Thursday, February 2, 2023

The Light Fantastic

 

Image credit: 45 Worlds

And so we are well under way with my endeavour to absorb all of the Terry Pratchett into my literary reservoir. Following on with adventures of the Discworld’s worst wizard and first tourist, this week saw me become enveloped in greater escapades and desperate dramas of Rincewind and Twoflower in The Light Fantastic.

Great A’Tuin the World Turtle, upon which sits the Discworld and all its inhabitants, is lazily sailing through space on a collision course with a malevolent red star. Apparently, there is only one person who can save the world: Rincewind, the Discworld’s most cowardly and inept wizard who, unfortunately, was last seen falling off the edge of the world. 

The weirdness and wildness of the Discworld, as well as its uniqueness and hilarity gets bigger and further established in The Light Fantastic. In this book we get to see the hierarchy and the ascension of wizards, the way of druids, the grandeur of trolls, and Death’s living room. Twoflower’s dreams of adventure continue to come true, as he gets to travel with Cohen the Barbarian, one of the Disc’s most celebrated heroes, who’s still packs a punch even though he’s close to being an octogenarian, and Rincewind is pushed so far beyond his limits of cowardliness that he even finds the gall to go back to The Unseen University and try to rid his head of the dangerous spell that has been squatting in it your years. 

As well as the delightful nods to popular films and fantasy, The Light Fantastic also has a little bit of a dig at the rise of pop-cults and minority religions, not-so-subtly depicting their absurdities, brittleness, and malleability. 

Image credit: Penguin Books Australia

The development of the characters and the continuation of their own journeys is highly enjoyable, with satisfactory conclusions and emotional pay-offs at the end. The Light Fantastic is a great continuation of the tale of the reluctant hero that was begun in The Colour of Magic!

Author: Terry Pratchett, 1986

Published: Originally published in Great Britain by Colin Smythe Limited, 1986. This edition published by Corgi, 1986. 

Saturday, January 28, 2023

The Colour of Magic

 

Image credit: Corgi UK

It’s been a sad and dispiriting past few weeks, with a tragic event taking place that greatly influenced by choice of bedtime books for the foreseeable future. It’s interesting how the world around you can do that. The tragedy was that I recently lost my grandmother (or ‘step’-grandmother, as she humorously referred to herself). We were very close, bonded by a shared love of food, fantasy, and literature. One thing she always regretted was not introducing me, as a child, to Terry Pratchett, quite possibly her all-time favourite children’s author. So, having finally closed the cover on The Necronomicon, I am now determined to make my way through the Pratchett repertoire; a strange choice of grieving pastime, but one I believe she would approve of. And so I have just finished the first of the wondrous Discworld novels: The Colour of Magic.

The Discworld, a world held aloft by a circle of elephants on the back of Great A’Tuin, a giant turtle (sex unknown) that glides through space is a place filled with wonder, mystery, magic, and danger. All of which is experienced as Twoflower, the Disc’s first tourist, travels with his reluctant wizard companion Rincewind and his impervious Luggage. During his vacation, Twoflower gets caught in the centre of bar brawls, lost in an ancient temple, kidnapped by dragonriders, and plunged off the edge of the world… and he loves every minute of it!

Pratchett’s incredible Discworld and its eccentric characters, histories, and lore is celebrated the world over as a staple in children’s fiction and it’s not hard to see why. The Colour of Magic is a delightful read that seems small, but is absolutely packed with humour, adventure, and incredible Discworld lore. What I like particularly about Pratchett is the way in which he informs readers about the lore and histories of the Discworld: nonchalantly dropped in as a passing thought rather than a long serious spout of exposition. There is an eloquent sarcasm that underlies every single sentence of Pratchett’s prose. This undoubtedly is why my grandmother loved his work so much, it’s utterly delightful! And the world that he creates on the page is so rich and vibrant it’s impossible not to find something magical and mesmerising. 

Image credit: Penguin Books Australia

Like Neil Gaiman’s StardustThe Colour of Magic is a delightfully original and inclusive story for all ages, a truly novel and iconic experience of the fantasy genre. 

