As I only managed proper posts on two of my September reads, and I simply don’t want an extended backlist haunting me so soon after my blogging return, I will talk about several books today.
I’ve read three of my R.I.P. choices and abandoned a fourth (Before the Poison by Peter Robinson) due to incompatibility. Let’s start there. Anna Dressed by Blood by Kendare Blake was a quick little horror read, aimed at the YA market. It stars Cas Logan, now a worldwise seventeen year old, who for four years has been hunting and ‘killing’ ghosts who in their turn kill people. Rather like an extreme form of pest control, I suppose? His father had the same occupation, which killed him when Cas was young, and his obliging mother is a white Wiccan who runs a mail-order business so that they can move around at the drop of a hat to where the ghosts are. They move to a Canadian town known for a ghost named “Anna Dressed in Blood,” and Cas begins the same process he’s been doing for a while: integrate into school, find the ghost, get rid of it. But this time, he’s strangely drawn to Anna. And there are other threats looming.
There are quite a few things I liked about this book: the pacing was good, the writing helped tell the story & gave Cas a unique narrative voice, Blake wasn’t afraid to go for horrific scenes but the gore was not ultimately nightmare-inducing, and I really like that the most popular girl in school, a well-off blonde of course, turns out to be smart, funny, kind, and loyal. Oh and I loved the relationship between Cas and his mom, and how he’s not afraid to think about how much he loves her. Blake weaves in some philosophical issues related to Cas’ calling (what happens to the ghosts? should that matter to Cas? should he get involved with people when he knows they’re going to move? etc.) I enjoyed my reading experience. However, ultimately I wanted something with a bit more weight. I’m also not keen on teenage soul mate storylines, so that probably affected how I viewed the book. I can see myself reaching for the sequel when I’m in a flare up, and prefer lighter books, and I will certainly follow Blake’s career: I think she’s a good author already in this debut and has potential to become very strong. I can only hope she grows into that potential. I’d happily recommend this to those who enjoy light, entertaining fiction.
Then I read Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke , which certainly fulfilled any longings I might have for a heavier book. It weaves together themes of motherhood and daughter-hood and wifehood, fatal genetic illnesses, international adoption, middle age and more, all while telling a story that starts eerie and become more so with each page. And it’s set on Christmas, making even the fabled ‘white Christmas’ seem sinister! I found myself finishing it all in one sitting, making poor Thistle wait an extra hour for her walk, because I *had* to keep reading. I’ll definitely be reading more of Kasischke in the future, as I think she’s an incredible writer! The entire novel takes place during one Christmas day, and entirely within the head of Holly Judge, a middle-aged adoptive mother and middle class American, who seems just a bit off, but easily recognisable too. There are many flashbacks, as Holly ponders various events related to her Christmas preparations, or just goes off in a daydream as we all tend to when doing mundane tasks. She and her daughter Tatiana are alone, as her husband has gone to pick up his parents at the airport, and much of the story deals with the struggles they face now that Tatiana is a teenager, and Holly wonders how to be the best mother. This book is really a virtuoso performance, and I can’t imagine anyone who enjoys psychological suspense not liking it. It’s weird and morbid and ultimately tragic of course, and the appended report as the final page makes a perfect ending. I don’t think I’ll tell you anymore about it, or provide a plot summary, as it’s best to discover it for yourself. Go on, you know you want to. ;)
My most recent R.I.P. read was The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino, which to be honest I think would have worked better for Once Upon a Time and the mythology category. This makes sense, as it’s part of the Canongate myth retellings series, but I expected a much darker fantasy than I got, based on Kirino’s other books. I suppose the storyline itself is dark: set on a poor, isolated island, it features outcast families, policies that kill babies born without permission and, if they get too numerous, the elderly, and a pair of sisters, one of whom is destined to be a light priestess, given the best of the island, while the other is destined to live alone near the dead, impure, as the dark priestess. But the narrator takes such a detached tone of voice, that these end up resonating more on an intellectual level than a deeper one: Kirino explains this early because her narrator is already dead, and speaking as a ghost who doesn’t feel as the living do, but the detachment reminded me a lot of other Japanese authors I’ve read, to be honest. Anyway, my favourite part was on the island, because Kirino does a great job of making it feel claustrophobic and terrifyingly tradition-bound while at the same time the narrator, as an inhabitant of the island, remains unaware that this is not normal. Her sense of place is excellent: the realm of the dead, and the horror and anger of the goddess who must now reside there, are well done as well. I didn’t care for the second half, in which the narrative perspective shifts to a god who has taken human form, quite as much. The themes of love and betrayal, and the power relations between men and women in a patriarchal tradition, are well explored though, and that made up for the not quite as compelling story. I’m glad that I read this, and it makes me want to read more of Kirino, but it didn’t quite touch my soul, if that makes sense.
