Joy and Despair

I despair.  People in my life keep on getting Kindles.  With the same speccy and attractive – though deadly leathered – booklight functional covers.  I am resolved to hunt down my ideal affordable and functional non-Kindle ebook reader, but until then I am being taunted and tempted from all sides.  I am torn between recommending good ebooks and preaching to those around me about my anti-copy-protection passions.  Perhaps I should simply link everyone to Cory Doctorow’s essays on the topic?

In more joyful news, I’ve been linked to from the Australian Book Blogger Directory.  I think I already link to them in my sidebar, but they’re worth another plug.  They sort Australian based and focused book blogs by geographical location and other topic headers, and it’s a great site to use to find like-minded bloggers. Aside from my own love of geographical and cultural based perspectives on reading, it’s good to read book reviews written by people who are immersed in some way with the bookish community I’ve grown up with.  While internationally based bloggers are fun to read, there’s so many differences in global publishing industries that you can almost taste the flavour of it in the TBR piles and book reviews (as well as the language used to discuss and compare books).  Reading an Australian book blog is like wearing an old and comfy coat. Like home.

Also quite joyful is my mother-in-common-law dropping around.  She, yes, also has a Kindle.  But she asked me to whip out my tape measure and guesstimate the ideal size and shape for some nice bookshelves.  I suspect that on Christmas day my partner will be given the delicious gift of shelving!  I am considering shelves and categories and really getting a bit too caught up in the meta-glee of bibliophilia.

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‘Enchanted Glass’ by Diana Wynne Jones

As I mentioned before, I have been eager to pick up Enchanted Glass for a while.  After being turned off the Chrestomanci series in childhood, I experienced in late adolescence a profound delight in Jones’ other series and books.  Many of her characters have delightfully stubborn and wilful natures, perhaps part of why I resonate strongly with her books.

In Enchanted Glass we meet Andrew, a man who inherits his deceased grandfather’s estate, along with all manner of complications.  Aside from a housekeeper who makes cauliflower cheese and a gardener who exacts vengeance with runner beans, there is magic, a failing computer system, and the unexpected appearance of a grand-orphan.

I don’t want to explain the plot too much, because in all of Jones’ books the experience of the prose makes the story more than the sum of its parts.  Suffice to say that it is wonderful and well worth skipping a meal to keep my hands free for reading.  As always I loved the way that characters live and speak.  People can get along without having to like each other, and people can love each other without getting along, and oh it is rare to find that in any book but somehow Jones always shows the nuances and clashes between personalities well.  It’s what I loved in Howl’s Moving Castle, and what I loved finding in the characters of Enchanted Glass.

Though I must guiltily confess that I had Anthony Stewart Head cast in my mind as the middle-aged and glasses-polishing professor.  I rarely ever associate actors with fictional characters, because fiction is usually far more vivid than television, but the tweedy distractedness of Andrew reminded me strongly of Giles.  I suspect I may have offended bibliophiles and Jossfans alike, but really it’s only because I have dear love for both men in my heart.

Other reviews I have found at:

On The Nightstand

Vulpes Libris

Charlotte’s Library

‘Roman de Brut’ by Wace

Wace presents his Roman de Rou to Henry II in ...
Image via Wikipedia

The introductory chapter written by the translator adds a lot to the experience of reading.  Wace’s Norman history and language are explained, as are the differences between Geoffrey of Monmouth’s more florid language and Wace’s simplicity, as well as Wace’s intimate descriptions of scenes where Monmouth only mentions the facts in passing.  The introduction alone is worth seeking out for any Arthurian enthusiasts.  The chivalry and romance deep-seated in Arthurian stories is partly rooted in Wace’s writing. Mason (the translator) notes that Wace was not one of the greatest retellers of Arthurian stories, nor the most capable, but emphasises that this book has a unique place in the linguistic and cultural history of the legends.

