Review: Here Lies Arthur, Philip Reeve

All right, I give up. Philip Reeve isn’t for me, and Arthurian stories may not be either. Here Lies Arthur is the story of Gwyna (if you are expecting her to turn out to be Guinevere, like I was, revise your expectations now and save yourself some confusion), who is taken in by Myrddin, a healer and wise man traveling with conquering soldier Arthur. At once Gwyna is caught up in Myrddin’s quest to make Arthur a legendary king capable of uniting all of Britain. It’s my favorite kind of story: a story about stories.

And yet, and yet.

One of the problems was all me, and I have this reaction to every Arthur story I read. When an Arthur story gets started, I start trying to figure out which version of the story the author’s going to be telling. Here Lies Arthur uses Welsh spellings, so with each character I had to first work out what the names were meant to be–and I won’t lie, I translated them all into Monty Python, which made it hard for me to take Bedwyr seriously (“Ah, but can you not also make bridges out of stone?”). And then I had to remember all the stories I know about them, from the cassette of King Arthur stories I had as a kid, from scraps of Mary Stewart, from Gerald Morris, from Malory, from T. H. White, and only after I’d done any of that could I pay attention to the story again. So that’s my thing. It’s not Philip Reeve’s fault. In fact, this is the bit that Philip Reeve does well: He shows us, through Gwyna, how all those different stories grow and thrive, how there can be a dozen versions of the same story without the listeners losing belief in them. But my restless unspoiled brain kept fretting over it.

Another problem that was all me: I want King Arthur to be wise and good and just and brave. I always do. When he’s not all that in the stories, they do not sparkle for me the same way. A lot of King Arthur retellings want to make Arthur be stupid, or an oaf, or a thug. Oh nasty and unscrupulous modifiliers! Leave me my knights in shining armor!

But I like to blame my bad reading experiences on other people, so let’s turn to the things for which Philip Reeve was responsible, shall we? The book was highly episodic, which I tend not to like, and at times this got to feeling like the author was trying to get in, hit each Arthur story (Guinevere, Grail, Green Knight), and get out. Gwyn(a)’s voice was inconsistent, and now and then she’d slip in a colloquialism that felt jarringly different to the rest of her narration (“We weren’t the first to go there, neither”). The book would switch suddenly into present tense for no apparent reason, and slip back out all casual-like, but I noticed and did not approve. What’s even worse for me, because I love point-of-view switches when they are done well, was that it also occasionally slipped into other characters’ perspective, when the narrative didn’t require it.

What do you require from King Arthur stories? Or do you not like King Arthur?

This has been for the R.I.P. Challenge. More books to come, and, I expect, better ones for me. 🙂

Who else has read it:

things mean a lot
Confessions of a Bibliovore
Bart’s Bookshelf
Book Nut
Susan Hated Literature
A Bookshelf Monstrosity
Vulpes Libris
The Page Flipper

Tell me if I missed yours!

Review: Weight, Jeanette Winterson

I feel like all the Kage Baker books I’m reading should qualify for the Once Upon a Time Challenge, because they do feel more like fantasy than science fiction.  However, despite their genre-bending qualities, they have cyborgs, and the time travel is done with machines.  So Jeanette Winterson’s Weight, a retelling of the myth of Atlas and Hercules, is my first read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge, in which I am pretending I am not really taking part.

Weight is a book about looking for new ways to tell stories.  That is a theme that I love.  It’s a retelling of a Greek myth.  I love Greek myths, although admittedly Hercules was never my favorite.  It’s a myth retelling that isn’t afraid of leaving the old story behind to make a better story.  I support that.  It intersects Greek mythology and the science of planets and space travel in a way that I can only describe as adorable.

Yes, adorable.  You will see what I mean if you read it.

As I wrote down all those good things about Weight, I felt fonder and fonder of it, and I had to think very hard about why I did not finish it feeling satisfied.  The problem wasn’t that it was short, it’s a novella really – I liked that.  Atlas and Hercules is a smallish myth, and I am not sure it would have worked to spin it out longer.  It was more that Jeanette Winterson could not settle down to anything.  She’d be with Atlas for two paragraphs and then fwoosh, away she’d go about planets and other things, and fwoosh, here we are with Hercules feeling mysterious guilt feelings and fwoosh here is his wife and fwoosh here is Atlas again…  I dunno, I found it disorienting.  Hence I cannot altogether rejoice in Weight because it made me feel like a hyper six-year-old deprived of her Ritalin.

