Monday, 19 November 2012

Reading log - Q3

Here we are again, and me much delayed. Unfortunately I’ve had a few other things on. I was busy with my Marvel Essential Warlock series – which belongs properly in Q4 – and wrote a review of The Fractal Prince, the sequel to The Quantum Thief, which belongs also in Q4. Plus, of course, the perennial nuisance of DIY.

I have been reading, though, and in the three months to 30 September, I read:

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce
The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen
A few John Service stories by Algernon Blackwood
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Marvel Essential Super Villain Team-Up vol 1 by various.

So, that was summer! We got a week of hot sunshine and then the rain came back and we rented a cottage in Cornwall to have some rainy fun in a different part of the country. I’ve been busy with DIY and become quite a dab hand at filling gaps and holes with TouPret, which is apparently French for Polyfilla. A few coats of paint and I think it’ll all hold long enough for my finances to recover and be in a position to pay someone to fix it properly. Sometime in 2057.

While waiting for paint to dry and in other odd corners of the day, I have managed to read a few books, some stories and lots of comics and write a review.

The Three Musketeers was a copyright-free classic downloaded from Project Gutenberg and read on my Kindle. The problem with Kindle is that you don’t really get an idea of how long a book is before you’re well into it. You know how far through you are, but it takes a while to figure out what that means in the way that’s instantly obvious from a paper copy.

I don’t know if this is good or bad. I might not have taken this on if I’d known how long it was. I’m a fairly slow reader and don’t like to spend long periods with the same book if I can avoid it. I’m glad I did, though. It’s a fun mix of sword-fighting, banter and gallantry of the sort we’ve come to know as swashbuckling. As I noted on Goodreads, this one really reminded me of stories by Jack Vance. Dartagnan is the typical Vancian wandering youth, left or ejected from home to find his fortune. He suffers early set backs and makes a powerful enemy. This his the same sort of desire for vengeance that drives him forwards like Gastel Etzwane in Durdane or Ghyl Tarvoke in Emphyrio.

Like Vancian heroes the Musketeers hold their dignity and comforts in high esteem. They are courageous and noble in their way, but what makes their adventures so enjoyable is the way that however dire the situation, they never lose sight of the importance of fine food and wine, a wealthy mistress, the frills on their uniform or the shine on their hauberk. At greater stake than anything is their honour, and this inevitably leads to unlikely wagers and duels to the death.

The first half in particular – the affair of the diamond studs – is jolly exciting. There’s a bit of a lull at the start of the second half, but the bits where Milady is imprisoned by the Baron are brilliant. She’s a wonderfully cold character and in that section has the determination and guts of any modern action hero.

It’s hard not to admire her, but then she goes and poison’s poor innocent Constance. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the Richard Lester film, but I couldn’t help but picture Spike Milligan and Racquel Welch as Monsieur Thing and Constance. It was quite a shock when she was killed off – it certainly gave a bit of energy to the Musketeers’ pursuit of Milady later on.

After that I needed something modern, and got Some Kind of Fairy Tale for review. I liked this book a lot. It was just I felt like as the summer turned hot, those sunny later summer days when London was eerily deserted – I got a seat on the train everyday of the Olympics. You can read my review here.

After reading this I floundered for a while. I read the story The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen, which was similarly brilliant. Maybe it’s just me but the story seemed to entirely about stifled Edwardian sexuality. The chap at the beginning never really describes the medical procedure undertaken on Helen Vaughan, nor what disturbed him so much when he sent her away. The precise nature of the outrages in the wood is elided as are the sins of Mrs Herbert of Paul Street and Mrs Beaumont of Dover Street. The Great God Pan himself is usually shown in the guise of the Satyr, a symbol for rampant male sensuality. It’s such an incredibly salacious story – forget your 50 Shades of Grey, this is spicier than anything in there. It was also handy reading at the same time as writing my review of Some Kind of Fairy Tale because they are somewhat related.

The story is also a fine demonstration of the montage technique, the gradual build up of the story through disjointed narratives and artefacts like newspaper stories and related ephemera. The many viewpoints give a horror story verisimilitude. It’s a vision shared by a number of narrators that leaves behind material evidence to be perused and judged. It’s similar to the Charles Gray figure I talked about when I reviewed TheCase of Charles Dexter Ward – an omniscient narrator apparently piecing a story together from reportage, witness statements and their own deductions. In a story like this one, though, without a narrative voice contextualising the evidence, it relies more on the reader to bring it all together as the evidence mounts up. Machen does a brilliant job of building up the story of Helen Vaughan into something suggestive and disturbing. Definitely a story that deserves its reputation!

I also read a couple of the stories in the volume Six John Silence Stories by Algernon Blackwood. These reminded me a bit of Carnacki the ghost hunter, but even sillier. They are a reminder, though, that the ‘urban fantasy’ genre isn’t as new as all that, as these are essentially the same dull bollocks.

Lastly, I read Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. Like Wolf Hall, I enjoyed this a lot. At the same time as I read it, I was watching the first series of A Game of Thrones on DVD, and I was struck by the similarities. They both feature bibulous kings who’ve tired of their queens, both are concerned with the idea of legitimate heirs, and both stories have at their heart a faithful retainer. This backs up my idea that trad fantasy is just historical fiction with the scholarship filed off, or perhaps that historical fiction is just fantasy without the magic.

Either way, I thought Mantel’s Tudor court seemed a richer place than Westeros. In fairness, I don’t know what Martin’s books are like, but I found the TV show a bit leaden and expository. Mantel’s Tudor novels seem more confident to just drop you in, perhaps because the history is well enough known that even the most incurious reader can be assumed to have some knowledge.

But the historical familiarity makes the reading experience richer than pure fantasy, too. It adds a layer of cultural expectation, generations of reading about Good King Hal and Anne Boleyn laid over what’s going on here. Mantel brilliantly humanises the main players, especially Cromwell, and brings the era alive with lightly worn research on food and dress and manners, but she also benefits enormously from the half-remembered history lesson that the story keeps evoking. In comparison, the pretend medievalism of A Game of Thrones seems a bit pointless. I am aware there are more fantastic elements coming up – dragons and whatever the hell it is beyond the wall – but series on looked a bit too much like pretend history for me to maintain much interest at the moment.

Comics reading in this quarter was the usual pamphlets and Marvel Essential Super Villain Team-Up, the latter a re-read as I didn’t have anywhere else to turn. Aside from everything else, one of the great innovations of Marvel was complex villain. Doom and Namor – who figure prominently in this volume – are brilliantly complicated figures. Namor is as often hero as villain, but has trouble letting go of his hatred of the surface world. Doom’s a little more unambiguously evil, but here’s also the leader of a nation, and this book makes a big play of his role as king of Latveria. It’s an interesting angle on the super-hero world from before figures like Doom and Magneto became borderline good guys.

It gets a little less interesting after the Red Skull turns up, but then Marvel Essential Warlock turned up and so I put Super Villain Team Up aside.

In addition, I read another heavy load of Avengers vs X-Men, and issues of Fantastic Four and Future Foundation. I have something to say about these, but I’m going to hold over for next time, because this month I made a Big Decision.

This month, I have cancelled my standing order with Gosh and am now an ex-collecter.

I’ll have more to say about this decision and Avengers vs X-Men, plus and my reflections on forty years of comic collecting next time around.

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