The March Reading ReviewPosted: 31 March 2011
Well, this month has been an incredibly interesting one; though I’ve delved into some tried and tested favourites by Mineko Iwasaki and Terry Pratchett, I’ve discovered some absolute comic gems in Ian Sansom and Jasper Fforde. You could say that comedy is this month’s theme, almost! I’ve certainly been enjoying myself.
11. Nightsong: The Legend of Orpheus and Eurydice by Michael Cadnum
“Poets of many lands still chanted of the day, many years before, when Apollo had allowed his beloved mortal son Phaeton to take the reigns of sunlight’s chariot. Their verses still commemorated falcons falling in flames, and rivers flash-scalded into steam.
Apollo had become a more thoughtful god, it was told, ever afterward, and had tried to make amends to mortals by helping poets create stories – and in particular by giving Prince Orpheus a lyre of perfect pitch and dazzling beauty.
Orpheus could see it all again that instant in his heart – the day he received the lyre from the divinity’s own hands. The god’s voice had been music, and his laugh sweeter than the west wind.
“On a cold day, Lachesis,” said Orpheus at last, breaking off his reverie, “my lyre is still warm from Apollo’s touch.”
This was a thoroughly entertaining children’s story, based on the Greek legend which tells the ancient story of the renowned musician Orpheus and his doomed love Eurydice. The strength of it lies in the personification of the well-known characters; and in the rich description, which is contemporary while never failing to celebrate the cultural nuance. Intended, no doubt, to introduce young readers to the Greek myths, Nightsong is an engaging and imaginative narrative which does just that with considerable elegance.
The legendary poet Orpheus travels to the kingdom of King Lycomede accompanied his faithful servant Biton and there finds a treasure greater than any he has encountered on his travels; the heart of the beautiful princess Eurydice. He sets out to win her heart; but on their wedding day tragedy strikes. Refusing to accept the loss of his wife, Orpheus travels into the underworld to persuade Hades to return the beautiful Eurydice to his side.
Publisher: Orchard Books
12. Geisha of Gion by Mineko Iwasaki
“We are not mountaintop sages who can live by consuming mist.”
Geisha of Gion is a book I’ve read before; in fact, many times over. It has a joint appeal to my fascination with Japanese culture and my fondness for the life stories of strong women, and also to my love of history. Quoted by the author itself to be the story which ‘the West has most longed to hear’, Geisha of Gion was the first ever autobiography to be written by a geisha. Not just any geisha, either: Mineko Iwasaki, the most successful of her generation. This is a story in which the author’s dedication to the fading traditions of Japan shine through.
The book follows Iwasaki’s life from when she was adopted into the Iwasaki okiya or geisha house at the age of five, and marks her career up until her controversial early retirement from the profession at 29. Iwasaki has never been distant from controversy; the geisha who once entertained Prince Phillip so well that the Queen of England herself was enraged herself became immortal as the subject for Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. Though a far cry from the fictionalised Memoirs, Iwasaki’s own story is truly compelling and fascinating, giving a true and exquisitely detailed account of the way of life inside Japan’s most prestigious geisha district.
Publisher: Pocket Books
13. Truckers by Terry Pratchett
“Granny’s remedies, made from simple, honest, and generally nearly poisonous herbs and roots, were amazing things. After one dose of stomache-ache jollop, you made sure you never complained of stomach ache ever again. In its way, it was a sort of cure.”
I remember coming across the first of Pratchett’s children’s books when I was a child and being put off by the rather masculine illustration on the cover. I wish I had persevered. Though not as famous or well-read as the equally laudable Tiffany Aching series, it was clear to me from the outset that the brilliant mind that brought us the Discworld is more than capable to cause havoc in our own. The nomes have a hilariously funny and fascinating view of the world they live in. Masklin and Grimma make a wonderful pair of protagonists and head a cast of colourful and endearing characters which make this book so wonderful to read.
