Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: An Invisible Sign of My Own

er-aninvisiblesignofmyownAn Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
A fairly short novel about Mona Grey, whose father one day develops a mysterious sickness (a sort of anxiety disorder or depression, probably, but it’s never specified). The novel focuses on how this makes Mona slowly withdraw from life and from the things she enjoyed. Even though it chooses a lighthearted tone, the story actually touches upon very profound and unsolvable questions: the fear of loss and death and the difficulty in communication.

How I found it:
No idea. I did like the description I found somewhere: it sounded like just the right kind of gloomy (it’s not really gloomy though).

Summary judgment:
I liked the book well enough but I feel it had potential to engage me more.

Best things about it:
I like how it tackles the dark theme of the fear we all have to learn to live around. I like the weirdness of Mona and how all her quirks (and, frankly, neuroses) don’t completely incapacitate her or her potential for developing relations with people. I was quite impressed by the casualness of the story.

Worst things about it:
I feel like the book would benefit from a more experimental, sophisticated approach to language. I kept wondering how Lady Oracle-Atwood (rather than the new dystopian Atwood I don’t read) would approach this story and make it both more alive and more chilling with her linguistic games.

Other pluses:
✤ The author has a good ear for children. The scenes in the elementary school are the most lively in the entire book.
✤ I liked the composition of parts of the book, where we are given a series of surreal facts about Mona (for instance, she eats soap not to have sex) and only later learn how this started.

Other minuses:
Maybe the ending did feel too easy and you can wince at the fact that a guy is a catalyst for change but personally I didn’t mind.

How it enriched my life:
I enjoy psychological narratives and stories about children. It also reinforced my already strong belief that I could never teach children.

Fun fact:
There is a movie adaptation of this story with Jessica Alba, of all people, and it appears from the trailer to have turned the story into a cutesy rom-com mush. I’ll steer clear despite Chris Messina’s presence.

Cover notes:
The cover doesn’t excite me and I wish it found a smart way to use numbers (though alternative covers I saw underline the fact it would have to be smart; overall, I prefer the unpretentiousness of this one). But, unlike the movie adaptation, it emphasizes the subtlety of the story, the composition is evocative and they managed to find a convincing model.

Follow-up:
Definitely not the movie, and I don’t necessarily see a direct follow-up.

Recommended for:
People who are not discouraged by introvert stories about slightly broken characters (but with an overall optimistic sense).

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Dietland (the show)

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Bookworming

Wildly Enthusiastic Review: Among Others

Sometimes you find a book which reminds you what fun it was to discover magical books randomly as a child.

er-amongothersAmong Others by Jo Walton

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
Technically speaking, it’s a YA fantasy novel but it doesn’t bow to most conventions you would expect from those. Mori’s story happens after her great battle – to which we only hear allusions – ended. She survived but her twin sister didn’t and now she needs to build a life after she’s saved the world, surviving a snotty boarding school, getting to know her estranged father and, most of all, reading tons of science fiction.

How I found it:
Don’t remember. It was on my to-read list with 4 stars so I must have read an inviting review somewhere. Maybe LibraryThing?

Summary judgment:
I haven’t enjoyed a book quite like this for a while.

Best things about it:
The unconventional way it treats fantasy, so that it resembles magical realism more than anything else. Mori is very matter-of-fact about seeing fairies and doing magic and focuses more on down-to-earth matters of growing up, which makes the story very grounded.

Worst things about it:
For people who want their fantasy fulfilling certain expected conventions, it must be a letdown, a book in which barely anything happens. In fact, as I was approaching the end, I wondered if it had a continuation because I wasn’t sure if it would manage to finish a story at all (it did).

Other pluses:
✤ The very idea to focus on what happens to the hero after the battle is won is successful in its un-flashiness.
✤ I really like how unostentatious magic is, more a moral question than a source of fireworks and how its lack of glamour allows Walton to focus on the heroine’s personal dramas. In fact, you could probably remove the magic altogether and still have an interesting story about a dysfunctional family (and a disturbed girl). At a stretch, you could probably interpret it this way.
✤ The just-unrealistic-enough love affair is cute. I would’ve loved it as a younger person. Now I focus more on the unrealistic part, I guess.
✤ The places live in the story, not just Wales, which the author clearly loves, but even the school and the small town nearby.

Other minuses:
Sometimes the protagonist reads as many as eight novels a week, five regularly. I find that hard to believe (even in my better reading days I never managed as much).

