Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Parasol Protectorate novels

Some books will not win the Nobel Prize but they are just so damn charming.

The Parasol Protectorate novels by Gail Carriger

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing (link for book one, Soulless)

What it is:
A series of steampunk novels about Alexia Tarabotti, a lady of many assets and some issues, one of which happens to be a lack of soul. Alexia lives in Victorian London, where vampires and werewolves are much more welcome in society than a lady who’s half-Italian and a bit too tall. Over the course of the entire series she is constantly attacked with various contraptions, solves mysteries and starts a family.

How I found it:
The first time I encountered it was on a blog about book covers. Then I picked Soulless up in a bookstore, read the first few pages and fell in love: if you don’t love the first scene in which Alexia is attacked by a vampire she’s not been introduced to, you and I are very different people. Then I just had to read the whole thing.

Summary judgment:
It’s a lovely, enjoyable thing though maybe it runs a bit too long.

Best things about it:
It’s written with great aplomb and you have to admire the vivacity of style. The matter-of-fact introduction of Victorian manners and language (even though, of course, not specifically historically accurate) and clashing them with a supernatural adventure makes for many humorous moments. Alexia is a lovable heroine, and also quite original. The faux-Victorian society of the books seems lively and believable.
My favorite is definitely the first novel with its freshness and originality.

Worst things about it:
I guess the series is a bit too long to carry its premise with equal success throughout. While I liked all the books, the further ones didn’t delight me as much as the first one and they sometimes felt too long, especially with the constant mortal dangers Alexia is put in. The freshness of the idea wears off a little after a while.

Other pluses:
✤ Having said that, the books manage to build a consistent mystery and mythology throughout the five parts. I just feel that could’ve been done in fewer pages.
✤ I like the pairing of Alexia and Connall – they make for an interesting couple and the drama when he suspects her of infidelity is unlike most such stories in supernatural romances.
✤ Carriger uses a lot of charming vocabulary and plays with the historical aspect of her novel.

Other minuses:
✤ Some characters tend to be caricatural and, I feel, not always as intended by the author. This is particularly striking with the LGBT characters and while I’m not extremely sensitive to this problem, I can see how it would put out many people.
✤ This is pleasure reading, without any particular depth to it. But as far as those go, this is no reason for shame.

How it enriched my life:
I enjoyed the books and the first volume inspired a RPG campaign I’m sometimes creating for our gaming nights.

Cover notes:
While most photo-based covers seem stock-derived and repulse me, here you can see the designer’s work and I appreciate it. It gives the Victorian theme a decidedly modern slant, which works for the series.

Follow-up:
Carriger’s other series, Finishing School. Sounds like something right up my alley.

Recommended for:
People who like supernatural Victorian romances of a tongue-in-cheek variety (so, I want to say: everyone…?).

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: An Enchantment of Ravens

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Longbourn

You might have noticed already that I tend to devour things created around Pride and Prejudice. So, naturally, I also read

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
It’s a book that happens around and between the story of Pride and Prejudice or, to put it simply, it’s Pride and Prejudice from servants’ point of view. So naturally it focuses less on new bonnets and marriage prospects and more on all the scrubbing, soaking, cooking and tons of other physical work these require. The main character, Sarah, is one of the housemaids of the original story and Baker imagines the lifestory of hers and other servants.

How I found it:
I think it might have been a list of things to read for Pride and Prejudice fans? Maybe.

Summary judgment:
I enjoyed the book thoroughly, though I’m not unaware of missed opportunities.

Best things about it:
It reads fast and manages to recreate a lot of the magic of the original, without a slaverish attitude towards it. The world feels vivid and believable, even though I suspect some anarchronisms have crept in (not being a scholar of history of manners, I didn’t mind much but the characters’ outlooks felt maybe a tad too modern). I found the description of the servants’ work and the difficulties they face quite enlightening.

Worst things about it:
While, contrary to what I expected, this book is not just a fan-fiction historical romance, it still feels like a bit of a wasted possibility. The idea is just so grand and theoretically allows for such a multi-faceted examination of social and feminist, literary and moral issues of the time. Obviously, taking up a subject like this is, in a way, bound to fail: I don’t imagine a convincing modern rendition of Austen’s wit and artfulness so, I guess, not even attempting it is one way to go. But I kept wishing for something like Alias Grace on the subject: a more prying attempt to disover the intricacies of the mind of a 19th century servant girl.