Pathetic tribal warring, the role of women in society, religion, racial prejudice, leadership, fear of the unknown… all lend a subtle yet characteristically detectable taste of satire from an author who treats the reader with an important, unpatronising respect while never failing to entertain.
14. Diggers by Terry Pratchett
“He was always at a loss when people acted like this. When machines went funny you just oiled them or prodded them or, if nothing else worked, hit them with a hammer. Nomes didn’t respond well to this treatment.”
Diggers is the second novel from Terry Pratchett’s well-loved children’s series The Bromeliad, and follows on neatly from the first in the series, Truckers. The nomes of the store find themselves in a strange new world which is far bigger than it used to be and frought with new dangers. Taking refuge in an abandoned quarry, all their attentions are turned to survival in a place where finding dinner is more difficult than a trip to the food hall.
New challenges await; while Masklin sets off in search of the true purpose to their journey, the nomes come face to face with their human counterparts and closer to understanding what they truly are. But will Masklin return in time to lead them when their new home is threatened? A delightful and thoroughly entertaining continuation of the series.
Publisher: Doubleday Children’s Books
15. The Mobile Library: The Case of the Missing Books by Ian Sansom
“Israel had never before been woken by the sound of a cock. And certainly not by the sound of a cock in the same room, perched like the Owl of Minerva on the end of his bed.
His eye hurt. His head hurt. His back hurt. It’d be easier in fact to say what didn’t hurt: his toes, they seemed fine, but that was because they were so cold he couldn’t even feel his toes. He was just assuming his toes were fine. His nose, also. He felt for his nose – it was fine. But where were his glasses? He needed his glasses.
He was feeling around frantically for his glasses when the cock crowed again and started strutting boldly up the bed towards him. Any chickens he’d ever met before had tended to be already either safely roasted with their cavities loosely stuffed and their juices running clear, or well boiled in soups with carrot and onions, so this living, breathing, full-throated, fully feathered chicken was something of a shock to his already shell-shocked system.”
By far one of the most hilarious books I have ever read. Ian Sansom is a comic genius. Though my personal opinion is coloured by the fact that I share a profession with the unhappy protagonist of this wonderfully quirky crime novel, I fail to see how anyone could fail to find this book entertaining. The author has a wonderful eye for the joke that the reader would never see coming and the unmistakable ability to create characters which amuse in their relations to the kinds of people we all know in our lives.
Israel Armstrong is driven from the comfortable safety of London into the wilds of Northern Ireland in search of his dream job; to run his own library and live a quiet and uneventful existence. What awaits him in the North Antrim village of Tumdrum is far from ideal. Discovering the library shut and making an incredibly bad impression on the locals within his first five minutes of arrival, Israel’s problems only seem to multiply… and 15,000 missing books is only the start.
Publisher: Harper Perennial
16. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
“My father had a face that could stop a clock. I don’t mean that he was ugly or anything; it was a phrase the ChronoGuard used to describe someone who had the power to reduce time to an ultraslow trickle.”
Jasper Fforde is one of those few authors which come along in a generation and carve for themselves a new genre, with the enviable ability to take content from any number of genres of fiction and mix them together into one wonderfully random mess, which would seem utterly chaotic were it not for the genius way in which Fforde writes. Having read one of the more recent of his books, the mildly disturbing Shades of Grey, The Eyre Affair is a strangely satisfying jump into a world where books have so much importance to daily life that they have their own department of the police force dedicated to them: the LiteraTechs.
Fforde’s undeniably cool heroine Thursday Next makes her entrance in this book, the first of a series, which sees her thrown into a conspiracy involving a war for the Russian peninsula, the ever powerful Goliath corporation, super villain Acheron Hades and the original copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. When Hades gains the technology to remove characters from the very books they inhabit, Thursday is sent hurtling on an exhilarating adventure from her home town of Swindon into Eyre’s Thornfield itself. This book is… inventive, exciting and utterly different to anything you’ve read before.
Publisher: Hodder Paperbacks