The Last Unicorn

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The Last UnicornThe Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
Published: 1968
Series: The Last Unicorn, #1
Length: 294 pages

I loved the animated version of The Last Unicorn when I was a kid. All of the films from that studio fascinated me. They also did The Flight of Dragons (my favourite) and the most frightening version of The Hobbit you’ll ever watch. They were all a bit eerie and off-putting, as the motion, the character designs, and the adult voices always felt a bit wrong to me as a kid. That was part of what made them different and interesting, though.

I’m not sure how I didn’t know this, but it wasn’t until a few years back that I discovered this was based on a book. And not just any book, one that many people consider a true fantasy classic. I knew I had to read it at that point. I was worried that I’d be annoyed by the differences between the movie and the book, as happens sometimes when nostalgia gets mixed in, but thankfully I’ve been blessed with the memory of a goldfish. It’s also been nearly twenty-five years (that’s depressing) since I last saw it. As a result, every new scene was a nice flashback to childhood.

Real magic can never be made by offering someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back.

This story is about a unicorn who discovers that she is the last of her kind. They are solitary creatures that don’t keep up with the outside world, but she overhears two hunters discussing how her species are no longer seen in the world, which leads her to leave her home to discover the truth. I’m not sure what else to reveal without falling into spoiler territory, but it’s much more interesting and unique than I’m making it seem. I’m terrible at synopses.

This turned out to be beautifully written. The prose reads like a fable, which would normally be a turn off for me, but it’s just enough that it adds a magical, surreal quality to the story without it becoming irritating. It’s also much more obviously meta than I remember the movie being, although I have a feeling I just didn’t really notice when I was a kid, but I loved how Schmendrick explained the world around them in terms of how fairy tales work.

The true secret in being a hero lies in knowing the order of things. The swineherd cannot already be wed to the princess when he embarks on his adventures, nor can the boy knock on the witch’s door when she is already away on vacation. The wicked uncle cannot be found out and foiled before he does something wicked. Things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned; prophecies may not be left to rot like unpicked fruit; unicorns may go unrescued for a very long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.

There’s a great mix of creepy, tense moments (such as Mommy Fortuna’s carnival) and lighthearted moments, but there is always that feeling of dread and mystery in the background. It was that atmosphere, which was perfect from start to finish, that really made this feel special. I glad I decided to finally read this.

Peter S. Beagle has written quite a lot over the years, but I’m unfamiliar with his other books. There is a free short story sequel on his website that I’ll have to eventually read, though.

July in Review

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Books Acquired:
None.

Books Read:
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
Get Jiro! by Anthony Bourdain
Good Bones and Simple Murders by Margaret Atwood
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

I’m in a bit of a reading slump right now, so I didn’t get through a lot this month. It’s fallen down in priority, but it’s temporary. That’s just how it goes sometimes. I did finally read The Last Unicorn, which I had been meaning to get to for quite some time now, so that was great. Anthony Bourdain’s comic was on the list for years too, so that’s another one crossed off.

Movies watched:
Sing Street (2016) – Great coming-of-age movie with some fun songs and nostalgia.

Moana (2016) – One of the best Disney movies I’ve seen in quite a while.

Mindhorn (2017) – I really like Julian Barratt, and this was just silly fun.

The Blues Brothers (1980) – Somehow I had never watched this classic comedy, but it was great. I hadn’t actually realized it had musical numbers, so that was an added bonus.

TV watched:
The Layover: Season 2 (2012) – We love Anthony Bourdain, and this show was very entertaining. I’m jealous that he can eat and drink so much and then hop on a plane. Those two things do not mix for me.

Games played:
PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS (2017 pre-release) (PC) – I got back into this recently. It really taps into my competitive spirit. I don’t usually touch games that are pre-release, but the hype got to me. Looking forward to see what they do with this in the next few months.

Overwatch (2016) (PC) – This is another game I’m revisiting. It’s great when you just want to jump in for short periods.

What have you been reading/watching/playing this month?

