Saturday, February 19, 2011

Rare Saturday Edition of Library Monday (2/19/2011)

My library is closed on Monday, for Presidents' Day, and I was at a different library today for a writers' group (which resulted in a weird story involving a fairy and an ugly dragon and the stock market - it was weird), so I browsed a bit. One book that I'll officially own up to is:

Grace Pundyk - The Honey Trail

An exploration of the history and current situation in re: honey and bees - it seemed apropos, so I grabbed it.

(ok, ok, the other book was Lois McMaster Bujold - Cryoburn, but that has nothing to do with vampires OR honey, and I won't get to it until next week or the week after, so. I am greatly looking forward to it, though. New Vorkosigan!)

The Honey Month, Day 19 (2/19/2011)

eta: Ladies and gentlemen, today's link is live!

"Day 19 - Honeydew Honey*

Colour: Apple juice. I want to organise these into series; apple juice, apple cider, white wine, various other booze.

Smell: That body smell, ringed with green-fleshed melon that gives the scent a supple thickness.

Taste: Melon, pie, and pistachio."

*So, we have a melon named for the fact that it tastes like honey, flavouring honey - I think I would like very much to try this one too.

The story today is very sad, and very true, for all that it is fantastical fiction. We live in an age, I am afraid, which handles metaphors poorly and magic almost not at all. A lengthy Tom Stoppard quote, from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead:

"A man breaking his journey between one place and another at a third place of no name, character, population or significance, sees a unicorn cross his path and disappear. That in itself is startling, but there are precedents for mystical encounters of various kinds, or to be less extreme, a choice of persuasions to put it down to fancy; until--"My God," says a second man, "I must be dreaming, I thought I saw a unicorn." At which point, a dimension is added that makes the experience as alarming as it will ever be. A third witness, you understand, adds no further dimension but only spreads it thinner, and a fourth thinner still, and the more witnesses there are the thinner it gets and the more reasonable it becomes until it is as thin as reality, the name we give to the common experience... "Look, look!" recites the crowd. "A horse with an arrow in its forehead! It must have been mistaken for a deer." 

So, when offered a chance to taste dawn, we find ourselves mouthing bread, and, perhaps, not very good bread, and that is all. Very sad.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Friday Vampire Reviews, 2/18/2011

So, this week I tried to read vampire romance fiction, with only limited success. We traveled to visit friends out of town, and I left some books behind at my friend's house - she very nicely couriered them back to me (I have awesome friends), but I have not had time to read the romance she sent back.

Still, three books:

Kerrelyn Sparks - Be Still My Vampire Heart

This was not the worst book I've ever read, but it wasn't great. I think I was tripped up mostly by the formulaic aspects of the novel - the central characters have a meet-cute (involving a flasher in Central Park), the female character doesn't like the male character, she flees, he pursues, she starts to succumb, but does a flounce, so he backs off, but only a little. Then they get put in a dangerous situation, and both realize that they truly love each other, but he does something he thinks is awful, and so stonewalls, and she has to pursue. It all ends happily, with sex on a conference table in a lawyer's office. It was all shot through with the principles not communicating effectively with each other, and some sex which, frankly, wasn't that good.

I think there were two big problems here. First, the whole vampire thing. In order to make vampires "safe" as romantic heroes, Sparks makes use of a device which has gotten a fair bit of play in the genre recently - "good" vampires drinking blood substitute, with "bad" vampires insisting on maintaining their traditional eating habits. While I think this device is over used, I also think it has some potential as a rhetorical device which allows vampires to be metaphorical; revolutionaries vs reactionaries, progressives vs conservatives, etc. Sparks doesn't do that, and perhaps it's too much to expect from what is basically a pulpy novel.

