That book again?

The book I mentioned yesterday but couldn’t remember the title of is Mostly Happy by Saskatoon writer Pam Bustin. Which made me think that it’s been a Long Time since I’ve done some reviews for you. If only I could remember all of the books I’ve read since the last spate of reviews. Le sigh.

For the Love of Strangers by Brenda Niskala

Right up front, I want to tell you that I did the proofreading for this book. That being said, my contract is paid out, and so I’m not making any money by pimping the thing. I’m pimping the thing because it’s a great book.

A collection of short fiction with brilliantly coloured threads of connexion woven throughout. The stories aren’t necessarily interconnected, but they’re not exactly unrelated either. I just…some of these stories will make you smile, and some will make you angry (why didn’t that character have the child molesting jackoff arrested? you might ask. But read on, dear Mercutio; read on). And all of them will make you feel *something*.

Niskala is also a poet, and in these stories, you really see her love of wordplay. I got stuck wandering in some of her turns of phrase for, at times, an embarassing amount of time. As is the case with all collections of short stories, there are some I liked better than others, but for the most part, what I really enjoy about these ones is that, unlike some short fiction, you are left feeling like you’ve had a look at a complete snapshot. There are a lot of short story writers (encouraged, no doubt, by that brigand Hemingway) who seem to think that ‘a snapshot’ means ‘the bit of the photograph left over when an angry and spurned lover tears it in half’. Niskala’s stories are not complete tales of the characters’ lives; that’s not what they’re meant to be. But rather than pissing you off by leaving one character traipsing up some blasted steppes in some godforsaken country on a doomed vacation while another character may or may not be choking to death on an egg sandwich back at the hotel, Niskala’s stories set the scene, the pace, and the tone, and they allow you to watch the *entire* episode.

That’s not saying you don’t want to know more about the characters and what happens to them. The hallmark, I think, of a good short story is that you’re left wanting to know more about what happens. From a teenage girl experimenting with her sexuality to a grandmother experimenting with a newfound freedom, the strength of the stories in this collection really lie in how easy it is to know her characters.

As a gift book, I recommend you read it fist (or also!), as it does tackle themes of abuse, divorce, and child molestation. I think it does so beautifully and respectfully, and I’d feel comfortable giving this book to my grandmother (except she wouldn’t read it, even though she knows the author), my mother-in-law, or my more hardcore religious friends. But I could very well just be a dickhead in that respect.

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Percy Jackson and the Olympians [series] by Rick Riordan
These are marketed as books for a ‘tween’/’juvenile’ audience. The trick with writing for this age group (9-12, roughly) is that you must tell a story that’s engaging without being insipid, boring, pedantic, or patronising. Most writers of juvenile/tween books do not manage this, or they do not manage it well. I think a good test is whether the books are engaging for *non-tween/juvenile* audiences. Rick Riordan does that. I LOVE this series, and strongly recommend it for adventure/mythology lovers, regardless of their age.

The basic idea with this series is that Percy Jackson, a young boy living with his single mother, has been moving from school to school, has suffered with discipline problems, learning disorders, and socialisation issues. He really seems like a broken kid. But then, rather by accident, he learns he’s actually a half-blood; the child of a God and a human (yes, like Theseus or Odysseus or Heracles). The Greek Gods are used; both the Olympians and most of the minor gods. If they’ve made an appearance in Greek literature, they’re going to have a role in this series. Olympus moves; it remains at the centre of ‘civilisation’; so it is now located in the United States. Percy is faced with a series of adventures and challenges, from facing the legendary Minotaur to having to visit the Pythian Oracle. Challenged by a rather embarrassing lack of knowledge of his own heritage and of Greek mythology, Percy must rely on his friends to jog his memory from time to time about the dangers he must face.

Often, books about mythology directed at a younger audience soften the stories, or, worse, just get them plain wrong. I’ve found that, from what I recall of my studies of Greek mythology (and theology, for that matter), the Percy Jackson series does a fairly good job of remaining accurate to the stories themselves, and does provide an interesting twist on ancient tales. The Titans, the Promethians, and an entire bestiary of monsters and other critters are all mentioned here, and half the fun of the book is stabbing your pointy finger into the page and shouting “THAT’S TOTALLY WHAT ATLAS WOULD BE LIKE!!!” or “Dude. Gorgons would ABSOLUTELY say that!” or “Eugh. Harpies.”. The other fun of this series is getting to discuss the stories with The Captain, who consumed the books nearly as fast as he consumes eggnog at Thanksgiving.

The *downfall* of writing a series of books that follow a single main character (or group of main characters) as they mature from 9 to 16 is that, like Harry Potter, the kids never really *do* mature. Not really. The kids in Harry Potter (I’m picking on Harry Potter because it’s probably one of the most widely-read series that does this sort of thing)…or for that matter in the Narnia series…never really mature. They end up being sixteen year olds with the social maturity or emotional maturity of ten-year-olds. (In HP, the only characters who really ‘grow up’ are the girls. And even then, they don’t really do a good job of it). With the Percy Jackson series, Riordan does a good job of letting his characters grow up.
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Four Short Novels of DH Lawrence er. By DH Lawrence.
So.
Here’s the thing.
I’m kind of on this getting really pissy about inequality kick lately. So perhaps DH Lawrence wasn’t a good choice for this stage of my life. For the most part, these short novels (novellas, even) pissed me off.

