Recent Reading

I’ve read quite a few books in the past three weeks or so – more than you’d expect (or at least more than I’d expect!) considering I’ve also been finishing my current WIP. But I didn’t want to kill myself getting it done, and I don’t work many hours during the summer, and it was WAY too hot to work outside or take the dogs hiking, so . . .

EXCALIBUR, by Laubenthal, is a contemporary fantasy with (obviously) an Arthurian focus. Beautiful language, just lovely. Let me open the book randomly and throw a dart at it. Ah, here we go, a random passage:

“And yet, slowly in the back of her mind, the sense of darkness intensified, took form in a nameless awareness that something was wrong. She remembered how she had been oppressed by this place ever since Monday, though she had never been afraid of the cellar in her childhood. No, it was not fear of the place; it was a foreboding, vague as yet but spreading through her mind like dark water, foreboding of something that was waiting for them, in the darkness and like darkness, wakeful and evil. Images, high-colored like those of dreams, floated through the dark of her mind: dragon-guarded apples of the Hesperides, demon-haunted paths to the Grail, the flaming sword at the gates of Eden. Was there any good in the world that was not dear-bought and shadowed with doom? And yet, had she not wanted this? What, she thought with a sense of sinking cold, what have I wanted?”

This book is an automatic keeper for me just because of the poetry of the writing. The characters are just okay for me, the plot is just okay. This book was published in 1973 and to me it does feel distinctly old-fashioned. Oddly, it reminds me a bit of Mary Stewart’s mysteries, though it’s not very much like those in any way I can actually put my finger on. The whole plot turns around religion; the story treats Christianity beautifully and seriously. That’s so rare in fantasy these days, which is, as we all know, simply rife with The Oppressive Church, everybody stamping their own out with the exact same cookie cutter, very tedious and boring.

Okay, moving on! I read ROSEMARY AND RUE and A LOCAL HABITATION by McGuire, which I’ve had on my TBR pile for simply ages. Those are paranormals, of course. The Book Smugglers love them, so I fully expected to love them, too. Plus McGuire also wrote FEED as Myra Grant, and for me while that one had some unbelievable plot elements that really bothered me, the writing and voice were fabulous. But in these paranormals, the main character seemed kind of . . . kind of . . . okay, sorry, kind of dim. She seemed to me to get herself in situations where anybody ought to have seen that there could be trouble, and she never took any sensible precautions in case there was trouble. And she was terribly slow to figure out obvious things, especially in the second book. I’m done with the series, I think.

So, trying again, I got a different paranormal off the stack: LICENSE TO ENSORCELL by Katharine Kerr. I really liked this one! I liked the protagonist (Nola O’Grady), who was much more competent, and I loved the Israeli agent (Ari Nathan) she worked with. I think Kerr was so clever to make the male lead Israeli! That’s new and different in paranormal, and she handled it really well. And I liked that Ari wasn’t a werewolf or a sorcerer or at all comfortable with the magic stuff – just a normal guy. Well, a normal guy with a really unusual childhood background and a lot of guns. I definitely plan to pick up others in this series – the next one might be out by now, since this one came out last year.

The Israeli thing in Kerr’s book put me in the right mood to pick up the Daniel Silva political thriller I had on the TBR pile. Of course Silva’s protagonist is Gabriel Allon, a restorer of fine paintings and an Israeli agent. I’ve read several of his and usually like them very much. This one was THE MESSENGER and for me it was just okay.

I read AMMONITE by Nicola Griffith. At last. I honestly don’t think I ever had before, which means it got lost on my shelves for what, twenty years? Oops. It was all right. Actually, it wasn’t bad at all It features a world where everyone is female, no men. I liked the way Griffith handled this, very matter-of-fact about it. This book could really use a sequel, there are definitely suggestions that a sequel was planned, but I guess it didn’t sell well enough for the publisher to be interested in bringing out sequels – that’s just a guess, could be totally wrong. Anyway, Griffith’s amazing thriller/mystery series, starting with THE BLUE PLACE, does rather blow this earlier SF novel out of the water.

I read DEEP SKY by Patrick Lee (whoa, major thrill ride there – but at the end, did he or didn’t he? I think he did.). I read LOST GIRLS by Kelley. I read THE MISTRESS’S DAUGHTER by Holmes, which is an autobiography, and how did that get on the TBR pile? I almost never read autobiographies or biographies. It was written by a woman whose birth mother tracked her down when she was an adult and it’s about the impact this had on her sense of identity. The birth mother turned out to be emotionally disturbed and the birth father a prize jackass – it was a bit like reading a true crime book without a true crime. Reading it should make almost any adopted kid glad she was adopted.

I read THE SAUCIER’S APPRENTICE: One Long Strange Journey Through the Great Cooking Schools of Europe, by Bob Spitz, which was fascinating and includes some amazing-looking recipes I MUST try. (Nonfiction like this and the autobiography are what I read when I really want to make progress on my own WIP.)

AND! Saving the best for last!