A Man Called Ove

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A Man Called OveA Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Published: 2012
Narrated by: George Newbern
Translated By: Henning Koch (from Swedish in 2013)
Length: 09:09 (368 pages)

Ove is a fifty-nine-year-old grump. He’s stubborn, angry, rude, a stickler for the rules, and someone who can become infuriated by the simplest of things. In some ways, I can related to Ove a little too well, so I found his cynical inner dialogue to be hilarious right through the novel.

Through flashbacks, we learn his life story and slowly start to understand why he is the way he is. It begins with him meeting his new neighbours and immediately hating them, but as the story progresses he begrudgingly spends more and more time with them. He is a wonderful character, but the other characters in the novel, particularly the wife of the new neighbours, are great as well.

The plot of the story is fairly predictable, the few surprises will be annoyingly ruined if you’ve seen the trailer for the 2015 movie (which I haven’t watched yet), but I was enjoying Ove’s story enough to still fly through the novel. It’s covers some pretty heavy stuff around trying to deal with loss and grief, but it’s also very funny, so it never really gets bogged down with that. I think he managed to strike a good balance between the heartfelt moments and the funny moments, where it felt comedic but didn’t feel like it was trying to strong arm emotions in there as well.

This was Fredrik Backman’s first novel, and he’s gone on to publish a few more. I haven’t heard anything about them, but I’ll keep an eye out.

Saga, Volume 7

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Saga, Vol. 7 (Saga, #7)Saga, Vol. 7 by Brian K. Vaughan
Illustrated by: Fiona Staples
Published: 2017
Publisher: Image Comics
Length: 152 pages
Collects: issues #37–42

I had no idea the new volume of Saga was out until I saw it on the shelf, so that was a nice surprise. This series has had some ups and downs, as most do I suppose, but overall it’s still been fantastic. And honestly, even the downs haven’t been that bad, forgettable but still enjoyable to read.

In this volume the group is forced to land on a war-torn comet to gather fuel. They end up staying longer than expected and allowing a local family of native inhabits, who are now refugees, to stay with them. It’s basically just the story of their time on the comet, but a surprising amount actually happens. Relationships are built up and torn apart, and it was probably a good idea to slow down the plot and reestablish the group dynamics after having the crew scattered for the last couple of volumes.

In a way this is a self-contained story arc, the sort of story-of-the-week that usually really annoys me in comics and television. I hate when series do side-stories that don’t move the main plot along, and this did feel like that, but it also managed to rise above. Enough happened that the emotional repercussions will affect the crew for the rest of the series, so it definitely gets a pass in my book. In fact, it turned out to be one of my favourite volumes.

I love how much character development this series has seen. Some of these characters are unrecognizable from how they were introduced, and the relationships continue to be complicated without feeling unnaturally dramatic (although past issues were guilty of this). I have no idea if this is true, but I’ve read in a couple of comments that they plan to do ten volumes of this, so there’s only a few left. I’m excited to see where it goes, but also sad to see it ramping up to finish.

Authority

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Authority (Southern Reach, #2)Authority by Jeff VanderMeer
Published: 2014
Series: Southern Reach #2
Length: 341 pages

The events from the first book have finished, and now the team outside of Area X are struggling to understand what happened on this last expedition. Southern Reach has appointed a new head to the department, John Rodrigues, and we follow him as he takes the job, learns about the building, the staff, and the secretive history of the Area X research. In the first book, we get to see inside Area X and the regular world outside almost seems like a mystery. In this, we’re back on the outside looking in and we get to watch as the department struggles to understand.

This was such an interesting sequel to Annihilation. It deals with the continuation of the first novel’s events and is set near the same area, but it feels like a completely different series. It follows a new character, it’s written in third person instead of first person (as it’s no longer told through journal entries), and it deals with life outside of Area X. Most authors would have this be the setting for the first novel, as it seems a more natural progression, but this was a very cool way to structure the series.

It’s also much less action-packed than the first novel. Annihilation bombarded the reader with bizarre happenings from start to finish, whereas this is mainly structured around normal office life for the majority of the story, which still somehow manages to be fascinating. When strange things occur in everyday settings, they can can feel even more unsettling.

