Saturday, November 01, 2014

What we're reading: Second books

That title is a bit of a misnomer if you're thinking that I read the first book by the author and then read the second book by the same author. Actually, it's just the opposite: I read their latest works, and then went back to the beginning (or at least earlier in their careers) to see what else these authors had written.

The first author I revisited only reluctantly, but I'm so glad I allowed librarian Daryl M. to persuade me! He's the one who loaned me My Real Children, the latest book by Jo Walton, which I reviewed here, not entirely favorably. So when he said Oh, but now you must read Among Others, I thought, Really? Must I? But…it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, so eventually I gave in.

On the surface, it's a boarding school book. A girl runs away from home because she can't stand to be with her mother, but her elderly relatives can't take care of her, and so Social Services tracks down her absentee father, who left before she could remember him, and she is bundled off into his reluctant custody. The aunts with whom he lives and for whom he works promptly bundle her off again, to boarding school, where most of the physical story takes place. But there is so much more to this tale, because it is suffused with a magical, mystical sense of Morwenna's world that includes fairies, magic, and reams of science fiction.

This was a five-star book for me, and yet I would find it hard to recommend it to very many people. I can think of maybe three people I know who would both get it and enjoy it. First of all, if you are not a voracious reader, specifically of science fiction, don't bother. Unless, that is, you are a neophyte reader of SF and want to know whose books to read, in which case, DO read it, and take copious notes! But if you don't enjoy a story that is a paean to other people's writing, then no.

The book is beautifully written. The language is exquisite. The thoughts are so carefully crafted to convey exactly the meaning that's wanted. That's rare.

It also takes the unhappy-child-at-boarding-school genre and turns it in a new direction, as well as giving insight into class consciousness, British cooking, inter-library loan, the existence, behavior, and meaning of fairies, the ethical uses of magic…there's a lot to be found in this book! I don't wonder that it won the top science fiction and fantasy awards…but it's not a book for everyone, or even for everyone who likes sci fi. But for those of us it IS for…wow.

The second author is Peter Heller, whose most recent novel (The Painter) I reviewed here. After being enthralled by that book, I decided to go back and read his first book, The Dog Stars.

It's a post-apocalyptic story, set in Colorado after a flu pandemic has wiped out most of the population. Hig, a pilot and a fisherman, somehow survived, and is living in the hangar of a small abandoned airport with his dog, Jasper, and a misanthropic weapons nut named Bruce Bangley, flying recon in his precious Cessna and scavenging for food while fighting off intruders bent on taking what little he and Bangley have left.

I hesitated to read this when I found out it was post-apocalyptic fiction, because I am so tired of all the YA versions of this (and the adult versions too). But despite the horrifying nature of the world after the pandemic, this book is about light, grace, hope, and love, in the midst of despair, fatalism, and uncertainty. It is brutal, but it is also delicate. It left me breathless. This was such an unexpectedly emotional book for me. It is sparely written, and yet the abbreviated, sometimes jerky prose opens up air for deep feelings to flow through it, and I was carried away. Another five stars for Heller.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I loved Dog Stars, not so much The Painter which I couldn't finish. And I liked your review of the DS!