Bookworming

Literary Nobel Prize

Congratulations to Kazuo Ishiguro.

Can’t say I read, or enjoyed, much of his fiction but if you want to get really depressed about human condition, try Never Let Me Go. I read it at the end of my pregnancy and then wished I hadn’t – but not because it’s a bad book (it isn’t), but because it makes you feel existential in the unpleasant way. I know people who dig this feeling.

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Moonstone

As you know – or don’t, but you should ’cause I say it all the time – when the sun is bright and the leaves are green I like to immerse myself in a novel of Victorian society and green English countryside. This year came the turn of

er-themoonstoneThe Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
A second-best known novel by Wilkie Collins (after The Woman in White) thought to be the first (or one of the first, literary historians rarely agree on anything) modern detective story in English language. It tells a story of a diamond stolen from India and taken to Britain but (justly) pursued by the original owners. The thief bestows the diamond to his niece Rachel but it is promptly stolen and the entire book focuses on the search for the jewel. It is told through multiple narratives of various witnesses to parts of the story, as commissioned by Franklin Blake, a gentleman deeply involved in the whole drama and determined to find the diamond.

How I found it:
A couple years ago I read The Woman in White and it quite enchanted me: it proved so much more than I’d expected. So I decided to read more of Collins some time and when the time came to choose this season’s Victorian novel, The Moonstone it was.

Summary judgment:
I enjoyed the story, more for the atmosphere and the narrative experiments than for the mystery itself.

Best things about it:
It goes beyond what you would expect from a mystery story, particularly in its use of different narrations. It gets less visible towards the end but the first two narratives: by Betteredge and, to a lesser extent, by Miss Clack shine with understated humor and credible character quirks.

Worst things about it:
This is hardly the novel’s fault but detective stories, with the single exception of Sherlock Holmes, don’t excite me too much. At least this one is not about a grisly murder.

Other pluses:
I liked its leisurely, you could even say: gentlemanly, atmosphere.
Even though you could object to certain elements of representation – of women, of the Hindu culture – from today’s point of view, for Victorian standards the novel has quite progressive aspects in the depiction of servants, sometimes of Rachel, of social outcasts and even in its criticism of colonialism.
It takes care to focus on different social classes and does justice to the complexity of Victorian society.
Betteredge’s narrative is quite a delight, a whole level higher than the rest of the novel. It sparkles with humorous observations and boasts a distinct, believable voice. I particularly liked the fragment in which he notes how hard ladies and gentlemen of leisure have to work to find anything to fill their time with.

Other minuses:
I felt the picture of Miss Clack lacked the compassion that other characters enjoyed from the author and the satire became a little too thick. Perhaps Collins had his own grudge against single-minded evangelizers but I found it a little grating.

How it enriched my life:
Well, it’s another classic to tick off on my never-ending list, and one somewhat significant from a historical point of view. I also quite enjoyed it, particularly the portraits of the varied characters.

Fun fact:
This time something about the book, not about me: Collins was an opium addict and so he manages to introduce the addiction into the story. Interestingly, opium addiction as he presents it is neither demonized nor glorified.

Follow-up:
Even though I’ve now read the most admired Collins’ novels, he wrote quite a few more and I might check them out in the future because I enjoy his writing.

Recommended for:
Fans of Victorian literature and/or of detective novels (but not those kinds with a lot of thriller-y tension). Fans of the English countryside. Fans of Robinson Crusoe (it makes sense when you read it).

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Fantastic Beasts, maybe. But also, as the new academic year is upon us with its teaching duties, one-update-a-week weeks may happen more often now than during holidays. Just roll with it – as I know you will.

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Marvels

er-marvelsMarvels by Kurt Busiek

Category: Comics

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
A 1994 comic by Kurt Busiek, illustrated (or, precisely, painted) by Alex Ross. It describes the emergence of superheroes in the Marvel Universe from the point of view of a very much not superpowered newspaper photographer who tries to deal with the fact that regular human beings are no longer the top of the food chain. It shows classic events from the history of superheroes like Namor, X-Men, Spider-Man et al. as seen by someone who doesn’t really know what and why is going on.

How I found it:
I don’t even know. It’s been on my reading list for a while and I even started it twice before but I never got past the first issue then.

Summary judgment:
The art is wonderful, the story is okay.

