Archive for the ‘R.A. MacAvoy’ Category

What an easy list to put together, after all! The hardest part was ranking them.

I simply scanned over my book reviews index, and these titles popped right out at me. Memorable for the most compelling reason I read – pure and simple enjoyment. My long-time favourites which I reviewed this year and which should really be included were left off the list, because if I noted those down there’d be no room for the marvelous new-to-me reads I discovered in 2012.

*****

BEST NEW-TO-ME READS 2012

Who could rank them?! Well, I’ll try.

A classic countdown, ending with the best of the best – the ones joining the favourites already resident on the “treasures” bookshelves.

Unapologetically “middlebrow”, most of my choices, I realize.

The jig is up. Barb is an unsophisticated reader at heart!

*****

10. Mother Mason (1916)

by Bess Streeter Aldrich

I know, I know – two titles by Aldrich are on my “Most Disappointing” list. But Mother Mason was marvelous, and I loved her. Molly Mason, happily married and with a normal, well-functioning, healthy, active family, is feeling jaded. So she runs away. But without telling anyone that that’s what she’s doing, and covering her tracks wonderfully well. She returns refreshed, to turn the narrative over to the rest of her family, though she remains in the picture, sending her family members off into the world and receiving them back with love, good humour and anything else they need when they return. A very sweet book; a happy hymn to domesticity at its best, with enough occasional real life angst to provide counterpoint. Nice.

9. Death and Resurrection (2011)

by R.A. MacAvoy

I deeply enjoy MacAvoy’s rather odd thrillers/sci fi/time shift/alternative reality/fantasy novels, and was thrilled to get my hands on this latest book, the first full-length new work the author has published in almost 20 years – she’s been otherwise occupied by dealing with some serious health issues, now happily manageable enough for a return to writing. MacAvoy’s new book is just as wonderfully off-key as her previous creations. I love how her mind works, though I experience quite a few “What did I just read?” moments when reading her stuff. Makes me pay attention!

Ewen Young is a pacifist Buddhist with a satisfying career as a painter, and absorbing side interests such as perfecting his kung fu technique and working with his twin sister’s psychiatric patients, and at a hospice for the terminally ill. When Ewen is inadvertently faced with a violent encounter with the murderers of his uncle, strange powers he never realized he had begin to develop. Factor  in a new friend and eventual love interest, veterinarian Susan Sundown, and her remarkable corpse-finding dog, Resurrection, and some decidedly dramatic encounters with the spirit world, and you have all the ingredients for a surreally mystical adventure. Friendship, love, and the importance of ancestors and family join death and resurrection as themes in this most unusual tale. Welcome back, Roberta Ann.

8. Parnassus on Wheels (1917)

by Christopher Morley

Another escaping homemaker, this one thirty-nine year old spinster Helen McGill, who decides to turn the tables on her rambling writer of a brother, much to his indignant dismay. A boisterous open road adventure with bookish interludes, and a most satisfactory ending for all concerned.

7. Fire and Hemlock (1985)

by Diana Wynne Jones

An intriguing reworking of the Tam Lin legend. Polly realizes she has two sets of memories, and that both of them are “real”.  DWJ at her strangely brilliant best.

And while we’re on the subject of Diana Wynne Jones, I’m going to add in another of hers as a sort of Honourable Mention: Archer’s Goon (1984). Gloriously funny. Don’t waste these on the younger set – read them yourselves, dear adults. Well, you could share. But don’t let their home on the Youth shelf at the library hinder your discovery of these perfectly strange and strangely attractive fantastic tales. Think of Neil Gaiman without the (occasionally) graphic sex and violence. Same sort of kinked sense of humour and weird appeal.

6. Miss Bun, the Baker’s Daughter (1939)

 and

Shoulder the Sky (1951)

by D.E. Stevenson

Two which tied for my so-far favourites (I’ve only sampled a few of her many books) by this new-to-me in 2012 by this vintage light romantic fiction writer. Both coincidentally have artistic backgrounds and sub-plots.

In Miss Bun, Sue Pringle takes on a job against her family’s wishes as a housekeeper to an artist and his wife; immediately upon Sue’s arrival the wife departs, leaving Sue in a rather compromising position, living alone with a married man. She refuses to abandon the most unworldly John Darnay, who is so focussed on his painting that he forgets that bills need to eventually be paid, let alone considering what the gossips may be whispering about his personal life. An unusual but perfectly satisfying romance ensues.

