Tag: fiction

Book review: Soonchild by Russell Hoban (illustrated by Alexis Deacon)

IMG_20180209_094751595.jpg

Russell Hoban’s Soonchild was an impulse purchase I made a few years ago when a bookstore had a sale on. Deacon’s artwork intrigued me, plus the book’s spine creaked when I opened it. Unfortunately, my first and second reading of the book left me unsatisfied, and so the novel was relegated to a shelf until last Halloween when, in a fit of boredom, I decided to read it again.

My feeling was that I’d “missed” something that turned Sixteen-Face John’s story from the merely curious to the charming. I’m still not sure what element it was, but that Halloween reading changed the way I experienced Hoban’s story. Maybe a part of it was that I stopped expecting something from the fable and just enjoyed it. In that enjoyment, I found a surprising depth of meaning.

Billed as a young adult novel, but more fable-ish than anything else, Soonchild tells the story of Sixteen-Face John’s search for the world songs to coax his unborn child from her mother’s womb. The journey takes Sixteen-Face John (so called because he has sixteen faces with which to be afraid) deep into the north’s world, and into himself. Along the way he faces dangerous foes, of which fear proves to be the biggest one.

It’s hard to classify the story. It’s funny, wise, wry, sarcastic, cautionary and clever in turn. Alexis Deacon’s illustrations really bring it to life, sparse and extravagant as the story demands, helping you follow the barnacle-goose children over the ledge of fiction, fantasy, fable, phantasm and faith.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Soonchild
Author: Russell Hoban (who passed away in 2011), illustrated by Alexis Deacon
Publisher: Walker Books, 2012.
Rating: 5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 3.76/5)
The best feature of the book: Its surprising spiritual depth; its wry turns.
The worst feature of the book: It can be confusing.
Trigger warnings: You’ll be tempted to think of it as a children’s book – it really isn’t. It’s surprisingly gory.
You’ll like this if… You like fables and reading books like chewing good food.

Advertisements

The enduring mystery of secondhand bookstores

 

IMG_20171226_112240276.jpg

Buying books is great, period. The ruffle of new pages and fresh ink. The creak of an untested spine. The velvety texture of untouched paper. The intrigue of an undiscovered world only hinted at in the blurb on the back. The hush of the store, usually an oasis of calm in a sea of shopping centre din. The weight and feel of a book about to become your own.

If buying new books is an adventure, then buying old ones is a mystery. The dusty air and narrow corridors of your typical secondhand bookshop lend itself well to an atmosphere of the unknown, the puzzling and the uncanny. Books, once new, now curl and rustle with age. Their smell sours. Their covers are tarnished with dirt, their once glossy titles pitted and scratched. Their pages are dog-eared, sometimes scribbled on, often thickened with the spill of some unidentifiable liquid. Names and dates adore title pages. The book’s spine has been cracked, once, twice; pages threaten to spill out and seek solitary solace.

The books themselves can be any and often every genre; a secondhand bookshop does not discriminate. Bestsellers share shelf space with obscure titles. Westerns and YA lit regard each other uneasily from across the room. Classics leer at Danielle Steeles. The surplus Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer novels prove that even as forgiving a market as the book market has its limits.

Yet the books themselves aren’t the end of the mystery. Their histories are an intrigue on their own. Where, one wonders of the Afrikaans poetry volume warped with green-tinted water, did you sit before you came to my shaky little bookcase? And you, William Golding volume, practically unopened and probably never read – who were you an unwanted Christmas present from?

Sometimes the books will share some of their secrets, yet these only deepen the mystery rather than resolving them. Old letters, cards, newspaper clippings, donation slips, brochures, even photographs will often tumble from an old book’s pages. Proving, perhaps, that readers are an inventive sort: anything can be used as a bookmark. Some of the secrets shared are lively. A book about prayer hinted at a woman’s early history, from her beginnings as an eager student enthusiastically involved in church activities, to her stint in the military and her marriage (dutifully reported in the local paper, the clip laminated and saved).

Other secrets are not as happy. I remember a book lovingly inscribed to a husband. It was filled with various birthday and Valentine’s Day cards and other romantic notes. In one, the wife thanks him for an exercise machine he bought her. Her handwriting is big and bubbly, with hearts dotting her i’s. Where are these spouses now, that such a large chunk of their relationship could be abandoned in the annals of a secondhand bookshop?

Not inappropriately, secondhand bookshops are filled with a thousand stories. The march of old children’s novels and academic textbooks tell their tales of growing up, the fantasies changing from knighthood and solving mysteries to more practical subjects like computer engineering and mathematics. The diet and exercise books are always either over or underused. Recipe books often come splattered with a sampling of the recipes they contain, their spines beholden to a family’s favourites. There are gardening books for all seasons; history books too historic; outdated travel guides to other places: Europe and Asia and the Cape. Foreign languages languish without someone to keep learning them. And the religious section – filled with shelves and shelves of daily devotionals, old hymnals falling apart at the seams, their songs now unsung, and small inspirational hardcovers that, if their sheer number is any indication, failed to inspire.

