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Petroglyph's 2019 reading

Club Read 2019

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1Petroglyph
Edited: Jan 18, 10:53am Top

Hello, all. This will be my first year here, and I’m looking forward to reviewing and discussing most of my readings for 2019 in this thread. .

I'm a European who likes to read eclectically (mainly litfic, science fiction, fantasy, assorted non-fiction), but I could do a lot better in terms of spread -- geographical, temporal, linguistic, and racial. Then there’s the TBR pile, portions of which I’m outgrowing, or my tastes have changed. Also, I want to talk about books more often.

One way of achieving all that is to systematically keep track of what I read, and maintaining a thread here seems like a good start.

Goals / Reading projects
  • My TBR tag, as of 1st of January, has 285 uses in my library. That figure needs to go down, particularly since it includes books that have been there for over a decade (and more) and so I’ll be forcing myself to grab those books off their shelves this year.

  • I mainly read in English, and I really ought to consume more media in not-English. That means I will be reading more in my weaker languages (mainly French and German); more contemporary Swedish authors (I live in Sweden); and more in Dutch (my mother tongue), especially “canonical” authors and works

  • More by women. Four or five years ago, the proportion of female authors in my library was 23%. Now that figure is 31.94%. That’s the right direction, and it’s led me to wonderful discoveries, and so I see no reason not to continue along that path.

  • Reading globally: books and authors from nations I have not read (enough of). Particularly: reading non-Western Europe and Africa. Reading the Ancients and the Middle Ages, i.e. nations no longer in existence. Less by American authors: too much of my media intake is US-based.

  • Genres I’ve never read or generally avoid: I’m thinking things like bodice-rippers, vampire smut, memoirs, yaoi, fanfic, christmas stories. I also should read something by my parents' favourite authors -- Hedwig Courths-Mahler, Alistair Maclean, Gérard de Villiers -- which I know I’ll most likely hate, but I should try and read at least one book by each author. (Abandoning an execrable book at the halfway point is acceptable to me.)

  • More genre fiction. I plan on finally getting to a few science fiction classics I’ve shamefully never read (e.g. Brave new world, Ubik), as well as catching up with a few more recent authors (Ann Leckie, N. K. Jemisin).

  • For the past few years I’ve been participating in a TBR challenge (this is my 2019 thread; the one for 2018 is here), where I commit to reading 24 books which might require a nudge or two to get to. Reviews of those books will be cross-posted here, too.

2Petroglyph
Edited: Feb 16, 1:38pm Top

January
  1. The image of a drawn sword by Jocelyn Brooke (Novel)
  2. The gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald (Novel)
  3. Een zwerver verliefd by Arthur Van Schendel (Novel)
  4. Een zwerver verdwaald by Arthur Van Schendel (Novel)
  5. The skeleton's holiday by Leonora Carrington (Short stories)
  6. In the Vanishers' palace by Aliette de Bodard (Novella)
  7. Het fregatschip Johanna Maria by Arthur van Schendel (Novel)
  8. Ten days in a mad-house by Nellie Bly (Non-fiction)
  9. Sverige 1628: bilder och texter kring ett årtal by Christine Östling (Essays)
  10. The privilege of pain by Caroline Kane Mills Everett (Essay)
  11. The top of the volcano by Harlan Ellison (Collection)
  12. We should all be feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Essay)
  13. The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir by Karin Tidbeck (Short story)
  14. Escurial: drame en un acte by Michel de Ghelderode (Play)
  15. Academic exercises by K. J. Parker (Collection)
  16. Die Türme des Februar by Tonke Dragt (YA novel)
  17. De wereld een dansfeest by Arthur van Schendel (Novel)
  18. Penric and the shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold (Novella)
  19. A portrait of the artist as a young man by James Joyce (Novel)


February
  1. So you've been publicly shamed by Jon Ronson (Non-fiction)
  2. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (Novel)
  3. Le pigeon by Patrick Süskind (Novella)
  4. The hunter from the woods by Robert McCammon (Collection)
  5. De erfenis by Connie Palmen (Novella)
  6. Goody two-shoes by Anonymous (Short story)
  7. Brave new world by Aldous Huxley (Novel)
  8. Frappe-toi le coeur by Amélie Nothomb (Novel)
  9. The shadowy horses by Susanna Kearsley (Novel)
  10. Ancillary mercy by Ann Leckie (Novel)
  11. Passing strange by Ellen Klages (Novella)
  12. by ()
  13. by ()
  14. by ()


March

3Petroglyph
Jan 5, 2:11pm Top

Apr - May - June

4Petroglyph
Jan 5, 2:11pm Top

July - Aug - Sep

5Petroglyph
Jan 5, 2:12pm Top

Oct - Nov - Dec

6Petroglyph
Edited: Feb 3, 7:26pm Top

Figures & statistics Until 2019-02-02

  • Items read: 20
  • Male / female ratio: 9/11 (45%/55%)
  • Languages: 5
    • English: 13
    • Dutch: 4
    • French: 1
    • Swedish: 1
    • German: 1
  • Types:
    • collection: 2
    • drama: 1
    • essays: 3
    • non-fiction: 2
    • novel: 9
    • novella: 2
    • short story: 1
  • Formerly owned but unread: 7

7Petroglyph
Jan 5, 2:12pm Top

Ok, thread open!

8Petroglyph
Edited: Jan 12, 7:18pm Top

The image of a drawn sword by Jocelyn Brooke



Why did I choose to read this?
This was an impulsive purchase, and the only unread item from a 2014 London book haul. Some kind of fantasy-horror to do with World War Two. Sounds like the kind of thing I would read ;)

Review (Also posted here.)
This wasn’t quite fantasy-horror, but more of a cross between Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense and Kafka’s The Trial.

Reynard Langrish, former soldier declared physically unfit during WWII, lives with his mother just outside a village outside the town where he works at a bank. Above all, he feels increasingly untethered to reality: his senses are dulled, and the world feels washed-out. One night, a particularly dark and stormy one, an army captain called Archer calls at his house, claiming to have taken a wrong turn and asking for directions. The two strike up an awkward, almost compulsory friendship. As Langrish’ encounters become increasingly dreamlike, he soon finds himself training to join a British Army battalion that is being raised in secret.

