Half Price Book Raid II

A few weeks ago I had the honor of visiting two of those elegantly erudite ladies at the Egotist’s Club, Urania and Melpomene. Among the varying important cultural pastimes we took part in (an impressive Renaissance Faire, an Irish pub, stalking university grounds at night, watching me die hilariously in Assassin’s Creed 2 and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess [that darn chicken!]), perhaps the most productive was a pilgrimage to a very large Half Price Books.

Here be my (legally paid for) plunder.

Tamsin by Peter S. Beagle

Since being amazed by the beauty of The Last Unicorn, I’ve wanted to read more of Beagle’s work. This one seems to be an urban fantasy of sorts, or at least a fairy tale with a modern setting, and it comes highly recommended. I think I’m most interested in what Beagle’s prose style will be like. His Unicorn prose formed striking and beautiful similes with deceptively simple words to achieve a sublime, ethereal quality – you’re amazed at the beauty of his prose, but never so overwhelmed that you lose track of the story itself. It was perfect for that fairy tale, but something tells me that Beagle is canny enough to shift his style when tackling a story with a different tone. Of course, I’ll be sure to let you know how he does, once I read it.

The Bards of Bone Plain by Patricia McKillip

Same amazing cover art style as with “The Bell at Sealey Head.”

Likewise, The Bell at Sealey Head was so great that I’ve been eager to read more of McKillip. She has a nice habit of taking intrinsically interesting ideas, adding unique little twists to them, and then populating her story with a cast of incredibly likable and good characters who quite rightly become the story’s main focus rather than the plot itself. Urania is already a fan of this, her latest book, published in 2010, and presented it to me in the store – very politely, mind you – to add to the pile of books already in my arms. She also presented me with the series listed below:

The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny

Sadly, my versions don’t have this awesome picture.

These have been on my desired reading list for some time, so I was delighted when we found the whole series in two volumes. At half price each, of course. Hard to ask for a better deal!

Invisible Cities and If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino

These are the Experiments, but ones I knew I wanted. I don’t know how many of you have noticed, but if you look to my right-hand sidebar, way down below the Categories, you’ll see links to some of my favorite webcomics. One of them is a dreamlike, philosophical fantasy called Hero (Urania actually wrote about it a few weeks back for the Meme), in which the protagonist gets to travel through a series of mystical cities that all embody different ideas: the City of Desire, the City of Delight, the City of Despair, etcetera. As it happens, the webcomic was itself inspired by Italo Calvin’s Invisible Cities, an experimental novel in which Marco Polo recounts to Kublai Khan various fantastical cities he’s visited on his travels. Since the comic is so fresh and intriguing, I had to check out the book as well.

If on a winter’s night a traveler I had heard about only after researching Calvino online due to my interest in Invisible Cities. I knew next to nothing about it, but the copy I found in the store was a beautiful dark blue hardback, as perfect-looking a book as one could hope. It touts itself as an “interactive novel,” which initially made me think of those dreadful Choose Your Own Adventures, but in this case means something quite different. I bought it and promptly started reading it. I’m about two-thirds of the way through it now, and I can say with assurance that I have never read anything like it in my life. See, in all the reading and studying about books that I’ve done, I hear every so often of a book or author that redefines what is possible with literature. Shakespeare did that. They say Henry James and James Joyce and T.S. Eliot did, too. Authors who do something manifestly Different than what was done before. That doesn’t make them automatically good, but it can make them very important. And Calvino, I think, is one of those authors who is very good at being very Different. Final judgment to be postponed until actual review (well, opinions on art should always be open to revision, as one grows and matures). But to give you a taste, here is the book’s first chapter. Read it. It’s short. And addicting. Everyone who loves books will immediately know what Calvino is talking about.

What are your recent book acquisitions? Borrowed? Lent? Read surreptitiously at a bookstore without actually buying?

Book Meme 2012: Literary Love/Book Crush

Topic: What female character(s) have I had crushes on?

