Books I read in December 2019

Some science fiction, some fairy tales, some Tom Cox (he’s his own genre, y’know), and some Robertson Davies.

The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt

I saw this being recommended on Twitter by Seanan McGuire, so I knew it would be good, and I wasn’t disappointed. It has transgender and nonbinary and bisexual and demisexual and lesbian and cyborg characters. People use they pronouns properly (it’s the future, where people behave properly around gender variance). The twist in the middle is so good, it’ll make you gasp out loud. I did not see it coming at all. If you like Lois McMaster Bujold or James Tiptree Jr or Robert Sawyer, you’ll love this. Epic stuff, can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy.

The Golden Phoenix, and other fairy tales from Quebec, Marius Barbeau and Michael Hornyansky

This is a group of folk tales collected by Marius Barbeau and given a literary retelling by Michael Hornyansky. Barbeau was a Canadian folklorist who collected a lot of folklore. Because Anglocentric governments in Canada wouldn’t allow a francophone publishing house in Québec, the Québécois had to make their own entertainment, which meant that folklore and folk tales survived there longer. These tales are local variations of folk tales from Europe, some of which came from China and Arabia via the trade routes. A fascinating collection of tales and a pleasing literary retelling (Hornyansky was a Professor of English at Brock University). The illustrations are charming too, some by Arthur Price. Barbeau also wrote about totem poles of the Tsimshian-speaking peoples, and Haudenosaunee languages.

The Good, the Bad, and the Furry, by Tom Cox

I love Tom Cox’s writing and the only reason it took me so long to read this was that his books make me homesick.

I love his quirky take on the world, all the quotes from his dad, and the adventures of the cats. I think he should do a coffee table book, titled “WATCH OUT FOR FOOKWITS AND LOONIES” and subtitled “The wit and wisdom of Mick Cox” with pictures of his dad and a quote of things he says on each page.

Laughed out loud several times while reading this. If you like toads hiding in shoes, cats with a philosophical outlook on the world, and if you loved “My Sad Cat” on Twitter, buy this book.

Under the Paw: Confessions of a Cat Man, by Tom Cox

As soon as I started reading this, I realized that it is the prequel to The Good, the Bad, and the Furry, so I should’ve read it first. Among other things, it chronicles the early life of The Bear, and talks about how Tom became a cat man. It was a very enjoyable read.

Ring the Hill, by Tom Cox

It’s very interesting to read this straight after the earlier books. Then, his writing was witty and entertaining. Now there’s an added dimension and depth to his writing, with more poetic imagery, more quirky and wonderful perspectives on things.

Each section is about different hills around England. The first bit is about when he lived in Somerset near Glastonbury Tor. Lots of evocative descriptions of the Somerset Levels and the town of Bruton. I particularly liked the descriptions of the Levels as a dry sea; in a sense that’s what they are, as they frequently get flooded and the Tor, Burrow Mump, and Athelney (where King Alfred hid from the Danes and burned the cakes) were islands once. The second bit is about his sojourn near Eyam in a very high, cold, haunted house. I remember reading his blogposts when he was living there: very scary. But the experience created the amazing title story of Help the Witch, which is probably what you might call suffering for your art.

I love the way his writing is so evocative of landscape. It helps that I’m very familiar with the landscapes he’s writing about, but even if I wasn’t, I think I’d still enjoy reading it. It’s also interesting getting someone else’s perspective on a landscape that you know well (a bit like book clubs at their best. There should be a landscape club!) and it helps that he’s also interested in folklore and history and wildlife.

The book deals with so many landscapes and hills I’ve known and loved: the area around Glastonbury, Crook Peak, Brent Knoll, Blackdown, Dartington (which I’ve visited twice, once for a trade union training, and once for the classic music summer school), Eyam (and some that I haven’t visited, but would like to make the acquaintance of) that it was like visiting a selection of old friends. This book will be going on the sacred bookshelf containing William Dalrymple and Patrick Leigh Fermor.

The Merry Heart, by Robertson Davies

A collection of essays about writing, culture and literature. It was published posthumously in 1996, and compiled from his remaining papers. It’s interesting to read, especially his thoughts on Fifth Business and the Deptford Trilogy. Dunstan Ramsay is one of my favourite characters of all time. Some of the essays are a bit dated, as they don’t take into account Indigenous literature and culture. The one written just prior to the signing of NAFTA is interesting, as Davies was opposed to it, because he feared that the Canadian publishing industry would be overwhelmed by the US one.

I’ve loved Davies’ writing since the late 1980s, when I first read What’s Bred in the Bone and the Deptford Trilogy. He’s sadly under-appreciated in Canada.

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  1. Pingback: Books I read in 2019 | Dowsing for Divinity

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