The second problem is that I'm not sure what to do with the characters. The male lead is a vampire, and he's also a 500 year old Scottish Highlander - Highlanders are a common trope in romance fiction, with their kilts and well muscled thews and their brogues and such. The female lead is also Scottish, on loan from MI6 to the CIA; she's also a psychic - psychics are also a common trope in romance fiction at present, especially women. Perhaps this allows an interior dialogue which would not be possible otherwise? At any rate, Sparks doesn't really use the whole psychic thing much - a few plot points and a vital cry for help towards the end, but it doesn't play a major role in the romantic aspects of the book. The problem is, Sparks clearly wants us to take these characters seriously, and I find that I cannot. If they were obvious send-ups of the tropes, I think I could handle that, and if they had depth beyond their tropes, that would be good too, but Sparks seems to want us to take them at face value, and doesn't invest anything much beyond the face. Again, I understand that this isn't intended to be literature for the ages, but it could have been better, given the potential of the story line. Final word - unless you're seeking to complete your reading of the vampire/highlander/psychic girl/romance genre, avoid this one.

J.R. Ward - Lover Avenged

I finished Ms. Sparks' book - Ms. Ward, however, I gave up on after three or four chapters. It was just too much. Again, the vampires are not monsters, but rather a separate species, who do not need to feed on humans (instead, they have to feed on each other; opposite genders, with a strong sexual element - one wonders how non-hetero vampires deal), but, for some reason, they still do? I guess? And they're being hunted by slayers - who are slaying them because the slayers are just generically evil? Because, if the vampires are really only feeding on each other, why hunt them? You're not protecting humanity, because they aren't preying on humans. Perhaps if I had started at the beginning of the series, all of this would make sense, although Ward seemed intent on providing a fair bit of back story anyway. At any rate, there are slayers, but the slayers are not the good guys - but the vampires, at least as presented, are so unpleasant that I didn't care if they got killed by slayers. The kicker, for me, was the fact that Ward has crafted a vampire version of English to describe concepts within the vampire world. This vampire language seems to consist of adding 'h's to otherwise defenseless English words, and the concepts seem to be fairly generic concepts that exist in the non-h-enhanced English language - like ghardian, which is the word for a male vampire who guards a female vampire while the female vampire is in sehclusion.  Which is sort of like seclusion, but for vampires. (The relationship is, I gather, more complex than that, but this affected neologism did not endear the book to me.) Oh, wait, also Ms. Ward uses lots of hip and with it constructions of language, using lots of hyphens, like this: "So this motherfucker up here was going down.

Yeah. So, anyway, after three or four chapters of generally unpleasant folks doing generally unpleasant things to other generally unpleasant folks, using overly cute language and more than their legally alloted supply of 'h's, I decided that my life is too short to plough through this, so I stopped.

Nancy Baker - A Terrible Beauty

I soothed my ravaged reader's soul with this - a truly delicious vampire novel. Baker is a Canadian author, she's published three novels since the mid '90s, and this is her third. Her fourth has been in process since the late '90s, which makes me sad, because she truly deserves broader recognition.

So, A Terrible Beauty is the story of Matthew, a young artist. His aged father, Simon, a noted linguist in an unnamed European city, gets a letter from an old student, Sidonie. When he was much younger, Simon worked with this student to translate some scrolls. The publication of the research made Simon into the noted figure he is at the beginning of the novel, but Simon knows that he stole Sidonie's research, and didn't attribute it. So, when he gets this letter asking him to visit Sidonie in "the North", he fears that she will reveal this secret. Matthew volunteers to take his father's place, and travels north, where he meets, and ultimately falls in love with, Sidonie. The plot isn't really that complex, but the characters are very well presented, and the description is really lovely.

So, why was this a tonic for the stuff I read earlier this week?  This could easily have been a throw-away novel - it's a vampire novel, and it's a retelling of a fairy tale - Beauty and the Beast - which I have occluded to prevent spoilers. It could have been shallow, but it isn't - it's well written, with a depth of character, an attention to detail, and an emotional impact that many non-genre writers could easily make use of. It's a beautiful book, quite dark, a little sad. It's romantic, and gothic. The vampire is a monster, but also a viable focus of romance.*

Baker deserves a much wider reading audience, and you deserve to read her books. There are only three, they're bound very nicely** and this one stands alone, so you could easily read it first, and then go back for her two earlier works, which are a duo. (I may get to them next week, we'll see.)