People may wonder how I could spend hours browsing a used bookstore. It smells funny, they may say, and they’d be right. It’s too dirty, they may point out, and I wouldn’t argue. But while my hands become sticky with the grit of books who’ve lived real lives before I met them, I’m also thinking about the person (“M de Jager”) who donated their entire Anne Rice collection to our SPCA’s charity bookshop. The novels are old, unglamorous paperbacks with yellowing pages and thick, outdated typeset almost as cheesy as their content. What, I wonder, happened between this person and Anne Rice’s vampires? Was the breakup sudden, or was it a long time coming? What replaced these books, if anything?

But as I turn Interview with the Vampire over in my hands, most of all I wonder this: where oh where will I find space for all these books in my house? It remains the deepest mystery of all.

 

Book review: How to Stop Time, Matt Haig

33590076

I feel kind of proud of myself that I got around to reading a bestseller while it’s still a bestseller and not years after the fact. I’m not going to lie, the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch will be starring as protagonist Tom Hazard in the film adaptation prioritised this book’s position in the “to read” pile. His production company was confident enough about the novel that they bought the film rights before it was even published, so it had that to commend it.

And what do you know, it really is a good book. I was a tad ambivalent about Haig after Reasons to Stay Alive (still don’t know why, don’t @ me), but How To Stop Time was such an effortlessly good read that it’s almost criminal. For all its depth of character and theme, Haig keeps it simple, poignant and promising, and I won’t lie, there were some wet eyes near the end.

How to Stop Time follows the story of Tom Hazard, a man who suffers from a rare condition which causes him to age more slowly than other people. The love of his life has been dead for centuries, and the only thing that keeps him going is his search for his daughter Marion, who has the same condition he has. The book jumps between the present and the past, sketching in the details of his life and the historical people he’s met, and the loneliness of being lost in time.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: How to Stop Time
Author: Matt Haig
Publisher: Canongate Books (2017).
Rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.14/5)
The best feature of the book: Haig has a talent for keeping his protagonist very human despite his odd condition.
The worst feature of the book: I’m tempted to say “more historical detail” but that probably would have slowed it down.
Trigger warnings: None that I can think of.
You’ll like this if… This is a tough one. The novel has fantasy elements but it’s not fantasy. It’s thrilling but hardly a thriller. If you like “the pain and beauty of life” kinds of stories, you’ll love this.

Unfinished books: 2017 edition

how to take betterfamily vacationpictures

This year, I set the goal of reading at least fifty books. I didn’t have a set list, just an ever-growing “to read” pile, foolish optimism and a bit of wildness about the eye. I made some headway, but in my reading, there were a few books I started but just couldn’t finish, not even if it put me one desperate book closer to magical number fifty.

It’s not to say these books weren’t good, but for whatever reason, they just didn’t appeal. I may try them again at some point, but at present, they’ve been relegated to the reject list (and I’m sure these authors are quaking in their boots at the thought of being in some random blogger’s bad graces, but they must carry on as best they can!)

In no particular order…

9963483

Falling Upward by Richard Rohr

According to my tablet, I got 34% through this one. A rec from a favourite Christian podcast of mine, I stocked up on a few Richard Rohr books thinking I’d be able to relate. And while Falling Upward has a great premise, the book and I just never hit it off. It didn’t help that Rohr kept throwing shade at “young people nowadays”, which is just presumptuous.

125956

Black, Ted Dekker

Ted Dekker is sort of the Stephen King of Christian fantasy fiction, so I set into the first in the Circle series, Black, with some enthusiasm. Now, I consider myself a fairly die-hard fantasy/horror fan, but Black crept me the hell out. Worse, the parts that freaked me out weren’t supposed to! I didn’t get very far with this one before I gave it up.

10859115

History of a Pleasure Seeker, Richard Mason

An irreverent and somewhat sexy read (think The Talented Mr Ripley meets Downton Abbey, but set in the Netherlands), the chief characters soon lose their appeal, and after that, the novel feels self-conscious and pretentious. I’m aware that this may have been intentional given the protagonist, but still.

31310116

Look: A practical guide for improving your observation skills, James H. Gilmore

My tablet suggests I got all of 11% into this one. I wasn’t expecting it to turn me into Sherlock Holmes, but the theory was so boring I stopped reading it before it could even try!

11737342

The Art of Intuition, Sophy Burnham

It’s a very finger-wavy book. Contrary to popular belief, the existence of what we call intuition is closer to scientific fact than to anything esoteric, but don’t tell this book that: it wades right into spiritual topics, and that’s fine, but it wasn’t what I was looking for.