This was a weird read: not quite horror, not quite Weird Fiction, not quite suspense. Horror tropes that are seemingly used straight (cf. the dark and stormy night when Langrish and Archer meet) are treated as irrelevancies; the nightmarish quality present in the Weird is primarily due to a regimented and unquestioned army bureaucracy; and the dreamlike reality flows along a little too predictably for the suspense to be gripping. This short novel is situated in the periphery of several different genres but isn’t really at home with any of them.

At 140 pages, this is a quick but unsettling read, as much for its contents as for its genre indecisiveness.

9Petroglyph
Jan 5, 2:13pm Top

Currently reading The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald, who published her first novel when she was sixty. Enjoying it very much, in part because of Fitzgerald-esque paragraphs such as the following. One of the main characters, Daisy, has just been dishonourably dismissed from the hospital where she had a position as a nurse-in-training:
It was made clear that she must leave by Monday week. This was a concession, because it was known that Daisy had no home to go to. Kate Smith and some of the eighteen other second-year probationers -- but not all of them, some were cautious -- bought a leaving present for her. There was not much time, and they had to settle for a travelling salt-and-pepper set, said to be new china, and decorated with a view of the coronation of George V. Daisy was grateful. Disgrace contaminates, even though it makes everyone else feel a little safer.

That combination of slightly absurd, barely-humorous mundanity (the uninspired farewell gift) with resigned but true observations about the unpleasantness of human interaction: I just love that about her writing. She's been around, and writes such truths, such insights into how people in a society treat each other. It's fiction, and made-up people, but it all feels so true.

10Dilara86
Jan 5, 2:24pm Top

Welcome ! I'm looking forward to reading your thread.

11dchaikin
Jan 5, 9:34pm Top

welcome to CR and thanks for the Penelope Fitzgerald quote. Good luck with your goals. The Image of the Drawn Sword sounds curious.

12haydninvienna
Jan 6, 1:44am Top

>8 Petroglyph: Thank you, I've wishlisted this. I read Brooke's Orchid Trilogy many years ago and remember enjoying it although the only other thing I remember was that the titles were a bit peculiar--The Military Orchid, A Mine of Serpents and The Goose Cathedral. He seems now to be obscure enough that although there is a Wikipedia page for him, there is none for any of his books. From the Wikipedia page:
Though the Orchid Trilogy strays into a typically English vein of humour, the idyllic land of his childhood and his obsession with le paradis perdu often bring in an element of intense melancholy, something developed in paranoia and isolation in The Image of a Drawn Sword.

13Petroglyph
Jan 6, 6:53pm Top

>11 dchaikin:
Thanks!

>12 haydninvienna:
melancholy turning into isolation is definitely a good description of The image of a drawn sword, whose title derives from a passage from Beowulf, so who knows where those other titles came from.

14avaland
Jan 7, 10:26am Top

Welcome! Expecting to stop here from time to time to see what you are reading.

15haydninvienna
Jan 7, 10:45am Top

>13 Petroglyph: I can at least tell you where the first 2 titles came from. A "military orchid" is an actual orchid, a rare wild species of ground orchid found in parts of southern England. A "Mine of Serpents" is a firework, which figures significantly in the novel.

16Petroglyph
Jan 7, 12:42pm Top

>14 avaland:
Welcome back at you!

>15 haydninvienna:
Huh, interesting

17Petroglyph
Jan 7, 1:57pm Top

The gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald



Why did I choose to read this?
After Jane Austen, I’ve decided to make Penelope Fitzgerald my next Completist Author, meaning I’ll be reading all nine of her novels. Four I’ve already read, and and this is the only unread book by her I own (though I might buy and read more by her in 2019). From the blurb, The gate of angels is an academic novel and a romance set in 1912 Cambridge. Also, it apparently features a character based on M. R. James, whose early 20thC horror stories I will always have a soft spot for.

Review (Also posted here.)
An academic novel and a romance set in 1912 Cambridge is indeed a good way to describe this novel. The two main characters, Fred Fairly and Daisy Saunders meet by (literal) accident, and since the former is a Physics fellow at a tiny Cambridge College, and the latter is a working-class nurse-in-training, there is the expected attraction of opposites. Well, kind of. The book never specifies that that is what’s going on, but merely implies it.

In fact, Fitzgerald leaves lots unsaid in this book: she juxtaposes sections that may differ in tone, location, sometimes even genre, and leaves it up to the reader to connect them -- the well-read reader, who knows how romances and academic novels typically develop. Characterization is bare-bones, mainly done through dialogue and Omniscient-Narrator commentary, only hinting at a more coherent personality in the background -- all this is again to be assembled by the reader. I imagine that this may feel disjointed or even unfinished to some, but reading one section in the spirit of the others worked wonderfully for me (or perhaps I merely like the way my own imagination works). Carrying over the subtle silliness and absurdity from some of the sections and treating the novel as though that is the kind of heightened reality in which it is set makes the whole thing come together beautifully.

For silly and absurd is what this novel is -- quietly and occasionally at first, but the mainly straightforward romance plot, which runs so much on readers’ expectations of both romances and academic settings, acquires more and more sudden absurdities and tongue-in-cheek moments until it reaches a crescendo and turns into what I unrepentantly call “uproariously funny”. I giggle-laughed with delight repeatedly.

It turns out there is a character based on M. R. James in there -- a pipe-smoking mediaeval palaeographer who writes ghost stories in his spare time and is fond of reading them out loud to colleagues at various Colleges. Fitzgerald even includes her take on one of his ghost stories -- a case of sudden genre shift, at which point the novel finally comes into its own as an unapologetically funny book. Seriously, the crowning moment of awesome in this book is a reference to another writer’s style -- I love it when media can pull that off. (Does it work if you haven’t read M. R. James? Totally! The genre shift even comes with foreshadowing!) After that, the book coasts to an ending on a wave of good-will.

Penelope Fitzgerald has an exquisitely calibrated sense of humour, and she puts it to excellent use in The gate of Angels. I absolutely loved this book: it’s going to be hard to beat this one in terms of shameless fun.