Other pluses:
✤ I enjoyed the villification of Mr. Bennet. He’s shown as cowardly, cruel and small-minded and I’m glad other people also notice this about such a bafflingly beloved Austen character.
✤ Perhaps what I’ve already written doesn’t emphasize this enough but this really is a good book that doesn’t mostly give in to the temptation of pleasing fan girls.
✤ Both Elizabeth and Darcy are much less delightful in the novel, which I found refreshing.

Other minuses:
✤ I really hated the James chapters. This is perhaps the best example of the lack of subtlety and it completely breaks down the unity of the novel, giving very little in return. As his secret is very easy to figure out, the same exposition could’ve been achieved within the main narrative and with fewer unnecessary details.

How it enriched my life:
It gave me a bit of the Regency fix I sometimes crave and it made for a fun (while not trashy) reading.

Cover notes:
I like the painting they found to encapsulate the theme of the novel but I’m not crazy about the unimaginative (and, frankly, a bit clumsy) way they combined the picture with typography.

Follow-up:
Nothing right now but I’m sure some Regency reading is in my future.

Recommended for:
Pride and Prejudice fans, of course, who always look for more of the story, even those generally discouraged by most fan fiction productions of the sort.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Parasol Protectorate

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Show Case

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Legion (S2)

You might remember or not but I was really impressed with the first season of Legion. The second… Well…

Legion (S2)

Category: TV shows

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
David and his mutant buddies are now working with the government organization which tried to kill them in the previous season. Shadow King is looking for his body. Syd from the future tries to change the past. There might be a plague? Black-goo aliens? Also, educational videos. Also, also: cows.

How I found it:
I was a fan of season one.

Summary judgment:
It’s like jazz. Ambitious and you know someone is enjoying it, but that someone is not me.

Best things about it:
It remains an ambitious show which looks beautiful. You just know somebody is planning every detail of every scene and working hard to come up with striking visuals. The form of this show leaves nothing to complain about.

Worst things about it:
But it is so much style over substance. After a while you realize you just won’t be getting answers and resign yourself to a numb admiration of the show’s prettiness. While some stories get resolved, most of them leave the viewer hanging (the cows? the chickens?) and I finished the season with a vague feeling of wasted time. (I’m not a fan of artsy cinema though. Fair disclosure.)

Other pluses:
✤ The storylines which do get resolved work well enough, I suppose, though they take their sweet time to reach a conclusion.
✤ I liked how some of the episodes tried more gimmicky structure, particularly the one with the mystery of Syd’s mind (maybe less so the one with alternate realities but it still felt more structured than most of the regular episodes).
✤ Most of the actors still do a great job, they just often don’t have much to do.

Other minuses:
✤ Mostly, the season bored me: it took such a long time to do anything. It felt like the creators focused so much on how everything looked that they forgot about the satisfaction one could get from the story.
✤ Too much of the story was surreal and followed some sort of dream logic – and when anything goes, the stakes drop.

How it enriched my life:
It helped pass the evenings when I was waiting for childbirth. But as I was watching it after The Magicians, I felt acutely the lack of avid interest.

Follow-up:
I’m not decided about the third season but I’ll probably end up watching it anyway. However, I’m not sure it’s possible to build this show around a villainous David so unless it’s a story of redemption, I don’t see how it could work.

Recommended for:
People who thought the first season was too straightforward to enjoy.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Next time: Longbourn

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Arthur & George

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
Based on real life events, the novel tells the story of Arthur Conan Doyle and his involvement in the unjust conviction of a lawyer, George Edalji. Or, while this is the reason why the two men met, the novel goes further than that because it tells almost their entire life stories and puts them against the background of the early 20th century Britain.

How I found it:
I don’t remember at all but the blurb sounded just like my thing. I never read Barnes before either.

Summary judgment:
I enjoyed it though it missed something that would make me enjoy it ferociously. So I just enjoyed it in a lady-like manner.

Best things about it:
The novel is a very well-crafted, subtle piece of writing, employing a truly gentlemanly restraint: in fact, it manages to reflect what was expected of a well-bred man of the era through its very form. At the same time it reads well and the muddy details of the criminal case make one want to keep going to find out how it was solved.
Obviously, a book about Sherlock Holmes’ creator may be well-expected to involve an investigative plotline and, equally obviously, this is hard to pull off in anything un-pulpy. Barnes managed nicely.

Worst things about it:
As mentioned, I felt something was missing to make my involvement in the story complete. The restraint kept me from getting excited about any of the developments but, I suspect, the main thing missing is a female element. This is just such a manly book, and not at all in a Hemingwayan sense.

