Notes on a Thesis – Tephanie Riviére

One of my current goals is to undertake a PhD, although life events keep stopping me from starting that (such as children!) But the cynical look at PhDs in the comic press always helps steer me away, as opening up for such a long drag always comes with hesitation. Riviére’s examination of a PhD is one of that tone, a woman who starts with dreams and ambition, and just about manages to end it.

A grim and adult look at relationships under pressue, family, ambtion and poor mentor support. Only the last I thought was unfair – putting words into the mouth of an advisor to make them unsympathetic rather than just distracted. Although French academic culture may be different in this regard.

But there are plenty of dry laughs in here, and a driving need to see if Jeanne succeeds. The art is also inspired, with lecture theatres full of vicious tigers one moment and shy kittens the next as she learns to manage lecturing and conferences. Worth a read!

 

Rethink – Steven Poole

Rethink is a look at the history of ideas. How there are very few truly new ideas, but a lot of ideas which were thought up before they reached their time. The focus was spread across scientific, political and economic disciplines, leaping from astronomy to mental health via chess.

The encouragement is to look again at currently discredited ideas, and to be patient with new ideas that require time and understanding be accepted as conventional. It makes fascinating reading, as links to modern ideas are found in ancient texts, and I enjoy a good story on an old academic debate, where what we know as a fundamental truth was first proposed.

Then there is a look at what ideas could be due for renaissance. This is where we steer quite firmly into political and economic territory, betraying Poole’s lack of scientific training. But these are all ideas which are moving into the Overton window, and becoming feasible in a way that they weren’t 20 years ago.

An interesting look on how ideas develop and move in and out of being accepted truths in human society.

Saffy’s Angel – Hilary McKay

Saffy’s Angel is well-written young adult fluff. It has the bohemian arty family, an adoption, and a strict family to put the artists into context.

Fundamentally, Saffy discovers that she should inherit an angel, and most of the book revolves around her quest to try and recover it. But there are side plots, with sister Caddy’s torturous learning to drive with Michael Darling, the father who spends most of his time at his London studio and other adventures of the rest of the family.

There is lots of rich humour, with some children allowed to do what they want, and some much more constrained, and not a single one of them being set up to be taken seriously. It forms a nice light book, touching on serious topics. However I don’t feel any great need to read the other three in the series.

The King’s Justice – Stephen Donaldson

The King’s Justice is a short and punchy novella, with the mysterious character “Black” who turns up in town shortly after an unsolved murder. But this book is not really about that murder, but about the balancing of forces and the understanding of who makes up “The King’s Justice” and how they become who they are.

“Very well,” begins Black. “You are aware, I hope, that you are both charlatans.”
The priests stare…

As so many fantasy novels are, it is in a pseudo-medieval setting. My only complaint is the origin of the enemy, but at least that is not gratuitous, but rather necessary to explain how he has access to magic that the King’s Justice doesn’t.

Well worth reading

Unfinished: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Selected Poems

I’m torn on Coleridge. For most of his poems I enjoy each stanza. However he does not seem to have heard of short poems. If I’m in a poetry mood I tend to lean towards the short. Poems hundreds of lines long, in some cases without even seperate verses, just take too much concentration: I feel the need to read some almost breathlessly.

Off to the charity shop for someone with better concentration than me!

 

The Seventh Sword Trilogy – Dave Duncan

Another trilogy lent to me during recuperation, this one is one I’d read before. This trilogy brilliantly subverts genre tropes, with a modern chemist catapulted into another world during the Age of Legends. Wallie Smith has to understand both how this world works and what is happening to fulfil a mysterious quest set to him by a god.

We have the trials, the faith and the work to drive the world to a better place. But we also have “magic” and strategy and leadership. Of course there is a culture clash, as Wallie has to get used to social norms in the World.  How it ends is inspired, and I love that the big picture the gods view includes the purpose for souls, and the need for that soul to be the right age at the right time.

The characters are both strong and flawed, just how I like them! And the world-building is brilliant as we understand the geography and what the Age of Legends means in this world.