Best things about it:
Definitely the art, it’s freaking amazing. I love watercolors in most appearances but this shows such mastery of the medium and Ross uses the style to create a fresh re-telling of old stories that has its unique flavor.
And I like the concept itself, it’s always interesting to think what superhero-infested world feels like for people who have to live in it and someone actually wrote a book about it.

Worst things about it:
After a while I got tired with how gloomy-doomy everything felt. I know it fit with the story but I wish there were more small superhero moments like X-Men anonymously viewing Alicia Masters’ exhibition while people talk trash about them.

Other pluses:
The moments like that one, most of all. Also, and expectedly, I like the X-Men storyline and how Busiek tries to explain why people in the MU accept other superheroes and hate mutants – I actually buy his explanation. The story of Spider-Man accused of murder also worked for me: basically, anything that wasn’t too grand-scale.
Personally, I love stories that redefine recognizable characters (that’s why X-Men: Evolution and 1602 are some of my favorite things ever) and this new look on old comic stories definitely speaks to me. I only wished I knew more about the original Marvel characters to recognize most allusions, especially the ones happening in the background.

Other minuses:
I didn’t very much like Phil Sheldon as a character.
Also, that zero issue is definitely skippable.

How it enriched my life:
I enjoyed the comic and it kept me company during a very unpleasant day I had to spend in bed.

Fun fact:
This is just a fact I feel the responsibility to mention: what I’ve been calling watercolors might rather be gouache, so a different kind of water paints but I imagine it doesn’t really matter to most of you.

Follow-up:
For a while I’ve been meaning to return to 1602 and I will.

Recommended for:
Fans of Marvel and/or watercolors.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Mousquetaires du Roy

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Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales

Just so you know, I’m not only reading Regency England romances (in fact, contrary to the impression the last few posts might have made, I’m not reading a lot of them at all).  And so today let me share a pretty different work, even if it does come broadly from the same island.

er-scottishfolkandfairytalesScottish Folk and Fairy Tales edited by Gordon Jarvie

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
Published in Penguin Popular Classics series, it is what it says: a collection of Scottish folk stories.

How I found it:
I spotted it lying on my friend Z’s table. At the time I was reading Tam Lin by Pamela Dean and was interested to read the original tale – which I did on the spot. A few months later when Z was done with the book, I borrowed it because since then I started looking for stories on fairies and this seemed like a good source.

Summary judgment:
I liked it. It reminded me of how I used to read collections of folk fairy tales as a kid (and how many of them were pretty inappropriate for a kid, to think back on it).

Best things about it:
I like how varied it is. Pretty much every story is of a different character, even a different genre. They seem to come from different periods and focus on different functions of a folk tale.

Worst things about it:
Of course, that means some of them fell flat for me.
Also, I have a soft spot for Penguin Popular Classics but such collections, which contain sometimes opaque elements, would benefit from some introduction and the editor’s notes and this series simply does not include those.

Other pluses:
Here go my favorite stories: “The Seal Catcher and the Merman” – it has a clear image of selkies and even an ecological message. “The Magic Walking-stick” – it was completely different than what I expected, a Victorian short story rather than a folk tale, and it had very well drawn setting. “The Lonely Giant” – well-crafted story with a memorable protagonist. “Through the Veil” – Conan Doyle rarely disappoints and while this is very much a Victorian short story, it’s a good one.

Other minuses:
Some stories simply failed to interest me at all, like “The Milk-white Doo” (not a great introduction to the book) or “Adam Bell.”

How it enriched my life:
I learned about a selkie palace and who Thomas Rymer was.

Fun fact:
Penguin Popular Classics were the first books in English I ever owned. I got two Alices by Carroll and one Conan Doyle (I think The Hound) for Christmas and then kept getting them for various occasions when I discovered, to my delight, that my English was good enough to read them. So I know there are better Penguin series but this one will always have a soft spot in my heart. Also, they are dirt-cheap, which is always nice.

Follow-up:
It made me want to re-read The Golden Bough so I have to dig it up because I know I have it somewhere.

Recommended for:
Anyone interested in fairy tales or Scottish folklore, of course, but not inquisitive enough to need additional editorial notes.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Younger

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Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Old Friends and New Fancies

Yes, this seems to be the year when I grow a bit obsessed with Jane Austen. Well, not truly, because I still don’t remember anything that happened in Mansfield Park (I seriously need to re-read it and see if it’s as bad as I remember) but here’s another thing inspired by the great Jane and written by someone much more obsessed than me:

er-oldfriendsandnewfanciesOld Friends and New Fancies by Sybil G. Brinton

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon if you want it in a pretty book format. Or you can download a free copy from Project Gutenberg.