How it enriched my life:
It made me want to read more, for one thing. It also reminded me of the joy of reading just for the sake of getting to know the story.

Fun fact:
It’s funny how much of the science fiction novels that Mori devours I have actually read. Because the story takes place in 1979 and 1980, it is a love letter to older science fiction and fantasy which I used to read in large amounts because that’s what the local library had in stock.

Cover notes:
(A new section because why not. It’s the thing I’m most qualified to discuss anyway. It will always refer to the version of the cover illustrated on the top.)
The photo captures the atmosphere of the book magnificently but the stars are an overkill: they should’ve been done as a photographic trick of light, rather than so literally because this cheapens the concept (both of the cover and the book).

Follow-up:
I might check out Walton’s other stuff if I come across it but I like how much of a standalone this one is. I might possibly return to it some time.

Recommended for:
Fans of classic science fiction and fantasy who don’t mind challenging the conventions. People who enjoy an unromanticized vision of a boarding school, or just of growing up.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Next time: Lovesick

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Lost Books of the Odyssey

er-thelostbooksoftheodysseyThe Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
A collection of 44 short stories, all centered around the character of Odysseus as he appears in the Iliad and the Odyssey but, of course, completely transformed through postmodern sensitivity. In fact, each short story – they’re unrelated and only called a novel to mess with you – consists of an intellectual exercise: What if Odysseus was Homer? What if the books were really a chess manual? What if Penelope was a werewolf?

How I found it:
I had it on my reading list to read after the real Odyssey, which I finally finished and followed up with this collection.

Summary judgment:
An impressive intellectual and literary exercise that I enjoyed more than the actual Odyssey.

Best things about it:
Well, if you read the Odyssey, you might have similar doubts that I had when I finally read it. I mean, Odysseus is a psychopath. (I know, I simplify without taking the times and circumstances into account but seriously, just look at the story.) We never get enough insight into his psychological life to understand him – because literature wasn’t big on psychology yet. I feel like Mason’s book makes the mythical story more approachable and intriguing, filling in some gaps left by the original narrative and trying to answer questions a modern reader will have. It also does it in a subtle, poetic and mostly unpretentious way that I enjoyed.

Worst things about it:
As is the case with collections, some of these stories are weaker than the others. I personally preferred staying closer to the original with fewer direct modern references.

Other pluses:
When I was just starting to read short stories my father told me this theory that a good short story has to have a surprising conclusion that twists the whole thing around in the last paragraph. I might have discovered since then that it isn’t always, or even usually, the case, but I still on some level expect such a construction from a short story and “One Kindness” scratched that particular itch.

Other minuses:
Only a small complaint about misrepresentation: this is in no way a novel. The cover lies. (It’s a good cover, though.)

How it enriched my life:
It made me understand the Odyssey better and feel more curious about the story than Homer’s work did.

Fun fact:
Zachary Mason wrote another book but professionally he’s a computer specialist who works in a startup. That makes this book a true work of passion and makes me even more impressed by it.

Follow-up:
I’m not sure there’s a direct follow-up but I’m always interested in a reinterpretation of a classic myth.

Recommended for:
People somewhat interested in Greek mythology who would like to see a different approach to it. I recently saw it on a list of recommended books by a translator of the Odyssey‘s modern edition, so that should be a recommendation enough.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: 13 Reasons Why

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Hide Me Among the Graves

Sometimes my book finds are so random that for a while I don’t even know what I’m reading.

er-hidemeamongthegravesHide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
A vampiric gothic story taking place in Victorian London. Vampires (known as Nephilim here) are prehistoric creatures trying to demolish London with the help of the Rossetti siblings, of all people, and some lesser known poets. This is also a second part in a series, which I didn’t know until later (but it didn’t seem to matter a lot).

How I found it:
Actually, I had it on my to-read list but forgot what kind of book it was and got it mixed up with something more serious. So while reading the prologue I was all set to reading Serious Literature (and actually the writing didn’t set me straight for a while, so good for Powers, I guess) and it was only later that I realized “Wait a minute, it’s vampires in Victorian London, not Big Issues.”

Summary judgment:
For the genre it’s impressively ambitious, if not exactly exciting to read.

Best things about it:
It paints the period quite well and focuses on building the gothic atmosphere, rather than on simple horrorific scares or fantasy adventures. The characters are written carefully, with a lot of attention given to their motivations and dilemmas and the vampires do not turn out to be your usual dark, broody gentlemen.

