This Girl's Bookshelf: 2010 - Book reviews and bookish thoughts

Review: Perdido Street Station, China Mieville

I've been feeling weary of genre fiction lately. I used to be a huge sci-fi and fantasy buff, but the past few years I've been more in the mood for something more literary and... cerebral? I guess I just prefer nice writing over heroes and rocket ships. But, if you look hard enough, turns out I don't have to pick one over the other.

Perdido Street Station is, in a nutshell, about an overweight scientist in a fantastic city. But it's a thousand times more than that.

It has a million different plots and subplots, some of which get unsatisfactorily dropped partway through, some which disappear and then resurface long after you've forgotten about them. But it is the world and the characters that really shine in this work.

I'm inclined to describe it as fantasy, or urban fantasy at first, because it has magic and fantastic creatures, but it has shades of steampunk and science fiction as well. The universe of New Crobuzon is as vivid, expansive, and colorful as anything by Tolkien or C. S. Lewis, but even more interesting because technology mixes with magic and half a dozen alien races mingle together within one extraordinary city.

Most of the main characters aren't particularly likeable; they're all flawed in some ways and it adds an interesting dynamic to the story. Even though there are more 'alien' (in the book they're referred to as 'xenian' and it's not clear whether they're extraterrestrial or native) characters than human, they're all written with lifelike qualities and it's not until Mieville mentions wings or antennae that you remember the person speaking is not actually a 'person' after all.

I got out of Perdido Street Station exactly what I wanted from it - an enjoyable read, the way I used to enjoy science fiction and fantasy when I was younger. My tastes may have evolved from Orson Scott Card to Margaret Atwood, but I can still enjoy a good story with magic and monsters and fantastic elements. I'm relieved!

"I am compelled to worship this extraordinary presence that has silted into existence at the conjunction of two rivers. It is a vast pollutant, a stench, a klaxon sounding. Fat chimneys retch dirt to the sky even now in the deep night. It is not the current which pulls us, but the city itself, its weight sucks us in. Faint shouts, here and there the calls of beasts, the obscene clash and pounding from the factories as huge machines rut. Railways trace urban anatomy like protruding veins. Red brick and dark walls, squat churches like troglodytic things, ragged awnings flickering, cobbled mazes in the old town, culs-de-sac, sewers riddling the earth like secular sepulchures, a new landscape of wasteground, crushed stone, libraries fat with forgotten volumes, old hospitals, towerblocks, ships and metal claws that lift cargos from the water."

Length: 7/10 It's quite a thick volume, but it doesn't drag at all once you get into it. You just keep wanting more.
Grade: 95. Perdido Street Station is a gripping read, a beautiful world, and best of all just downright fun to read.


The Book Group

This isn't a book review, but I think this post might be relevant to readers of this blog. I recently discovered a television series called The Book Group. It's a British series starring Anne Dudek, an actress whom you might not know but would certainly recognize - she has had a number of supporting roles on popular shows such as House, Desperate Housewives, Bones, Psych, Big Love and Mad Men. It was very satisfying to see her in a starring role, because I think she really is a great actress. Surprisingly, this show is actually an older one which was shot before many of her roles on American television.

Anne Dudek as part of the ensemble cast of British TV series The Book Group

The program is only available on DVD in the UK, in the Region 2 format. However, both seasons (or series as they're called across the pond) are currently available for viewing on Hulu if you live in the US.

Between the two seasons there's a total of 11 half-hour episodes, which makes for quick viewing if you get into the show, and then leaves you wanting more. For each of the two seasons, I ended up watching the majority in a single sitting - each half hour was like a potato chip, and I kept telling myself "Just one more before bed." The series is interesting, compelling, sometimes funny and sometimes gripping. The characters are anything but flat, and it's really just a fun show to watch.

Each episode is focused around a meeting of the very eclectic eponymous Book Group - As you would expect, the characters meet up to discuss a book. But the series explores the many facets of the characters' lives, which more often than not relate to the book they are currently reading or discussing. Titles include Don Quixote, The Alchemist, and even The Little Engine That Could.

I hesitate to call the series a comedy, because while parts are humorous, there are a lot of serious issues also explored. The Book Group tackles such issues as drug abuse, being in the closet, and infidelity - and also contains a refreshing portrayal of disability, with one of the group members, Kenny, using a wheelchair. Kenny is no mere 'token', but rather he displays the issues of disability and ability that he faces from day to day.

The Book Group is great fun: sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes knee-slapping, sometimes thought-provoking. It's short and sweet, which may leave you wanting more, but I found it pretty satisfying. I can't recommend it enough, especially when US viewers currently have the opportunity to watch it free of charge.