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. I quite enjoyed two of them. And the other two I gritted my teeth through. Of course, reading the blurbs on the back of the book, the two I grit my teeth through were the ones that had garnered him the most critical acclaim. Stupid critics.

I’ve not been *much* fond of DH Lawrence’s poetry…I find it a bit too …contrite? Flowery? I dunno. Something. Too much of something and not enough of something else.

So. Let’s start with what I did *not* like:
Lawrence sucks at dialogue. Seriously. Unless people actually talked like that in the early part of the 20th century, and if they did, it’s no effing wonder we had four wars in about fifty years. Talk about talking and talking and not saying a gorram thing. In fact, in “The Captain’s Doll”, about a first world war officer who has an affair with a German duchess after WWI, the captain’s wife shows up and she talks and talks and talks and titters and blushes and flutters and carries on and she’s an utterly hateful character, not because she’s evil or bad but because she’s an insufferable gossip. INSUFFERABLE. Anyhow, after I met her character, I thought how like that character much of Lawrence’s own dialogues were.

On the other hand, in some of the novellas, what was *not* being said was far more important, and I think he’s good at that kind of subtlety. “Love Among the Haystacks” and “The Fox” were particularly good at unspoken dialogue. Interestingly, these are two of the stories in the collection that I found most intriguing. The first, because it is a fascinating story; both in its construction and in its visuals. The latter, because it made me both because it came close to touching on the subject of sexual orientation and because the metaphors were thick and heavy. And although there is rather a lot of dialogue in “The Ladybird”, what was not said between the characters was far more important than what was, and the burgeoning and repressed sexuality in that story is fabulously intoxicating.

Knowing Lawrence was accused of being a pornographer, and that he himself suffered for his own sexual proclivities and gender orientation adds another layer to reading these novellas. Okay, so on reflection, it’s really just “The Captain’s Doll” that I can’t stand. I mean, the misogyny in “The Fox” pissed me off, but left me wondering if it was the story itself of the fact that when that story was written, it may have been an accurate representation of how the different genders were treated. Probably a little of both. But “The Captain’s Doll” I just found infuriating. It was altogether Too Long, and would have done so much better as a short story.

I like Lawrence’s short stories and novels. Novellas, not so much. I’d read this collection again, to study it. Some of the stories, for enjoyment. In fact, I fully admit I may have a completely different opinion of this collection in another month or two.
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The Lions of Al-Rassan and A Song for Arbonne by Saskatchewan-born Guy Gavriel Kay.

Okay, so I feel like a complete tool for never having read any of this guy’s stuff. Because I quite enjoy it. Historically-themed fantasy is right up my alley and GGK writes it very well. After only having read two books, I see some similarities in theme and treatment surfacing, and I’m not sure what I think about that yet; I’ll have to read more of his stuff before I pass judgment on that.

So these books are, ostensibly, fantasy romance novels based more or less on actual events in history. Kay employed in both books as one of the main characters, a poet/soldier struggling with issues from his past. In fact, these two books are *very* similar, both in theme, in construction, and in resolution. With a few minor exceptions, the same characters appear in both books, and the same series of events happens as well. Which could be explained by something as simple as the fact that throughout our history, we’ve doomed ourselves to repeat our mistakes for generations.

That being said, the books are well-written and terribly engaging. They are rich, tactile stories in which you can immerse yourself completely. Very quickly, you become emotionally involved with the characters. Kay is best at intrigue, espionage, and action. For romance fantasy, I wonder how many folks enjoy these books for the adventure/action aspects, because I do find that as low-magic low-adventure fantasy, these two novels at least have been fairly heavy on the warfare. Which is pretty awesome, actually.
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It also occurs to me that at nearly 2000 words, I really ought to just wrap up this roundup, because it’s become increasingly clear that I won’t get to the other books I’ve read since…fricking October 2009…in just one post. But I do want to talk about one more book.

Mostly Happy by Pam Bustin

Sometimes I find a book that affects me on such a deep emotional level that His Nibs will take the book away from me and tell me to read something else so that I’ll quit being so miserable. This is one of those books. Unlike David Adams Richards (I still plan on sending you out into the Atlantic ocean in a dory with no oars for “Mercy Among the Children”, Dave), Bustin’s breakout novel has sparkling moments of grace, beauty, and peace. My heart ached for the characters in this book, because it was so real, and so beautiful, and so melancholy, and so full of hope and love. And because it was so dark.

Read Pam Bustin’s book.
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  3 comments for “That book again?

  1. AJ
    9 September 2010 at 3:37 pm

    Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief was a really good movie. I was entertained the entire way through and thought the transformation of poor student to hero was very well done. I found myself hoping for a sequel. The previews drew me in but it was a pleasant surprise to find out it was that good.

    • 9 September 2010 at 3:50 pm

      The Captain did not like the movie.

      The rule in our house is that we must read the book before we see the movie, and he said the movie did not do justice to the book, which I think is probably fair. I have not seen the movie (and I’m positive they’ll do sequels), but I can *highly* recommend the books.

      • AJ
        10 September 2010 at 1:43 pm

        It’s a rare movie that meets the level of its source book. There are multiple movies that I cannot watch again after reading the book — unless the plotlines are so divergent that it is like separate stories, such as with Starship Troopers.

i make squee noises when you tell me stuff.

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