18Petroglyph
Edited: Jan 8, 8:14am Top

Een zwerver verliefd (English title A wanderer in love) by Arthur Van Schendel



Why did I choose to read this?
From the TBR pile. One of an omnibus of four novels spanning the career of an early 20thC Dutch author of the Neo-Romantic persuasion. I liked one of his books enough to buy this collection.

Review (Also posted in Dutch here.)
A wanderer in love is historical fiction, set in twelfth-century (I think) Northern Italy during the wars between the Holy Roman Emperor and the forces of the Pope. The titular wanderer is Tamalone, unable to hang around the same place or the same people for too long. And so he wanders passionately, taking full advantage of his network of wealthy contacts around the city states and his near-total lack of strings attached. Then, when hanging around the retinue of a friendly Imperialist warlord, one of his contacts, he is tasked with keeping safe the warlord’s mistress, and he falls in love.

This short novel is short on substance. Characterization is barely there, emotions and nature descriptions too saccharine, too Romantic. The setting -- Northern Italy during the Investiture Controversy -- seems ripped from an uninspired children’s book: Tamalone and his friends walk everywhere with ease, nothing’s too far away, travelling is fun, and food and shelter and clothes present no obstacle whatsoever. Van Schendel clearly expected the Big Emotions to do most of the legwork, the passionate paean to carefree vagrancy and, above all, the tropes of Courtly Love. Sadly, I think I may have outgrown those tropes.

So yeah. This didn’t do it for me: too facile, too childish, too hackneyed, too antiquated.

19baswood
Jan 8, 3:58am Top

>17 Petroglyph: Good to see another completist on these threads. Enjoyed your excellent review of the Gate of Angels

20dchaikin
Jan 8, 1:40pm Top

Fun reviews, two interesting authors.

21Petroglyph
Edited: Jan 10, 7:55pm Top

Een zwerver verdwaald by Arthur van Schendel



Why did I choose to read this?
One of an omnibus of four novels spanning the career an early 20thC Dutch author of the Neo-Romantic persuasion. I liked one of his books enough to buy this collection.

Review (Also posted here, though in Dutch.)
This book picks up the story a few months after Een zwerver verliefd. Tamalone, on a mission for one of his wealthy contacts, has temporarily settled in Venice, and meets a noble lady who falls in love with him. Just like in the previous book he'll have to choose between love, which perhaps will finally settle his profound longing for something unknown, and the carefree wandering life, which is at least a known pleasure.

Van Schendel once again tries to build the novel up around the theme of Fate: the outcome, in the end, is ineluctable. And once again, I must admit I am not convinced. Tamalone refuses to think through his decisions and takes everything as it comes; instead of Fate I think it is systematic unpreparedness and panic attacks that really drive this novel's plot.

Still, I enjoyed this one more than the previous book: no more love triangle, no more bland Courtly Love. Instead, we get a disappointing and unreliable human being whose imprecise dreams of stability will only ever see half-hearted attempts at realization. That, I can appreciate!

22Petroglyph
Jan 10, 8:18pm Top

The skeleton’s holiday by Leonora Carrington



Why did I choose to read this?
Last year I immensely enjoyed Carrington’s novel The hearing trumpet, and so I wanted to read more by her.

Review (Also posted here.)
A few very short and very surreal stories. Proper surreal, that is, like a Dalí or Magritte painting: the sentences are carefully constructed to zig and zag into pleasantly unconsidered semantics. Sweet!

23dchaikin
Jan 11, 12:47pm Top

Enjoying your summaries of Tamalone’s wanderings.

24LolaWalser
Jan 11, 1:03pm Top

>8 Petroglyph:

This short novel is situated in the periphery of several different genres but isn’t really at home with any of them.

By all evidence something one could say about the reticent, gay author himself. I wouldn't dream of imposing a singular reading on a world as mysterious as Brooke's but his novels are more or less autobiographical and fairly obviously shaped by the experience of homosexuality. Some important aspects of it emerge only when considered in that light--dare I notice, a twinkle reflecting off a drawn sword? :)


25Petroglyph
Jan 11, 8:36pm Top

>24 LolaWalser:
I did not know Brooke was gay, but I suspected based on the novel's male gaze when it caresses shirtless soldiers.

It does throw an interesting perspective on an unyielding, faceless bureaucracy that can conceive of only itself, and that has no place for you, only a mold and an unconsidered insistence on individuals fitting in.

a twinkle reflecting off a drawn sword? :)
Nice one!

26Petroglyph
Jan 12, 6:50pm Top

In the Vanishers’ palace by Aliette de Bodard



Why did I choose to read this?
This novella was a 2018 SantaThing gift, by an author whose short work I’ve enjoyed before.

Review (Also posted here.)
The novella In the Vanishers’ palace feels like it is trying on all the genre labels. It’s coming-of-age YA, for one, a little more so than I am used to from de Bodard. It is also is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast (particularly the animated Disney film, including a Library Scene), uses both sfnal tropes (a post-apocalyptic world abandoned by malevolent Aliens) and fantasy tropes (magic spells and dragons), against a setting that borrows from Vietnamese folklore. And it’s also a queer romance, specifically one of the paranormal and interspecies kind. Plenty of labels, forms of address, and pronouns to go around.

And it works, on most levels -- so many, in fact, that not all of them have to come into play to enjoy this novella. The parallels with the Disney movie, for one, are obvious, but only once you start looking for them; it can be read largely as a paranormal romance that happens to be queer, or vice versa. But it’s never less than at least three genres simultaneously, and it works out very nicely, mainly because de Bodard keeps the whole thing firmly grounded emotionally and psychologically. Ambitious, but solid.

27Petroglyph
Edited: Jan 13, 7:46pm Top

Het fregatschip Johanna Maria by Arthur van Schendel



Why did I choose to read this?
One of an omnibus of four novels spanning the career an early 20thC Dutch author of the Neo-Romantic persuasion. I liked one of his books enough to buy this collection.

Review (Also posted here, though in Dutch.)
Het fregatschip Johanna Maria, or in English The frigate Johanna Maria, is about the forty-year career of a three-masted sailing ship, and about the sailor whose life merges with hers over the decades. In other words: a man and his ship, or perhaps a ship and her man.

