Here’s another set of mini-reviews (or mini-musings) from my last couple of months’ worth of reading. A mixed bag in terms of length and genre but not in terms of satisfaction. My whim-driven reading choices are turning out better than I expected!
Thrush Green by Miss Read
Despite my love of Village England novels, I’ve somehow never read a Miss Read book. I think I thought they would be too twee for me. And the first quarter kind of reinforced that. Everyone is so wonderful, everything is so lovely, even the bad things are presented through a softened glow. But then, as I read, I started to get caught in the story. And the writing is lovely, especially the descriptions of nature and the understated observations of the people.
The story takes place over the course of May 1, when a much-loved fair comes to town. The villagers and the fair people all know each other. There are crossover stories between the traveling folk and the villagers, a couple of extremely decorous love stories, and amusing secondary characters. It reminds me of Angela Thirkell’s early novels, which makes sense because Saint was also a fan of Trollope. But when Thirkell wrote about the 1950s she was in her embittered phase. This is more like reading the Thirkell of the 1930s and 1940s, but set in the later decades, if that makes sense.
In the ebook version I read there are illustrations sprinkled throughout the text. I’d forgotten how nice it was to have them. Just black and white on my ereader, but I think that reflects the original. This is a fluffy warm blanket of a book, for sure, but it captures an era and its people in a way that doesn’t condescend at all, and still holds up. A few typos but overall a wonderful throwback read. Grade: A-
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
I read and recommended River of Stars when it came out a couple of years ago (it made my Best of list that year), but I didn’t pick up the book that preceded it until I was going on a long plane flight and decided I needed something big, fat, and historical-ish. I’d read reviews by people who DNF’d this novel but I was immediately blown away by the opening sections, which just tells you that every reader is different. The story centers around the younger son of a famous general who is given the gift of “too many horses.” Shen Tai has spent nearly two years in a remote part of Kitai (GGK’s version of Tang China), honoring his deceased father by burying the bones of fallen soldiers on a site of many battles between Kitai and one of her main rivals. The princess of the former enemy recognizes his actions by giving him the gift of 250 spectacular, highly prized horses. This gift thrusts Tai back into the world and especially into the world of court politics at Kitai’s capital, Xinan. He re-encounters his elder brother, a powerful mandarin, as well as other members of the various factions warring for power. Everyone wants the horses. Tai is alternately attacked, seduced, and bribed.
While Tai is the main narrator and the plot unfolds through his current and past actions, there are also storylines involving his sister and his former lover. His sister is shipped off to the “barbarian” rulers of the northern steppes as a bride, while his lover has become the consort of the Prime Minister during his absence from the capital.
Like all of Kay’s books, this is epic in sweep and lyrical in prose, and something about it really grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Partly it’s that I found Tai’s story and personality very compelling; he was a character I wanted to spend time with. Partly it’s that the court politics are very well done. And partly it’s that the women are really interesting, from his young Kanlin bodyguard, Wei Song, to his sister, to his former lover Spring Rain, to Wen Jian, the emperor’s Precious Consort. The smaller roles are equally rich and varied. And of course the world-building is terrific. I know readers have mixed feelings about Kay’s insistence on using the term historical fantasy to describe his books, as opposed to historical fiction, but it works for me.
For example, the great poet, Li Bai, is reimagined here as the Banished Immortal Sima Zian. He’s a memorable character, and because I’m not treating this as historical fiction I’m not constantly wondering whether this is what Li Bai was really like, or where Kay got his historical material from. Instead, I treat Sima Zian as a unique individual who apparently overlaps with real-life poets. I know I’m learning something about medieval China, but I’m not tucking away fictional representations as if they’re facts. And even if Kay is borrowing from real history, it feels like he’s making it his own story using his own imagination. Highly recommended. Grade: A
All for You by Laura Florand
This is the start of another series by Florand and is connected to the Chocolate series, which I loved. Sirius wrote a proper review for DA here. I’ve now both Florand’s trad-published and self-published books, and I guess I just prefer the former. This has all of Florand’s trademarks: alpha but not awful hero, relatively strong heroine, terrific atmosphere, and oodles of romance. But there is almost no plot. I mean, really no plot. Celie and Joss knew each other as teenagers in a Paris banlieue, Joss was Celie’s no-good brother’s friend, he looked out for her, she had a crush on him. Then he went off to join the French Foreign Legion and she pursued her dream of being a chocolatier. Five years later Joss is out of the Legion and tracks Celie down in Paris. She’s thrilled to see him and angry that he didn’t keep in touch. Joss went off to make himself into a better man for her.