I could see how some people might find this novel a bit too slow. There’s not a lot that actually happens in the way of events, but being in Rodrigues’ head and following as he dug for answers was a lot of fun. Particularly in this case, as there is an interesting balance in knowledge between what the reader knows and what Rodrigues knows. It could have actually been quite annoying if it wasn’t handled properly, but Jeff VanderMeer nailed it.

Excited to see how this series ends!

June in Review

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Books Acquired:
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
The Lady In The Van by Alan Bennett
Saga, Volume 7 by Brian K. Vaughan
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller

Books Read:
The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope
Authority by Jeff VanderMeer
Saga, Volume 7 by Brian K. Vaughan
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

This was a nice, relaxing month. I probably shouldn’t have bought any books, considering the used book sale last month, but I have no regrets!

The Essex Serpent is a novel that I have been hearing quite a bit about from UK bloggers and booktubers, so when I saw it was released here I figured I’d pick it up. I haven’t read it yet, and honestly don’t know all that much about it other than people seem to love it, but it’s sure a nice package. Great cover and nice thick pages.

We watched the The Lady in the Van film adaptation last month and really enjoyed it, so when I saw it on sale, I grabbed it. I’d like to read a bit more Alan Bennett, although I do still have Smut waiting to be read.

Spectacular sunset last night.

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The Last Unicorn is a book I’ve been meaning to read for ages. I loved the animated movie when I was a kid and only discovered a few years ago that it was based on a beloved novel from the late sixties. I’ve started it already, and it’s been a real nostalgia trip so far.

Loving this hot weather.

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Lastly, The Year of Reading Dangerously has been on my to-read list for quite a long time now too. I love books on books, and this sounds like a great one, but I was holding off due to the potential spoilers. I haven’t read a lot of the novels he lists, so that was a worry, but I figured I’d just grab it and see how it goes. I listen to his podcast, Backlisted, so I’m already a bit of a fan.

We’ve spent the weekend out in the sun, celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday, so July is already off to a good (albeit slightly burnt) start. Hope you all had a good June.

Movies watched:
Alien: Covenant (2017) – As with every Ridley Scott movie lately, this looked beautiful and had a silly story littered with plot holes and characters doing stupid things. Enjoyable, but a bit frustrating when you think about what it could have been.

TV watched:
Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Season 4 (2016) – This show has been consistently amusing from the start. On one hand, I hesitate to recommend it, because it feels like an average gag-of-the-week sitcom, but I’m always surprised by how much I enjoy it.

The Layover: Season 1 (2011) – We always have to have some food television on the go, and Anthony Bourdain is currently filling the spot. He spends a couple of days in a city (he calls them layovers, but there would have to be some sort of apocalypse to justify a 48 hour layover), and spends the time eating and drinking as much as humanly possible. As someone with Crohn’s, I would never eat and drink like that before getting on a plane, so it’s a nice little fantasy.

Games played:
Little Nightmares (2017) (PC) – I loved the art and atmosphere in this short game. Creepy and charming all at once. The puzzles are simple, but it still manages to be satisfying to play through.

The Sexy Brutale (2017) (PC) – This is a really clever little mystery/puzzle game. Essentially you’re in a mansion party where guests are getting murdered left and right, and in order to figure out how to prevent these murders, you need to spy on conversations and trail the guests and staff. You’re then able to keep restarting the day in an attempt to intervene. It has a very cool art style and fantastic music.

What have you been reading/watching/playing this month?

The Prisoner of Zenda

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The Prisoner of ZendaThe Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope
Published: 1894
Narrated by: James Wilby
Series: The Ruritania Trilogy #2
Length: 05:31 (208 pages)

Rudolph Rassendyll is a distant cousin of the royal family of Ruritania, a fictional German-speaking country in the centre of Europe. His sister-in-law, who considers him a complete waste of space, can’t stand his resemblance to those royals because it reminds her of a century-old scandal. An illegitimate child was born in England while a prince of Ruritania was visiting, and now every second generation or so a Rassendyll child is born with their trademark red hair and a long straight nose.

This doesn’t bother Rudolph the way it does his sister-in-law, but the conversation makes him curious to get a glimpse of the royal family. A new king is due to be crowned in Ruritania in a few weeks, and Rudolph decides to attend the coronation. On his arrival, he finds he’s the exact copy of the new king and as a result gets wrapped up in a conspiracy by the king’s half-brother, Black Michael (aptly named to avoid any confusion), to take over the throne.

