52 books in 52 weeks – closing out the challenge

I managed 109 books, which is double the target, so I think it went well. Here’s this month’s update.

Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder105: Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder by William Hope Hogson

This was an early entry in the paranormal detective genre, as sort of ancestor to Kolchack and Dresden.It’s interesting in that sort of archaeological sense, but has difficulty for a modern reader because the author is tied up in period ideas of what’s scary. He apologizes for mentioning a maggot at one stage, as an example. The ghosts tend to be human body parts magnified in size.

Back when Hodgson was writing ghosts of themselves were scary. Now ghosts are only scary if they are doing scary things. Like vampires – Dracula used to be so terrifying that some early theatrical productions had a nurse on standby. Now, he’s not scary unless he does something scary, and, here’s a second problem: trying to kill people is not actually horrifying, to a reader. So, when a great black ghostly hand batters against the protection provided by Carnacki’s Electric Pentacle, that’s a good set-up, but there’s not payoff.

Also, I wondered at the common sense of some of the characters. Assume that no-one has slept in the Grey Room for sixteen years because of the ghost which strangles people. It also pulls the bed sheets away each night and a servant makes the bed each morning.  Why? Why would you not, like a sensible person, just leave the bed unmade? Why have it furnished at all? I kept thinking that the solution to most of the haunted rooms was “Take the furniture out and nail the door shut, you fools.”, but that’s not in te spirit of the thing. That’s me being modern.

It’s available in audio through Librivox and in e-text from Project Gutenberg.

On Liberty cover106: On Liberty By John Stuart Mill

I really enjoyed this book, and gave it a fuller review in an earlier post.

I’d like to seriously suggest that its one of the best books I’ve read this year purely in terms of its entertainment value, and I’d advocate it to that small band of the clerisy who enjoy well written  arguments. I have some trouble with a few of his logical steps, but it was still an excellent book.

Goodnight mice cover107: Goodnight Mice by Frances Watts and Jody Watson

A cute little bedtime book, for children being read to, suggested to me by Elizabeth of Australian Women Writer’s Challenge to tip me over the line.

My own daughter’s a bit young for a book this long, and she tends to like quite active books before bed, but I’ll be remembering this for when she’s a bit older. The Library Service has copies.

108: Dot and the Kangaroo by Ethel C Pedley

A book I’m glad to have read, so that I know I’ve not missed anything, but still, at its core a strangely hollow book. I’m not sure why I enjoyed it as little as a I did.  Fantasy stories with talking animals I generally like, so let’s unpick my emotional response.

It has a some racial issues. I mean, its Aboriginal characters are written terribly, even by the standards of its time. Usually that’s not enough to disqualify a book for me, but I’d like to note this book as particularly hostile, for those with greater sensitivity to this issue.

It has this idea in it that learning too much causes indigestion, which seems like anti-intellectualism. I object to anti-intellectualism in children’s books. Being wise is actually OK, and Dot’s…if not stupid, then profoundly incautious, as the author makes clear, in that her wandering off into the bush was incredibly dangerous. She could do with a bit more learning. The kangaroo’s motto seems to be “Never think!” and to just react and feel. Emotively, I feel that’s just a rubbish way of living, little better than being a mollusc, and it is terrible advice to give to small children. Here we may be striking a difference between the author, who sees children basically as ignorant and angelic, and the reader, who thinks children are basically wired to have fun, and are ignorant of consequences.

The book doesn’t accept Australian things in their own terms. The animals all have European eyes when viewing the Platypus for example. He’s a half animal, half bird freak. He’s an oddity. Except of course, to someone who has been raised around platypii, that would not be the case at all. The platypus looks more familiar to me that a beaver does, so when I look at a platypus I don’t think “Oh, it’s back legs are a bit like a beaver.” and I don’t think a Kangaroo should either.  It breaks the immersion in the story.

It has a strong pro-conservation message, but coming from a vegetarian family it does seem odd. Dot learns that animals can talk, and so she promises to never hurt bush creatures, or use kangaroo products, or eat kangaroo-tail soup.  That’s all well and good, but her family’s sheep?  Tough luck Flossie, you’re a rack of ribs. Now my point isn’t to advocate vegetarianism, it’s to note that Dot’s thought processes are not believable. If you shouldn’t kill animals because they can talk after you eat a certain berry, then more power to you, but how do you go back to running a sheep or cattle station? When you are dehorning or castrating or crutching, how can you handle it when you know that the bleat of shock isn’t just a mechanical response from a meat robot, but a sentient creature, presumably indicating it’d prefer you kept your knife further away from its bits?

So, hard to find an audience for, really, and I don’t say that about many books. Available from Librivox and Project Gutenberg,

Atrocity Archives cover

109: The Atrocity Archive by Charles Stross

Assume the Cthulhu Mythos, the elder gods trying to break into reality to suck our brains, are real. Imagine the British Secret Service found definitive proof that this was the case. What would they do?

Bob, the main character, is part of the Laundry, the British Secret Service’s answer to the X-Files. He is a secret agent, but he can do magic — literal proper magic — with computers. He’s also a real secret agent in the, as Stross points out, in the way James Bond is not. Between world-saving adventures, he needs to fill out time in lieu forms, and deal with his horrible boss and line manager.

The book ends with a brief essay by Stross on why H P Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness is a great spy thriller, and why most Cold War spy thrillers are using tools from the horror toolkit. The essay itself is worth borrowing the library book. I finished this book too late for my top ten list (which hasn’t been posted yet, but we cheat here and do posts out-of-order to cover holidays) but I’d seriously consider adding it, at about the level of Snow Crash. 

Next year I’m not going to do 52 books in 52 weeks because it’s obviously too simple. I will make a monthly post of what I’m reading, as a book journal though. I’ve found the journaling process really useful, in terms of examining what I’m reading and enjoying. I’ll go into that in more detail with my top ten post, coming next week.