This was a classically beautiful book, the kind of old-fashioned sentimentality that my parents and grandparents would appreciate. Van Schendel does tug on those heartstrings sometimes, but not to the extent that pathos begins to dominate. As a novel, this book reminded me a lot of the Naturalistic Farm Novels (cf. Streuvels), and of other Neoromantic novels (cf. Den Doolaard, or perhaps The old man and the sea): there's tacit suffering through abuse, pure hard graft for an uncertain reward years in the future, the fusing of Man and Nature.

At times I was even reminded of sad animal books, of the type where the family dog or the racehorse is stolen and ends up in various criminal milieus: the ship’s standing, through ever-changing owners, names, and career paths, has its ups and downs as it traverses the seven seas. But the steadfast sailor is always there to see her through the worst of it.

In all, I must say that I was pleased with this novel. Not overly sentimental, entertaining enough, and tastefully nostalgic for the lost art of handling square-sailed three-masters. Three and a half stars!

28Petroglyph
Jan 14, 8:12pm Top

Ten days in a mad-house by Nellie Bly



Why did I choose to read this?
Back in the 1880s an investigative journalist had herself temporarily committed to an asylum for the insane in New York, in order to write a series of articles documenting the (mal)treatments that the inmates were subjected to. That sounds super interesting! (As does the rest of her life, btw.)

Review (Also posted here.)

Well, this was a sobering read. It’s also really good, and it’s freely available online.

Nellie Bly, an investigative journalist from the 1880s, had herself temporarily committed to an asylum for insane women in New York, in order to write a series of articles documenting the (mal)treatments that the inmates were subjected to. This book was a reissue of those articles to satisfy the high demand.

Things start off amusingly, when Bly has to try and convince people to section her -- essentially, she shows up at a short-term lodging place for women and acts suspiciously, while pitying the kind people she is deceiving in the process. But once she is transported to the asylum, she puts on her journalist hat, acts completely normal, and records what is allowed to happen to her.

It’s not pretty. The inmates are always cold (due to insufficient clothing, non-existent heating, and cold baths); the food is execrable; they are under constant threat of violence; and humiliations are frequent and issued with glee by the power-tripping staff. The maltreatment of the patients rises to the level of prison camp torture: they are deliberately and methodically kept in a state of sleep deprivation, malnourishment and under-stimulation. Worse: there is no way to prove their sanity, nor will the staff be even willing to listen. A diagnosis equals a sentence for life.

Bly describes a typical day as she underwent them, which is a terrible enough ordeal, and adds other inmates’ stories and experiences -- which are worse (lifelong imprisonment for not speaking English? How xenophobic can your medical system get?). Bly uses no rhetorical flourishes; there is no need for jokes or cutesy asides: drily narrated reality is harsh and unforgiving and undermines trust in fellow human beings, if not in society at large. I knew 19th-century treatment of The Other was atrocious, but reading contemporary reports really drives home that message.

The only good thing about Bly’s undercover stint is that, as a response to this exposé, the city of New York increased the funding (and, through increased inspections, the living standards) of its asylums.

Finally: my edition of this book also contains two shorter articles, in which Bly goes undercover to secure a job as a maid, and works briefly as an inner-city factory girl. Those as well show off her on-point observational skills. Good stuff!

29Petroglyph
Jan 14, 8:54pm Top

Sverige 1628: bilder och texter kring ett årtal, or Sweden 1628: images and texts from around that year, edited by Christine Östling

Why did I choose to read this?
I like everyday history, reading about the daily life of regular people, explained by experts using everyday objects and the more boring kind of historical documents (bills and deeds of sale and the like) and this booklet promised several such essays.

Review (Also posted here.)
This is a collection of essays discussing the everyday history of early 17thC Sweden, most starting from a document or an image from 1628, the year that Gustavus Adolphus' proud warship Vasa sank in the harbour of Stockholm.

One or two essays are by-the-numbers (e.g. the opening essay about the changeover from geocentrism to heliocentrism) or feel padded (the one about whether runes were still in use by the 17thC, as evidenced by an officer encoding portions of a letter with them), but most are quite interesting, and a few were standouts. One of the latter was the contribution discussing the average Swede's religious formation, which is based on a priest's notebook from when he systematically issued the same catechesis questionnaire to an entire village to make sure everyone believed the right things. Another memorable essay dealt with Sweden's copper mines, how the nation's economic plan depended on them, and how copper money was issued a few years during the 1620s to deal with the surplus after the global market collapsed. Super interesting!

At 121 pages, this was precisely the right length. Informative, but not too dense, and the contributors -- usually -- chose excellent points of departure.

30dchaikin
Jan 15, 1:20pm Top

Enjoyed these last three. Cool about Bly, she must have been quite a character. And the book on Sweden 1628 sounds fun. I made it to the Vasa museum once, fascinated stuff.

31Petroglyph
Jan 15, 7:31pm Top

>30 dchaikin:
Thanks!
Bly was an interesting character! I've added her Around the world in seventy-two days to my wishlist!

32Petroglyph
Edited: Jan 19, 4:34pm Top

The privilege of pain by Caroline Kane Mills Everett



Why did I choose to read this?
A random find among Project Gutenberg’s latest issued ebooks. A quick read during meal prep.

Review (Also posted here.)
This booklet, published in 1920, is the expanded version of a lecture earlier delivered by the author, Caroline Kane Mills Everett (or, as the title page has it, Mrs. Leo Everett). In it, she argues that physical disabilities, illnesses, handicaps, missing limbs, blindness, and the like, should not really matter in how people are judged. For, “while civilization has undoubtedly undermined our physique, it has also abolished the circumstances which made strength and endurance the supreme necessities of the battle of life.”

Most of the chapters in this booklet are lists of famous people from history (soldiers, philosophers, poets, novelists, statesmen, musicians, protestant reformers) who are known to have been sickly, disabled or otherwise physically impaired. Interspersed among these are more meaty chapters, where Everett makes the substantial points of her essay.

