years now, particularly as one of the comments one tends to hear is that she writes beautifully and I am a big fan of beautiful writing that isn't self-consciously so. She's a poet, too, and in my experience I tend to really like novels by people who are also poets. This book in particular seemed like just the right sort of thing, so I ... I bought it. On impulse. I don't usually do that. But I'm very glad I did.

This book takes all the surreality and other trappings of fairytales and folktales and inserts it confidently into a fantasy tale, such that we have here something that feels, looks and smells like a fairytale, but is far, far deeper. The characters, despite appearing as though they could be the two dimensional folk we know from fairytales, develop into richer, rounded characters sometimes with only a few words. The economy of Valente's language is admirable, and what she can do with a few words is wonderful. The imagery is full and stunning and whimsical, but never without its hint of darkness -- which just makes everything shine more brightly. The story itself is inventive, new clothes hung on old frameworks and both are transformed.

September is a twelve-year-old girl who lives in Omaha with her mother. Her father has gone off to war in Europe, and her mother works long hours at a factory building airplane engines. She loves both her parents and they love her, but September feels frustrated and bored; and one evening, while she's washing dishes before her mother gets home, the Green Wind comes by flying on the Leopard of Little Breezes to ask her if she wants to go to Fairyland. It's an offer September doesn't even think of refusing. But when she gets there, it's quite clear that not all is well. A witch has had her Spoon stolen and her brothers killed. Flying is tightly regulated, and fairies and wyverns have their wings chained. And Good Queen Mallow has disappeared, replaced by The Marquess, a girl who at least has a wonderful hat.

Aside from the writing and the imagination behind the story, both of which are impressive, the tone reminded me (in a good way) of The Hotel Under the Sand by Kage Baker. There's something restrained about it, a recognition of sadness and pain without letting those things overwhelm the story or the reader. Melancholy is present but so is wonder and joy and amazement, and they are in balance, connected and inseparable. I think this is maybe an important thing in a book written for older kids, and I think it's hard to get right.

Valente also gets the sheer volume of childhood emotions right. One of my favourite sections in The Girl Who... is when September, having had to make a number of very difficult decisions and having had a number of really difficult things happen to her, has to catch and eat a fish. And when she meets a rescuer, it's her pained confession of the fact that rung absolutely true with me. Because for me, too, that would have been the worst of the things that had happened, though to an adult it might have seemed the littlest thing. And the response of the rescuer is perfect too.

Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone with a bent for whimsy and wonder. It's definitely appropriate for older children; I am considering it seriously for my parent-child book club, though it would be a summer book because it's a bit long. It's also wonderful for older readers who will get quite a lot out of the story. One last little thing, that isn't that little: I have rarely met a book with such a perfect ending. I'm not doing this book justice. I can only say I'll be reading it again, and often.

Monday, February 6, 2012

On Basilisk Station by David Weber

On Basilisk Station
by David Weber
Baen Books, 1993
346 pages

First of all, free eBook. Is awesome. Also legal. Thank you, Baen Books and David Weber for giving me the chance to test out the Honorverse for myself.

Sadly, the gambit didn't work out this time, as I'm not going to be purchasing, or reading, any of the other Honor Harrington books. It's not you, Commander Harrington and David Weber. It's me.

I want to be clear, because hopefully I can at least raise the profile of the book in return for its free-ness: this is a good book. This is a really good book. It's well-written, detailed, interesting, engaging, creative, adrenaline-boosting, entertaining, and even thought-provoking. And if you are in to military science fiction, this is a great, great place to go, as Weber's legion fans can attest. (Actually, if you're in to military science fiction, I imagine you've already been here. I'm late to the party on this one). In Commander Honor Harrington, David Weber has created a really attractive main character; she's intelligent, competent, and generally kicks ass. And (I mention this because it's not always the case in military SF) she's a woman in a powerful position and almost no mention is made of it; more mention is made of her youth than of her gender. Her gender does not signify, nor do the genders of any of the other characters in the book. They are simply people doing their jobs. I love this.

There are several moments in this book where the reader wants to sit up and whoop as Harrington makes yet another connection or faces down yet another bully with a will of steel. She even comes across as being almost too good sometimes, but she's not perfect, exactly. I will admit there were a few times when I thought maybe she was too good to be true. But I liked her too much to care.