The story begins with Constantine, father of three sons, Constant, Aurelius Ambrosius, and Uther, being assassinated by Vortigern.  This sparks a cascade of unofficial, unsacred and pagan influences on the government; Constant is not crowned by a priest, Vortigern marries a pagan woman, greed and malice grow in the land.  Uther’s own period ruling not soon after follows a similarly adumbrative sinful nature.  No true proper coronations, the king succumbs to lust described in a way that reduces both Igrene and Uther to a very low level of animalistic identity.  She is only significant in her beauty, and Uther stares, salivates, flirts and takes her shocked silence for acceptance.  Out of this vilified version of sex and arousal, in sinful murder, Arthur is conceived.  But Uther marries Igrene; Arthur is not born a bastard.  From here, things look up.  Arthur does not become the flawless king we often see in idealised versions of Arthurian stories, but he certainly is upstanding and noble.  Guenevere, as ever, is childless.  They spend some time invading Norway and Gaul.  I personally haven’t read any versions of this legend in which Arthur’s wealth and glory is based on conquering the once-and-future-French.  It was quite amusing.  As were the florid descriptions of the ‘proper’ and festive coronation Arthur has at Caerleon.

When Mordred appears, he is not introduced as he often is, as Arthur’s illegitimate son, but as Arthur’s sister’s.  This puts it all in a different perspective, especially when Mordred rises up against Arthur in every way possible.  Mordred is not properly crowned king, and in stealing Guenevere as his own wife from Uncle Arthur repeats the reprehensible actions that condemned Uther.

What can I say, but that this was very fun to read, coming from the usual pop-culture immersion in modern retellings of Arthurian legends that most young women my age seem to enjoy.  It is most interesting to see the differences to other versions in the cascade failure of Arthur’s kingdom.  There is an inevitability of power and corruption as an underlying theme in many modern retellings, but in Wace there is this repetition of rightness and wrong in the form of coronations, assumptions of power and marriages.  It is in violations of Christian marriage that Arthur’s reign began and ended, and there is a huge overwhelming sense of inevitability to it all.  What was seeded bad, by Vortigern and Constant and Uther, could come to nothing but tragedy.  There is some delicious propaganda to be had in here.

While the style is far less immersive than other retellings and there are a lot of misogynistic and biased ideas, from the right angle it is very fun to read through.  I imagine that if you have knowledge of Norman history, which I do not, there is a lot more depth and context.  In any case, I am glad that I took the time to enjoy this one.  It’s not something I would have picked up if it were not for the A to Z challenge, even though I have intend to read it for some time.

I couldn’t find all that many reviews of Roman de Brut, certainly none that are easily or freely found online.  But you can brush up on Wace at wikipedia and see the whole thing for yourself at Project Gutenberg.  There are analyses and essays and academic papers aplenty, so there’s a lot of context and factoids to be found.

Dymocks and Book Prices on the ABC

Dymocks Collins Place
Image by Chealse V via Flickr

The ABC has a short video report (transcript link not working, sorry it’s just the video) on the Dymocks franchise considering basing their online book sales overseas to avoid taxes applied on sales in Australia.  If you’re an Australian you’ve probably read all the articles on the report that used what many thought was outdated information, showing that parallel import legislation (not the taxes or costs of publication) were keeping Australian books too expensive.

For those of you not Australian based or briefed on it all, the argument for allowing parallel imports was that Australian books cost far more than US and UK books, and that loosening restrictions would reduce the price of books for the Australian population.

The arguments against the parallel import proposal were many and varied, including discussions of distribution rights and authors’ incomes.  I will stick to the points I read most in opinion related blogs and news media, but please follow the links above to get more perspective on industry, publisher’s and writers opinions.

Firstly, a lot of the costs pushing up the retail price of Australian books include sales taxes that are generally not applied in other countries.  It seemed counter-intuitive to many, myself included, to first argue that books without this tax were cheap, and then that changing laws to allow untaxed foreign books to compete with taxed locally produced books would somehow resolve the problems with our publishing industry and pricing.  It seems to be a solution that sidesteps the actual problem.

Another argument against is that of production costs.  A mass-market pulpy paperback in the US isn’t made to last.  These are the books that are produced in great volume and often discarded and destroyed just as easily.  Australian books aren’t made that way, and it seems unrealistic to compare the price of a book built to last one train trip with a book built to last several read-throughs.  Parallel importing may bring cheaper books to the country, but we will effectively be importing oranges to try to increase market competition in bicycle sales.  There may be far less effect on book pricing than the numbers suggest.

