The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Read: 15 May, 2018

I picked this book up without knowing a thing about it, except that I was somehow under the impression that it was autobiographical. In fact, I put off reading it for a while for that exact reason – I almost always enjoy Gaiman’s writings, but I wasn’t particularly interested in the author himself.

Some weird stuff started happening, but it was all fairly plausible. And I figured it was just some writerly hyperbole.

Then some really weird stuff started happening, and only then did I figure out that I was reading fiction. So that was a pretty fun trip!

On the story itself, I loved the realism of it – how well the mythology was integrated into the “real world” of the story. I would have liked a more active protagonist, and I think that the Hempstocks did a bit too much infodumping (two problems that could have solved each other, if the protagonist could have used all his reading about mythology to figure out some of what was going on), but it’s a small complaint.

Overall, this is a lovely little story with some surprisingly dark turns.

    Vorkosigan Saga #14: Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold

    Read: 9 May, 2018

    This is the first time since Barrayar that we’ve had a book that focuses on the Vorkosigans but not on Miles. We met Miles’s clone/brother in Brothers in Arms, but there wasn’t much to him – he’d been conditioned and trained to imitate Miles, and had never been given much space or encouragement to develop a self of his own. At the time, it was so significant just for Miles to give him a name.

    So it was really quite a joy to see the birth of Mark as a real, distinct person. Bujold has done a fantastic job of showing that split between the two of them, while also showing us the aspects of them that remain very similar.

    I normally find the series to be very comedic – largely driven by Miles’s deadpan commentaries. But without Miles, much of that comedy was missing as well. Combined with a rather uncomfortably long torture sequence, this was the hardest book to read in the series. Still enjoyable, but boy did it ever get dark.

    One of the recurring details in the book is Mark’s weight. His metabolism is much slower than Miles’s, plus he has an eating disorder. I’m rather conflicted about this. On the one hand, I really didn’t appreciate all the characters staring at Mark’s body in disgust, nor all the times characters talk about their concern for their health (presented matter-of-factly, as though it were a scientific truth that fat=ill-health, absent other factors). Enough of that, thanks.

    On the other hand, Mark’s weight is an important means for him to forge his own identity, and I did like that, in the end, he chose to remain fat and seems quite happy with his body.

    I just wish that there had been some character other than Mark himself who could recognise that fat isn’t disgusting or necessarily unhealthy. And I wish that the focus of people’s shock was more on the speed of his weight gain or the difference between his body and Miles’s, rather than disgust at his corpulence.

    I don’t think I’d want to spend a whole series with Mark, but I’m glad that I got to spend more time with him. And I loved the way his budding self-hood was handled. He has the typical Vorkosigan Extreme Excellence, but I really liked that it’s a very different kind of excellence from Miles.

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      Coraline by Neil Gaiman

      Read: 8 May, 2018

      I read this with my seven year old. About half way through, he told me that the book was giving him nightmares. When I asked him if he wanted to stop, he said: “No. Like, good nightmares.”

      And I think that just about sums up the book. Good nightmares.

        Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

        Read: May 6, 2018

        This is a bunch of interconnected lives, both pre- and post-apocalypse. I found both sections engaging, and I really enjoyed seeing the points where they intersect.

        It was an interesting choice to combine a story about Hollywood discontentment and loss of privacy with a more traditional dystopian run-in with a totalitarian cult leader. I don’t know how big the overlap is between the two audiences. But, somehow, it worked. It worked best as neither plot overstayed its welcome. Although there was a certain whiplash as I was taken away from a plot line – sometimes for multiple chapters – that I was interested in following.

        I did appreciate what the pre- storyline added, but I did come here for the post-, and that was a bit thin. As a story-driven story, it needed much more story. As a character-driven story, much of the character development occurred in the pre- storylines, so characters that didn’t feature in both ended up not getting a whole lot of development.

        Despite my complaints, I did enjoy myself throughout the whole book, and the writing style was quite excellent.

          Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

          Read: 23 April, 2018

          I read this with my seven year old son. We both really enjoyed the first bit of the book, which is about Mrs Frisby and her sick child. The stakes felt very real, and we enjoyed all the characters she meets (the helpful crow, the wise owl, the mouse doctor, the shrew neighbour, the scary cat, etc). There was whimsy there, even as we fretted over little Timothy.

          But then came the titular rats. Most of the second half of the book is the backstory of the rats, as told by Nicodemus. The narrative voice gets very removed, and we just weren’t given any time to care about any of the characters. And the characters we did care about, and spent the first half of the book getting to know, disappear almost entirely until the very end.

          So we found the story to be very uneven. I think we would have liked both sections of it if they had been in different books, but we just spent too much time waiting for Mrs Frisby and Jeremy and all the rest of them to make a reappearance for the second half to be much fund.

            The Troop by Nick Cutter

            Did not finish: 21 April, 2018

            This is my first “did not finish” in quite a while! I normally know within a page or two if I’m even going to bother with a book, but I made it a whole 240 pages with this one.

            The writing is fine – the gross-outs are legitimately gross, and the characterisations are solid if pessimistic. But then there are the intrusive flashbacks. The characters see something. What do they see? Well, it looked like the balloons they make animals out of at the fair. Little Timmy could remember the last time he went to the fair, it was… Oh my ghawd, just tell me what they see!

            The plot reminded me a lot of Lord of the Flies. It had the same savagery.

            Which was part of the reason why I didn’t finish. I’m in the beginning stage of one of my week-long anxiety attacks, and I just can’t handle the total lack of likeable characters. Especially combined with the contagion threat, which just hits every single one of my buttons. So it’s not that this is a bad book – as I said, I did make it about 2/3rds of the way through – it’s just a difficult book. And that’s just not something I’m up for these days.

            A few content notes: One of the characters is a violent psychopath who literally gets off on causing pain to others. He kills animals (including a kitten, in a rather graphic scene), and deliberately manipulates other characters. Also, Big Bad of the story is a worm-like parasite, so there’s all the content warnings about contagion, infestation, parasitism, and the body-horror that accompanies these things. Also, it’s set in Canada.

              The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag

              Read: 16 April, 2018

              My kid is still an early reader, which means that he does best when there are pictures. Unfortunately, a lot of books for his reading level aren’t at his story level, so I’m always struggling to find things that will actually hold his interest while he practices his literacy. Turns out that graphic novels are perfect for this, because he can easily read books that are written for much older children, and therefore have more risque scares and complex plots.

              The Witch Boy is exactly all of that.

              The story is just scary enough to be a thrill, and I loved the message of being yourself – outside of social boxes like gender. This is a wholesome story to share with kids, and I loved the amount of representation the author was able to cram in.

              Plus, we got a huge kick out of the fact that the main character is watching Steven Universe in one panel. My son literally squealed and ran the book over to show me when he caught that!

              Having now read it myself as well, we’re both hoping that this will become a series.

                Southern Reach #3: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

                Read: 15 April, 2018

                I have several friends who read Annihilation in anticipation of the movie, but lacked the stamina and fortitude to continue the series. After they found out that I was reading the second, I became the Designated Reader – in charge of finishing the series, and reporting back with a condensed summary.

                All well and good, but the second was such a slog that I wasn’t particularly eager to start to the third. But with an impending move, I wanted to pack up my copy – something I couldn’t do until it had been read, lest I commit myself to not reading it until who knows when.

                I liked it much better than AuthorityAuthority, I think, suffered from middle book in a trilogy syndrome – the first book’s job is to set the scene, the third book’s job is to deliver a climax, but the second book is just about moving all the pieces into position. It’s hard to make that interesting. This was made worse by the fact that Authority was so much longer than Annihilation, and chose to focus on a character who just isn’t all that interesting.

                This issue is fixed in Acceptance by splitting up the narrative. Now, page time is shared between Control, Ghost Bird, the former director/Psychologist, and the lighthouse keeper. Control still isn’t interesting, but his chapters are spread out, and he’s always in the presence of Ghost Bird, who is a far more interesting character. Good choices, all around.