This one really left me cold. I love me some classic adventure novels, but I just could not bring myself to care at all during this story. It has fencing, sneaking about, (somewhat dodgy) romance, and political intrigue, but it just seemed so dull. The main character is a complete bore, all of the characters are undeveloped, and it just feels like empty Victorian middle-class wish fulfilment. A rich man with no responsibilities travels to a foreign land, speaks their language so perfectly that the king’s new wife can’t even tell them apart, and manages to not only survive but excel in this political hotbed, using only his well-bred wits.

I feel like this would normally be a novel I could really enjoy, but for whatever reason it just got on my nerves. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood. I actually did really like his writing style; it’s just the shallow characters and lazy plot that I couldn’t get past. And there were moments that I liked – Rudolph constantly hesitating to just dive into action, for example, which was a stark contrast to the tone of The Three Musketeers.

This did manage to inspire an entire genre of adventure novels, Ruritanian romances, which involve swashbuckling adventures set in fictional countries, for those novelists who want to base their story in the real world but do not want to get involved in any sort of research.

I didn’t hate everything about this, despite what’s written here, but I would give it a resounding ‘meh’.

The Haunting of Hill House

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The Haunting of Hill HouseThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Published: 1959
Narrated by: Bernadette Dunne
Length: 07:31 (246 pages)

I am physically unable to say the title of this novel without the words twisting themselves into House on Haunted Hill. It just won’t work.

Dr. John Montague is a paranormal researcher, like a ghost hunter without his own scripted television show, and he has heard many tales of Hill House. In order to find and document the existence of supernatural phenomenon, Montague decides to invite a group of people to spend the summer in the house with him. He is joined by a relative of the owner and the only two of the group to respond to his invite – free-spirited Theodora and timid Eleanor, our protagonist. The group stay in the house and try to document what they experience.

Eleanor is a somewhat broken single woman in her thirties who has dedicated the last decade of her life to caring for her recently-deceased mother. She now lives with her sister’s family and has to run away against their will to come to Hill House. She doesn’t really care what she’ll find while staying there; she just wants to escape and live her own life. I really enjoyed that aspect of the story, the idea of Eleanor being able to drop her old constraints to try to reinvent herself. There’s one scene when they all first arrive in the house, where they sit together and all invent fictional backstories. It was a brilliant scene that had the group bond in a funny and lighthearted way, but it was also interesting to consider what each fictional backstory actually told the reader about their personalities.

I loved this so much more than I thought I would. The characters were all fantastic, I loved Eleanor’s attempt to break out of her old self and deal with her inner doubt. Theodora was so much fun and a great counterpoint to Eleanor’s personality. Dr. Montague worked perfectly as a guide and father figure to the group, and I thoroughly enjoyed the comic relief his wife brought when she arrived. This was dark and atmospheric, but it was also funny at times. The group’s dynamic and banter was great, and having those well-developed characters really raised the stakes during the creepy bits.

What I loved most was how the story developed in surprising ways. I think I was actually expecting a more straight-forward haunted house tale, but this went in a very different direction. Eleanor’s internal struggle, how the house was affecting her, was so interesting to read, and the fact that it was happening to our viewpoint character and wasn’t overly explained or gimmicky was quite a feat of storytelling. There’s a lot left open to interpretation, and I found myself mulling over the plot, the ending, and the characters for days after finishing this.

I don’t really know much about Shirley Jackson, outside of how much people rave about her short story The Lottery, which I thought I read in high school, but having glanced at a summary, I’m now not sure. For the last twenty years I thought The Lottery was about a boy who comes up with winning horse names by getting off on a rocking horse, but it turns out I’ve had it confused with The Rocking-Horse Winner by D.H. Lawrence. Also, that may not be what that story is about. It’s been a while.

I will definitely be reading more from Shirley Jackson. Her writing in this was a real pleasure to read.