The main supporters of the proposal were large department, franchise and chain stores, including Dymocks, K-mart, Big W; independent booksellers and smaller stores with local focus were not anywhere near as vocal in the media as I would have expected, from a group whose margins are far smaller and through parallel imports would gain access to a much wider range of potential suppliers.

The final and perhaps most relevant argument is that we have tried this in our usual test-pond, New Zealand, and it has had variable effect.  According to a report while comparative price differences between NZ, AUS and US books on bestseller lists were closer than before PIR were lifted, there have been other effects on the industry.  Locally produced Children’s books in particular suffered.  Changes affected larger publishers, who already had international ties, rather than having any impact on smaller booksellers.  Some libraries that were exempt from PIR anyway before the changes were more aware of foreign import books and purchases increased.  It’s a mixed basket with some ups and downs, some changes in book purchasing culture that seem to be more affected by media storms than actual changes in legislation.  While there are no extreme negatives, there are in my mind no extreme positives either, and I would like to know that PIR changes in Australia would be positive, not just alter the balance of smaller aspects of industry, before I felt them worth considering.  A good point to make about the report would be that the changes had more effects on the price of AUS books in NZ than on US; geography can make a difference in pricing, no matter how much we all want cheap books.

To come back to Dymocks’ actual news today, the bookstore seems to be viewing all sales on Amazon.com and The Book Depository as direct competition for sales.  They can’t import untaxed, cheaper books to sell in their stores and this is perhaps a way around it.  As is mentioned towards the end of the report, there is consideration as to whether AU$1000 is to high a tax-free threshold for international purchases.  But the whole issue seems to boil down, once more, to where the books are sourced and how much the tax is on the final retail price.  I would rather see a re-assessment of taxes on books, or perhaps a publishing industry dialogue about pulpier mass-market book production, or even just an attitude towards publishing that considers in some form Australian writers rather than the retailers in mainstream media reporting.

With the references to Amazon.com, they seem to have forgotten that Amazon are known for deliberately underpricing books to maintain their customer base.  It is really okay to take Amazon’s models of punishing publishers and authors through pricing and the removal of buy buttons, and compare their profits to that of Australian retail booksellers?  I’m not against cheaper books, just cheaper books at the expense of writers and publishers, which is why I buy books that are too expensive, and haven’t got a Kindle.  For now, I’ll just go about my day wondering why for many people Fair Trade coffee is worth paying for, but not a Fair Book.

‘Monster Blood Tattoo: Factotum’ by D.M.Cornish

I knew it was coming out this year, but it’s been a while since I gleefully bought and read the first two books in the one weekend (I bussed in summer to the shops, because I couldn’t stand the thought of not reading more), and so when I walked into Paperchain recently I nearly exploded with glee and exultation.  Finally, with all the beautiful construction and shiny ribbons and beautiful illustrations, it was out!

The Monster Blood Tattoo series (rebranded in the US as The Foundlings Tale or something like that), for those of you who haven’t encountered it yet, is a set of three books concluding with Factotum following the orphan Rossamünd Bookchild at a pivotal time in his life.  He has a girl’s name, is facing an exciting and demanding apprenticeship as a lamplighter, and lives in a world where there are real monsters.  There’s some wonderful world building and innovation, as well as the good old ‘who’s the real monster’ ethical dilemma that comes up in a lot of fantasy – especially YA stuff.  The author began world-building with beautiful sketches, and these have had me revisiting those pages just to get another eyeful.

Perhaps having waited so long and being so excited, it was inevitable that I felt a bit let down.  The storytelling was wonderful, and the world was as awesome as it was in the last two books, but my heart was broken to read the ending.  There’s action, combat, and a quick barely-there explanation of where everyone ends up going afterwards.  I know that Cornish hopes to write more in this universe, but I can’t help but feel the book is missing about ten pages of anti-climax and characterisation.  It was, in my mind, an ending that could have worked well with epic poetry or maybe film because often epic poetry is detached, and because films work with their own visual and audio languages to enhance storytelling.  In prose, this sort of conclusion just leaves me frustrated, partly because I’ve spent days in these characters heads while reading, and I’ve become emotionally invested, and partly because it says nothing of what actually happens.  Everyone moves on with their lives and goes places, but that happens to people everywhere.  It’s the experience of it, not the list of it, that really reveals the nuances of memorable events, and that’s what I wanted to be reading in that last chapter.