Looking for other work by Dave Duncan I am torn to discover that he has added a fourth book to this series. Unlike the existing books, which happen in swift succession, this one is set 15 years into the future. Such a distant epilogue feels like cashing in on a successful trilogy rather than having anything interesting to say

Wicked – Gregory Maguire

I am a big fan of musicals, including Wicked, and wanted to revisit the novel that inspired the musical.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West does not have the same plot as the musical, but the same starting premise. Elphaba is given a stronger destiny, and Galinda more socially constrained in the novel. Not to mention the stronger political tones with genocide and murdering dissidents.

This is a full story of a life, starting with a difficult childhood, and an escape to university which is more complex than expected, and full circle being reached again with family links. She has life-long friendships throughout this in the flawed but loving Nanny and Boq, her partner-in-crime. But fundamentally it is about the life of a woman who faces discrimination and battles it to try and be a force for good in the world.

Maguire’s reimagining of Oz manages to be magical and political. He weaves together complex characters with a range of motives, each of them flawed, but so many driven by a higher purpose or destiny.

And of course, it being Wicked, we need a video. I’ve had a good few weeks of concerts recently, and have heard Defying Gravity at both Idina Menzal’s world tour and at an orchestral performance sung by Ashleigh Gray.

Persuasion – Jane Austen

With the second centenary of Austen’s death there are many events going on to commemorate her and celebrate her works. This runs from appearing on banknotes to plays and other cultural events. I went to a modern “retelling” of Persuasion at the Manchester Royal Exchange, which was both true to the original language and hilarious in its modern interpretations. I confess I didn’t recall a foam party in the text.

Having seen the play (at short notice) I then returned to the book, to take in the depths and layers that a play with limited cast and a short timeframe couldn’t include. Cousins are added, the full detail of who Mrs Clay is and a bit more detail that makes the courtship make more sense.

It is of course beautifully written, humerous in places and shows Anne Elliot manoeuvring her position to navigate through life and find a suitable future for herself.

Have you recently revisited any classics?

The Obernewtyn Chronicles (7 titles) – Isobelle Carmody

I was lent this series by a friend with a shared interest in young-adult fantasy series to entertain me as I recuperated from an episode of ill health that left me with a month to rest. They more than half-filled the box, but thankfully started as quite slim paperbacks that didn’t look as intimidating as the Red Queen does, with this paperback coming in at over 1100 pages.

The chronicles all stand well as individual books, but make a compelling longer arc as well. However as each book moved on, I felt increasingly like Elspeth had primarily been set an artificial quest rather than facing external issues until very close to the end. She also spends much of her time dependent on her guardian’s protections rather than her own skills and planning, to the extent that I wanted to read the guardian’s book as her story sounded much more interesting.

Even with a dreamworld linked to the real world, we also seemed to spend too much time there, and it was very much a revelations-style dreamworld. If I wanted to read a drugged nightmare then I would have started with a different type of book!

However the general world-building is brilliant, a genuinely post-apoplectic world where all modern technology has been lost into legends. How earlier miracles were worked is gradually being uncovered, and bigotry is challenged. Wars are fought, peace is negotiated and promises are (mostly) fulfilled.

Obernewtyn is a lot of lightweight escapist dystopian future fantasy. Worth reading for the world-building, as long as you aren’t looking for something that stands up to a critical read.

Daughter of Eden – Chris Beckett

The third, and feels like the final, book in Beckett’s Eden series. Daughter of Eden takes place so far into Eden’s future that the earlier characters have firmly passed into mythology. He also still has something to say about human nature,and our need to believe in something. Through the characters he introduces he frames religious wars as the ridiculous ideas that they are,

But no one else looked at it that way. How can you ask if the story is true or not, if you’re in the story yourself?

I find it interesting that for the last two books he has focussed on female characters, with the surrounding male characters being two-dimensional at best. The women avoid the nurturing trap as well, and instead are powerful characters who have ambitions and leadership skills, despite the way that the society created on Eden has limited them. And the importance of the relationships between those women is central to this world.

I liked how the story was brought full circle without taking the easy escape. Of course Earth would eventually return, but how that was resolved was imaginative.