I Was the Cat

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I Was the CatI Was the Cat by Paul Tobin
Format: Original Graphic Novel
Illustrated by: Benjamin Dewey
Publisher: Oni Press
Published: 2014
Length: 144 pages

This is one of the books we bought from the Oni Press booth at Pax West last year. It’s the story of a cat writing the memoirs of his previous eight lives, most of which involved him trying to take over the world. It’s a great looking little hardcover and was on sale, so how could we resist?

A rich stranger invites an American journalist (or, blogger, I guess?) to London under much secrecy in order to write his memoirs. The stranger, it turns out, is a talking cat, and he tells the blogger tales of his previous lives – running messages for troops through the trenches at The Battle of the Somme, convincing ancient Egyptians to worship cats, advising Napoleon during his wartime campaigns, that sort of thing.

It’s a fun concept, but it fell a bit flat for me. I enjoyed the flashbacks, but the idea was too ambitious for the size of this book, so most of those stories were pretty thin. It felt like they took away from the potentially interesting modern-day narrative as well, which was also left feeling a bit anemic. The stories from the past didn’t really compliment the main plot at all, and as a result the book felt disjointed.

This is just a minor annoyance, but I knew without checking the bio that the writer wasn’t English. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to play up stereotypes for comedic effect (he had villains in bowler hats, after all) or if he really thought a bunch of ‘bloody hell’s and Manchester United references was what the reader needed to truly imagine London. It wasn’t enough to ruin the experience, and actually this fictional Disney view of London was fun, but I did find it quite jarring throughout the book. I imagine it would be even worse if you were actually English.

This had some problems, but it was also a fun read with some great artwork. It’s hard to go truly wrong with talking cats taking over the world.

The White Tiger

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The White TigerThe White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Published: 2008
Length: 276 pages

I picked this up on a whim at the used book sale last month. I hadn’t really heard anything about it, but it did win the 2008 Man Booker Prize, so I thought I’d take a chance on it. I’m glad I did, because this was a great little book.

Like eunuchs discussing the Kama Sutra, the voters discuss the elections in Laxmangarh.

Adiga’s debut novel follows a young Indian boy named Balram Halwai, born the son of a rickshaw puller in Laxmangarh, as he sheds his caste and life of servitude to eventually become a Bangalore entrepreneur. He spends most of the novel as a driver for a rich landlord in New Delhi, where he experiences firsthand the corrupt government and the immense gap between rich and poor, something that is very evident as the two classes live closely together.

It’s heavily focused on that social divide, which is not a cheerful subject, but this novel can be very darkly funny at times. It’s written as a letter to a visiting Chinese Premier, as Balram tells his story as a way to explain Indian entrepreneurship. He narrates his own story, and it’s his voice that really made this novel for me. It so full of energy that it really made his tale feel personal, almost uncomfortably so, like you shouldn’t be reading it. I really loved how this was written.

As the fire ate away the silk, a pale foot jerked out, like a living thing; the toes, which were melting in the heat, began to curl up, offering resistance to what was being done to them. Kusum shoved the foot into the fire, but it would not burn. My heart began to race. My mother wasn’t going to let them destroy her.

I haven’t read much fiction taking place in India, particularly by Indian authors, so that was a refreshing change. His decision to focus on the darker segment of Indian society, literally what he describes as The Darkness, impoverished rural India, was also a change from the often romanticized view exposed to the west. He shows a country where relatively few rich men have tamed the rest of society, where people are born into servitude and often live that life without question, despite being every bit as intelligent and capable as their masters. This is a novel about a man who does question that system and wants to leave behind The Darkness.

The dreams of the rich, and the dreams of the poor—they never overlap, do they?

See, the poor dream all their lives of getting enough to eat and looking like the rich. And what do the rich dream of?

Losing weight and looking like the poor.

It’s hard to tell how true to life Adiga’s picture of Indian is, as someone with very little knowledge of the country, but it was a compelling read. The caste system, which apparently began as a classification based on occupation and eventually morphed into restrictive categorisation at birth, is something I’d like to read more about and understand a bit better. It played a large role in the background of this novel and formed the basis of the plot and motivation, but it didn’t really go into detail.

I really enjoyed this and look forward to reading more from Aravind Adiga.