Shoulder the Sky takes place shortly after the ending of World War II. Newlyweds Rhoda and James Johnstone settle into an isolated farmhouse in Scotland to try their hand at sheep farming. Rhoda, a successful professional painter, is struggling with the dilemma of compromising her artistic calling with the new duties of wifehood. Her husband never puts a foot wrong, leaving Rhoda to work her priorities out for herself. Though things came together a little too smoothly at the end, I was left feeling that this was a most satisfactory novel, one which I can look forward to reading again.

5. All Passion Spent (1931)

by Vita Sackville-West

Elderly Lady Slane determines to spend her last days doing exactly as she pleases, in solitude in a rented house (well, she does keep her also-elderly maid), thereby setting her family in an uproar by her 11th hour stand for self-determination. This short episode ends in Lady Slane’s death, but it is not at all tragic; the escape allowed Lady Slane to find her place of peace with herself, and it also served as a catalyst for some similar actions by others. Definitely unusual, full of humour, and beautifully written.

4. A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep (1987)

by Rumer Godden

A brilliant autobiography which reads like one of Godden’s novel, only way better, because she’s in full share-the-personal-details mode here, and there are pictures. Beautifully written and absolutely fascinating. Reading this breathed new appreciation into my reading of Godden’s fiction. Followed by a second volume, A House With Four Rooms (1989), but the first installment is head-and-shoulder above the other – much the best.

3. The Benefactress (1901)

by Elizabeth von Arnim.

Anna Estcourt, “on the shelf” as an unmarried young lady at the advanced age of twenty-five, unexpectedly inherits an uncle’s estate in Germany. Full of noble ideas, and relieved at being able to escape her life as a dependent and portionless poor relation – orphaned Anna lives with her elder brother and his high-strung and managing wife – Anna visits the estate and decides to stay there, to build a new life for herself, and to share her good fortune with some deserving ladies who have fallen on hard times. Needless to say, things do not go as planned. A quite wonderful book, clever and observant and often very funny; serious just when needed, too. Excellent.

2. The Proper Place (1926)

The Day of Small Things (1930)

 Jane’s Parlour (1937)

by O. Douglas

These novels about the Scottish Rutherfurd family belong together on the shelf. Of these The Proper Place is my definite favourite, but the others are also must-reads if one has become engrossed with the world of the stories, rural Scotland between the two world wars. What a pleasure to follow the quiet ways of  likeable protagonist Nicole Rutherfurd, her mother, the serene Lady Jane, and Nicole’s perennially dissatisfied cousin Barbara. At the beginning of The Proper Place the Rutherfurds are leaving their ancestral home; Lord Rutherfurd has died, and the family’s sons were lost in the war; it has become impossible for the surviving women to make ends meet as things are. So off they go to a smaller residence in a seaside town, where they create a new life for themselves, shaping themselves uncomplainingly to their diminished circumstances, except for Barbara, who connives to set herself back into the world she feels she deserves. Many “days of small things” make up these stories. I can’t put my finger on the “why” of their deep appeal – not much dramatic ever happens – but there it is – a perfectly believable world lovingly created and peopled by very human characters.

1.  The Flowering Thorn (1933)

 Four Gardens (1935)

by Margery Sharp

These were my decided winners – the ones which will remain on my shelves to be read and re-read over and over again through the years to come. The Flowering Thorn is the stronger work, but Four Gardens has that extra special something, too.

In The Flowering Thorn, twenty-nine-year-old socialite Lesley Frewen is starting to wonder if perhaps she is not a lovable person; she has plenty of acquaintances, and is often enough pursued by young men professing love, but those she views as emotional and intellectual equals treat her with perfect politeness and fall for other women. Acting on a strange impulse, Lesley one day offers to adopt a small orphaned boy, and then moves to the country with him, in order to reduce her expenses – her London budget, though perfectly managed, will not stretch to a second mouth to feed, and her elegant flat is in an adult-only enclave. Quickly dropped by her shallow city friends, Lesley sets herself to fulfill the silent bargain she has made with herself, to bring up young Patrick to independence and to preserve her personal standards. But as we all know, sometimes the way to find your heart’s desire is to stop searching for it, and Lesley’s stoicism is eventually rewarded in a number of deeply satisfying ways. An unsentimental tale about self-respect, and about love.

Caroline Smith has Four Gardens in her life. The first is the gone-to-seed wilderness surrounding a vacant estate house, where she finds romance for the first time. The next two are the gardens of her married life; the small backyard plot of her early married years, and the much grander grounds surrounding the country house which her husband purchases for her with the proceeds of his successful business planning. The fourth garden is the smallest and most makeshift – a few flowerpots on a rooftop, as Caroline’s circumstances become reduced after her husband’s death, and her fortunes turn full circle. A beautiful and unsentimental story about a woman’s progress throughout the inevitable changes and stages of her life – daughter-wife-mother-grandmother-widow. Clever and often amusing, with serious overtones that are never sad or depressing.

