Oct 30, 2014

Reading Notes: October Edition

Reading Notes: October Edition

The Mysteries by Lisa Tuttle
The Mysteries by Lisa Tuttle: One of my seasonal picks, and one I had high hopes for after having given up on Lauren Owen’s The Quick at the start of the month. This one I did finish, but alas — I wish I’d liked it more. The premise of The Mysteries is promising and very much up my alley: there’s a private detective specialising in missing persons, several unresolved cases intersecting with the main storyline, plus “Tam Lin” and other Scottish and Irish folktales that revolve around the fairy folk. Unfortunately I was put off by the fact that the story’s voice felt too stereotypically male gazey for me (which is perfectly possible in a book written by a woman when we all grow up in a world with the same set of defaults, blah blah blah). The novel combines elements of mystery and fantasy, and I think it was probably going for a noir sort of feel. I can understand the intent, but sadly I can’t say it worked for me.

It wasn’t just the way the narrator, Private Investigator Ian Kennedy, described the female characters he encountered, though there was that, too; my main issue was with a scene (spoilers for the rest this paragraph) where the woman he was hired to find goes through a series of Tam Lin-like transformations. Like in the original ballad, he has to hold on to her through these to bring her back to the human world. One of the things she turns into is a naked young man who makes sexual advances on Kennedy, and despite some faint “I’m not homophobic, but” disclaimers, this was described mainly in terms of the revulsion it made him feel. I wouldn’t mind this if the emphasis had been on the unwanted nature of the advances, but it felt very much that the gender of the person making them and not the issue of consent was the key factor. I’ve already returned the book to the library, which means that unfortunately I can’t share the relevant passages, but the scene’s tinges of bodily revulsion of the eww-he-has-male-bits sort and associated homophobic undertones were strong and very much off-putting.

I’ve always wanted to read Tuttle’s The Silver Bough, but this has somewhat dissuaded me. The Mysteries isn’t terrible, mainly because the writing is competent and the atmosphere is spot on, but to be honest it just made me miss Tam Lin.

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean: …which is why I went on to reread it, and oh, it was immensely satisfying and the perfect October book. It’s a wonderful feeling to still love a book every bit as much as you remember. In addition to my great enjoyment of the atmosphere, what struck me the most this time around was how central to the narrative Janet’s intellectual interests are. I love Tam Lin’s nerdiness; I love the fact that this is a book that makes me miss being a student acutely. It’s a campus novel that focuses not only on its characters’ social lives, but on the everyday business of getting to know your own mind and making sense of the world, which a good education is very much about.

Janet’s love of Shakespeare and Keats, her discovery of Greek, her slow warm-up to Pope — they all put me in mind of slow, satisfying days spent at my university’s library developing what felt like a meaningful relationship with my assigned reading. I don’t know that I can describe this without sounding pretentious — these moments didn’t come along all the time, but it was wonderful when they did. I felt like I was making friends with what were previously only names on the curriculum, and as I did so all these Important Old Books became truly mine. Tam Lin captures that feeling perfectly: claiming things as your own, realising your horizons are expanding, feeling your understanding of the world shifting in small but crucial ways, and stopping for a moment to savour and take pleasure in this fact. Rather than bogging down the narrative, the academic details bring Tam Lin’s thematic core to life in ways the supernatural plot alone couldn’t.

In short: this is a wonder of a novel, and I expect I’ll be returning to it again and again.

Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger Curtsies & Conspiracies by Gail Carriger

Etiquette & Espionage and Curtsies & Conspiracies by Gail Carriger: I picked up Carriger’s Finishing School series entirely due to her comments at LonCon about wanting to write “vastly networked protagonists” whose stories were nothing like the traditional lonely hero’s journey. Being a big believer in collaboration, I loved Carriger’s rejection of the one man’s quest to save the world, and that predisposed me to like these books from the very start.

I did like them, but in the end I felt much like I did about Soulless: I found them fun but ultimately forgettable. This probably sounds harsher than I intend it to — I did love the main character, Sophronia; I greatly enjoyed watching her make friends; I was often delighted by Carriger’s humour and by the novels’ subversive streak; and I found them compelling enough that I read them in a few days. But with so much stuff out there demanding my attention, I’m undecided as to whether I want to invest more time in this series. I suppose that’s an answer in itself.

8 comments:

  1. I always want to re-read my favorite Tam Lin retellings around this time of year, and now I want to re-read Dean's version even more!

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  2. I love that Tam Lin book too. It's high time I sat down to reread it myself.

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  3. Tam Lin is one I've wanted to read for a while. I'm vaguely familiar with the fairy tale but I've never read enough about it.

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  4. Yay, more love for Tam Lin! I'm seriously thinking about featuring it in next year's Witch Week...

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  5. Aw, Tam Lin. I reread that book maybe TOO often? It's such a quintessential comfort read for me at this point -- I love everything Pamela Dean says about the plays they see. PLUS it introduced me to The Lady's Not for Burning, one of my all-time favorite plays.

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  6. "It’s a wonderful feeling to still love a book every bit as much as you remember."

    This is so true! And it sounds like I really need to read Tam Lin.

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  7. Anytime someone has to make a disclaimer like "I'm not homophobic/racist/sexist/etc." it's a bad, bad thing.

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  8. The college in the Pamela Dean book is modeled on a small liberal arts college like the one where I work, and it's definitely part of the charm of working there to help bring about those moments of interaction with authors and to see the students expanding their literary horizons.

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