Other reviews:

A Garden Carried in the Pocket
things mean a lot
Adventures in Reading

Let me know if I missed yours!

My day yesterday

Jenny: If fiction is going to be meta, it should be meta exactly like The Unwritten.  I HAVE DECREED IT SO.
Universe: Oh yeah?
NY Times: Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey is metafiction and sometimes wonderful.  Read an excerpt.
Jenny: I am unmoved by this excerpt.
Slate and WSJ: Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey is meta-licious.  We love it.
Jenny: Whatever.  I will believe it when I see it.
The Lost Books of the Odyssey: WIN WIN WIN.

True story.

Review: Fire and Hemlock, Diana Wynne Jones

So Fire and Hemlock is a retelling of the ballad “Tam Lin”, but it incorporates elements from a dozen other fairy tales, myths, and legends.  I read this article one time that Diana Wynne Jones wrote, about the process of writing Fire and Hemlock and all the different strands of stories she used, which was quite, quite interesting.  The story begins with a young woman called Polly, who is packing her things for Oxford and has come across a book that she remembers being quite different to what it is now.  This leads her to the realization that she has two sets of memories, one perfectly ordinary and one – not quite.  She begins to remember a man called Tom Lynn, whom she befriended when she was ten years old, and with whom she created an imaginary, heroic world, the contents of which developed an alarming habit of coming (more or less) true.

You know what I love the most about this book?  The fact that even when they have lost touch he continues to send her books all the time, and she always reads them.  I have written something a bit like this into a story of mine because I love the idea so much.  How brilliant to have somebody with the same taste in books as you, constantly sending you wonderful things to read.  Wouldn’t it be good to have a book dealer like that?  Sending you books?

Okay, I’ll shut up about that.  There are other things in this book that are better and more relevant than just the book-sending.  These are a bunch of excellent characters and a set of true relationships – Polly’s fascination with Nina as a child and her developing a deeper friendship with Fiona; the okay-fine-then relationship she has with Seb; Ivy’s ways of moping and clinging.  As well as being a good fantasy story, this is one of the better growing up and figuring yourself out stories I’ve ever read.  You can see the influences everybody is having over Polly throughout her life (Nina, Ivy, Granny, Fiona, Tom), and it’s so interesting to see her noticing them and sorting out what she wants to do about them.  Because that’s just how it does work: You figure out what bits of other people have blended into you, and you decide whether it’s bits you want to keep.

Then of course this is also a book that produces an excellent mixture of myths and real life, funny and serious, endearing and creepy.  The family of Leroy, which has its hooks into Tom in some way Polly can’t quite figure out, is thoroughly unpleasant, and they spy on her and make whirling men out of garbage and scary living robot things.  Ick.  I love the idea of someone having two sets of memories, because that is cool.

And um – I am squirming with embarrassment as I bring this up – there’s this one bit where Polly spends a massive amount of time and energy writing a long book about the adventures of the fictional versions of herself and Tom, the hero personas she has made up for them, and – and – and, you know, she’s young and she’s in the throes of having written a whole book all by herself, and Tom writes back to her Sentimental drivel and then writes an even longer letter about how stupid this one particular scene is (what a mean, mean, mean meanie!  She’s fourteen years old!).  Oh, God, I hate that part of the book.  Polly reads back over the book she wrote, and she realizes it’s awful, and every single bit of it makes her cringe.  I read Fire and Hemlock to my little sister a few years ago, and I could hardly manage to read this section out loud.  I know exactly how she feels.  Poor little sausage.

Fire and Hemlock. Better than all of Diana Wynne Jones’s other books, and withdrawal from which is responsible for my spending a very pleasant afternoon sitting outside in the cool sunny weather and reading Tam Lin straight through from beginning to end.  Thank you, Pamela Dean, for writing a book to keep me from the agonies of Fire and Hemlock withdrawal.

Other people’s reviews:

Tales of the Reading Room
Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog (my friend Jane was squicked out by the end, by the way, but it didn’t bother me at all – everything had been leading up to it, I thought)
Dog Ear Diary
things mean a lot
Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf
Book Nut
Valentina’s Room
Fiddle-Dee-Dee’s Not English
everyday reads
Rhinoa’s Ramblings

Tell me if I missed yours!