I read IN PURSUIT OF THE GREEN LION, which turns out to be the second book of a trilogy by Judith Merkle Riley. I would never have picked this up if I’d known how great it was going to be – I’d have save it for later, so I could dive into without guilt at putting off my own work.

Where has this author been all my life? The instant I finished this book, which was published back in 1990, I ordered the first and third books of the trilogy.
This an outstanding historical fantasy. So far this year, I haven’t encountered all that many real standouts. Tanya Huff’s Valor series, Rae Carson’s GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS, Stiefvater’s SCORPIO RACES. Others have been very good, but, I don’t know, I don’t think I’ve read as many truly great books this year as I did last year. And I’ve read 72 books this year so far (I just counted), so it’s disappointing that I’d have trouble coming up with ten that were really fabulous.

Well, this one is. Let me quote most of the prologue for you, and don’t tell me you don’t like prologues, neither do I, but sometimes there are exceptions. This prologue is great:

It was in the Year of Our Lord 1358, in the summertime, just two days before the Feast of Saint Barnabas, that a Voice spoke out of heaven into the ear of my understanding.

“Margaret,” said the Voice, “just what are you doing there?” My pen stopped, and I looked up.

“Surely, You know already,” I said to the still air.

“Of course I do, but I want you to tell Me, and that is entirely different,” the Voice answered.

But to begin in the right place, I must begin with God’s gift of daughters, which is made to mothers as a test and a trial. For on the Day of Judgment when we must answer for all things, what shall we answer if our daughters be too stubborn and impatient for the needle? Thus does God try our souls, and likewise cast out vanity, for the mothers of ungovernable children must always be humble.

Now the day on which the Voice spoke was all fair and warm, and everything was blooming and growing. We had removed our household from London for the summer once again; the disorder in the kitchens at Whitehill Manor had at last been put right, . . . . The air was so fresh, and the green fields so inviting, only a fool would imagine that two little girls as willful as Cecily and Alison would remember their duty. . . . . Still, as I climbed the long outside stairs to peep into the bower up under the eaves, I did not foresee what I would find. Empty! It was clear enough what had happened – two little pairs of shoes tumbled underneath the embroidery frame, a few dozen halfhearted stitches added to the work of months, and on the windowsill, Mother Sarah’s abandoned distaff.

“And she’s no better than they are! How could they?” I called out the window, “Cecily! Alison!” and thought I could hear the answering shriek of children’s laughter from a far-off place. Oh, failed again, I brooded. However will I make them into ladies? And then God will say at the end of the world, “Margaret, you allowed your daughters to become hoydens. Their French knots unravel. And those daisies. Ugh. Exactly like toadstools. Pass on my left, unworthy woman.”

But the silence of the abandoned bower was so inviting. I could feel the wonderful possibilities rising from the floor like mist. Mine, all mind, rejoiced my careless heart. Space, room, and quiet! And before I knew it, I had my paper and ink from the chest, and my writings about housewifery spread about me.

Now you must know that long ago I made a plan to write down all the wisdom Mother Hilde taught me, so that it would not all be lost. And my girls shall have it after me, and so become celebrated for their mastery of the arts of healing and cookery and housewifery. And it is very well that it all be written, even though these are all true secrets, for suppose some grief should come to me – how would they manage then? And this I must say of them, though they are slow at the needle, they are swift at the art of reading, which is most rare among females.

I set the pen at the place I had left off. “To keep the moth from woolens . . .” I had written, all those months ago, in London. How much had happened since then! Their father dead, so much changed. A bright shaft of sunshine from the little window above made a warm puddle of light on the page. Moths. How can keeping the moths off make my girls happy?

“Oh, bother moths! What do I care about moths? What ever possessed me to write about moths anyway?”

“Certainly not Me, Margaret.” The Voice sounded warm and comfortable, as if it were somehow inside the sunlight. I looked up from the paper and inspected the sunbeam carefully. The only thing I could see were thousands of dancing dust motes, all shimmering golden.

“It seemed like such a good idea at the time,” I addressed the sunbeam. “But now it’s all turned into moths and recipes for fish. And I don’t even like fish.”

“Why write about them, then?”

“I thought it was proper.”

“What is proper is what you understand best, Margaret.”

So, of course it was all clear. It wasn’t fish and moths I needed to write about after all. It was about something much more important. And certainly something my girls should know about, for the world tells them nothing but lies, leaving them entirely deluded on the subject.

“Why so busy, and so inky?” asked my lord husband that very evening. “Have you take up that recipe book again? Write about those tasty little fruit things in pastry – they would definitely be a loss to posterity. My future sons-in-law will bless me.”

“I’m writing a love story.”

“Another tale of courtly love to add to the world’s stock of lies? Surely you lead mankind astray. Pastries would be far better.”

“No, I’m not writing about that false, flowery stuff. Jousts, and favors, and lute playing in rose-covered bowers. I’m writing about the happily-ever-after part. I’m writing about true love.”