                I really enjoyed the lighthouse keeper’s story. Flashbacks (if that’s what there were – I suspect Area X is meant to have some kind of time looping) aren’t usually a good way to resolve plot mysteries, especially when the device isn’t introduced until the third book, but I just really enjoyed the character of Saul Evans. I would have liked to see a lot more of him, actually. In fact, I think it would have worked well to give him the second book, and have it all be a flashback to S&SB and the beginnings of Area X, and then combine Control’s adventures in the Southern Reach and his journey into Area X with Ghost Bird to make up the third book. Maybe. Or just write Control out entirely and keep only characters who are introduced in Annihilation.

                In between Authority and Acceptance, I saw the movie. Other than being about a biologist on a team sent into Area X, the movie doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the book(s). The hypnotism is almost entirely absent (which makes the Psychologist’s scream of “annihilation” at the end entirely meaningless), and they did the same adaptation change that Stalker did – taking a story that doesn’t actually have a whole lot of action in it and adding in KILLER CROCS and KILLER BEARS and KILLER DOPPLEGANGERS.

                But I was surprised by how much of Acceptance they had actually stuck in there. Not a whole lot, since the stories had diverged rather significantly by that point, but more than I was expecting. Particularly as it relates to the Psychologist.

                My overview of the whole series would be that it relies a bit too much on the mystery, which wears a little thing in patches. But the narrative tone matches the themes of the story perfectly – the writing is slow, plodding, sometimes a little repetitive. It’s almost hypnotic. The mystery does sustain the first book, but really suffers in the second. The third book reveals just enough answers to feel satisfying, but not so many as to feel cheap. There’s still plenty of room for interpretation.

                Some characters, like the Biologist, the lighthouse keeper, the Psychologist, and Lowrie, are very strong and interesting. But I found some, like Control and his whole family, to be utterly tedious. Jackie Severance kept popping up, and I think I was meant to perceive her as a looming menace, but she lacked presence. I never really felt like I got a sense of her as a distinct entity – she always seemed to just be there when the author needed an extra character.

                I appreciated some of the looping (Whitby’s mouse, the room with all the journals in the lighthouse, the photograph of the lighthouse keeper), but I would have liked more of that. It seemed, at times, that story elements were only added when writing the second or third book, rather than intended from the beginning. Realising that it’s a gamble to do so, I wish that more of Annihilation‘s mysteries directly related to the events and answers we got later on.

                I can’t think of anyone I would recommend these books to, but if you’ve read Annihilation and enjoyed the writing and tone, it’s worth continuing.

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                  Winternight Trilogy #2: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

                  Read: 9 April, 2018

                  It’s really quite hard to imagine how a book could be more up my alley. I love the culture and the religion, I love the historical fiction aspects, I love the fairy tales… This book is absolute literary luxury for me!

                  Just to make it even better, I found that the pacing and plot were, if anything, improved from the first book.

                  I did manage to guess who Kasyan was almost immediately, but I still enjoyed seeing how that would play out. Especially as Kasyan kept going back and forth between threatening and ally.

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                    The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

                    Read: 25 March, 2018

                    My son and I tried to read this together, but only got about 2/3 of the way through before he gave up and I had to finish it on my own. The writing style is beautiful, and we both enjoyed the interweaving of myth and realism. But, unfortunately, it just takes too long to get anywhere.

                    There are two stories: In the first, a calico cat hides under a porch with an old hunting dog and gives birth to two kittens. The four of them form an unlikely family as they hide from the dog’s dangerous and cruel master. In the other story, taking place a thousand years earlier, a snake’s daughter changes herself into a woman to be with a hawk man, leaving the abandoned snake heartbroken and jealous.

                    I loved the way the two stories work together to comment on love and family. Mostly, though, this is a story about the place – a swampy jungle on the border between Texas and Louisiana. Long pages are spent describing the trees and the water, sometimes multiple times over. And while this was poetic and beautiful, it’s also what lost my kid’s attention.

                    It’s a beautiful meditative piece, but it is just too repetitive to be as long as it is, or perhaps too long to be as repetitive as it is.