It is not a perfect text. Style-wise, mere listings are tedious. And I have a few more issues with this almost 100-year-old text: the viewpoint is positivist and optimistic about the upward trend of civilization; the perspective is entirely Christian; Urban Americans are contrasted with Australian bushwomen. But the genesis of this text lies in a medical doctor’s casually discarding of physically non-fit people in general and female soldiers in specific: “mental and moral man gets his strength and efficiency only from the physical man. A sick man, just as a sick race, is the one that goes to the wall.” Everett, thinking of the countless disabled World War veterans, took issue with that, and produced this text. As an angry response, I can appreciate it.

And I can also get behind the central message, which is that, given a society where physical strength and fitness are not the pinnacle of human achievement, “[n]o physical disablement is a barrier to achievement.”

33Petroglyph
Jan 17, 11:09am Top

The top of the volcano by Harlan Ellison



Why did I choose to read this?
This book was part of a Humble Bundle a few years back, one of the few from that batch I had not yet read. It collects some of Ellison’s prize-winning short fiction. I actually read most of this in 2018 (I started browsing stories a few weeks before his death in 2018), and today I finished.

Review (Also posted here.)
This is a collection of some of Ellison’s prize-winning short fiction (short stories, novelettes, novellas), and it was my first sustained readthrough of Ellison material. Some of these I’d read before, individually, in anthologies, but most were new to me.

Ellison had a distinctive, unforgiving style. These stories share a harsh view on reality, an almost blasé treatment of the nastiness out there in the universe -- both real-world and in-universe. Sometimes even to the point of showing off, but mostly I liked the interplay between gritty narrator and unpleasant environment. I also found them very visually appealing, in that many would lend themselves very well to a Hollywood treatment.

A good collection. Many more hits than misses.

34dchaikin
Jan 18, 1:05pm Top

I hadn’t heard of Harlan Ellison, so I looked him up on Wikipedia. Quite a character.

35Petroglyph
Jan 18, 1:17pm Top

He's (justly) infamous as the editor of science fiction's "most famous unpublished book"... Outside SF, I think, he's mainly famous for his impassioned "Pay the writer" rant (youtube link).

36lisapeet
Jan 18, 2:31pm Top

>35 Petroglyph: Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions blew my 14-year-old mind in a very good way. Makes me think I'd like to reread them and see what I think some 40 years later. NYPL only has print copies of the first one, but I could always place a hold... (See, going off on tangents like this is why I'm so bad about reading books I already own.)

37Petroglyph
Jan 19, 3:27pm Top

Oh, yes, those tangents -- they are why I set myself wide-open goals (read more genre fiction; read more in language X or Y). They'd derail any more systematic schedule I set up almost instantly. I love being seduced by the allure of the moment.

A more productive tangent would perhaps be to catch up with some later work by the authors in Dangerous Visions? Or to try and track down some of the materials that might have been included in The last dangerous visions?

38Petroglyph
Jan 19, 3:41pm Top

We should all be feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie



Why did I choose to read this?
Read more by women and POC.
I’d seen the TEDx talk; found this super-cheap, so why not?

Review (Also posted here.)
In this essay/talk, Adichie sets out what I think is a basic. all-round case for feminism: if you think women and men ought to be treated equally, and if you think that sexism and patriarchal structures present obstacles, then you are a feminist. It's astonishing how popular such a basic statement of intent is: none of it should be controversial, but apparently it still is.

Part of that is perhaps that it's easy to affirm basic moral principles without then also taking action. Part of it is, perhaps, a measure of virtue-signaling. Then again, freedoms and ideals are always under threat, and efforts to preserve any gains that may have been won are at least as important as the effort spent in acquiring them in the first place.

So yes, it's sad that basic texts like these are still necessary, but it's a good thing that people keep putting them out there.

39Petroglyph
Jan 19, 3:44pm Top

The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir by Karin Tidbeck



Why did I choose to read this?
Read more genre fiction. Read more by women.
I regularly browse the latest free fiction on tor.com -- it’s an easy way of dipping into the work of new (to me) genre authors.

Review (Also posted here.)
Meh. A little too facile, a little too twee, even. This story knows the tropes for what makes a ship and her crew type stories good, but is too sloppy in applying them.

The living entity that uses buildings as a hull just crawls inside an office building and takes off? No radiation shielding, no air-lock, no life support system, no space-proofing in general? Sorry, I just can't buy that.

So to me, this felt like a failed Firefly-type story. I did like the in-universe Babylon-5-esque tv show, though.

40Petroglyph
Edited: Jan 27, 9:33pm Top

Academic exercises by K. J. Parker



Why did I choose to read this?
This book was part of a Humble Bundle a few years back, one of the few from that batch I had not yet read. It's a collection of stories and novellas (and a few essays on military history that read like wikipedia digests).

Review (Also posted here.)
I’m not sure if I want to call K. J. Parker (pseudonym of Tom Holt) a new favourite author.

On the one hand, I loved many of these stories and novellas. For instance, I did not know I needed a novella in my life in which a scholar of history has his conjectures proven right by a rival privately, forges a manuscript that proves him right publicly, finds that someone uses that forgery to decode directions to a lost continent, gets roped into sailing off on a voyage of discovery, and wanders around a dead civilization. But it turns out I did need that rollercoaster in my life, and now I’m thankful that Parker wrote it. Moreover, I liked Parker’s heroes in general: middling scholars, fond of illuminating manuscripts, whose preferred path to victory is a blend of academic research, underhanded shortcuts and reluctant realpolitik. I really like that combination of interests! The plotting of the stories, too, is uniformly tight, with endings that are pitch-perfect, despite the unexpected swerves that may have occurred on the way there.

There are a number of drawbacks, though. Most obviously, Parker’s main characters read like they might almost be the same person: they are all scholarly types who love to read, they publish highly specialist papers in journals, they illuminate manuscripts as a hobby, they force confessions by showing prospective victims their torture implements rather than using them, and they share the opinion that people who want to be in power should never be allowed to be in power (which leaves them to do the job, against their will). Parker also recycles his jokes too often for comfort.

That said, I still enjoyed these stories immensely, probably more than I’m comfortable admitting -- apparently they scratched a few itches simultaneously, several of which I did not know I had. So yeah: maybe Parker is my new guilty pleasure?