I can't really talk about this book and my reaction to it without some major spoilers. So if you like military fiction, or science fiction, this is for you. The detail encapsulated in the books, the work that has gone in to creating the universe his characters inhabit, is stunning. I wish I could follow Honor through her next thirteen-plus adventures, but I can't. If you have already read this book, or know you won't, and wish to know why I'm not going to go further, read on. If you've got this book on your TBR, stop now.

/spoilers ahoy! seriously guys, do not read past here if you want to read the book.

Guys, the ending. The ending is brutal. The ending is just. so. brutal. I'm talking as someone emotionally invested, but also as someone who has a upper limit for violence and death and this book sailed clear through that at hyper speed. Worse, I knew what was coming. Well, I didn't know exactly what was coming, but about halfway through, I knew that things were going to go sour, and I figured it would happen quickly, and I figured that it would be bloody, and I figured that I wasn't really going to like it. It made reading on both pleasurable, because I liked where I was, and painful because I knew it was going to end badly. And boy was I right.

The ending is a bloodbath. And what makes me feel somewhat worse about hating it, is that it should have been. If Weber had wimped out and let all the mains get away scott free, I would have been disappointed in him, and the book wouldn't have been good. It would have been an exercise in fantasy, of the worst sort, the sort I find trite and the reason some people don't take SF/F seriously. War is hell. And it should be shown that way, guts and glory. Weber knows this, so we get plenty of both.

If I had one technical problem with this book, this would be it: I realize she's Navy, but my impression is that Honor Harrington hasn't seen a lot of live action. Nor have the other characters. So I'd like to have seen a bit more about the psychological toll the death and grief would have taken, because while it was mentioned, it was... kind of glossed over. Frankly, I was a little uncomfortable with how comfortable Harrington is with the way she is lionized, though she did deserve it; I would have been a lot more traumatized than she appeared to be.

Actually, I was, and herein lies the problem. As much as I would love to spend more time with Honor Harrington, this book made me feel ill at the end. The characters -- the aliens, too -- who died, some just terribly, and the ones left behind -- there were scenes I couldn't get out of my head. I couldn't stop thinking about it. I felt like I needed to dip my brain in bleach. And I don't think Weber was gratuitous with the violence and the death, it's just that my threshold is low. There was implied torture -- implied makes it worse for me. There was a slaughter of drugged-up religious fanatic aliens (we understand why the slaughter has to take place, but still.) There was people being blown to pieces by shrapnel in the vacuum of space. People I liked, people who were narrating the action, people who were good people and who died doing heroic things or not. The people who survived, you read the roll call at the end and you feel like you've been given a gift because that character made it. Even Honor Harrington's seemingly unbeatable genius can't save the day entirely. It all fits, it's all exactly the way it should be, and I can't handle it.

So why did I start reading this book? Well, I'll be honest. I thought it would be a light, guilty pleasure, something more along the lines of Anne McCaffrey's space operas. I didn't realize until things started sinking in just how bad it might get, and once I realized it I was too invested to stop.

I was feeling a bit miserable about my inability to face the music, as it were; my constitutional aversion to watching bad things happen to good people in fiction. And I was thinking about how sometimes people equate tragedy with good literature, and the rest of it is fluff, meaning I'm somehow not a serious reader. (This goes back to the Greeks; drama was the Thing, and comedy was a lower art form, though I actually think good comedy is harder to write.) The thing is, I feel like I deal with enough in real life, and I'm well aware I have it relatively easy, and I know there's terrible things out there, and I don't want to put myself through fictional misery too. For some people it can be cathartic, but for me, it keeps me up at night for days and causes me to feel anxious and miserable and sad. I just get far, far too attached, far too emotionally invested even though I know it's fiction. I find plenty of excellent, brilliant, beautiful literature that doesn't make me feel like hell and I still manage to be pretty well-informed and well-read.

Then I read Darla's blog entry and felt better, because apparently I am not alone in being adversely affected by books. What Darla is talking about there is a little different; I didn't feel terribly manipulated here, just in shock. But much of it is applicable, I just think my threshold is even lower than Darla's...