Other pluses:
✤ The characters relate to each other in a very interesting manner: even though at first glance they seem extremely different, the deeper you get into their personal relationships, families, limitations, the more similarities you find.
✤ The historical world is rendered in memorable detail, it feels lived in not just copied from research materials. I always appreciate that.
✤ One of the main themes of the novel is the impossibility of really knowing things (and, perversely, human beings’ need to know). It aligns interestingly with both Sherlock Holmes (whose popularity relies on the absolute knowledge he stands for) and with the crime that the novel focuses on.
✤ As I mentioned before, I’m often uncertain about the ethics of writing about historical figures but I feel Barnes did right by them. While I didn’t find either man particularly likeable, they are both drawn with attention and compassion.

Other minuses:
✤ In a few fragments the narrative voice changes: while it normally sticks closely to either Arthur or George, a few times it presents the point of view of another character or two. I found that inconsistent on a few levels and not really adding much to the story.
✤ Similarly, the novel employs two tenses: past for Arthur, present for George. I don’t find a good enough reason for that.
✤ Another prominent theme of the novel, Englishness, does not interest me in the least, but I’ll admit that it’s probably much more interesting for actual English people.

How it enriched my life:
I learned about a fact from Conan Doyle’s life that I didn’t know about so I guess it’s something for a trivia night (I don’t do those). I’m always curious to learn more about Victorian and Edwardian society.

Cover notes:
While I acknowledge what the cover is trying to do – create an old-fashioned, turn of the last century impression – this is done in an extremely uninspiring way, especially in the ornaments and the typography. The illustration is the best part, particularly the fact that we see the men’s backs, which corresponds to the theme of unknowability.

Follow-up:
I’ve already put Flaubert’s Parrot on my reading list because I’m curious to read more Barnes and his interests seem to align with mine.

Recommended for:
Fans of somewhat more ambitious, more serious historical novel focused on people’s everyday life (also: real people’s life) rather than on huge historic moments.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Back to Legion

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Bookworming, Personalness

100 Years of Poland (the Literary Edition)

On 11th November Poland celebrated 100 years of independence which was a grand occasion – and I’m only writing this post now because my time management sucks these days, what with nursing and working.

This post has been inspired by my friend A’s celebration on Facebook, where he listed his favorite Polish music albums (hi, A). What music is to him, books are to me and I decided to celebrate (belatedly) with writing about something I actually thought a lot before. See, I read almost exclusively in English these days and I have for quite a few years now. So I wondered the experience of reading which books and authors I would actually miss if I didn’t speak any Polish. Here’s the list:

  1. We’ll get more serious than that but I will start with Małgorzata Musierowicz. She was my introduction to YA before I even knew the term or could be considered any sort of adult (I was 7 when I got one of her books for Christmas and fell in absolute love). She’s been writing for some 40 years now a series of books centered around one family and their friends. The newer books are arguably not up to the level of the older ones and you can certainly have a lot of complaints about the details of the story but it didn’t matter to me then: instead I was delighted to find a book reflecting the world I lived in. See, the great innovation of Musierowicz was the fact that she placed the romantic and family adventures of her heroines in the realistically described world of Poland as it was: first the People’s Republic, then the 90s transformation (which happened to be my childhood experience) but kept it cheerful and optimistic. I still return to those books regularly because if you know one thing about my reading habits, you know I like reading to be fun.
  2. From now on we’re moving to what will feel like a required reading for school but only because these books belong to the canon for a good reason. I’m starting with my absolute literary, theatrical, all-around favorite: Wesele by Stanisław Wyspiański. This alone is a reason enough to cherish one’s knowledge of Polish because the play is untranslatable: both its poetry and its historical context make it exclusively Polish. But it’s such a beauty and I used to know most of it by heart, I swear.
  3. And if we’re speaking of poetic plays, here’s another: Balladyna by Juliusz Słowacki. Słowacki is one of the most cherished Polish writers for his patriotic poetry but Balladyna is different: it’s a sort of Polish folk take on Shakespeare and it’s quite delightful. I read it first as a kid and liked it already without getting the whole context (same with Wesele, actually) – which confirms my theory that you can read good literature at almost any age and intellectual level and get something from it.
  4. Chłopi by Władysław Reymont is actually a Nobel Prize winner so a little less obscure outside of Poland than the rest of them. This story happening in the 19th century countryside can rival the best of 19th century novelists (yes, even Hardy and I love Hardy). It’s written partly in a peasant dialect and I don’t believe it translates very well.
  5. Another 19th century novelist who can rival any of the greats is Bolesław Prus, with his historical novel about Egypt (Faraon) and my personal favorite: Emancypantki. I guess some of British classic novels provide similar levels of enjoyment but Prus still belongs on the list of writers I’d be sorry to miss.
  6. Moving on to the 20th century again, Marek Hłasko and his short stories. I’ve outgrown them somewhat but my first encounter with them was such a revelation that he defined for me what a writer should be like, to such an extent that for a while I thought in his sentences.
  7. For someone who’s at best lukewarm about poetry I sure put a lot of poets here but that’s because they suffer most in translation. One of the most original and charming Polish poets is Bolesław Leśmian, who created a whole mythical, fairy-tale world through his poetry. He was also my dad’s favorite poet so that gives him extra points.
  8. Leopold Tyrmand’s Zły is this weird picaresque novel happening in post-war Warsaw and I guess you can live well enough without knowing it but you’re missing a good book.
  9. Witold Gombrowicz. His are some of the most ambitious books on this list, particularly as he embraced the 20th century’s opaqueness of literature – in other words these are books to study rather than just enjoy. But the way he plays both with language and with patriotic ideas and obsessions of his predecessors makes it for fun, iconoclastic reading.
  10. Finally something slightly different: a tribute to my childhood reading, the poetry of Jan Brzechwa. If I didn’t speak any Polish, I would probably know enjoyable children’s poetry in whatever language I would speak, but Brzechwa is in a class of his own, with his joy and his absurdity.

