April 2nd, 2014

kitty, reading

Books #11 & #12

Book #11 was "The Narrative of John Tanner," the 1956 edition. I'd read about Tanner in "Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country" by Louise Erdrich earlier this year and was really intrigued. Tanner was a white child kidnapped by Native Americans when he was 9 or 10 (accounts vary) in the 1790s and grew up with them, becoming a sort of honorary Ojibwe. In this edition, there are two introductions, the narrative, and a part 2 with glossaries of terms, lists of ceremonies, a section on poetry and music, etc.

In my opinion, the "introduction" from the time the story was originally published in the 1830s is completely useless and I would recommend skipping it. The briefer introduction to the 1956 edition was more helpful, putting the events in chronological context and explaining what happened to Tanner after his "Narrative" concludes.

The actual "as told to" narrative section is pretty fascinating. There were times I got bogged down in the hunting scenes and would have liked him to talk more about his family life (which he often totally ignores for years at a time in his narrative) but overall, this was a fascinating insight into Great Lakes Native American culture at this time. It's set largely in Michigan, though his band roves a lot, so names like "Drummond Island" and "Mackinac" and "St. Ignace" are very familiar to me, and it's fun to think about the history of those places. One thing that stuck out to me is that we white Americans have this idea that Indians are so respectful of animals, and in some ways they are, but in others, they aren't. There are several incidents of feuds between American Indians ending with the stabbing of someone's horse or the killing of someone's hunting dog. I guess assholes come in all colors and ethnic backgrounds.

The supplementary material in the second half is interesting, but again, I'd skip most of the horribly condescending and patronizing commentary by the white man who recorded it. I enjoyed learning the names of animals and plants, information about how their various ceremonies were carried out and the unique way they recorded the "lyrics" for songs in pictograms. This section is worth at least skimming, in my opinion.

I really liked this and would recommend it to others interested in this part of American history.

Book #12 was "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell" by Susanna Clarke. I know this book was hugely popular when it came out and I'm late to the bandwagon, but this book is, in short, amazing. In hardback, it's over 800 pages, and it was slightly over 1,000 pages as a paperback, and yet it never felt like a slog. In fact, when I got to the final 50 pages, I *still* didn't want it to be over.

At 100 pages in, I was thinking, "This is really fun and clever!" At 200 pages, I was thinking, "Wow, this is darker than I expected it to be." At 300 pages, I was cursing Susanna Clarke - how DARE she write something so good and so cleverly-constructed as her first freaking novel! By page 400, I had read that it took her 10 years to write the book, so I was a little less jealous. There's something about a very long novel, if done right, that really sucks me in and makes me feel like I'm living in another world, and that was the case here, in this story set during the Napoleonic Wars. It's about two English magicians who meet, work together but soon have a falling out, and how the events they set into motion bring real, practical magic (rather than theoretical magic, or history of magic) back to England.

If you've heard this book hyped and thought it must be over-hyped... it's not. It's really that good. Highly recommended.

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antique books

Book 71: The String Diaries by Stephen Lloyd Jones

Book 71: The String Diaries.
Author: Stephen Lloyd Jones, 2013.
Genre: Supernatural Thriller. Historical Fiction/Contemporary.
Other Details: Hardback. 416 pages. Unabridged Audiobook (13 hrs, 31 mns). Narrated by Gemma Whelan.

A jumble of entries, written in different hands, different languages and different times. They tell of a rumour. A shadow. A stalking death. The only interest that Oxford Professor Charles Meredith has in the diaries is as a record of Hungarian folklore . . . until he comes face to face with a myth. For Hannah Wilde, the diaries are a survival guide that taught her the three rules she lives by: verify everyone, trust no one, and if in any doubt, run. But Hannah knows that if her nine-year-old daughter is ever going to be safe, she will have to stop running and face the terror that has hunted her family for five generations. And nothing in the diaries can prepare her for that. - synopsis from author's website.

This was a strongly plotted supernatural thriller that piled on the action and kept me entertained from start to finish. An assured début novel that was recommended by a friend after it had been featured on BBC Radio 2's Book Club last summer. I am grateful he told me about it as it suited my tastes even if it took me six months to act on. I bought the audio edition via Audible and listened to it as well as reading the print edition borrowed from the library.

The narrative moved between the present and the 19th Century, with some forays in between to fill in more of the background. It certainly was a page-turner with some quite shocking twists and turns. The supernatural element was something out of the ordinary and quite intriguing . The only thing I was a little disappointed in was the lack of any author's notes at the conclusion about whether the premise of the novel, the existence of the Hosszu Eletek, was a product of his imagination or inspired by actual Eastern European folklore. Either way it does seem a rich vein for exploration given the details about their society.

While this novel works fine as a stand-alone, I was delighted to read that Jones is working on a sequel.

Book #15: Doctor Who: Shada by Gareth Roberts (from a story by Douglas Adams)

Number of pages: 416

Inside this book is another book - the strangest, most important and most dangerous book in the entire universe.

The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey wields enormous power. It must not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands.

Skagra - who believes he should be God and permits himself only two smiles per day - most definitely has the wrong hands.

Beware Skagra.

Beware the Sphere.

Beware Shada.

Back in the 1970s, the late Douglas Adams wrote some classic serialisations for the TV series, Doctor Who, including one called Shada. Unfortunately, halfway through production, there was a BBC strike and it was never completed or transmitted, although in the 1990s it was finished for a VHS release, with the missing bits animated and narrated by Tom Baker, who played the Doctor throughout the latter half of the 1970s. The thing that surprised me (as set out in this book's Afterword), was the Douglas Adams hated it, and hadn't enjoyed writing the serial, having not been able to write the story he wanted, which was about the Doctor attempting to retire from his space adventures.

I thought it was quite sad that Douglas Adams felt this way because, based on this recent novelisation, is must have been incredibly well-written.

The first sentence in the book is: At the age of five, Skagra decided emphatically that God did not exist. Sounds controversial, certainly, but this turns out to not be significant in a book in which Skagra then decides that there must be a vacancy that he should be filling.

The story then involves the Doctor and his companions attempting to retrieve a book that belongs to the Time Lords (effectively the story's McGuffin) from Earth and preventing it falling into the hands of Skagra, who is capable of sucking out peoples' minds using mysterious spheres. To say too much about the plot would give it all away, save to say that the identity of "Shada" is not given until quite late on.

I enjoyed this book a lot, as it is written in a style that is very true to Douglas Adams himself; not surprisingly, it is hilarious in places and although the plot does go to some quite dark places, you're never far off from a comical interlude. Writer Gareth Roberts also apparently added some scenes of his own (though this was written in around 2011, the appearance of the Doctor's swimming pool located in the TARDIS is probably one of them, since to my knowledge this did not get mentioned until the Matt Smith era). There is also an enjoyable nod to Adams' most famous novel later on, which seems to have been added as an easter egg.

It isn't hard to tell that the plot was written with Tom Baker's Doctor in mind, and I found his characterisation throughout was very good. Maybe not a book that everyone would enjoy, but certainly one for the Doctor Who fans.

Next book: Making Money (Terry Pratchett)