Worst things about it:
For all its pluses, it remains a bit heavy with all the attention paid to descriptions. It takes quite a lot of reader’s concentration but doesn’t necessarily pay off with such an intricate story that would explain the plethora of details.

Other pluses:
✤ The (literal) underworld of London is memorable and carefully imagined.
✤ If you’re like me, you might enjoy the facts taken from actual history, like the exhumation of Rossetti’s wife and how it becomes a part of the plot.

Other minuses:
✤ At times it becomes repetitive, adding to the great length of the book. Of course, the length is relative to its contents: I read longer books without feeling their wordiness but here I had the sense that the novel would gain much from shortening.
✤ It kept me wondering about the morality of using real people (even if long dead) for this kind of story. Neither Rossetti nor Swinburne are drawn in a very flattering way and while they had their faults, consorting with vampires probably didn’t count among them.

How it enriched my life:
Despite its slowness I enjoyed the book well enough.

Fun fact:
There was a time when I loved Rossetti’s paintings (and I still find them very pleasing) from the moment when I saw a picture in my high school literature book.

Follow-up:
I might give Powers another chance because while this book didn’t necessarily charm me (despite all the ingredients for something to delight me specifically), I appreciate his strengths as a writer, particularly the vividness of his imagination.

Recommended for:
People who enjoy their fantasy slow and historical, with romances and shootouts replaced with character studies and literary references.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: The Tick (Also, if you’re confused about the current scheduling – are you though? – for now we’re down to a weekly review, with Saturday posts on hiatus.)

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Nights at the Circus

Sorry for the skipped week but I’m pregnant and busy and sometimes something has to give. But let’s discuss this rather good book I read last month:

er-nightsatthecircusNights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
Fevvers is a wonderful aerialiste: a woman with wings who charms the circus goers of the entire Europe, now starting her international tour. She tells her story to a sceptical journalist, Walser, who despite his better judgment falls into the thrall of her storytelling and her personality. The historical setting – the turn of the last century – allows Carter to shed light on the more bizarre areas of the Victorian society, while, most of all, proclaiming her love for narrative.

How I found it:
I read about it in How to Read Novels Like a Professor (such a dumb title but a good book) and it sounded interesting (incidentally, that’s also how I found The Poisonwood Bible a while ago).

Summary judgment:
It’s a breath of fresh (linguistic) air to read a more literary book – I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Best things about it:
Like its heroine, it’s a vivacious story that seduces its reader, inviting them to ask the novel’s question: “Is it fact or is it fiction” and eventually to reject it as irrelevant. It confirms Carter’s love for the performative, the marginal. It paints an original, convincing but not too constrained picture of the end of the nineteenth century.

Worst things about it:
Personally I was less interested in the clowns, maybe because (like all reasonable people) I’m not a fan of the profession. However, the role that Carter ascribes them, is interesting and fits with the rest of the narrative.

Other pluses:
✤ Almost goes without saying but Carter is wonderful with language, building another tier to the narrative just with her choice of words. The first scene in Fevvers’ changing room should convince anyone.
✤ I’m always in for another story on storytelling, as long as the story itself remains interesting.
✤ The Siberian, shamanistic part proves Carter’s mettle with how it is both a part of the whole novel and remains separate.

Other minuses:
You know, I’m good. If you buy the concept of the book, you just enjoy the ride.

How it enriched my life:
It enchanted me with its language and setting and made me think about marginal areas of the Victorian world. Also, reading a truly good novel is a different experience to reading a merely interesting novel and I don’t do it nearly often enough these days.

Follow-up:
I think I’ve already read all of Carter that I had a particular interest in but I might return to this one.

Recommended for:
Fans of good historical novels with a strong postmodern tinge. Fans of old-school circus. Lovers of storytelling.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: The latest Avengers

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Guilty Pleasures

Some books I read entirely for pleasure – and yes, some I read for guilty pleasure (I went there). This here is a rather appropriate title, except it doesn’t really make me feel all that guilty.

er-guiltypleasuresGuilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
It’s the first novel in Hamilton’s most popular series: on Anita Blake, the vampire hunter (and, I figure, lover?). Anita (who for some unnecessary reason is also a necromancer) gets involved in an investigation of vampire murders even though she has been responsible for a few vampire deaths herself (hence the hunter part). Even though most vampires are repulsive, some she finds much more intriguing.

