Reading Journal for April: A Month for Novellas

Novellas are rare in the modern world. Not quite as publishable as a novel, not quite as marketable as a short story, these little books don’t seem to see much light. The most recent modern ones I read were in Charles Stross’s The Atrocity Archive, where he glued two together, told you to mind the gap, and his publisher sort of pretended that counted as a novel.

This month, though, I happen to have read quite a few novellas.  I can’t call any of them particularly modern, the newest one is from 1989. Each has been engaging, however, and so I wonder if there’s something to this form – too long to be sustained by a single idea, too short for panoramic waffling – that suits me, particularly when I looking for a commuting audiobook that I can sample in brief pieces.

The novellas this month were:

Ollalla by Robert Louise Stevenson

I became aware of this novella via a Kickstarter from a university group to republish it and create an audiobook, which I thought odd because it’s still in print, is already available as part of an ebook, and there’s a Librivox edition. The group describing it bill it as a vampire novel that predates Dracula, but that’s an oversimplification of the story, or at least it chooses a single, superficial interpretation which is likely to be commercially appealing. It’s in the Gothic style, and is more about mood that plot, so the novella format fits it superbly. Stevenson takes his exercise in style as far as he can, and then truncates it before it starts to drag. Recommendable to those who like Gothic stories, aren’t bothered by character types which later become clichés, and won’t feel disappointed if the “vampiric” reveal is weak.

The Mountains of Mourning by Lois McMaster-Bujold

This novella, from the Vorkosigan saga, sends Miles, the young protagonist, to a rural area of his planet, where ancient prejudices against the disabled still hold sway. A child with a cleft palate has been murdered, and the question that he needs to answer is not only who did it, but what to do with the criminal after they are apprehended. This extra step, having the detective confront the fact that his work generally ends in the death of the murderer, adds additional interest to what’s a relatively routine mystery. This novella is collected in Young Miles. Recommended, but perhaps suitable only for those following the series, and if you are considering that, start somewhere else.

The White People by Arthur Machen

The White People is one of those works which is in the DNA of many later books, particularly in the horror genre. If you are interested in the development of horror, you have probably heard of it, without ever stumbling upon it.  When I saw it in Librivox, and that it was so short (about three hours, if I recall) I thought it well worth grabbing, to see if the praise it gathered from early horror writers was deserved.

The story suffers from its frame narrative, which takes up about a third of the novella. Once that is dispensed with, the work is a very early version of found-manuscript horror, although it would not have been clear to contemporary readers if it was horror or fantasy until the last few pages (even had they these genre terms with which to safely pigeonhole it). I enjoyed it a great deal, but recommend it only for people who like the slow burn and verbosity of the early Mythos authors.

The Library Service has The White People and Other Weird Stories in print. This edition  contains The Angel of Mons, reviewed earlier for book coasters. There is also an excellent Librivox version.

Talking About Detective Fiction by P D James

This is not a novella, because it’s not fiction, but I’ll include it here because it’s slightly over four hours long, in audio.

This is a remarkable little book, about the development of the English detective story, and its descendant genres, like the police procedural. It’s a grandmistress of her craft laying out her basic tools, and describing the uses to which each one has been put by her predecessors. It’s a brilliant contrasting and examination of the works of Christie and Sayers.

This work is available in CD, e-audio and print.

Highly recommended to librarians attempting to develop their readers’ advisory skills in this subgenre. Also of interest to devotees seeking new authors, and to new writers wanting to grasp basic theory in this genre.

Around the World in Seventy-Two Days by Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly manages to circumnavigate the globe in her targeted time with only a little piece of hand luggage, a custom-made dress, and the endless financial support of the World newspaper. They do cheat a little by putting on a special express train to get her across the United States. I thought this book was charming, and aside from the dull clang when Bly uses terms now considered racist, I found her quite open-minded for a Western traveller. She is thrilled by things like curry and catamarans, and can usually be depended on not to downplay things she sees because they are foreign.

At the same time, some of the things she cites as alien are just bizarre. For example she describes an Egyptian child held to its mother’s side, holding on like a monkey on a tree. Now, potential racism aside, surely that’s a hip carry?  How can she not ever have seen a woman (or man) perform a hip carry before? That’s the bit that’s interesting with Bly herself: some of the things she claims to have never seen before are just so ubiquitous that it’s unbelievable that she could state she has not seen them in her normal life.

There’s also the ambiguity of her “confirmed spinster” status. She takes a great deal of time to discuss the beauty of the women around her. She notes her temptation to return Mrs Verne’s French greeting, of pecks on her cheeks, with a proper American smooch. Is she subtly signalling an inclination, or is this again part of the alieness of historical people?

I thought the Librivox version of this was fantastic and congratulate the reader. It’s based on a free e-text at Open Library.

The Vor Game, Cetaganda and Ethan of Athos by Lois McMaster Bujold

The first two are excellent continuations of the Vorkosigan Series, about a small, disabled man from a society that both has space battles and prefers its leaders to be physically adroit. In the first he tricks a company of mercenaries into solving a problem his Emperor is having, and in the second he visits the ancestral foes of his people, who are a sort of science-fiction version of the Qing court, so far as I can tell.  I listened to each through our Overdrive service, but we also have Vor Game in text, collected in Young Miles.

Ethan of Athos is set in the same milieu, and shares a few minor characters, but takes McMaster-Bujold’s theme of motherhood in a bizarre new direction. Her lead character is a geneticist from a planet populated solely by men, who use cloned ovarian tissue to reproduce. The ovarian tissue bought by the society’s founders is failing, so he is sent out into the hostile and woman-haunted universe to find more.

Ethan is interesting in that he’s a sympathetically drawn character who, at the beginning at least, is a religious fanatic and a misogynist, which is a difficult bit of crafting that McMaster-Bujold pulls of seamlessly. The scenes is which he is reflexively bashed for being gay by some blue-collar workers, and where even the friendly characters seem to find his Planet of the Gays funny, seem a little bit dated. Science fiction needs to comment on the society of the author’s time to have bite, but this novel feels a little out of its time in this respect.