Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Novel-reading on the road

A good book really does transport you, interminable plane journeys pass by in a flash--but it's hard to get exactly the right things, and of course really & ideally they are long books in proportion to physical weight (I was sort of kicking myself on the way back for having already read Jilly Cooper's latest, that sort of book's perfect for a plane trip--also the same sort of globalization that some years ago made British convenience stores strangely resemble their American peers now means that the bookstore contents are rather more similar than formerly, or else I have just already ordered everything I really wanted from Amazon UK, so that there are precious few untouched treasures at least in the London chain or airport bookshops).

That said, I had some really good ones, one way and another. Overnight on my way there (my neighbor was annoyed I had the light on, but really I do not see how you sleep on the plane flying overnight east over the Atlantic) I had Megan Whalen Turner's The King of Attolia (so well-written, and so perfectly to my taste!) and then Sherwood Smith's admirably long novel Inda. I think that in general I prefer a more tightly focused single-character mode of fantasy, this was a bit too much in the George R. R. Martin mode to be my perfectly-ideal book, but for the purpose it really was excellent, she's got a really mesmerizing way with the story-telling & it also tided me over the horrible hours in which I had dropped off my bag at the hotel at 9am but couldn't check in till 2pm--that and Starbucks (and my oh my, those Starbuckses have just proliferated since I was last in London! convenient, and yet somehow a bit sad--also perhaps it was just the couple I was in, but I like the way the American phrase "skinny cappucino" which I find annoyingly jargonish & will not say has become there "skinny milk"--"with skinny milk"--pretty funny...)

I raided the Waterstone's round the corner from the hotel for more light reading, most satisfactorily Ian Rankin's The Naming of the Dead (don't know why I missed that when it came out, but of course it's extremely good) and an absolutely wonderful book by Jo Walton, The Prize in the Game. I've had Walton's others in my Amazon cart since reading & loving the excellent Farthing recently, but they kept on phasing in and out of availability (mostly not still in print? but that should be remedied, she is such a good writer...); I seized on this one when I found it, & devoured it with considerable and substantial enjoyment. It's pagan Britainish territory with magic/myth, took me back happily to my childhood love of (what's the short version of the list?) Patricia McKillip and Gillian Bradshaw and Juliet Marillier and Rosemary Sutcliff and a whole host of others whose names aren't particularly coming to mind (what was that one I loved with the centurions also?), and it's remarkably well done: the thing that strikes me especially is the satisfactorily rich and complex characterisation, rare (I think) in fantastical novels of this stripe. It's great! It pained me not to have the others to hand, but I'm going to go and order them from Amazon right now...

And then I had a ludicrously bad crime novel: pretentiously titled, absurdly plotted, Patricia Cornwell redux about fifteen years behind the times. Serves me right for liking the Cornwell-Hayder-Harris style of serial-killer detection thriller so much that I will buy one like this without properly looking in. The thing that really just had me helplessly laughing was when the formerly-forensic-anthropologist-fled-to-become-village-GP-post-death-of-wife-and-daughter goes into the nearest significant town--three years, mind you, after he's moved to the country to escape his family tragedy and it turns out to be the first time he's been to town since he moved to the village! There were so many farfetched points & so little substance to the narrative persona that it really only took about half an hour to read, very annoying.

A second stab at book shopping at the airport yielded two very satisfactory reads that took me exactly and conveniently to JFK. First of all, a quite interesting not-sure-what-to-call-it (fantasy? science fiction?) novel by Steph Swainston called The Year of Our War. It's a flawed book, I think, in certain respects: the plot's awfully meandering for a war novel, there are some inconsistencies of tone, a touch too much whimsy in the dreamworld to which the hero escapes (shades of Jonathan Carroll--I like Carroll very much at times, at his best he's stunning, but Carrollesque does not seem to me a good thing). And yet I really loved it anyway! A very appealingly rendered main character/narrator, for one thing, in the fallen angel vein; but just a really excellent high-caliber imagination and smart writing. Will look forward to her next ones with considerable interest.

And then, quite grippingly, Iain Banks's The Steep Approach to Garbadale. It hasn't been especially well reviewed, but I just loved it, I couldn't put it down (I mean, I was on a plane, so it could have been a lot worse and I would still have enjoyed it, but it really was enthralling); I don't feel that I experience my own life or the lives of others in the shape, as it were, of an Iain Banks novel (this characteristic shape of extended-family-centered retrospection--I mean, I feel like childhood and adolescence are happily behind me, I do not think that any moment of my grown-up life in my thirties would ever be primarily conceived by me as an act of retrospection going back to my teens, which is a preferred structure of his) and yet in every other respect I read Banks's (non-science-fiction) novels and just think "Yep, life is like this for me. Exactly like this." His main characters, male and female, just seem to be people like me--which is not actually a feeling I get as often as you might think, reading as many novels as I do. It makes them remarkably enjoyable.

The trouble with all this novel-reading is that you can't stock up on novels, so to speak--reading novels makes you want to read more novels! But these ones must mostly tide me over, it's a busy month--however I will sneak in a few here and there...

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