“The Problem of Susan”, Neil Gaiman

While I’m in a talking-about-C.S.-Lewis groove, I might as well review this short story.  I reread it yesterday because I was thinking a lot about C.S. Lewis and Aslan and God, and leaving Susan behind when everyone heads into Aslan’s country.  And here’s what I came out of it with: This story hurts my feelings.  On C.S. Lewis’s behalf, my feelings are hurt by this story.

The main body of the story isn’t the problem.  I think the story is great actually.  It’s essentially a young reporter interviewing a professor of children’s literature, who (it’s very strongly implied) is the grown-up Susan Pevensie.  She’s talking about her life after her siblings all died, how she had to identify their bodies, and how she didn’t have much money following the death of her parents, and so forth.  There’s this tone of bewildered melancholy, and weary anger, which I thought was excellent.  These are points which I think need to be made about Susan from The Last Battle, because even making the argument that her crime was caring too much about girly things, and no longer believing in Narnia – even making that argument, the passage comes out damn sexist, whatever Lewis intended.  So hurrah for Neil Gaiman, putting a face on what Susan would have been going through back in the real world, while everyone she loved was frolicking around merrily in Aslan’s country.  (The other three Pevensies didn’t seem to bother much about her either.  I expected better from Lucy.  And Edmund, actually.  Their big sister!)

But, oh, the bits in italics, which framed the main story, hurt my feelings so much.  (Even though I can see how the story would have been incomplete if he had just taken those bits out.)  I’m excerpting a bit, which is rather explicit, so don’t read it if that’s going to bother you.  Aslan and the White Witch have made a deal to divvy up the Pevensy kids, the boys for her and the girls for him:

The lion eats all of her except her head, in her dream.  He leaves the head, and one of her hands, just as a housecat leaves the parts of a mouse it has no desire for; for later; or as a gift.

She wishes that he had eaten her head, then she would not have had to look.  Dead eyelids cannot be closed, and she stares, unflinching, at twisted thing her brothers have become.  The great beast eats her little sister more slowly; and, it seems to her, with more relish and pleasure than it had eaten her; but then, her little sister had always been its favorite.

The witch removes her white robes, revealing a body no less white, with high, small breasts, and nipples so dark they are almost black.  The witch lies back upon the grass, spreads her legs.  Beneath her body, the grass becomes rimed with frost.  “Now,” she says….

And when the two of them are done, sweaty and sticky and sated, only then does the lion amble over to the head on the grass and devour it in its huge mouth, crunching her skull in its powerful jaws, and it is then, only then, that she wakes.

Not something I often say, and not something I really ever want to say, but shut up, Neil Gaiman.

At first this was just a kneejerk reaction.  As an adult I recognize that sometimes Aslan is a bit smug and aggravating, but still there is this huge part of me that just finds him safe and comforting.  I identified really strongly with Lucy when I was a kid – I think because when you’re a kid, people often don’t listen to you, and nobody would listen to Lucy about Narnia – so I also identified with her relationship with Aslan.  Also, when I went and woke up my parents with nightmares, they would tell me that Aslan would blow my bad dreams away.  You know, like he blew away Eustace and Jill in The Silver Chair, most terrifying Narnia book ever; and that’s what I would imagine when I was falling back asleep.  In fact I still do.  So I was never going to take kindly to something like this.

However, on an intellectual level – and, disclaimer, I don’t know if this response is any fairer – but this business with Aslan and the Witch just seems mean-spirited.  Not because I mind things in which God doesn’t come out too well – for a while I was absolutely entranced by the His Dark Materials books, so much so that I bought all three of them, in hardback, right after I finished The Amber Spyglass; and Angels in America is one of my favorite plays ever (brother’s from the homeland!), as well as being one of my desert island movies.  (Hm, I seem to have Angels in America on the brain – could be my subconscious signaling me to read it again.)  I’m Catholic, but as a trend I really don’t mind when God is portrayed negatively, when it reflects the author’s beliefs and attitudes about the world.  I figure, God is tough.  God can take it.