How I found it:
Honestly, Hamilton’s other series, about Meredith, the fairy princess, is one of my most consistent guilty pleasures (see fun fact for more details; and sure, you may judge me). Even though some of those books veer into overly erotic descriptions I – like true perverts also say, I’m sure – read them for the plot. I knew about Hamilton’s more popular series but didn’t find time for it before.

Summary judgment:
Well, it’s not a great book, but a sufficiently competent pleasurable read.

Best things about it:
It reads fast and really got me interested in the plot. I think it changes later but for now the erotic aspect doesn’t exist, instead leaving a lot of time for action-adventure and I got curious as to who the murderer was and also to the intricacies of Anita’s life. It does a good job of building a memorable heroine with her strength offset by past trauma.

Worst things about it:
If you read for ambitious reasons (do you, though?), steer clear. Other than that, I guess some details needed a bit more clarification to get more vivid but that might happen in later volumes.

Other pluses:
✤ I found Edward a pretty fascinating side character who didn’t become completely defined even by the end of the book.
✤ While it doesn’t add much to the vampire mythos, I appreciate how it also doesn’t add silly things to it (talking about sparkling, of course).
✤ Jean Claude, while a stock character so far, has potential for an interesting love interest.
✤ I enjoyed how the main villain was only a part of the danger Anita had to fight against.
✤ While the “urban” part of urban fantasy remains merely a sketch, I think the books might develop vampiric St. Louis into something interesting (they probably don’t, if the other series taught me anything).

Other minuses:
✤ We spend too much time on unimportant and unfascinating side characters, like the gullible friend (name forgotten) or the greedy boss.
✤ I could do without the party scenes. They felt like a setup for things that never happened.

How it enriched my life:
It made me exercise more willingly because I was curious what was going to happen.

Fun fact:
So I have an old model of Kindle with a text-to-speech function. And while I guess I understand their fiscal reasons for removing this feature, it remains my absolute favorite. About a half of the books I read, I don’t so much read as listen to while doing my morning exercises. Of course, this doesn’t work with more serious, subtle books which need focus and appreciation but allows me to read so much urban fantasy.

Follow-up:
I’m sure to hear the next volumes while working out.

Recommended for:
Fans of girly urban fantasy with a decent amount of action and potential for romance.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
(You remember I judge enjoyment not quality, right?)

Next time: Nights at the Circus, speaking of more serious books

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Dud Avocado

Today’s book is an almost forgotten classic which remains cherished by some. I never heard of it before I found it randomly but I’m glad I did find it.

er-thedudavocadoThe Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
A not-so-well-known classic from 1950s. Sally Jay Gorce is spending her carefree time in Paris thanks to generosity of an uncle. She gets mixed up with the bohème, aristocratic elites, diplomats and some shady characters but will face everything with vivacity and wild hair colors.

How I found it:
It was on the list of Greta Gerwig’s favorite books. When I read that it was about Paris I read a few first pages of an online preview and fell in love.

Summary judgment:
It doesn’t entirely live up to the spectacular beginning but I still really liked it.

Best things about it:
Everything I loved best about the book is already there in the first scene: Sally’s joie de vivre, her perfect carelessness, spontaneity, all of them spilling through to the language itself. Her voice is very well-defined and seductive. Oh, and Paris.

Worst things about it:
I feel like in the second part of the book, as Sally leaves Paris, the book loses some of its focus. The discovery about Larry seems slightly too intense for the tone of the rest of the story.

Other pluses:
However, it also speaks to Sally’s resilience that she can take the darkest side of life with bravado (except for that short panic mode) and with the same carelessness that makes her endearing…

Other minuses:
✤ …Even if it makes her either unrealistic or callous.
✤ On an unrelated note, south of France is not shown with the same level of devotion as Paris and the characters related to the movie-making didn’t strike me as very interesting or convincing.
✤ I sort of liked the fairy tale romance at the end, if only because the photographer was so enticing, but it did come out of nowhere.
✤ Maybe the best part of this reading experience is that it gives you all the fun of a trashy novel with the veneer of a much better language and style.

How it enriched my life:
I enjoyed reading it on trains and it made me want to go to Paris again.

Fun fact:
It seems (from the foreword) that Elaine Dundy was quite a character herself.

Follow-up:
I’m not sure I’m planning to read any more of Dundy on the strength of the Avocado alone but if I come across something, I’ll give it a try. I might also re-read this one in the future.

Recommended for:
Americans in 1950s Paris or those who wish they could be them.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Song of the Sea

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