29496453

The Book of Joy, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama

I’ll finish this book one day, but today (or this week, or month, or year) isn’t it. It’s a good book and it delivers keen insights into the topic at hand and the men discussing it, although it’s been so sanitised you can practically eat off of it. Hardly a page-turner, however.

11612989

The Dictator’s Handbook: Why bad behaviour is almost always good politics, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith

Another good, but kind of dull, book, it offers fascinating insights into the nature of politics. This is the academically toned down version of the authors’ work, but I think it’ll take another level of dumbing down to make it as absorbing a read as it is an intriguing one.

6487308

Fallen, Lauren Kate

Lest it be said I scorn only intellectual books… I’ve written before about my ambiguous relationship with YA fiction. Well, when the movie adaptation for Fallen came out, I set to reading it, thinking I wanted to finish the novel before I see the film. Now I doubt I’ll ever even watch the movie. The book is just plain badly written, dragging its feet across the dull flagstones of its story world. I should probably be intrigued by the Mysterious and Rude Boy, but Edward Cullen has saturated my tolerance for that business. Hard pass.

26114545

Too Like the Lightning, Ada Palmer

Reading the blurb for this sci-fi novel, it ticked a lot of boxes, not least of which is the fact that the author is a woman. The premise is interesting and I don’t hate its execution, but after a few chapters, the weight of the story world just begins to sag down on all the beguiling characters and the decent plot.

653401

The Upside Down Kingdom, Donald Kraybill

Another good book that fell to my book version of ADD, Kraybill’s The Upside Down Kingdom takes a thorough and enlightening look at the social, economic and political nature of Jesus’ Kingdom message. This really is a good book, and one I’ll endeavour to finish, but I doubt it’ll make 2017’s “read” pile.

35883580

Identity-Driven Churches, Malan Nel

I heard Nel speak at a church event and loved him. He’s a very clever man and his book, Identity-Driven Churches, is full of timely insight into the post-Christian decline of churches. All that said, I could not get more than a few chapters into this book, my best intentions despite. Part of the problem is that because he knows so much, even the simplest statement of his is buried in footnotes and more information. It isn’t a book so much as a roadmap to knowledge, of which his book forms only one link in the chain.

A good book, but hard to read. It’ll remain on my “try again” pile, if only for my consternated ego’s sake!

2338632_120322084853_dscn0170

Pad Na Gebed, Jorg Zink (The Way to Prayer)

I found this little book in a secondhand bookshop, and while I love it in theory, in practice I never read much farther than its mid-point. A collection of prayers and devotional writing with tender insights into the human condition, it’ll stay on my shelf, probably perpetually unfinished but comforting in its presence.

9777

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

As a hack writer, I feel guilty about this one purely because Roy’s writing is so beautiful: every sentence is like opening a present of literary merit. That’s part of the problem, though: if you’re not in the right mood, the novel becomes a slog rather than a wondrous journey, and all the flowery language in the world won’t make you identify with characters who don’t give you much reason to.


What didn’t you read this year, and why?

Book review: Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King (The Dark Tower #5)

4978

Much like Wizard and Glass, Wolves of the Calla feels like the wait at a train station between stops. The story reads like filler for the greater series arc; King pausing to recollect his characters and stop some gaps in a tale than in its writing spanned decades. And by this point you’re entangled enough that you indulge him the sandbox town of Calla Bryn Sturgis and its inhabitants and their secrets, because like Thunderclap darkens the Calla’s horizon, the ending of the series draws near…*

The story follows on the heels of Roland and his ka-tet’s confrontation with the wizard in the previous book. As a gunslinger of old, Roland’s aid is theoretically available to anyone who asks and is deemed worthy of assistance. The Calla, with their children being stolen every two decades or so and their husks sent back, ruined, reluctantly ask him for help, and Roland, Susannah, Eddie, Jake and Oy stay to render assistance in the only way they can: with their guns.

As far as filler goes, it’s not bad. Like I said, at this point you forgive King his dwelling on the town’s inhabitants and their idiosyncrasies. He covers a lot of important ground in a by-the-by sort of way, though, and fans of his will enjoy the return of a character from Salem’s Lot. But if you’re concerned mainly with finishing the series, Wolves of the Calla feels like an unnecessarily long phone call with a slightly delirious uncle: just cut to the chase already!

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: Wolves of the Calla
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner (1991, 2003)
Rating: 3/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.17/5)
The best feature of the book: The Dark Tower series’ plot strings start to pull together more discernibly.
The worst feature of the book: It errs on the self-indulgent.
Trigger warnings: Kids with disabilities. A dash of misogyny. The usual, really.
You’ll like this if… If you’re committed to the series you’ll like it, but if you had to start the series with this book you’d likely never get beyond this book.


*Or so you think. You fool.