41Petroglyph
Jan 27, 9:38pm Top

Escurial: drame en un acte by Michel de Ghelderode



Why did I choose to read this?
I want to read more in French, especially by Belgian authors, and this, as a very short, one-act drama by a Belgian surrealist/expressionist fit the bill.
Also, apparently there is such a thing as The Belgian School of the Strange. Two reactions: one, why have I never heard from this? And two, I’ll definitely be reading more by authors included in that tag list!

Review (Also posted here.)
Set, ostensibly in El Escorial, this one-act play feels very expressionist: a grotesque King, almost baying at his hounds to be quiet, engages in a testy dialogue with his scruffy Fool, and we get to witness their recalcitrant tug of war.

It’s gloomy, grotesque, and I really want to see it performed now. Two thumbs up!

42Petroglyph
Jan 27, 10:08pm Top

Die Türme des Februar or in English The towers of February by Tonke Dragt



Why did I choose to read this?
I want to read more in German, which is one of my weaker languages, and so I picked up this YA novel, one I hadn’t yet read by one of my favourite authors when I was a kid. Originally published in Dutch.

Review (Also posted here, albeit in Dutch.)
The towers of February is ostensibly the diary of Tom Wit, presented as a found manuscript edited and published by author Tonke Dragt.

Tom, who has lost his memory, finds himself on a beach next to a quaint town, and slowly discovers he has ended up in an alternate version of our world. Much is familiar, but their level of technology is lower: two uninhabited housing estates of twelve floors are treated as mysterious and almost unknowable tourist attractions, since they too appeared out of thin air a few years before and now tower above the dunes. Tom also discovers he is not the only one to ever have made it across the border between worlds.

Tonke Dragt always manages to invest her fantastical plots with at least the appearance of lived reality: she succeeds in circumventing my instinctive scepsis by promising a thrilling fictional ride. I suspect this book would have been a frequent reread had I discovered it as a teen.

43AlisonY
Jan 31, 5:32am Top

Catching up and enjoying your reviews. The Nelly Bly book sounds up my street - will look out for it.

44VivienneR
Feb 2, 12:14pm Top

>17 Petroglyph: I have Fitzgerald's book on my tbr list and your excellent review is pushing it closer to the top. Fitzgerald's writing is always a treat.

45Petroglyph
Feb 2, 4:28pm Top

>43 AlisonY:
Welcome!
I have a feeling that the Bly book will end up being one of the more highly-rated books I read this year, in terms of instant appeal, as well as inherent interest, and as well as the excellent execution and fulfilment of those promises.

>44 VivienneR:
She did write books that leave memorable impacts for the slight and delicate contraptions they appear to be at first blush. I want to read all of them, but at the same time I want to savour them slowly. Don't know if I can withstand their siren call for long, though!

46AlisonY
Feb 3, 5:01pm Top

>45 Petroglyph: I just finished my first Fitzgerald today (The Blue Flower). I will definitely be back for more.

47Petroglyph
Feb 5, 1:35am Top

>46 AlisonY:
Good to hear that. Always happy to nudge someone into P. Fitzgerald.

48VivienneR
Feb 5, 4:08pm Top

My favourite Penelope Fitzgerald was The Golden Child set in what appeared to be the British Museum where a new exhibit was opening. I used to work in a museum and Fitzgerald's characters must be the nature of the beast because she hit it right on the nail.

49Petroglyph
Feb 5, 7:22pm Top

>48 VivienneR:
I work part-time in a museum, and that is indeed the next book by her I've been making eyes at.

She does get her settings absolutely right, I agree: 50s Oxbridge, 1790s Saxony, 1910s Moscow... Such effortless-seeming world-building.

50Petroglyph
Edited: Feb 8, 3:53am Top

A few short reviews, since I don't feel strongly enough about the items in question to write much.

  • Penric and the shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold: This is the second in a series of six (so far) fantasy novellas by Bujold. I think they're pretty good, the way they focus on emotional and psychological character building rather than flash-bang magic. But they don't require much mental effort. Ideal for reading in bed. (Review also posted on the work page.)

  • So you've been publicly shamed by Jon Ronson: This book deals with online shaming and the psychological effect it has on its targets. Ronson interviews a few people who were infamously pilloried on Twitter and, while interesting, this book does read like a book-length treatment of the wikipedia article on online shaming, which is really too long. Ronson initially supports twitter shaming as a grass-roots, voice-of-the-common-people way of calling out misbehaving billionaires, only to come around when considering the outsize and life-ruining effects that a single tweet may cause an online hate-mob to hand out. So this book is interesting and slight at the same time, and it also overstays its welcome a little. (Review also posted on the work page.)

  • Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie: This is the second volume in a space opera trilogy. Leckie presents a world in which a vast star-spanning empire sinks into civil war while an effortlessly superior alien race threatens to erase it. But the main action is kept laser-focused on interpersonal conflict, matters of colonialism and social justice, and the main character's psychological adjustment to human life (she's an ex-AI). This contrast between background and foreground may seem a little frustrating (it was for me), or even like a bait-and-switch. Your mileage may vary. I'll have to read the third volume to say which side I come down on. (Review also posted on the work page.)

  • The hunter from the woods by Robert McCammon: This book is a series of historical fantasy short stories and novellas with the same main character. The setting is the middle of the 20thC, and the main character is a werewolf of Russian origin who gets drafted into the British Secret Service. Most of the stories/novellas are individual espionage missions around or during the Second World War.

    I got this book as part of a Humble Bundle a few years back, and it is one of the less-appealing sounding ones that I put off reading, and I think I was right in doing so. The writing is perfunctory. The plots would make for by-the-numbers action movies. Quick, forgettable 1980s-seeming pulp. Would have given it two stars, but for the sequence with the torpedo in the story set on a freight ship: that was excellent use of the Rule of Cool. (Review also posted on the work page.)

  • Goody two-shoes by Anonymous: a short story courtesy of the Internet Archive. This is the story that popularized the phrase "goody two-shoes", and it is one of those horrible morality tales for children where virtue is rewarded -- especially the kind of female virtue that is demure, long-suffering and harder-working, and that serves as childhood indoctrination. The kind of made-up, unrealistic, ideologically pure story that intensely Christian people or blinkered political pundits would hold up as evidence that their ideology is right. (Review also posted on the work page.)

51dchaikin
Feb 9, 4:56pm Top

a lot of books, pg. I'm curious about So you've been publicly shamed.

