Books of the month(s) – March and April 2012


With apologies for missing a month, just in case there’s someone out there who has been waiting anxiously to find out what I’ve been reading recently.  Given that this post covers two months, it is surprising in some ways that it isn’t extraordinarily long.  On the other hand, the reason for that is one Monsieur Dumas.  So, in order of completion :

The Next Queen of Heaven by Gregory Maguire.

Picked up on a whim from the library, this is a novel by the author of the Wicked series which, in a change of pace, is not related to any previous work of literature or fairy tale.  This is a modern novel with a plot concerning the residents of a small town and their own struggles, some large and some small.  It takes in a variety of themes, including religious attitudes to the young and to homosexuality, family identity, AIDS and the search for meaning and purpose.  Things get rather crazy from time to time, particularly once the group of nuns are introduced.  It’s not a patch on Wicked (but then, neither are any of Wicked‘s sequels), but I did find myself laughing from time to time and there were scenes near the end which I found genuinely moving.

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander.

A chance find in a charity shop, I had been looking for this elsewhere for some time, and was really looking forward to reading it.  However, I think I may have found it 20 years too late.  Often cited as a classic of fantasy literature, My teenage self would have loved it, and there is something to admire in the variations on common fantasy tropes and the insistence of bucking stereotypes, but I found this thoroughly underwhelming and won’t be seeking out the sequels.

Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson.

I am now finally up to date with the Wheel of Time saga, and can now join the many others waiting for the final volume to come out last year.  This was a great read, but definitely only for those who have read the rest of the series, as the number of characters is simply bewildering now.  For me, the predominant theme of this volume was hope, something we could all do with in our lives.  There is a moment when someone ‘does a Gandalf’, but it has been foreshadowed quite heavily for several books beforehand, so it’s not exactly a surprise when the character is brought back onto the playing field.  Many dangling subplots are resolved, and everything starts to come together.  At the close of the book, we even find most of the key characters in the same place at the same time, which probably last happened 9 or so books ago!

The Library Book by many and various people

This book, which contains a wide variety of reflections on libraries in the UK – fictional, philosophical, political, historical and whimsical – brings together original writing and extracts from longer works by authors, celebrities and thinkers.  It is inspiring, challenging, depressing and thought-provoking at different points, and clearly sets out many of the reasons why the public library service in the country really needs to be defended.  Most of the fiction I could happily have lived without, but the rest of it is well worth a re-read or two.  Please do check this out if you are at all interested in libraries.

Firestorm, the Nuclear Man by Gerry Conway and others

Having enjoyed reading the earliest stories about Booster Gold, I grabbed this as soon as I spotted it in the library, thinking that it had to be worth reading the first adventures of another second-string superhero I’ve rather enjoyed in the past.  From a slightly earlier era than Booster’s debut, I found these stories less entertaining.  There is still an interesting cast of characters, though I soon found the recurring villains irritating, but it’s not a collection I plan to re-read.  Best described as a fairly fun attempt to re-capture the spirit of Spider-Man’s first tales.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

First things first.  This book is long.  Very long.  And Dumas could have done with an editor.  Yes, I know such a concept did not fit with the literary and social landscape of the time, but the amount of padding and excess verbiage is rather irritating.  Other than that, this really is a good book.  The central character is intriguing, though I found myself growing less and less sympathetic towards him as the plot progressed and his drive for vengeance became more ruthless.  For vengeance is at the heart of this story, even though forgiveness and redemption do eventually get a look-in.  The account of Dantes’ escape from unjust imprisonment is gripping, and his need for revenge is understandable, but Dumas goes on to paint a picture of what happens when this becomes an obsession and Dantes, reborn as the titular Count, begins to play at being God.  Some of the secondary characters are fascinating, particularly those who get caught in the cross-fire of the insanely complex revenge plot, but one of the subplots which gains prominence as the book progresses – the romance of young Morrel and Valentine – took up far too much time, particularly towards the end when it took away the focus from the main story.  Like the film of The Return of the King, it does rather feel like the book ends three or four times.  But is it worth reading?  If you have the time to get through it, then yes, it is.  But I really don’t think there’d be anything wrong with reading an abridged version…

52 by Greg Cox

The novelisation of a weekly comic book series which I really en joyed when it was running, 52 fails to capture what made the series great.  It focusses on a year without the three key superheroes of the DC Universe – Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman – and shows the lives of some lesser lights – Renee Montoya, Black Adam and Booster Gold (yes, him again).  At times, the distinct voices of these characters are captured brilliantly, but the reading experience left me cold.  Not because so many characters were left out (including Elongated Man, one of my absolute favourites), but because the format was against it from the start.  Part of the joy of 52 was its uniqueness and the experience of reading it week by week.  Condensed into novel format, it soon becomes obvious when there are times when none of the plots are really progressing.  Not the author’s fault, I suppose.  The highlights for me were the glimpses at Oolong Island, where all the mad scientist characters were gathered to create ultimate weapons – chaos and hilarity naturally ensued.

+++++

Quite a variety of reads this time, even though spread over two months.  It’s becoming obvious that anything comic booky is losing its appeal with me – I really ought to close the door on it, but I doubt I will.  It felt good to reach the end of The Count of Monte Cristo at last, and a relief not to have to carry the heavy book around any more.

Book of the month(s)?  The Library Book.  Obviously, this is something close to my heart, but it is also a well-presented collection of genuinely interesting pieces of writing.

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