Margery Sharp was in absolutely perfect form with these two now almost unremembered books.

This is why I love “vintage”. I wish I owned a printing press – I’d love to share books like these with other readers who appreciate writerly craftsmanship, a well-turned phrase, and a quietly clever story. They don’t deserve the obscurity they’ve inevitably fallen into through the passage of time.

*****

So there we are – I’ve made it to midnight – the only one still awake in my house. I’m going to hit “Post”, then off to bed with me as well.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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Death and Resurrection by R.A. MacAvoy ~ 2011. This edition: Prime Books, 2011. Second Printing. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-60701-286-3. 333 pages.

My rating: 9/10. Probably a bit higher than it really deserves – it’s a far from flawless novel – but I’m just so happy that R.A. MacAvoy is back in the game after a very long hiatus due to ill-health (18 years), and because I really like the way this author thinks.

A few issues with dialogue and occasionally awkward phrasing, and some serious suspension of disbelief issues – I can handle the wendigo/spirit bear thing, and the travelling between life and death, but how do these working people with demanding jobs – veterinarian, psychiatrist – get so much time off, apparently consequence-free?

*****

A very hard-to-classify book. Fantasy, maybe? With thriller and murder mystery overtones. And there’s quite a sweet love story in there, too. And it’s funny. And violent. Death by bamboo! Katanas! Oh – but hang on – the main character is a pacifist Buddhist. Well, maybe things don’t always work out as planned…

You know, except for the messy fight scenes (and the katana) this one really reminds me of MacAvoy’s first novel, the highly regarded and award-winning Tea With the Black Dragon, though the characters in Death and Resurrection are completely different and the story is absolutely original.

And now I am going to completely cheat and steal the reviews from the publisher’s website, because, darn it anyway, it’s been a long, long day, and it feels like bedtime and I need to treat myself with some reading time.

From Prime Books:

The award-winning writer of Tea With the Black Dragon and other acclaimed novels returns to fantasy with the intriguing story of Chinese-American artist Ewen Young who gains the ability to travel between the worlds of life and death. This unasked-for skill irrevocably changes his life—as does meeting Nez Perce veterinarian Dr. Susan Sundown and her remarkable dog, Resurrection. After defeating a threat to his own family, Ewen and Susan confront great evils—both supernatural and human—as life and death begin to flow dangerously close together.

” I love R.A. MacAvoy’s books. Do yourself a favor and pick this up.”—Charles de Lint

“For the brilliantly talented R. A. MacAvoy, no aspect of human life is beyond reach.”—Orson Scott Card

About the Author: R.A. MacAvoy is the author of twelve novels. Her debut, Tea With the Black Dragon, won the John W. Campbell Award, the Locus Award for best first novel, and a Philip K. Dick Award special citation. It was also nominated for the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, the Ditmar Award, and listed in David Pringle’s Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, she has been married for thirty-three years to Ronald Cain. They live in the Cascade Foothills of Washington State.

Reviews:

MacAvoy clearly  still has the talent for the ingratiating characters and revealing detail that made her first novel so delightful; almost every character is handled with wit and grace…Death and Resurrection turns out to be far less portentous adventure romance than its title implies…and almost inevitably more enjoyable…it’s good to have her back.—Gary Wolfe, Locus

MacAvoy’s expansion of her 2009 novella “In Between” will please fans of her thoughtful hero Black Dragon, though new protagonist Ewen Young goes past philosophical to passive. Ewen, a Chinese Buddhist, just wants to be a painter and practice kung fu, but fate has other plans. He’s always had a touch of the spiritual, whether it’s an empathic bond with his twin sister or a psychic retreat he can share with others. When a brush with death kicks it up several notches, he ends up reluctantly guiding an investigation and a school as well as building a relationship with a strong-willed Native American vet and her body-hunting dog. Ewen’s (and MacAvoy’s) refusal to explore the origins of his powers takes the tone of the book further from most Western speculative fiction and toward magical realism or mysticism, which will delight some readers and irritate others.—Publishers Weekly

What they said. Good stuff. Check it out. More MacAvoy reviews coming in the future – I have everything she’s written to date; they all live on my favourites shelf.