52Petroglyph
Feb 10, 5:32pm Top

I'm bingeing!

So you've been publicly shamed, well, like I said, you can read the wiki page instead, or you can watch his talk on the subject.

53Petroglyph
Edited: Feb 11, 1:01pm Top

De wereld een dansfeest by Arthur van Schendel



Why did I choose to read this?
This is the fourth and final item in an omnibus of four novels (published between 1904 and 1938) by the neoromantic Dutch writer Arthur van Schendel. I bought this omnibus over a decade ago on the strength this, the fourth novel, which I’ve read twice already (it is due for a reread).

Review (Also posted here, albeit in Dutch.)
I love this book.

Published in 1938, De wereld een dansfeest is a romance with a narrative twist. The love story develops normally (that is, with delaying obstacles) between two people who love to dance: Daniel de Moralis Walewijn, and Marion Ringelinck. The twist is that neither of the couple gets to speak directly to the reader. Instead, each of the nineteen chapters is told in the first person by someone who knows them or who knows of them. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out what the current narrator’s relation is to the main couple, or how far time has jumped forward. That said, the structure does provide a solid framework: the plot develops chronologically, starting when Daniel and Marion are children in the Netherlands in the early 1900s, and ending when they are adults living in London post-WWI; and the chapters alternate between Daniel and Marion.

The thing that binds the central couple together is dance. Both Daniel and Marion are portrayed as natural dance prodigies: everyone they know remarks how essential music and dance are to them, how their lives seem are governed by an innate rhythm that makes them different from everyone else but perfect for each other. At the centre, really, this novel is a love story along along traditional lines -- tragic separation, will-they-won’t-they, psychological obstacles, and a joint passion that makes the central couple seem like a natural fit.

But the splintered narrative device functions as a tempering balance to a saccharine love story. For one, merely telling the story through nineteen indirect narrators has a distancing effect: the love story is kept in the middle distance, and so it develops mainly through hearsay and second-hand comments. That tones down the sentimentality considerably.

Secondly, the novel is primarily concerned with the effects of the central couple’s story, rather than with the romance itself. Individual narrators have their own concerns: they are stuck in a rut, lonely, working through a divorce, cynical, living through a world war, or sunk in poverty. Having Daniel and Marion pass through their lives, even briefly, brightens the narrators’ existence a little and leaves them with wistful memories. Think how easy it is to give people musical earworms -- songs they’ll be humming for days whether they want to or not. That is the effect Van Schendel goes for. The central couple aren’t merely brighter and more special than anyone else by authorial fiat, they have a noticeable impact on the people around them, too. The narrators have, in their own way, been swayed by the charms of one of the couple, by the conviction that the two belong together, or by the universal allure of music. That kind of worked contagious.

I thought this balancing effort worked splendidly: on the one hand there’s a Romantic romance to indulge in, and on the other there are the layers of emotional distancing to work through that really work to encourage said indulgence. The way that the novel’s seductiveness and the required mental work build on each other left me feeling very satisfied at the end.

54Petroglyph
Feb 11, 1:43pm Top

A portrait of the artist as a young man by James Joyce



Why did I choose to read this?
I’m unlikely to ever read Ulysses, and I’ll never read Finnegan’s wake, but I remember enjoying Dubliners. Joyce’s other book has stood unread on my shelves since I was 17, and this year I’ll finally scratch that vague itch and move it into the Read section of my library.

Review (Also posted here.)
In Portrait, James Joyce dramatises incidents and periods from his own childhood and adolescence, and I don’t really know what to feel about this book. Parts of this were brilliant: the writing, the rhythm, the selection of words and images. This book is excellent at expressing the unscratchable ache that is growing pains: the death of a child’s naïve belief in Justice when unfair punishment is handed out; the intensity of adolescent frustrations, both sexual and religious; and the search for fundamental meaning in life.

On the other hand, well, there were numerous occasions where I felt like rolling my eyes at the text, because I’ve read too many books about sensitive, intelligent, precious little main characters who struggle mightily against their schoolboy tormentors and an understimulating environment. I know that I can’t really hold that against this book -- the century of intervening literature that makes this kind of story feel so trite is not this book’s fault. But still: the story feels so trite in many places.

This book left me feeling very ambiguous. For example: a very large section of this book is taken up by a series of fire-and-brimstone sermons delivered by a Jesuit hell-bent on frightening children into good old Catholic obedience through extensive and lascivious descriptions of torture. I can appreciate what Joyce was going for here, and it’s well done indeed: I can really taste the hunger for power, the emotional manipulation, the all-encompassing prison that this kind of mentality wants to enforce. But these sermons take up 12% of the text. 12%! That is way, way too long, and spoils the effect. Then there are later bits, where the main character expounds his views on beauty and art which serve as a replacement for his earlier religiosity, and which are intellectually impressive, but they are shoehorned in in the clumsiest of ways. Again, the effect is spoiled.

Both of these -- the fire-and-brimstone, and the intellectualizing theories -- overstay their welcome and tip the balance from “Impressive, well done” into “Man, Joyce really loves hearing himself talk”. And self-important smugness is a sin I find hard to forgive. So yeah. Three stars?

55LolaWalser
Feb 11, 2:31pm Top

>53 Petroglyph:

You made that sound very enticing. I'll be looking for it.

56baswood
Feb 11, 5:42pm Top

>54 Petroglyph: Interesting review of A portrait of the artist as a young man I read this at school for exams and I wonder what I would make of it now. I remember thinking the sermons were too long at the time.

57AlisonY
Feb 12, 1:49pm Top

>54 Petroglyph: I enjoyed your review. I've been skirting around this Joyce book for a while, but I think you've happily saved me some precious hours I'd never get back. I'm fairly sure the overdone intellectualisation and excessive sermons would annoy me after a while.

58dchaikin
Feb 14, 1:19pm Top

Enjoyed these last two posts a lot, P. I don’t know anything about Schendel, but Joyce - some day.

59lilisin
Feb 14, 6:37pm Top

>1 Petroglyph:

I read Ubik this year: my first by the author and my first foray into science fiction. The story was fun and certainly engrossing. I think you'll enjoy it even if I don't have a means of reference with any other works.