“The Problem of Susan”, to me, is a whole different question.  It’s not an assault on God; it’s a specific, personal assault on one specific person’s affectionately rendered depiction of his beliefs.  C.S. Lewis wrote Aslan to reflect his experience of God, and as I’ve said, that man loved God like nothing else.  Whether you agree with him or not, he wrote Aslan with such absolute sincerity and love.  I think it is unkind to take such an honest expression of someone’s religious devotion, and do this with it; no matter how much you disagree with him, or find his beliefs about women/God/whatever, to be damaging.  It makes me feel all yucky to read this part of the story – a reaction I don’t think I’ve had to something I’ve read since this horrible book I got for my eleventh birthday, the contents of which I don’t remember at all, but which upset me so much I hid it under the couch and still couldn’t sleep knowing it was in the house so I got up and threw it in the trash and poured wet coffee grounds on top of it.

I’m not pouring wet coffee grounds on top of “The Problem with Susan”.  I just wish Neil Gaiman had been more respectful of C.S. Lewis.  And I say this as a girl who likes dressing up pretty with stockings for parties, and has been from a young age completely displeased with how Lewis dealt with Susan in The Last Battle.  (Y’all should see the sexy, sexy yellow dress I got for Christmas.  You know how hot Kate Hudson was in her yellow dress in How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days?  This dress is just like that.  But my hair is longer.)

Okay.  This marks the end of my C.S. Lewis apologetics.  You will not hear another peep out of me about C.S. Lewis.  I am reading his letters but I won’t say a word.  Coming soon: more Sandman, more Shakespeare, the seventh Harry Potter book for heaven’s sake, the interesting book about virginity I am reading, and hopefully some Susan Hill, since every book blog on my blogroll seems to be reading Susan Hill recently.  But no more of the Sally Lockhart books.  I’m tired of them because everyone died, and the Eleventh Doctor has pretentious hands.  Also maybe some science fiction.  I feel myself getting into a very science fictiony mood.  We’ll see how that plays out.

Jenna Starborn, Sharon Shinn

So I read this for my Victorians class, basically because I want to write a paper on it for my final project – that research proposal is due in on Thursday and I’ve given it shockingly little thought in comparison to my usual intensive research schedules with these term paper things – anyway, I’m reading it for my final project, and I didn’t expect it to be any good.  I judge books by their cover, and this cover was rubbish.

I also judge them on really cheap jokes.  The fact that she talks into her little voice recorder, the brand of which is Reeder, makes me throw up a little in my mouth.  Reeder, I married him.  Oop.  There went the acid reflux.  The thing is, Ms. Shinn didn’t maintain this conceit straight through the book, you know?  The book wasn’t a transcript of everything that was recorded by the Reeder.  Most of it was in past tense, and it often talked about her little Reeder voice recorder, so it didn’t work out well, and caused me some dismay.  And also, hi, I’m Jenny, and I don’t like little cutesy jokes about Jane Eyre.

Here’s another thing that caused me some dismay.  Do you know what was wrong with Berthe Rochester (Beatrice Ravenbeck in this version), do you know?  Because I’ll tell you!  She was a malfunctioning cyborg!  She was!  I swear!  I didn’t make that up!  I couldn’t even have made that up if I wanted to which God knows I don’t, because I didn’t know that a cyborg was a part-human-part-robot creature.  Which is what Berthe is here.  A malfunctioning cyborg.  She’s just human enough that poor put-upon Mr. Rochester (Ravenbeck) can’t get rid of her.

I found this whole book trying.  It’s like Ms. Shinn made a big long list of every single scene in Jane Eyre, and then wrote down little notes next to each scene about how she could make them more science-fictiony.  The end result is less than inspiring.  Everyone seems like a cardboard imitation of their original characters in Jane Eyre, and the stuff that’s added in is vastly uninteresting.  I wasn’t, of course, expecting any adaptation to be able to improve on Jane Eyre, which is a book that gives joy to my life; but if Jane Eyre were Oxford, Jenna Starborn would be, like, the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good.

And I’m not just saying that because reading Jenna Starborn caused me to miss out on playing with my nice cousins that I haven’t seen since they were seven and four.  It’s my true opinion.  I would still feel that way if I had been reading Jenna Starborn as an alternative to parking ten eighteen-wheelers on Carlotta Street, or, I don’t know, giving enemas to everyone at the campus health center.  I would.