Hm. Tricky topic. I can admit to, in junior high especially, feeling pangs of longing for certain girls in the books I was reading, but these didn’t really last beyond the pages of the book. It was less that I thought they would be a great girlfriend for me in real life and more that I thought they were paired well with the book’s hero, and I wanted the romantic couple to be together at story’s end. Still, this was often because there were real qualities I liked in the girl, and I suppose that when my young self imagined what my perfect future girlfriend would be, some of the qualities of these literary girls may have found their way in to that image.

So I reflect now and try to think of the ones who attracted me most, and who I was most loathe to leave upon reaching the book’s end. One in particular stands out from the reading of my youth. I was surprised, because I often forget about this character. She’s not Eilonwy, from The Chronicles of Prydain, who, though possessing the inestimably attractive qualities of being a cute redhead, passionately affectionate, and stubbornly loyal, is nonetheless a bit too flighty and prone to too drastic mood swings for me. Nor is she a lofty Lúthien, too beautiful and ethereal a creature to ever notice a common boy like me.

But she is a princess. In her wisdom, wit, conscientiousness, and utter, wild beauty of spirit, she is as dazzling a princess and as firm a friend as any boy in any realm, real or imaginative, could hope for. To my fifth grade self, she was something akin to The Perfect Girl.

She was Leslie Burke, from Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson.

[SPOILERS for Bridge to Terabithia follow.]

Leslie is an Adventure Companion, one of the best a boy can hope for, especially a lonely, introverted boy. It is she who sees Jesse for who he is and determines to befriend him. It is she who pulls him into Terabithia, an imaginary kingdom of monsters and people to protect from monsters, that is both an escape from the troubles of the world and a training ground for how to deal with them. Even though she takes the lead in most of their adventures, she doesn’t lord over Jesse or boss him around. She encourages his artistic talent and is delighted to combine his drawing skills with her storytelling ability.

This is a girl who can do just about anything as good as a boy, and often better, but never brags, never lords it over him, never humiliates. She has her head in the clouds, but her eyes squarely on the people around her; as immersed as she is in Terabithia, the world of her imagination, she never forgets them. She loves justice, and justice means helping people in need.

Oh, and she loves The Chronicles of Narnia.

I only read this special book once, but I can remember the sickening feeling in my gut when I realized, slowly, and along with Jesse that Leslie had really died in that accident. It was hard to accept. When Jesse went into denial, I was right there with him—she had to come back, right? She was just too wonderful to be gone for good! But not this time. Jesse and I had to accept this, and move on. And we are able to, because of the strength Leslie gave us.

Just imperfect enough to be obtainable and relatable, just perfect enough to be absolutely wonderful, Leslie Burke was a girl who would stick with a boy and have the best adventures with him, and would be his perfectly-matched companion as they both mature into adulthood.

So that’s my childhood crush. The tragedy, of course, is that Leslie never gets to live into adulthood. So, thinking of a literary girl I might have a crush on now, if she were real, I set quickly upon a very recent acquaintance: Gwyneth from The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia McKillip.

Gwyneth is a reader and a writer, and she instinctively comes to these activities with a passion and thoughtfulness that immediately kindled in me the recognition of a kindred spirit. She is sensitive, kind, creative and yet practical, elegant in spirit yet still very down-to-earth, and she likes humble and chivalrous men. She also is strong and mature enough not to let her aunt and friends’ silly class obsession be a real obstacle to her love for Judd. If I couldn’t be in love with her, I’d at least want her as a close friend.