Author: Terry Pratchett, 1983

Published: Originally published by Colin Smythe Ltd, Great Britain, 1983. This edition published by Corgi, 1985.

The Colour of Magic is the first book in the Discworld series.

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Voss

 

Image credit: Goodreads

Have you ever closed the cover on a book and just been so thrown by it that you’ve no idea what to say about it? I have read a few books in my time where I have finished them and been left feeling very confused as to what I just read: Heart of Darkness, We have Always Lived in the Castle, Slaughterhouse 5, to name a few. And now, a celebrated classic of Australian literature joins that pool of strange reading experiences: Patrick White’s Voss.

In 1845, German colonist Johann Ulrich Voss sets out with a small band of selected men on an expedition to cross the desert continent of Australia. Along the way many hardships will be suffered including sickness, scorching heat, constant rain, lost supplies, violent indigenous tribes, and the promise of death. 

Voss has probably best been described by Dr. Peter Boxall as, “both a love story and an adventure story, and yet it is neither.” The central drama of the expedition is very reminiscent of the adventure novel, however where other authors have depicted the great journeys of their protagonists through scenes of exciting action and environmental descriptions, White chooses to focus on the mental journeys of his characters, the most engaging being the man-God-Devil conflict within Voss. Twisting between his desire to become a King of this country, which is now his home, and his fluctuating love and hate for his fellow men and travelling companions, the character of Voss becomes superhuman in his mental and spiritual trials, finally appearing to his expedition party as both deliverer and destroyer. 

Coinciding with this cross-country adventure is a strange, telepathic love story between Voss and Laura Trevelyan, the wealthy niece of one of Voss’ sponsors. Although no scenes of passion or love take place featuring the two characters physically, their relationship develops through their absence of one another: Laura spiritually accompanying Voss on his journey, and Voss always hanging out on the fringes of Laura’s mind. In contrast to the harsh desert dramas, the scenes with Laura and colonial society are reminiscent of Jane Austen, complete with heroines and social commentary from the author. 

Image credit: Australian Book Review

While it’s difficult to identify, let alone explain the power of Voss, there is definitely some sort of otherworldly magic that forces you to keep turning pages even though you decide, early on, that everything will end in tragedy. As they say, it’s not the destination, but the journey. Voss is a unique and compelling book that I would recommend to those looking for something different, dramatic, and not of the mainstream. 

Author: Patrick White, 1957

Published: Eyre & Spottiswoode (London), 1957

Achievements: Nobel Prize for Literature, 1973


Friday, December 30, 2022

Cloudstreet

 

Image credit: Goodreads

Continuing on with my quest to read more Australian fiction and become acquainted with some of the brilliant authors that live in my own backyard, I have just closed the cover on a book celebrated as ‘the modern Australian classic’. An engaging look at post-war working Australia, this week’s book was Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet.

The Pickles and the Lambs are two rural Australian families brought together by tragedy. After Sam Pickles loses an arm and most of his family’s money, his luck turns when he inherits a rickety house near the city. The terms of the inheritance say that the family must live there for 20 years before they can sell, so as a means of bringing in a little money, Sam divides the house in half and advertises for tenants. Enter the Lambs, a large family who have just had their son brought back from the brink of death, though not altogether ‘there’ anymore. While the two families don’t entirely get along at first, life has a way of changing people’s dreams and attitudes and over the course of twenty years the Pickles and the Lambs see each other succeed, fail, live, love, starve, gorge, laugh, and cry, until the big old house on Cloudstreet becomes more than a house to them.

It’s always interesting to read a book that is driven by its characters rather than an over-arching narrative. With a mystery or adventure, there’s some quest or goal that the characters are usually driven towards, but in Cloudstreet the cast are left to their own devices and while some dramatic things do happen to them, most of the narrative events are the result of their own doing and not external forces. There is a common trend in Australian fiction (at least in the books I’ve been recently reading) of chronicling character-driven, down-to-earth, real-life stories and exploring the way people and places can affect the protagonists: the postmodern movement. This is something I’ve only just noticed and it’s starting to inspire and nurture a special love for Aussie authors who share a common fascination in the relationships between people and places. It also shows a phenomenal grasp on language and the power of words because the books that I’ve been reading have all been moving, vibrant, and captivating page-turners without telling a particularly thrilling or adventurous tale. 