So the two of them spend the novella coming together, bouncing back apart, saying how much they mean to each other, rehashing the past (complete with flashbacks), Celie loves Joss but hates him, Joss doesn’t understand why she doesn’t understand his actions, rinse and repeat. It’s well written, Paris is beautiful and the romance is romantic. But I guess I like to have more plot. Dominic and Jaime, from a previous book, are there to be the “magic couple” Celie models her dreams on and to provide wise counsel. If you liked them in their own book you’ll probably enjoy seeing them again but I felt like I was in the middle of a Balogh series.
I think the word I’m looking for is claustrophobic. If you like reading books that have nothing but the romance going on, then this one totally works on that scale (and other readers have loved it). But I need to see the main characters doing something besides romancing each other. Yes, both here have jobs that are important, and that helps. But even their friends are only there to move the romance forward. Joss and Celie have work and each other. That’s it. That’s not my fantasy world, so I was left wanting more.
With Florand, I now know to stick to the trad published books, whose plots and supporting characters I’ve enjoyed a lot. Grade: B-
Excession by Iain M. Banks
I have been very, very slowly making my way through Banks’s Culture series of SF novels (slowly because with Banks’s death from cancer two years ago, there will be no more Culture books, so I want to prolong the experience as much as I can). They are set in a future where the humanoid Culture civilization has overcome most of the problems and difficulties of our era, with their only apparent failing (which they don’t see as a failing) being the overwhelming need to extend their successful outcomes to other, less “advanced” civilizations. For me, the books are a refreshing change from the dystopia-heavy focus of current SFF, and Banks is a terrific writer. Excession is the fifth book (more or less) in the series, although you don’t have to read them in order of publication. Each book stands on its own and taken together the novels provides a multi-faceted look at the Culture and the other civilizations in this world. This installment is more focused on the Minds (sentient non-human entities, in this case mostly ships) than most of the previous books, and you get a strong sense of the Culture’s ideology and mission.
I can see why this is a love/hate book for Culture readers. It has some of the same bloated qualities of Consider Phlebas, which is the series debut (at one point I think I listened to ten straight minutes of description of a city the narrator was going to be in for a very short time), but I’d rather read Banks’s bloat than a lot of other authors’ best efforts, so I don’t mind too much. The Star Trek-like aspects of the book are apparent: Ships racing to faraway destinations, ship Minds bickering with each other, stuff being blown up, mysterious objects in space, etc. The novel was inspired by the video game Civilization, but since I don’t play video games the references and connections went right past me.
The Minds are the best part of the book for me. The human characters who are nominally the center of the narrative aren’t as interesting as the non-human ones. I got tired of Dajiel and her endless pregnancy (and the reasons for it), but the Minds were immensely entertaining. I grew attached to the Sleeper Service ship and its avatar Morphia far more than to the humanoid characters (and the members of the Affront civilization were equally horrible and wonderful). I would definitely read this again, in fact I think it would be even more satisfying the second time around.
I started with the audiobook version and finished by reading the ebook, but the Minds sections are better when you hear them read by Peter Kenny. His interpretation and the different voices he gives the ships add a lot to the experience. Kenny narrates all of the Culture novels as well as some of the “literary” Banks novels, and at this point his voice and Banks’s voice are completely intertwined for me. Even when I’m reading, I hear Kenny saying the words. Grade: B+