“Real love? Oh, worse and worse, Margaret. Nobody writes about that. For one thing, it’s not decent. For another, it’s impossibly dull. Now, if you wish to write about love, you must respect the conventions. What interests people is the trying to get, not the getting. Look at Tristan! Look at Lancelot! What kind of romance would it be if they could have had what they wanted? Tristan marries Yseult, and they produce a dozen moon-faced brats! . . . You must face facts, Margaret. You don’t understand anything about writing love stories. Stick to recipes.”

So of course I set to work right away. After all, my lord husband considers himself a great expert on the topic of love, because he has written a number of poems on the subject. But I, I have loved greatly.”


That’s not the whole thing, the prologue goes on a bit more, it’s three pages total, but that line’s a good stopping point, isn’t it?

I fell in love with this book at the “Pass on my left, unworthy woman,” line and wasn’t disappointed. Beautiful writing, wonderful characters, excellent plotting, splendid world-building – you get the feel of the real Middle Ages, which were of course totally dreadful in so many ways, and yet even though she shows you the filth and poverty and casual violence and horrible treatment of women, Riley somehow avoids the dark, gritty feel that can make current modern fantasies so unpleasant to read. I think it’s the protagonist’s pov, which . . . I don’t know. It’s not like Margaret looks at the world through rose-colored glasses, exactly. And I wouldn’t say she’s an innocent. But there’s an optimism and sweetness to her – well, there’s a reason God talks to her – she’s just a very nice person, but without being saccharine or simplistic. I really enjoyed her. All the characters are wonderful, really. The villain’s a bit of a stock villain, but actually I don’t mind that. He’s certainly evil enough you cheer on his downfall with enthusiasm.

And the writing! Obviously it’s fabulous, but it’s also interesting. Look at that prologue: it’s in the first person. Then in the first chapter, the first page is also in the first person. Then there’s a line break and the perspective switches to third person. Four pages later, there’s another line break and we switch back to first person. The rest of the chapter, about 18 pages, is all first person. The first five pages of the second chapter? Still first person. But then there’s a line break and we switch not only to third, but to the pov of Margaret’s new father-in-law! Now, he’s a very interesting character in his own right, but he’s definitely a secondary character, and yet here we are in his pov!

Actually the narrator through this section is omniscient; you don’t really notice when you’re reading it, you’re too caught up in the story, or at least I was. But we are told what the father-in-law thinks and remembers and also what Margaret hears and also what one of Margaret’s daughters is thinking. Looking carefully through this section, I see we are also told what Margaret’s husband is thinking. So it’s definitely an omniscient narrator, even though it’s mostly focused on the father-in-law and Margaret and plenty is left unsaid.

And then, after twelve pages, we switch back to Margaret’s first-person POV for the rest of the chapter. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like it. It definitely works, but it leaves me wondering, did Riley think about what she was doing when she wrote this? Or did she do it by feel? I think the omniscient narrator is so hard to do well. By far the hardest way to tell the story. I bet she did it by feel. I bet it’s impossible to do by reasoning your way through it.

A fascinating and wonderful book. I can’t wait to read the other two.

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1 thought on “Recent Reading”

  1. So glad you found EXCALIBUR worth while! I wonder if what you read as datedness was what I spotted as the obvious influences? They were pretty darn obvious to me, now. I’m still impressed with how much she got in about the past without dragging it out – the poet’s eye for ‘just enough’.

    I read the Merkle Rileys as they came out and then, after THE SERPENT GARDEN, lost sight of her. TSG didn’t have that lovely sweet voice the trilogy has. Must look them up again. Kerr had also fallen off my radar, although your description of her latest rings a faint bell for a novella of hers I read long ago – Israeli characters, IIRC.

    Oh, apropos of a few days ago – Patricia Wrede posted a link to NPR’s Best YAs (her quartet is on it) and as I scanned through I spotted LORD OF THE FLIES amazingly high in the ranking. Somebody out there must like it.

    And some food writing from a recent read (reminded me of you for some reason): “He finally noticed what woke him up, an indication of how groggy he still was. Food. More specifically, the smell of gourmet cooking—lamb, onion, something the Western world generically called “curry”—turmeric, coriander, cumin, touches of cinnamon, ginger, cardamom. He wasn’t ignorant enough to think that what he smelled came out of a jar labeled “Curry Powder.” She’d have her own range of blended spices for each specific dish, if she was any kind of cook. With variations that depended on the season and the weather and what she thought his aura needed.
    His nose told him that she was a serious cook. It told him to follow that smell. His stomach agreed. Vehemently. […]The . . . curry . . . woke tears in his eyes. Not that it was hot, not as hot food goes, just enough bite to focus his mind on the flavors, but an exquisite blend of foods and herbs and spices cooked just long enough for each—lamb seared by itself, same with the onions, not stewed in the sauce, so they remained distinct, rice just gummy enough to hold the sauce, some non-ethnic touches like tomatoes that couldn’t have been in her original cuisine.”

    POWERS by J. Burton. I was revisiting it because I wanted to count characters. I only remembered three. There are a couple more, but not many. Most of the book is just two.

    Great news on your writing progress.

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