Last Month in Reading

It’s time for the monthly review of the books I read last month.   Quite the variety in terms of subjects and quality.  Still a good month for in terms of number of books read.

Opening Atlantis, Harry Turtledove

The first of Turtledove’s trilogy of Atlantis alternate history novels, Opening Atlantis is an adequate read.  It is not mind blowing or anything, but it is sufficiently competent and entertaining to be worth reading.  The novel tells the story of an alternate history where a large island, or small continent, (I’ve since realized that it is the East Cost pulled off of America) sits between Europe and America.  Dubbed Atlantis by its discoverers, the novel follows it is colonization up through its equivalent of the French-Indian War through the eyes of the original English settler and his descendants.

One problem with it is that it covers too much time and is too much of a history to really develop the characters.  This is very much a novel of plot and not character, but the viewpoint is too close to the characters to give a wide, history like view. Another problem is that Atlantis’ history too closely mirrors America’s.  What is the point of an alternate history when it sticks so close to actual history?  This is more of a mild disappointment than a big problem, though.  With all of history to use as a canvas, Turtledove transplants what we already know with some cosmetic changes.  I hope the latter books deliver on the promise that Opening Atlantis nearly squanders.

Desire and Duty, Ted and Marylin Bader

Both this book and the next one are problems I sought out.  With the vast selection if books available to me on I decided to find some sequels to Jane Austen novels (Don’t you judge me), knowing full well that I was seeking out glorified (euuuh) fan-fiction.  How did it go?  Let’s just say I asked for it.

Desire and Duty, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, is bad fan-fiction.  It is well researched, as the pages of endnotes will attest, but it is horribly written.  Austen had a way of conveying conversations through summary and selective use of dialogue.  Nearly everything in this is conveyed through dialogue.  A character does not need to tell another character that there are three windows in the room that they are both in.

It also emphasizes how important all of the characters Christian faith is to them, and how they spend a lot of time helping the needy in their parish.  Readers of Pride and Prejudice might not recall this spiritual focus, because it was never mentioned in the original novel.  Neither was Darcy’s teetotaling.  It is as if the characters did not meet the strident morals of the authors, so they had to be improved.  Mrs. De Bourgh, as an antagonist, had to be brought low.  She went from a pushy busybody to a downright criminal meddler.  Mr. Collins had to prove less foolish than he seemed (read: was) in Pride and Prejudice, because he is part of the church and anything church related has to be good.  Desire and Duty is an out and out failure on every level.  I deserved it.

Eliza’s Daughter, Joan Aiken

This one is a sequel to Sense and Sensibility.  It is much better written than Desire and Duty, but I would not call it fan-fiction.  The author seems to have at best a mild contempt for the original novel.  That contempt does not merely extend to the Sense and Sensibility’s cast, but also to every male in the book.

Eliza’s Daughter is the story of the daughter of a minor character from Sense and Sensibility.  Also named Eliza (spoilers) she is the daughter of the previous protagonist’s Marianne’s former lover Willoughby and the ward of her husband.  Separated from her mother and told her mother had died; Eliza grows up in a squalid foster home.  In addition to her disadvantageous birth, she also has a malformed hand.  She gains the favour of a local lady through her daughter, but the lord and his brother are terrible MEN, so her friends loose their place.  There is also an unbelievable–not in the unbelievably good sense, in the breaks the suspension of disbelief sense–series of encounters with poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.

Eliza then meets one of the happy couples from S&S, Elinor and Edward, who are very much not happy anymore. Aiken seems to take sadistic glee in grinding S&S’s characters noses in the muck and ruins of the lives that she has created for them.  The only problem with this is there is no narrative reason for their misery.   There is no illumination on S&S that is brought out in the ruined lives of its protagonists.  They have been inexplicably cast as villains and therefore made to suffer.  There is enough substance to Eliza’s tale that this would be a better book without the constant distraction of the wretched Dashwood sisters.

Other than the superfluous degradation of the 200-year-old novel this is the sequel of, Eliza’s Daughter had one major narrative point to convey through the eponymous character’s story.  It is best summed up in the words of Mrs. Jebb, the kindly old kleptomaniac who Eliza lives with for a while:  “All men are black devils.”  This is not the raving of a bitter old woman; this idea is reinforced throughout the novel.  Men, in this novel, are incapable of any feelings that are not selfish.  They want to use and/or rape women and feel no remorse about it.  There is no male character in the novel of which this is not true.  It is similar to Frank Miller’s depiction of women (Whores, whores, whores!) but without the somehow empowering subtext.

Because Eliza’s Daughter is less incompetently written, the narrative blemishes are more problematic.  This is not accidental subtext from a careless writer, this is an intentional message, but it is dissonant.  Eliza’s Daughter is mean-spirited and misandrist failure of a novel and an unmitigated disaster of a sequel.
Redwall, Mossflower, Mattimeo Brian Jacques

The passing of Brian Jacques gave me the motivation to read the Redwall series.  I had previously read several of the books and had always intended to read the rest, but though they were always available–my brother owns the lot of them–they were never near the top of my reading list.  After hearing about the sad loss of Jacques, I decided to give the whole series a read. I intend to give each book a more thorough review, but I have barely started formulating how I am going to do that near 30-review project.  And considering how I did with 25 Years of NES means that it will be a while before I start that project.  Therefore, I will go ahead and do some quick thoughts.

This is the first book and it does a great job of creating a vibrant world for the subsequent books.  Some details are not hammered out.  Like how human are these animals?  What about that horse from the beginning?  Not problems, just details that are not quite clear after one book.  Redwall sets up a great world and a history to explore for the series.  The only real problem is that Mathias’ quest gets started really late and is somewhat perfunctory.  He must find the sword, so he does.  Still, it is a minor complaint.

Mossflower delivers on the promise of Redwall.  Though they fall into the same roles characters are better fleshed out and more varied.  Having Gonf to play off of Martin made them both more interesting.  And the quest, which I called perfunctory in Redwall, is fully fleshed out here.  The only weakness is the sheer incompetence of Tsarmina, the villain.  Mossflower is a great book.

Mattimeo return to the characters of Redwall, but changes up the plot significantly.  Instead of the usual threat menaces Redwall, or more accurately in addition to, the bulk of the book is a rescue mission.  And this time the villain is competent.  The story at Redwall while the major players are away is somewhat dull, but it is good to see more of the gang from Redwall.  I cannot help but think that there is an unpublished, unwritten Redwall book where Mattimeo actually gets to star, but his journey in this is a worthwhile story.


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