Book Review: “The Bell at Sealey Head” by Patricia McKillip

Title: The Bell at Sealey Head
Series: No.
Author: Patricia McKillip
Pages: 227
Published: 2008 by ACE
Spoiler-free Synopsis: Sealey Head is a small coastal town home to a mysterious phenomenon: the sound of a bell tolling at every sunset, with no bell to make it. For centuries the citizens have ignored and accepted it as part of everyday life – most just tune it out. But some know more secrets than they tell others…
Reason for Beginning: It comes highly recommended by some of my friends. Plus the premise and the cover both are beautiful.
Reason for Finishing: A very sweet, lovely book, modest in tone but just about perfect for what it is. It’s also an easy, pleasant read, with characters you would want to meet in real life.
Story Re-readability: Reasonably strong, I think. Not so much for the plot, which is nice but not urgent, but for the characters, who are so likable and real they begin to feel like real friends. I felt comfortable and happy in their presence, and I’ll want to hang out with them again.
Author Re-readability: Very much so! In some ways McKillip’s writing in this book reminded me of Madeleine L’Engle’s. It’s deceptively simple, appearing almost unadorned, yet she chooses just the right expressions and images to evoke her world and characters. The story is neither rushed nor too slow, and the tension never so taut as to drastically disrupt the sense of comfortableness nor so lax as to seem boring. It’s a page-turner, but not in the conventional sense of a cliffhanger at every chapter break. Rather, I felt compelled to keep reading and reading, long after I told myself I’d stop for the day, simply because I wanted to be in Sealey Head, spending time with these people.
Recommendation: Yes! It would feel strange to call this book a classic, in the way that I can so easily name The Last Unicorn or Lilith one, not because it is lesser than they but because I think the book would blush and apologize for attracting so much attention to itself. Like its main characters Judd, Gwyneth, Emma, and Ridley, The Bell at Sealey Head has a charming modesty that belies its intelligent and poetic soul. It’s fantasy, with splashings of fairy story and myth, but really is more about the characters, their loves, and their society – parts of it feel inspired by Jane Austen.

Key Thoughts

There is a moment in this book where the hairs on the back of a character’s neck prickle at a story being told to her, and I felt my own neck hairs prickling as well. The humming of the refrigerator in the bank’s break room faded away, and I was fully immersed in the goings on in a small room in a humble house in the coastal town of Sealey Head. It wasn’t just the events of the plot that drew me in, although they did their part. It was that I could so easily locate myself in that character’s mind, see things through her eyes, and follow her thoughts as they mirrored my own. That’s the special gift of McKillip’s book: characters who feel like friends I know, like people I want to be like, who love what I love, and who are probably smarter and surer than me in everyday situations. I can hardly think of any flaws in the main characters, yet they all feel natural and real to me.

We first meet Judd Cauley, son of a local innkeeper by a seaside cliff at Sealey Head. He’s quiet, modest, hardworking, responsible, easy-going, and a voracious reader. I dare you not to like him. In fact, I dare you not to like Gwyneth, and Emma, and Ridley Dow. (The other characters are more…subjective in this regard.) I deeply suspect that just as writers love to write about writers, so do readers love characters who read as they do. Gwyneth has the distinction of being both, and a short story that she is working on ends up being important to the mood and gradual revelations of the plot. Her struggles in finding the right way to develop her story are easy for me to relate to. It is hardly a spoiler to say that the book’s primary romance is between her and Judd – the instant we discover that they both are readers, we know they are meant for each other. (Would that it were so easy in real life!)

Of course there are a few complications: Gwyneth is being aggressively courted by a richer young man, the brother of one of Gwyneth’s good friends, whom Gwyneth’s aunt (her mother having passed away) arrogantly assumes she will marry. This rich young man, Raven Sproule, is a nice fellow, surely, but far and away no lifelong match for her. The chief pleasure of Gwyneth’s romance with Judd is that, although they have this obstacle and maybe one or two others between them, they otherwise have a pretty easy time of it. Meaning, they don’t have to deal with those contrived misunderstandings and irritating catastrophes that show up in so many so-called “romantic comedies.” Each of them loves and trust the other – they just proceed carefully because they are unsure if their feelings are requited. Their sweetness is honest, understated, and warm. They say what they mean and recognize honesty and delight in each other. And when this becomes clear—when they realize that they do indeed love each other—the other obstacles immediately lose their threat, despite the desperate natterings of Gwyneth’s aunt.

