The Driver’s Seat

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The Driver's SeatThe Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
Published: 1970
Length: 128 pages

I really didn’t know what was going on in this book. I think I basically got what was happening by the end, and then I read a comment on Goodreads that made it click for me, but I think I may need to re-read this again soon just to see how the story unfolds when you know what’s to come. I mean, you know the ending when you start the novel. Spark tells you, but I guess I didn’t believe her.

This is about a single woman who travels on holiday to a southern city in Europe to find a boyfriend that she hasn’t met. He doesn’t know her, she doesn’t know him, but she’ll know him when she sees him. She acts erratically throughout the entire novel, in ways that are as comical as they are disturbing, and the reader is left completely bewildered until the end, and then only slightly less so. I read this last year, and some of her actions are only now starting to make sense to me as I look back, and I suddenly feel the need to re-read this now that I know how it plays out.

Even though I was mostly lost while reading this, I still enjoyed it. Muriel Spark was a great writer who managed to balance the darkness with the hilarious in a way that really appeals to me. I read my first of her novels, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, last year and thought it was fantastic. She didn’t hold the reader’s hand in that novel either. The answers are all in the text, but you do have to spend some time considering and interpreting it yourself, which I think shows confidence in storytelling.

She really wasn’t an author that was afraid to take chances, which makes me excited to see what else she’s written. I have The Girls of Slender Means and The Abbess of Crewe and will be getting to one of them soon.

Cloudstreet

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CloudstreetCloudstreet by Tim Winton
Published: 1991
Narrated by: Peter Hosking
Length: 12:50 (426 pages)

I bought this for our Australia trip and never managed to get to it while we were there, but I did read it when we returned. It follows the lives of two very different families, as they’re uprooted by circumstance from their previous homes and find themselves living in the same house on Cloudstreet in Perth. It’s an unflinching look, over multiple decades, of these two working-class families as they become involved in each other’s lives.

This isn’t a description that would typically get me excited to read a book. I’m not often a fan of stories that span over entire lifetimes. I find time jumps off-putting and they usually cause me to lose whatever connection I’ve built up with the characters, but the writing overcame any issue I had there. Tim Winton’s writing was superb, so full of life, and Peter Hosking’s narration of this audiobook was perfect. I think listening to this helped me appreciate the rhythm of the language more than I might have on paper, as I find is often also the case with novels set in the southern states.

I found the few supernatural elements in this a little jarring, but I think that was probably the point. Looking back on the novel as a whole, those moments do fit well, but they really felt out of place when they came up in the story. Maybe that is on purpose, as that sort of thing should be unexpected and confusing, and maybe if I understood the religious symbolism a bit more it would have felt more natural, but it just didn’t seem to mix smoothly with the rest of the book.

This takes place in Western Australia, where we spent half our trip, so that was an added bonus. Things have obviously changed a fair bit since the descriptions in this novel, but it was still nice to be able to mentally place events on a map. We have Dirt Music in the house, so that will likely be the next book of his I’ll try.

Law School

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Law School: Sex and Relationship AdviceLaw School: Sex and Relationship Advice by Benjamin Law
Published: 2017
Length: 125 pages

We visited quite a few bookstores while we were in Australia last year. I was keeping an eye out while browsing for books I might not come across in Canada, and this seemed like a fun one. It’s a collection of articles from a humour sex and relationship advice column in a Melbourne-based magazine called The Lifted Brow. People write in about their various situations and Benjamin Law and his mother, Jenny Phang, both respond. Seeing both responses on the same page is just hilarious, and both Benjamin and his mother seem like very open and funny people.

It’s a brilliant idea that just works so well. There’s nothing professional about the advice. In fact, occasionally Benjamin has to comment on his mother’s response to make sure no one follows the advice too closely. It’s just a bit of fun. The illustrations in this, by Beatrix Urkowitz, are great and work perfectly.

Really enjoyed the illustrations in @mrbenjaminlaw's Law School by @bmfu.

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Benjamin Law has a couple of books out that I’d like to pick up. The Family Law is a memoir of growing up as a first-generation Australian in a Malaysian family, and Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East follows his travels through Asia to explore how his life may have been different if he had grown up as a gay man in Asia rather than Australia.