* Of course, monster's have long been romantic leads in gothic novels - look at Wuthering Heights, for instance. It's just that, unlike other authors playing with vampires, Baker does not go out of her way to maker her vampire safe - not in the least. Sympathetic, yes, complex and misunderstood, even romantic, but not safe.

** My copy is a lovely trade paperback. Penguin Canada decided to do Baker's books in a particularly high toned print run, with cover flaps and uneven pages - this book was a tactile joy to read, in addition to all of its other myriad delights - the sort of book you want to curl up with next to a fire, perhaps - or make annotations in the margins, even; somehow, it invites this.

The Honey Month, Day 18 (2/18/2011)

Link is up - Amal's DVD comments for today make this story a full degree more creepy.

"Day 18 - Manuka Honey

Colour: Mulled cider - but more specifically the dark froth that gathers at the top. This one is also cloudy, with darker splotches in some parts.

Smell: Medicinal. Eucalyptus? A bit like lemon candy, too.

Taste: It tastes like medicine, like cough syrup. I asked my sister to try it for a second opinion, because it tasted like something very specific from our childhood, but while she said medicine, she couldn't narrow it down any further. Cough syrup it remains - or what cough syrup should have tasted like, had it actually been taken with honey."

Today's short piece is another of my favorites from the book - the one with the ravens. Like the story with the ring, it has a strong flavour of autobiography to it - it's probably not autobiographical, entirely, in that it has a very strong element of fantasy to it, but it feels autobiographical; it's told using an autobiographical voice. I think, if I were organizing the various pieces of the collection in separate books, I'd put this one in with the ring story - the voice is similar enough that you could weave some sort of narrative between them, and have it all work nicely. I'd like to read that book, actually.

Today's honey, though, I do not think I would like it at all.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Honey Month, Day 17 (2/17/2011)

"Day 17 - Ugandan Honey

Colour: Cloudy mulled cider - mulled because the crystallised chunks in it make me thing of orange peel.

Smell: Carob molasses and hay.

Taste: A savoury flavour: black olives and smoked cheese. It's so unusual, so earthy."*

A short piece of fiction today, a story of a land where the honey is highly sustaining - an ounce will feed a family for a month - and sacrificial bees. It doesn't need anything else, but it seems to call out for more story - I don't know if that makes sense. There are some pieces in the book which seem incomplete, and so seem to demand additional narration, and there are other pieces which are so complete in themselves that there is no need for more. This is neither - it is complete, the cycle of narration is closed, and yet it feels like the beginning of something bigger - it seems a waste of some beautifully descriptive prose for it to go no further. Basically, there are several pieces in this collection that I would love to see expanded, simply to experience more of the world they describe.

*This is intriguing. There are several honeys in the collection that I would like to try, but this is the first one that I have tried to find for purchase - without success. I did find a site dedicated to Ugandan honey, but there was no way to buy it, short of going to Uganda.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Honey Month, Day 16 (2/16/2011)

"Day 16 - Blueberry Honey

Colour: The exact shade and clarity of apple juice from concentrate.

Smell: Juicy-sweet, with such a faint blueberry scent I could almost swear I was imagining it. But I'm more sure it's there.

Taste: Blue and cold. Water on a bright day, so blue as to challenge those who would call the water colourless, a sky-mirror. It's a deep blue, and it's a liquid honey, the flexible kind that spindles itself into shapes when stretched. Active, passionate, deep."

A poem of all consuming passion, blank verse. I thought the metaphor was a little conventional, but Amal pushes and pulls it nicely into her own shape, resulting in a largely satisfying finished product. It's not the best piece in the book, but it's strong and good anyway.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Honey Month, Day 15 (2/15/2011)

eta: linky

"Day 15 - Hungarian Forest Honey

Colour: A cloudy orange-yellow, which, in the first light I held it to, made me think of extra virgin olive oil. In the current light, more of an apple cider.