But as I admitted above, I possibly felt let down because I have loved the first two books so dearly.  I do not doubt that my expectations for this third in the series were far higher than they were before I ever came across the MBT series.  I loved the new and the old characters, the art, the explicarum, and even just fiddling with the ribbons in my hands idly as I read.  I liked the neat circuit that the story took geographically, and I also liked Rossamünd’s personal journey even if he did seem as intuitive and thick as a brick sometimes.  I really liked the way that correspondence was handled in a way that really worked for me – but that’s something I could say for the whole series.  For all that I griped about the conclusion, I’ll probably end up re-reading this book before the year is out, even with my tall TBR piles.

If you look into these books, don’t settle for the paperbacks.  I don’t think you can, yet, for Factotum, but just in case, make sure you get the beautiful and well constructed hardcover edition.

Other reviews of Factotum:

Bookshelves of Doom

and there’s a few nice ones at goodreads too.  This is unsual for me; Factotum is on a lot of bloggers reading lists, but not many blogs I follow have finished it yet.  It’s a shame that more people don’t share my desperate excitement for the Monster Blood Tattoo series.

Currently Reading

Oh it has been quite tricky to draft my review of Xenophon’s Anabasis.  I don’t feel ready to post it yet, but I have finished reading it and in the interim I’ve moved on with my A to Z reading list.

I’m nearly at the end of Monster Blood Tattoo: Factotum, and it’s only taken me this long to get there because it’s hot, we have no air conditioning, and I don’t want to damage the pretty pages in my damp clammy hands.

I’m a good third of the way through Wace’s Roman de Brut in good old Project Gutenberg ebook format.

After that, I’ll be moving on to Enchanted Glass, because I’ve been wanting to read that one for a while, and Virgil just because.  Once I’m out of classics, I’ll be speeding through this list!

Paperchain Books (or why are all the good bookshops on the other side of the lake?)

Last week I had late lunch with a friend in Manuka, and as usual we stopped by Paperchain Books.  There’s a whole heap of great bookstores in the Manuka/Kingston area, at least more than can be found in the city centre and in the northern suburbs, and a visit to Paperchain is pretty standard for any trip.

There’s lovely displays of remainder/discounted books near the front of the store, which I always check out for published theses and humanities reference books, but there’s wonderful range throughout even at full prices.  Unlike some larger stores, Paperchain books manages to balance books, atmosphere and even impulse buy items with bookish charm.  There is a small section of graphic novels near the big art books, but you’re more likely to find Grant Morrison’s The Filth, a boxed copy of Whispers of the Heart, and good oldies like Tintin and Asterix than you are to see the shojo and supernatural romance manga that inhabit other non-speciality stores.

General fiction and genre fiction is separated from more academic books by a well-stocked Children’s section.  The rear of the store is raised by a few steps, and although the large displays of cookbooks appeal to a lot of the foot traffic in Manuka there’s well managed philosophy, classical history, and language shelves.  It’s easy to lose hours just up there, ogling the Cambridge History series.  There’s currently a nice long table near the cookbooks, with comfortable chairs, so you can settle down there in the shady comfort of the store and just read.

If you’ve met me in real life, you’ll know my antipathy towards Borders as a bookshop.  It sells books, sure, but it doesn’t feel like a bookshop to me, and seating is one of these places where it stands out.  In Borders the seats don’t feel relaxing.  Maybe it’s the lighting, or the huge openness of the floorplan, or the cluttering shouts that come from the coffee shop there.  All that I know is that at Paperchain Books I can be surrounded by arms and legs, and still be happily comfortable and settled in a wooden-backed chair.  There’s more to bookstores than books and fittings, and Paperchain Books understands that.

On my trip there, I picked up two books I’d been saving up for for a while (Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones and Factotum by D.M. Cornish) and one I hadn’t expected to love (Clemency Pogue: Fairy Killer by J.T. Petty).  It didn’t help me knuckle down and push onwards with the Anabasis in my reading queue, with the pretty cover art and nice new book smell about them.