Dear Fahrenheit 451

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Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks: A Librarian's Love Letters and Breakup Notes to the Books in Her LifeDear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks: A Librarian’s Love Letters and Breakup Notes to the Books in Her Life by Annie Spence
Published: 2017
Narrated by: Stephanie Spicer
Length: 05:35 (244 pages)

I loved this! It would be a great book to turn to if I find myself in a reading slump again this year. Her love of books in this is so contagious that it’s hard to come out of it without immediately picking up a new book and diving in.

The format that she came up with is perfect. Each essay is just a letter addressed to a book, some purely comedic and others more heartfelt. She often doesn’t even go into the plot at all, and I don’t remember coming across anything I felt was a spoiler. She writes about the place the book holds in her life – what it means to her, where she got it, what problems she had, and any stories related to it. My favourite was her piece on The Time Traveler’s Wife, a book I haven’t read but is on the shelf, as she used it to beautifully discuss how a book can mean different things to you when re-read at different stages of life.

Annie Spence is a librarian, so there’s a lot of library love in this book if that’s your thing, and many of the letters are being written to books that’s she’s had to remove from the library to make room for other books. So this not only covers books she loved, books she hated, but also random books that she needs to cull, which really adds variety to the essays.

I may also need to read The Virgin Suicides now, as she was just so enthusiastic about it.

The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince

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The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince (Realms of the Elderlings)The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb
Published: 2013
Series: Farseer Trilogy 0.5
Length: 157 pages

I love Robin Hobb, and was very excited to see a book from her that was under 800 pages. This novella takes place long before FitzChivalry Farseer, of the Farseer Trilogy and beyond, was ever born. It tells of the story of the origins around society’s attitude towards The Wit, a telepathic magic that allows humans to communicate and bond with animals, and why some people with the magic now refer to themselves as Piebalds. It’s considered a dirty, low magic in the current books, but it wasn’t always that way.

Not quite as gripping as her main novels, which would be impossible without the depth you get in those giant trilogies, but it’s an interesting and tragic story that takes place in Buckkeep. I’ve said it before, but I just love Robin Hobb’s writing. She can make you care about her characters like no other, even when they aren’t people who necessarily demand sympathy from the reader.

I would read The Farseer Trilogy before moving on to this, as I think it’s worth having knowledge of the world already. The Tawny Man books do refer to this legend, although having detailed knowledge of the story isn’t needed (this was written ten years after the last book of that trilogy), so it could really be read before or after. It’s a quick read, though, and an interesting story, so I’d recommend picking it up if you’re a fan of the series.

Ayoade on Ayoade

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Ayoade on Ayoade: A Cinematic OdysseyAyoade on Ayoade: A Cinematic Odyssey by Richard Ayoade
Published: 2014
Length: 303 pages

I let this sit on the shelf for far too long thinking it would be a bit of a slog after a skim through the first couple pages, but I was pleasantly surprised when I finally got to it. I’m a huge fan of pretty much everything Ayoade has had any part in, so I really shouldn’t have doubted. From his early acting in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and Nathan Barley, his breakout role in The IT Crowd, his film directing career, his panel show appearances, his travel and gadget shows, his interviews, particularly the one in which he steamrolled Krishnan Guru-Murthy – I’m just a fan. Although, having listed it out like that, I do now feel like a bit of a stalker.

It’s just a healthy interest.

This book was a trip, and it’s a bit difficult to explain. It’s essentially a comic spoof on pretentious novel-length director exposé interviews, with Richard Ayoade acting as both the interviewer and the megalomaniacal interviewee. It’s split into a series of interview sessions, all written like they’ve been ripped from an experimental indie film, with an appendix that reads like a Woody Allen book, a random assortment of hilariously esoteric skits – filmmaking diary entries, made up FAQs, a list of ripe puns on the title of his latest film The Double to help would-be reviewers with their inevitable quips, a parody of what director Terrence Malick’s twitter feed could look like if he tweeted and heavy into the hashtags, and many other odd essays.