What it is:
The first published Austen fan fiction! In 1913 Ms. Brinton wrote a story in which characters from Austen’s novels interact and continue to fall in love and be talked down to by lady Catherine de Bourgh. It focuses particularly on three couplings and the obstacles they face (mostly obstacles of unsuccessful communication): Colonel Fitzwilliam and Mary Crawford, Georgiana Darcy and William Price and Kitty Bennet and James Morland.

How I found it:
This one was less random than my usual book finds: I found it on two different lists of books recommended for people who like Jane Austen.

Summary judgment:
It is exactly what it claims to be: a work of overflowing love for the originals. It’s not written with as much talent as the six novels (which I never expected it to be) but it’s entertaining enough.

Best things about it:
It is skillful enough at recreating the characters and the atmosphere of the originals. The story keeps you mildly interested and some of the characters get more space than they did in the original books.

Worst things about it:
I guess it’s not exactly exciting reading? It didn’t bore me but I can see it being difficult for some people. Then again, you can say the same about Jane Austen.

Other pluses:
I liked the appearance of some of my favorites, like Elizabeth and Darcy and Mr. Knightley. Nature and places play an important part and are well recreated.

Other minuses:
Some characters were hard to bear. I don’t really remember the original Mary Crawford but for a positive heroine I found her obnoxious. Kitty didn’t get her due either: Austen tell us in Pride and Prejudice that Kitty got more serious and respectable after Lydia’s removal but Brinton chooses to ignore that. Oh, and poor Emma.
But most of all, as is, sadly, too common in romances, male characters are rather bland and unexciting.

How it enriched my life:
I liked how it put more life into Georgiana than she ever had. It also reminded me that I need to re-read at least three of Austen books.

Fun fact:
Brinton really dislikes Emma. She only seems to see the Emma from the first half of the novel, who tries to matchmake people with little thought or concern for anything. But you know, I never found Emma as annoying as most people do, maybe because my first contact with her was through Gwyneth Paltrow’s version and I quite liked her.

Follow-up:
This: Longbourn (another fan fiction, sort of). Mansfield Park. Persuasion. Sense and Sensibility. And then some other things from that list of recommendations. But it will take a while because I like to mix up my reading and not spend a few months in Regency England.

Recommended for:
If anything I wrote in the “What It Is” section sounds interesting, go for it. But it’s for pretty hardcore Austen fans or people who really like this mostly carefree, slow atmosphere.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Zootopia

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Mildly Enthusiastic Review: God Don’t Like Ugly

A lot, if not most, of my reading choices are quite random and one of those was recently

er-goddontlikeuglyGod Don’t Like Ugly by Mary Monroe

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
A story of Annette Goode, an African American girl growing up in the 60s in Florida and mostly Ohio. Annette suffers abuse at home and unpopularity at school but her life changes when she meets Rhoda, a rich and perfect girl next door. Slowly, Annette learns to stand up for herself (sort of) and make her own choices. It is also the first book in a series, which turns out significant as I will explain later.

How I found it:
I think the cover and the blurb combined to pick my interest. I didn’t know it was a part of a series though, or I would’ve been more reluctant to invest my time in it.

Summary judgment:
It’s a decent book for what it is but it could have a potential for a greater piece if it had the courage and conviction to remain a standalone.

Best things about it:
Despite the heavy themes it reads really well and the term “page-turner” used on the cover turns out quite true. It’s been a while since I went so fast through a book without any (literal) magic in it.

Worst things about it:
With seriousness of the subject matter one would expect the book to attempt a deeper analysis and character study. It calls for some gravitas, particularly that the tone does not suggest otherwise. However, as the story develops, the author seems to get this idea that this would become a series rather than a standalone book and so she never gives the story a proper structure. I felt it missed a real climax and after – spoiler – the abuser is murdered, the story just flops idly till the end of it. We fail to get a satisfying conclusion for Annette’s tribulations, she just goes from one decision to the next. And so the drama veers into soap opera territory: which, I suppose, is to be expected from a series.