Cloudstreet is the newest addition to this pool of real-world magic fascination and appreciation. Winton's prose is crisp and poetic, but also sloppy and ockerish, particularly when he’s writing from the perspective of his rural characters. His stylistic choice to break the story into clumps of milestone years, filled with smaller chapters (some only being a paragraph) actually compels the pace of the book rather than disjoints it, which one would expect. Sometimes because there is so little written on a page, you feel like you’re really making progress and before you know it, you’ve read an additional ten. 

Image credit: Facebook

The second thing to stand out structurally in Cloudstreet is Winton’s refusal to use quotation marks when writing dialogue. While this is not really anything new, it’s not a technique often seen and it has this interesting effect on the reading experience in that it also propels the flow rather than jerks it along like some dialogue can. I feel like there could be more significance to the choice to do it this way, but I’m not clever enough to see it. I still appreciated it though. 

A glorious mixture of the charismatic and the crass, Cloudstreet is a great book with fascinating characters, a simple setting, and a remarkable exploration into the ways in which external people and places can shape a life. It’s definitely a classic for a reason and I would recommend it.

Author: Tim Winton, 1991

Published: McPhee Gribble, 1991. Published by Penguin, 1992. Pictured edition published by Penguin, 1998.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

The Necronomicon

 

Image credit: Amazon.com.au

So, for a little bit of context, I have decided to constantly have at least two books on the go: one that I read during to day, either on my way to work or during my lunch break, and the other to read in the morning and evening. I started this practice when I read my way through Edgar Allen Poe’s collected works (which took me ages, but I did finish it) and have since then closed the cover on another epic bedtime-reading adventure: Lovecraft’s The Necronomicon.

This 800+ page monstrous tome has taken me months and months and months, but I can finally say that I have read it! For those wanting to get into H.P. Lovecraft, it’s a good place to start, featuring many of his most celebrated works including At the Mountains of Madness, Shadow Over Innsmouth, and The Curious Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Stories filled with a chilling blend of horror and science fiction.

I am proud to have achieved such a feat, and am very happy to now be able to say, ‘yes I’ve read some Lovecraft’, but I have to admit it was a looong journey. For those not familiar, Lovecraft (while cool and celebrated) is hard to read. His prose is dense, wordy, and oftentimes pretentious, favouring long and ponderous words that have fallen out of common vocabulary. But while the writing itself can be very tricky to wrap ones’ head around (don’t even get me started on dialogue), one can’t deny that the drama and narratives of the stories still make their way unimpeded into the reader’s mind through incredible imagery and wholly creepy and original ideas of the horrific. The plights of the protagonists are made more compelling because a lot of the horror that Lovecraft writes about is beyond the comprehension of the human mind, thus fear culminating in madness is a common theme throughout his stories. The unreliable narrator treads a fine line in various tales, as most are recounted by a witness or survivor who makes it plain to the reader that they can’t even trust in what their own senses perceived. 

Image credit: Wikipedia

The stories of Lovecraft are fun and exciting, though the reading experience can be a long, dense, uphill struggle: a little like wading through a tar pit. However, the payoff is there and there is a second layer of pride that comes with being able to say, ‘I’ve read the Necronomicon’. For horror novel fans, Lovecraft is a canon must-read, and if you can get past the intense racism, his stories and exciting, spooky, and enjoyable. 

Author: H. P. Lovecraft

Published: This commemorative edition was compiled and padded with editorial material by Stephen Jones, 2008. First published in Great Britain by Gollancz, an imprint of the Orion Publishing Group, London, 2008. 

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Mexican Gothic

 

Image credit: Los Angeles Times

I sometimes wonder/admire/contemplate what it’s like to be a modern writer publishing in this day and age. Consider that your readership has consumed and continues to consume so much content on the daily (as well as yourself); it must be so hard to come up with ideas. Different ideas. Right now I’m of the belief that it’s a real challenge for modern writers to be groundbreaking and show us something new because there’s a lack of complete originality that comes with living in such a media-heavy consumer society. This is a thought I had as I closed the cover on my book club’s third venture: Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic.