An entry from his year-by-year timeline that kicks off the book:

2011
Ayoade releases Submarine in its final ninety-seven-minute version (heavily padded out with voice-over). The Top Ten Grossing Films of the Year are Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2; Transformers: Dark of the Moon; Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides; The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1; Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol; Kung Fu Panda 2; Fast Five; The Hangover Part II; The Smurfs; and Cars 2. It is a golden year for the moving image, with many films so good that their titles require a colon and a dash to convey their many levels. Submarine, containing no punctuation in its title whatsoever, is a financial calamity. In desperate need of a box-office winner, Ayoade turns to Dostoevsky’s smash-hit hit novella, The Double.

Paisley's a bit bored, but I'm loving this. #amreading

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Ayoade manages to take self-deprecating humour to an entirely new level, even for him, and it’s hilarious throughout. This certainly isn’t a book for everyone, but it’s a lot of fun if you you enjoy his sense of humour. He’s a sort of cruelty-free Woody Allen for the modern-day.

At the end of last year, he came out with a second book, The Grip of Film, which I’m also eager to pick up.

January in Review

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Books Acquired:
Assassin’s Fate by Robin Hobb
Stoner by John Williams
Shakespeare’s Sonnets: The Complete Illustrated Edition by William Shakespeare
Saga, Vol. 8 by Brian K. Vaughan
Sex Criminals, Vol. 4 by Matt Fraction

Books Read:
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer
Akira, Vol. 1 by Katsuhiro Otomo
American War by Omar El Akkad

I spent my bookstore gift certificates from Christmas at the beginning of the month, which always makes for a good start to the year. I picked up Assassin’s Fate, the last in the Fitz and the Fool trilogy. Loving it so far, sad to see their journey potentially nearing its end, but I do still have the connected Liveship Traders and The Rain Wild Chronicles books to read through, as I skipped those on the way to this series.

I’ve heard a lot of good things about Stoner, despite not really knowing anything about the plot, so I decided to pick that up as well. All I know is that it’s a 60’s campus novel about a man who loves literature and that it’s not nearly as dull as the cover suggests, so we’ll see how it goes.

I also picked up a nice copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, as I’ve been meaning to read through those, and a couple of comic books. Saga and Sex Criminals are the only ongoing series I’m following right now, and despite both having some ups and downs in terms of quality, I’m excited to get to them. At this point, I’ll be following Saga through to the end (unless it goes on until the end of time, The Walking Dead style), but if Sex Criminals doesn’t continue to pick up I might drop that.

Treat?

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Movies watched:
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) – Really enjoyed this. Some odd decisions in the plot, I thought, and I can see why some fanatical fans may not like that, but overall it was still good fun.

TV watched:
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee: Season 1 – 2 – I’ve seen all of these before, from when they were just online, but I’m happily watching them again with Lee-Ann. I love listening to comedians discuss comedy, and I’ve always loved Jerry Seinfeld’s blunt humour. Very much recommended if you’re interested in comedians or even just enjoy listening to funny casual conversations.

Games played:
Divinity: Original Sin 2 (2017) (PC) – I only played a bit of this, but I’m still enjoying it. It’s a long one, and I tend to lose steam with longer games these days, but I plan to get back into it soon.

Monster Hunter World (2018) (PS4) – I wasn’t planning to buy this, but I was talked into it, and I’m having a blast so far. It’s a laid back game with frantic moments, so it can fit any mood really. Also I’m attacking giant monsters with bagpipes, which has always been a dream of mine.

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

Nod

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NodNod by Adrian Barnes
Published: 2014
Narrated by: Tim Beckman
Length: 06:12 (206 pages)

Almost all of civilization suddenly lose the ability to sleep and begin to deteriorate mentally over the period of a few weeks. About one in every ten thousand adults can still sleep, and they all seem to share the same dream each night. A number of children can also sleep, but they’ve all stopped speaking and no one knows what happens in their dreams. No one really knows what’s happening at all, not even the author. This takes place in current day Vancouver, Canada and follows a couple, one who can sleep and the other who cannot, as they find themselves in the middle of a world quickly crumbling.