Ah, but this is merely one part of the book, out of many! See how easily I speak at length about the characters I love the most, in a book that is ostensibly about a haunting phenomenon and portals between worlds? The above relationship is what sticks most in my mind, but the fantastic mystery itself is also plenty interesting. Every day, as the sun hits the line of water on the horizon, a bell tolls across the headland. Yet there is no bell in Sealey Head! Gwyneth writes stories about what she thinks it might be, but Ridley Dow comes to town to discover the truth. A somewhat absent-minded scholar, modest yet obviously wealthy, respectful yet impulsive, speaking in hushed tones of strange things and suddenly disappearing into the night for secret investigations or heroic actions, he is likable and fascinating all at once. We don’t get into his head as we do with Judd and Gwyneth, but he’s a great character for them to interact with. In fact, I could almost see a series based on his adventures…

But no matter. The secret of the bell at Sealey Head I will leave you to discover on your own, as there is no point in discussing it here. I am satisfied with it, although a little more explanation on the how and why would have been appreciated. It’s poetic, and a bit unexpected in the right way.

Patricia McKillip has managed the difficult job of stumbling upon an excellent premise and then refusing to let it dominate the plot entirely, focusing instead on natural, immensely likable characters who in return enrich all the story around them.

P.S. You have no idea how many times I almost typed “Ridley Scott” instead of Ridley Dow!

Half Price Book Raid

I stripped my shelves of dozens of books, and afterward they were still crammed, and I still had stacks on my table and headboard. It was a painful, difficult task. I would look at all my fantasy books and immediately find them all to be priceless. I would look at all my books written before 1900 or about time periods before 1900, and could not bear to part with any. But in all harvests there is chaff, and I went through my storehouse of literature and cathartically removed the least nutritious, least savory, and least sweet. I took down these books, including a dozen or so old textbooks, until they numbered 57, and drove to the nearest Half Price Books, which buys used printed stuff.

They gave me $13 for the lot.

It’s not that I had been dreaming of sudden wealth from the sale of 57 used and somewhat useless books. But I did rather hope that it would at least cover the purchases I made. Six books cost me about $27, which is certainly a good deal, but leaves me $15 poorer than this morning. Oh well, minor complaint. The truth is, the value of the books I found is far, far more than $27, or even $72, if it had come to that (which I’m grateful it didn’t).

I found the two other Myst books, in which I was interested after reading Myst: The Book of Atrus.


Myst: The Book of Ti'ana
The Book of D'ni

The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia McKillip, which I have a dim memory of being recommended to me by some friends in the past. I know nothing of it, but I read McKillip’s debut series The Riddlemaster Trilogy, which I liked despite the spotty writing, and have wanted to explore her more polished writing.

Then there is Three Hearts & Three Lions by Poul Anderson, about which I know even less except that the back cover proclaims it a seminal and influential fantasy novel and that the author’s reputation is among those that have come highly recommended but only vaguely described. But the plot sounded interesting and it was $2 on the clearance shelves, so I doubt I stepped wrong.

And then…a Sutcliff novel! The store had a grand total of two Sutcliff novels, and the other was The Eagle of the Ninth, of which I already have two copies (and have given away a third). This one is a retelling of the tragic medieval tale of Tristan and Iseult (or Isolde), and is aptly titled Tristan & Iseult.

And lastly, Neil Gaiman’s Adventures in the Dream Trade, which is not actually an exciting novel but a collection of sundry items from many sources: an article here, a poem there, and the apparent entirety of the months from February to September from his old blog http://www.americangods.com. It was $2 and I enjoyed the introduction by John M. Ford (where he provided some witty poems that helpfully explained how to pronounce Neil’s name — Gaiman rhymes with drayman), so it was probably a good buy. It occurs to me now that I have read more of his casual writing on his blog and in a few articles than I have of his actual fiction.

Anyway, in more relevant news, I have finished Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn and intend to review it soon. My review of the Doctor Who two-parter “Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood” will be delayed, as upon watching it many months ago I was so drawn in to the story that I forgot to take notes, and so will have to refresh my memory before attempting to report on it.

At any rate, God bless you all and Godspeed on your own reading!