Smell: Hay, brown sugar, molasses. I held this vial in hot water for about a minute because it was too crystallized to draw enough out on the wand; prior to heating I thought it smelled a bit resinous, but I can't find a trace of that now.

Taste: Brown sugar - cookies! No aftertaste - elusive, like it makes an appearance on request, then vanishes when you aren't paying attention. Also a taste of dark raisins."

Today's story is one of my favorite in the collection; a short story about a ring lost and returned, simply packed with magic and wonder of a very quiet sort. I'd love a little bit more about the sisters here; their world is fascinating. Despite that, this story is complete in and of itself, and doesn't ask for anything more - very nice.

The Honey Month, Day 14 (posted 2/15/2011)

So, yeah, circumstances conspired against my plan to post this when I got in last night. Basically, I didn't get in until this morning, at which point I was more concerned with setting up the basinette again, and feeding the various beasts, and falling asleep myself. Anyway, here is yesterday's post.

"Day 14 - Raspberry Honey*

Colour: The dark gold of apple juice, or strong green tea.

Smell: Brown honey smells, hay and a bit of molasses.

Taste: Texture-wise: tending towards crystallising,but not there yet. Almost gelatinous on the wand, but there are bits dreaming of being sugar clumps when I put it against my tongue. It's sweet - dries your mouth out. It makes me thing of flower petals, of attar, without tasting of any particular king that I can distinguish."

A short, sweet poem today - a love song to Night and Sleep - this would have been quite apropos yesterday, because it was Valentine's Day, and because I wanted very much to be asleep, and not driving through snow and wind gusts.

*No, she didn't do Raspberry already - that was Raspberry CREAMED Honey.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Note re: tomorrow's Library Post

There will not be one. We're headed out of town through tomorrow evening. I will try to make a Honey Month post when I get back, but if I miss it, I'll post it on Tuesday. Have a lovely Valentine's Day if you celebrate, or Lupercalia if that's more your style, or whatever.

The Honey Month, day 13 (2/13/2011)

eta: link added

"Day 13 - Black Locust Blossom Honey

Colour: White-gold dawn.

Smell: White flowers tucked into honeycomb. A watery white flower - lotus, or lily.

Taste: Like fruit and flowers and sugar. This is one to pour onto pancakes; very liquid-sweet, and when I say fruit I mean something between green grapes and yellowgages* without the sour skin. Juicy sweet is this."

Another villanelle today, with a lovely sprightly rhythm, almost bouncy. Hints of Ulysses ad maybe Gaiman's Sandman here - for all the bounciness, a dark tale of addiction. A cautionary tale - be careful what you wish for; you might get it.

* It's a yellow plum; the little ones that you find at the farmer's market towards the end of August. When they are truly ripe, they are fantastic; but too far in either direction - not ripe or over ripe - and they're revolting.

A note on what's going on here. Two years ago, Amal El-Mohtar began a month long exploration of a variety of honeys, tasting and describing each, and then writing a short piece of fiction, or a poem, or something of that nature which was inspired by the honey of the day. Last year, these posts were collected into a short book - more formal than a simple chapbook, perhaps - called The Honey Monthwhich I reviewed when it came out. My biggest problem, at that time, was that I ploughed through the book too quickly, and so I resolved to do a more careful reading of it at a later date. That later date is now - the posts were originally a February project, and so there are 28 honey days. This is now February, and I cannot think of a better time to slowly read poems and stories about honey. The material in quotation marks is the description of the day's honey, from the book (so that you get a good taste of Amal's lovely writing), what follows that is a brief thought about the piece of poetry or fiction of that day from yours truly.

In addition to my daily reviews, Amal has been re-running the original posts with what she is describing as "DVD Extras," some commentary on the piece for the day, some discussion of the differences between the original post and the finished piece in the book, and some delicious LJ Honey Month icons. The first of the re-runs is here, and I have been linking the appropriate post via the daily title, above, as the post becomes available. Amal is currently in England (because she is fabulous), and so her sense of what time it is and my sense of what time it is are somewhat askew. And that's ok.