Other pluses:
The writing is not only engaging but quite colorful. It easily transports you into the world of the story and keeps you interested in its flawed characters. Up until the very end I was interested in what was going to happen to the characters – the final lack of satisfaction didn’t take that away from the experience.
I love any story happening in the 60s (up to and including that one episode of Beverly Hills 90210; remember that one? good times) so that always adds a little star in my judgment.
I also quite love the illustrated covers for the series: they have so much character and fit the story well.

Other minuses:
I think I covered most of it: I disliked that the story didn’t have its independent resolution, whatever happens in the future books, and that the second half of it was just a series of loosely connected events that didn’t lead anywhere particularly interesting. If I were to sum it up, I’m afraid the book is neither ambitious nor pleasant enough to be entirely satisfying.

How it enriched my life:
I enjoyed reading it, despite not getting a full payoff for my time investement.

Fun fact:
It’s mostly fun for me, not for you, but for the first time since I was really sick, I guess, I spent most of a Sunday lazing about with this book on a couch – and it was exactly what I needed.

Follow-up:
I considered reading further books in the series for the resolution of the story. But then I started reading about them online and it turns out there are quite a few of those books and they seem to completely accept their sudsy fate so there is no resolution in sight. I didn’t like the characters enough to want to spend so much time with them for so little return.

Recommended for:
People who like family sagas and returning to the characters they’ve already met, while not being put off by (overly?) dramatic events straight from a TV drama.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Nick Carraway Chronicles

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Mildly Enthusiastic Review: When Demons Walk

Not everything I read is deep and ambitious. In fact, at least since I gave birth and my reading rates dropped drastically (sad but true), most things probably aren’t. But at least some of those lighter books are very entertaining. Like

er-whendemonswalkWhen Demons Walk by Patricia Briggs

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
A 1998 fantasy novel following Shamera, a magician turned thief who is recruited by a controversial leader of the intruders who invaded her country to stop a series of murders in the castle. Secrets, adventures and predictable romance abound.

How I found it:
Patricia Briggs in an author of another fantasy series about Mercy Thompson, a shapeshifter car mechanic, of which I am a fan despite its ridiculous covers (see below). When I came upon her other fantasy work, I was happy to check it out.

Summary judgment:
Well, it’s not a deep philosophical treatise to change one’s life. But as far as (non-)guilty pleasures go, it’s a fine one.

Best things about it:
It’s extremely entertaining. It reads really fast and keeps one very interested in how the story will unfold and, say what you will about lofty goals of literature, keeping the reader’s interest is the basic thing a book has to do. I’ll fight anyone on that.

Worst things about it:
I guess the title is the worst part because it’s pretty embarrassing and only tangentially appropriate for the story anyway.

Other pluses:
Pleasure reading for me lives or dies by its characters who have to be memorable and strongly drawn and Briggs succeeds with aplomb, not only in her portrais of Sham and Kerim but also of some of the side characters. The theory of magic makes sense, more or less, which I always prefer to when it doesn’t (I love Harry Potter but magic there is ridiculous).

Other minuses:
I might have been reading without enough focus (again, I guess) but I’m not sure why the trunk was open all the time and I expected it to become a significant twist. Speaking of twists, I felt that for the last fifth part of the book it was a bit too obvious who the culprit was, even before the characters realized it (but I guess that’s always a risk of mystery stories: either it’s too simple for the reader to figure it all out or so difficult that they have to be surprised at the end).

How it enriched my life:
It’s been a while since I read a book that I’d be really looking forward to continuing just to find out what happens next. It made several train rides to and from work much more pleasant.

Fun fact:
So the way I came upon Patricia Briggs’ work was through the covers of her books: but not because I thought them good. Once upon a time on the other blog we were writing a series of posts about bad book covers – we don’t do this anymore because it was unnecessarily mean but mostly because it took forever to write and document – and Mercy Thompson series was just hard to resist with the sexy lady seductively embracing a car wrench. Nobody was reading our posts back then but this one managed to attract a bit of attention and most of it came from the fans of the series who didn’t so much defend the covers as claimed that the books were good. So I finally read them, always on the lookout for a new fun series. And what do you know, they were right so thanks, fans.

Follow-up:
Apparently there are other Briggs works set in the same world and I am going to read Masques some time when I need this kind of entertainment again.

Recommended for:
Fans of accessible fantasy, strong female leads, magic mysteries and budding buddy romances.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: What We Do in the Shadows

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