The rest of my fiction reading this month consisted of rereads, which is something I want to discuss in another post. So I’ll tell you about a couple of nonfiction titles, and then we’ll be set!
Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold is an incredible piece of nature and conservation writing, all the more so for its foresight. Leopold was born in the 19th century and joined the Forestry Service as young man: he later became a wildlife management professor who spent his weekends on a little farm and its surrounding wilderness in Wisconsin. This book was published with writings he’d been working on in the 40s, although he himself died in 1949. It’s full to the brim with moments of beauty, a fierce intelligence and land knowledge, and a deep commitment to preserving the wildness of the land and its creatures in the face of modern society’s wish to do anything but. Again and again, he emphasises the importance of ecosystems as a whole, and examines how past human actions to eliminate one species have resulted in the destruction of entire habitats. It’s a bit painful, reading sixty years later, to see some of his hopes for the future, as the actions he laments in the 40s have become commonplace on a far vaster scale now. Anyway, he also made me feel like an utter dilettante for my childlike enjoyment of the woods, but as I am a dilettante that’s probably not a bad thing. ;) Ultimately, I loved peeking into his inner self as he goes around nature, and having a view of what that kind of passion and experience and knowledge sees in things that the rest of us wouldn’t even notice. If you enjoy nature writing and haven’t read this, you definitely should. I plan to reread it in the future and am glad I have a copy on my shelves.
Finally, a fun popular history that I’d been saving on my shelves: Song of the Vikings by Nancy Marie Brown. I’ve read all of her previous books & loved the Iceland focused ones, so I was excited to read this. It’s a biography of Snorri, the Icelandic author of the tales from which we know the Norse gods, and of course it incorporates a lot of Norse mythology and Icelandic context into the telling. I love how Brown writes: here’s a typical passage, selected pretty much at random:
The Norse gods are not omnipotent. They’re not even always dignified. sometimes their job is not to rule the universe but just to make us laugh, as in the story of the god Thor’s encounter with the giant Utgard-Loki. No other source tells this tale. Snorri might have made it up.
We can imagine him regaling his listeners with it, as they sat around the feast hall sipping horns of ale. He might have read aloud from his work in progress, the Edda. Or he might have told the tale from memory, like an ancient skald.
Brown tells the story over the next three pages, so I can’t type all of that out, but it’s in the same enjoyable, conversational style. I was truly fascinated to learn that so much of the Norse mythology today can be traced back solely to the writings of one man, and he lead a terribly intriguing life on Iceland, during its saga era. Of course if you’ve already read some of the sagas or know anything about Icelandic history, this book will be fun, but I also think it would be a wonderful introduction to any newcomers. It’s a fascinating subject and Brown’s style makes it even more enjoyable: her genuine interest and love for Iceland and Norse myths shines through.
I’ve been at this post for ages now on and off this afternoon, and I’m sure reading it will take ages, so I’ll end now and get Thistle to the woods for our afternoon ramble. September was an excellent reading month for me, and I hope October will be the same. So far it’s definitely proven so! I just finished the very enjoying The Duke’s Children this morning and am in the middle of two excellent nonfiction works (The Argumentative Indian and The Needle’s Eye). And I’m off to the library tomorrow for even more books: my cup overfloweth. I hope autumn is treating you as well.