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Tea with the Black Dragon by R.A. MacAvoy ~1983. This edition: Bantam, 1987. Paperback. ISBN: 0-553-23205-3. 166 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

My first introduction to contemporary fantasy writer Roberta Ann (R.A.) MacAvoy was through her alternative world fantasy, Lens of the World (1990). That novel was so satisfactory that I went on to seek out the other two books in the Nazhuret trilogy, King of the Dead (1991) and The Belly of the Wolf (1993).

Now actively chasing down MacAvoy’s work, I was more than pleased with her lone science fiction attempt, the imaginative The Third Eagle (1989), and her epic alternative-Renaissance fantasy trilogy published in 1983-84: Damiano, Damiano’s Lute, and Raphael. Then followed the Celtic-themed  The Grey Horse (1987), and The Book of Kells (1985).

Eventually, going back to the beginning at the end, as it were,  I finally read MacAvoy’s 1983 debut novel (and likely her best-known work), Tea with the Black Dragon, and its 1986 companion, Twisting the Rope.

Then, after that creative 1983-1993 decade, nothing, except for a brief 2005 novella, The Go-Between (re-published in slightly different form in 2009 as In Between), both of which I have sporadically searched for but so far have been unable to obtain.

Doing another routine online search this past month hoping to perhaps come across a printed copy of either of those titles, MacAvoy’s name lit up the page. She’s back in the game, with a brand-new full-length novel: Death and Resurrection, December 2011, in softcover or ebook from fantasy, science fiction and “cross-genre” publisher, Prime Books. Death and Resurrection apparently includes The Go-Between as its first episode, so I can now neatly round off my to-date R.A. MacAvoy collection.

Bibliographical introduction over, I will now focus (briefly! – I need to learn to condense these rambling reviews somewhat – I do tend to run on) on Tea with the Black Dragon, which I have just re-read for the somethingth time with the usual quiet enjoyment. It is not my favourite MacAvoy work by a long shot – that position is jointly filled by Lens of the World and The Third Eagle, which I cannot choose between – I love them both equally for very different reasons – but a few hours spent with Oolong and Martha is never a bad thing.

The internet abounds with longer reviews so anything I say will have already been said, and often much more cleverly, elsewhere. Here is my take.

Middle-aged Martha Macnamara, classical violinist turned Celtic fiddler, has been sent for by her grown daughter, Elizabeth (Liz), with an urgent request for them to meet and talk.

Landing in San Francisco after her flight “racing the sun” from New York, Martha is mystified to find that though her own room in a luxurious hotel is booked and paid for, her daughter has apparently vanished. Not sure how to proceed, and not knowing anything of the pressing concern which Liz wanted to share, Martha falls into an acquaintanceship with a mysterious silk-suited, Eurasian-appearing older gentleman staying at the same hotel, one Mayland Long.

An immediate positive chemistry results, and the two are off on a quest to find Liz which results in a delving into the fledgling 1980s’ computer subculture of Southern California, and encounters with several unlikely gun-toting villains.

More of a suspense thriller than a classic fantasy, the world of Black Dragon is instantly recognizable, if somewhat dated by its 1980s’ references. The fantasy element comes into play as we find out that the mysterious Mr. Long is (perhaps?) the human form of an ancient Chinese Imperial Dragon, with unexpected but rather useful abilities.

An unlikely but perfectly satisfying love story is at the heart of this novel, and that is what we are left with, long after the rather forgettable computer-fraud plot and gunshots and car chases are forgotten. Intriguing Zen references (Martha is a zazen practitioner; Mayland has a long history of association with Buddhist Zen masters) added to the quirky tone (in the very best sense) of the story.

Very much a first novel, with the expected flaws, but there is a certain something about this story that keeps it close to the front of the book stacks. In interview, MacAvoy has said that plot does not interest her as much as characterization and conversation. One can definitely see that in all of her books, what gaps there are tend to be plot-related, nowhere quite as evident, though, as in Black Dragon; the plot is decidedly contrived, and it is interesting to see how this author has dealt with her predilection to concentrate on character in her subsequent novels.

This novel seems to have a very strong fan base on internet book review sites; a bit puzzling as there is not much there; it’s a slender piece of  what might be classified as “urban fantasy” mixed with old-style “thriller”. But it shows this author’s strong promise and unique literary voice, more than fulfilled in her later works. A very thoughtful writer, with a strong sense of humour, though she unflinchingly puts her later characters into positions of deep despair and is not afraid to realistically portray tragedy.

For those of you interested in “official” opinions, Tea with the Black Dragon was nominated for the Phillip K. Dick, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards. MacAvoy won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction/Fantasy writer in 1984.

Recommended, with the reservation that this is not MacAvoy’s strongest work despite the (sometimes) gushing fan base.

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