60VivienneR
Feb 14, 6:46pm Top

>54 Petroglyph: Great review of Joyce's book! I read it when I was young and thought it was so clever. I don't think I'd be able to stick with it to the end now.

61Petroglyph
Feb 14, 7:50pm Top

>57 AlisonY:
Portrait indeed rubbed me the wrong way there. Other aspects of the book were great -- as I've said elsewhere on LT "many of his scenes are spot-on evocations of what it feels like to be a child or an adolescent. They are intensely accurate, feel-wise. And the language is beautiful. It's just that the novel's shortcomings, as I see them, are in very different areas (showing off, bloviating clumsily about art)."

I'm glad I read the book, for those scenes, and for lit-crit cred. I don't think I'll want to read it again.

>58 dchaikin:
Thanks!

I don't think Van Schendel has been translated into English. And Joyce, well, he is part of the homework that the Canon can be.

62Petroglyph
Edited: Feb 14, 7:54pm Top

Frappe-toi le coeur by Amélie Nothomb



Why did I choose to read this?
Nothomb publishes one short novel every year. She has been since 1992, and I’ve read every single one, except for the 2017 and 2018 ones. This is her 2017 book.

Review (Also posted here.)
A slight, shallow book. It’s not charming, not when the main character is all kinds of perfect: pretty, capable, hard-working, admired, super precocious. And especially not when the book has nothing substantial to say about maternal abuse.

Reading these Nothomb novels has become a chore rather than a pleasure. They are well past the point of diminishing returns. I should give up on them.

63Jim53
Feb 14, 8:44pm Top

Wonderful variety! I managed to dodge bullets on this visit but expect to pick some up on subsequent tries. I'm following this group for the first time this year, although my own reading thread is over in the Green Dragon. Visitors welcome!

64lilisin
Feb 14, 11:38pm Top

>62 Petroglyph:

I also used to read Nothomb's books every year but I find now that gaps are starting to come up. I find her semi-autobiographical books to be her best and so I still look forward to those still but the others are quite often filler. At least they don't take more than 2 hours to read.

65Petroglyph
Feb 15, 6:30am Top

>63 Jim53:
Welcome! Feel free to drop in and comment anytime!

>64 lilisin:
Gaps, indeed, and a lack of new books by her to recommend to others. I'll read Les prénoms épicènes soon, just to catch up, but I might not read her 2019 book this year -- two chore-reads per year are more than enough.

66Petroglyph
Feb 16, 2:51pm Top

Passing strange by Ellen Klages



Why did I choose to read this?
A world fantasy award winning novella. I knew nothing about it going in, except that it had a pretty cover.

Review (Also posted here.)
The bulk of this novella takes place in San Francisco, in the 1940s, predominantly in Chinatown and the lesbian/trans/crossdressing subculture that was illegal at the time. Much of the text plays out like a romance, with a little magic sprinkled on top, and finished with a frame story set in the present day.

This was simple and straightforwardly told -- a slice of historical life, from a subculture that (to me at least) was new. The level of fantasy added pushed this a little beyond magical realism and into fantasy proper, but it forms a fitting complement to the darker currents in the story. Admirably balanced.

67Petroglyph
Edited: Feb 16, 2:59pm Top

Ancillary mercy by Ann Leckie



Why did I choose to read this?
Third in a trilogy.

Review (Also posted here.)
This wrapped up the trilogy nicely. The story arc lands exactly where it should, and doesn’t fall out of line with the other two books -- social justice against a military sf / space opera background.

68Petroglyph
Edited: Feb 16, 3:23pm Top

De erfenis "The Inheritance" by Connie Palmen



Why did I choose to read this?
Palmen is a well-known Dutch author, part of the contemporary canon, but prior to this I’d never read her.

Review (Also posted here, albeit in Dutch.)
The main character in this novella takes on a temporary job when a famous author hires them as a live-in secretary-cum-nurse to prepare her archive for her final publication -- final, because she is terminally ill. That sounds like a standard premise for a traditional litfic, and that is what this novella delivers: a discussion of perspectives on living and dying without many digressions.

This was my first book by Palmen, and I’m not opposed to reading more by her. The philosophising may have been a little too artificial, and the density of quotes a little too high for what this was, but that would not have been a problem in even a slightly longer work.

69Petroglyph
Feb 16, 3:22pm Top

Brave new world by Aldous Huxley



Why did I choose to read this?
As bona fide classic as science fiction comes, but I’ve never read it.

Review (Also posted here.)
There’s little I can add at this point, so I’ll keep my review very brief.

This was an easy read. I can see why it is a classic, and I was not bored while reading it, despite the influence it’s had on the dystopian subgenre.

I really liked the prevalence of images drawn from music theory (I’m eyeing his Point counter point as my next read by Huxley).

70rhian_of_oz
Feb 17, 1:40am Top

>67 Petroglyph: My notes for this book stated that it was a fitting end to the trilogy (all of which I enjoyed very much).

I read Provenance late last year and while I liked it well enough I didn't think it was as excellent as the Ancillary trilogy.

71Petroglyph
Feb 18, 5:45am Top

>70 rhian_of_oz:
I feel like I've read enough Leckie for the time being. Perhaps in a few years? I don't think I care enough about her work to read it as it comes out, nor to put up with waiting times between series instalments.

72lisapeet
Feb 18, 6:57am Top

A friend sent me an advance copy of Leckie's The Raven Tower. I hadn't been too motivated to read her previous books—I'm not the biggest sf reader and tend to stay away from series—but he said this one was both really different from her other works and very good (and not traditional fantasy fare, another genre I'm a bit skittish of unless it's done super well). I'm thinking it'll be a good palate cleanser when I need to read something entirely different from my usual.

73dchaikin
Feb 20, 1:12pm Top

>69 Petroglyph: I just like seeing this book pop up. It’s the first one on my list of books read, from 1990. (At this point my actual memories of the book are unreliable scattered bits and pieces)

74rhian_of_oz
Yesterday, 8:03am Top

>69 Petroglyph: I feel like I read this in my early to mid teens and it had a big impact. I don't know how many times I've read it, but the last time was in 2010 so it may be time for a reread.

Group: Club Read 2019

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