The basic premise of this feels like something out of a John Wyndham novel. but it was all questions and no answers, which made it a bit frustrating. I can handle leaving things unanswered, in fact I usually like being left in the dark a bit in novels, but so much was set up and then not even acknowledge that it felt like a first novel in a series. It felt like a wasted opportunity.

I think that’s what bugged me about this novel. It was an enjoyable read, atmospheric thought-experiments are my favourite flavour of science-fiction, but it just never hit its potential. The characters were interesting but a bit dull and lifeless and the plot was gripping but fizzled out midway. Great concept with a mediocre execution.

I listened to this on audiobook while travelling to Australia last year. I can’t sleep on planes, so I did get to experience this while being deprived of sleep, which I think added an interesting touch.

Mortality

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MortalityMortality by Christopher Hitchens
Published: 2012
Length: 104 pages

I have spent many, many hours over the years listening to Christopher Hitchens speak. I disagreed with some of his political stances, but I always enjoyed listening to his eloquent, and often savage, responses in religious debates.

In mid-2010, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, which he sadly died from at the end of 2011. In that period of sickness, even while struggling with both the effects of the illness and the effects of the treatment, he kept writing and speaking publicly, which really speaks to his passion. His descriptions of what was happening to his body, and his thoughts when forced to face his own mortality, were both fascinating and heartbreaking.

He writes that the metaphor of ‘fighting’ or ‘battling’ cancer doesn’t really fit, and I could not agree more with that. It’s something that’s never sat right with me. I understand the positive sentiment behind it, and wouldn’t begrudge anyone for using it, but saying someone is ‘losing the battle with cancer’ leaves the lingering implication that they just aren’t trying hard enough. Cancer is, as we all know, a brutal disease. It’s something that some people are lucky enough to struggle through and survive. If someone gets pushed down in a dark alley and attacked by a mob of fifteen people, we don’t say they lost a fight. It wasn’t a fight; it was an unfair beating.

People don’t have cancer: they are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this. It’s even in obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality. You don’t hear it about long-term sufferers from heart disease or kidney failure.

Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.

A common talking point in debates was whether or not he would simply change his opinion and praise God when he was on his deathbed, and in response he would often bring up the contemptible practice of using someone’s death to spread rumours that they found religion, after they were gone and couldn’t defend themselves. Charles Darwin being the most famous case of this. One such book has already come out about Hitchens, as he suspected would be the case, so I imagine part of his drive for writing this was to preempt that.

I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire, who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.

He passed away while writing this, so the last portion of the book is just a series of his raw notes. Normally, seeing scribbles from a journal published posthumously would leave me feeling uneasy, but in this case I’m fairly sure this was at his request.

I haven’t read any of his other books, but I’m sure I will at some point. This was a short but very interesting read.

Small Gods

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Small Gods: A Discworld Graphic NovelSmall Gods: A Discworld Graphic Novel by Terry Pratchett
Illustrated by: Ray Friesen
Series: Discworld Graphic Novels #4
Publisher: Doubleday
Published: 2016
Length: 128 pages

It’s been about twenty years since I read Small Gods, but I have fond memories of it. I still consider it one of my favourite Pratchett novels, and although my memory is quite hazy on the plot, I can still vividly picture an enraged tortoise bouncing up and down and screaming threats of smiting by thunderbolts. I love the idea that the power of a God is determined by the strength of the faith of his believers, which in this case results in the Great God Om manifesting as a tortoise when he comes back to anoint the next prophet.

I was excited to read through this comic, if only to remind myself of the story, and it was fun for that. I had forgotten the basic structure of the novel, and this works as a sort of Coles Notes. Ray Friesen artwork was great, I thought. It’s unique a quirky and fits the tone very well.

I wouldn’t recommend this to a new reader, however, as you don’t really want the Coles Notes version of a Terry Pratchett novel. This has some of the story elements, and some of the humour, but it’s hard to encompass any novel-length story in a short graphic novel, let alone one from the Discworld series. Part of the joy of a Discworld novel is being dragged along at breakneck speed on the back of a ridiculous plot while constantly being smacked in the face with branches of irreverent wit and cutting satire, and you obviously lose quite a lot of that when you convert a 400 page novel to a 128 page graphic novel.

It was fun to revisit, but I think I need to re-read Small Gods now.