Described as a cross between the Bronte sisters and Lovecraft, the book tells the story of Mexican beauty and socialite Noemi Taboada, who’s father sends her to the decaying and gloomy High Place when he receives a concerning letter from her newly married cousin Catalina. Determined to discover what’s troubling her beloved cousin, Noemi goes without complaint, but soon discovers that there is something really wrong with High Place. The house is gloomy and crumbling around the inhabitants and the family is not much better. Catalina’s husband is charming, but menacing, his decrepit father is foreboding, and his tyrannical sister has no time for Noemi’s questions and concerns. Soon Catalina’s unease about the house and the family become Noemi’s, as she begins to have horrific nightmares and some dramatic stories come to light about skeletons in the Doyle family’s closet. 

This is a very easy read. A return to the true gothic aesthetic complete with stiff and eerie characters, wealth gone to seed, and a crumbling mansion haunted by goodness knows what. The central horror is rather Lovecraftian, treading a fine line between the scientific and the supernatural. An interesting excursion into the idea of ‘traumascapes’ (locations ‘haunted’ by horrible events of violence, scandal, etc…) Mexican Gothic does live up to the Guardian’s statement of “Lovecraft meets the Brontes in Latin America” with its engaging heroine out to uncover a mystery and the unsubtle racism of the supporting characters. 

Image credit: Literary Hub

While the story itself is rather interesting, the prose is very blunt, sometimes the action, dialogue, and scenes of horror feel a little ham-fisted, and – as I mentioned earlier – there is nothing particularly different or shocking in the drama/horror because it’s reminiscent of a whole bunch of other authors and content creators. Lovecraft, Crimson Peak, The Last of Us, these are just a few things I was put in mind of when reading this book. 

But the pace of the story is good, there isn’t ever really a dull moment, the characters are compelling enough, and the imagery is pretty gorgeous. If you’re a fan of the gothic, then I would recommend you give this a go.

Author: Silvia Morena-Garcia, 2020

Published: Del Ray, an imprint of Random House, New York, 2020.  Pictured edition published by Jo Fletcher Books, London, 2021.


Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Adam Bede

Image credit: Goodreads

Undoubtedly I have before mentioned what fun and fascination is to be had in reading books from another time period. Sometimes the modern reader can experience great surprise in hearing authors express social ideas and opinions that are still relevant over a century later! And then there are those times where the development of a story can prove a little tricky to understand or appreciate. This was a little bit the case with the last book that I finished: George Eliot’s first novel, Adam Bede.

The book tells the story of swarthy and respected country carpenter Adam Bede, a man with brawn and brains who is also a little in touch with his emotional side. He is secretly, but passionately in love with the pretty, but vain Hetty Sorrel. Sadly, Hetty’s head is turned towards the rich and charming Captain Donnithorne, one of Adam’s most admired and respected friends, and disaster strikes when Adam discovers their amore and Donnithorne leaves the parish. A heartbroken Hetty runs away in a vain search for her lover, only to discover poverty, loneliness, and disgrace that even Adam with his tender love cannot sooth.

Eliot’s novel has been celebrated as a great work of literary realism, painting a wonderfully rich picture of the countryside in the English Midlands as well as insightful glimpses into the inner workings of her labourer characters. Although famously agnostic, Eliot writes about the Christian ethical schema of confession, forgiveness, and redemption in a way that is strangely captivating – even to the modern reader – and provides much of the story with its juicy drama during the climax in this way.

The phonetic dialogue provides a challenge for the modern reader, a little like Wuthering Heights does, but the book’s central messages as well as its incredible exploration into the contrasting social and emotional dilemmas of the characters does not in any way get lost or misunderstood. 

It’s a slow burn book, where the action is not so much what drives it, but the joy of getting enveloped in lengthy paragraphs of description and monologue keeps you turning pages. While I am not entirely sure that I’ll read it again in a hurry, I was still able to power through it faster than I have some other books from the same period, so I clearly enjoyed the experience it offered. 

Author: George Eliot, 1859

Published: W. Blackwood & Sons (London), 1859