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Show Case

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Magicians

I read a few pages of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians in a bookstore once (it’s a thing I used to do) and I fell in instant love. Then I read the whole book and I still enjoyed it a lot though I very much did not enjoy volume two and so didn’t read on. However, I was still interested in the TV adaptation.

er-themagiciansThe Magicians (S1–3)

Category: TV shows

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
This is this adaptation. So far it’s had three seasons, each one, I’d say, better than the previous ones. The story in the show (it differs a lot from those books I read) focuses on a group of students who are accepted into a mysterious college of magic where they learn to harness, well, magic. They are, however, all damaged in their ways and so their magical talents might do them (and the world?) more bad than good. They also discover that the magical world of Fillory of which they (some of them) read as children is real and much less idyllic than the books claimed.

How I found it:
Even though I didn’t love the second book and gave up on the literary series, I knew the adaptation was in the works and was curious. In fact, I watched season 1 a long time ago and barely remember it, especially as it didn’t enchant me (har-har) but I’m glad I never gave up on the show after that.

Summary judgment:
I seriously can’t wait for the next season!

Best things about it:
As the show progresses, it manages to get you more and more interested in the story and the characters (who start off as pretty unbearable). As it embraces the silliness of the premise, it finds ways to become what it should: a fairy tale for adults, not just because of the sex and violence (which, mercifully, they limit later) but especially because of the sense of wonder. It’s so rare these days that a story would evoke this fascination and simple curiosity about what’s going to happen next, which used to be the main reason for reading and watching stuff as a child.

Worst things about it:
Season one starts drunk on the fact that they’re able to show an “adult” fantasy in precisely the wrong sense. This results in a rather depressing story about a bunch of people you’d like to see quartered (well, not literally) rather than succeed.

Other pluses:
✤ Grossman’s book tries to take a more realistic view on what it would be like for young people to get magical powers. It seems to suggest that they wouldn’t do a whole lot of good with it, instead ending up as burnt out disappointments. Starting with this assumption, Grossman gets to play with fantasy tropes and famous series (most notably Harry Potter and Narnia) in quite an interesting and often funny way. The show finds its way to this fun, too, and adds to it a lot of meta-humor, with characters recapping stuff to each other and explaining the archetypes which they represent. I know there are classy people who frown upon such things but me this ain’t.
✤ I love the kickass women of the show: Alice and Julia. Both of them are beautiful, smart and powerful and leave the men of the story in their dust without even trying.
✤ But I also like Penny, jerk that he is. Arjun Gupta is doing possibly the most convincing job with inhabiting his character.
✤ I’m so glad that as the show progresses, the creators stop  being afraid of showing heart: they gradually shed the cynicism and discover that the story only gets better for it.
✤ The fantasy world looks very pretty: from the slightly psychedelic Fillory, through rather unimpressive Brakebills to the gloomy city, all the environments have recognizable visual tone.
✤ I particularly liked the structure of the third season. No more storylines dragging so long that you forget what they are about: instead the characters go on a quest and each episode has a slightly different idea (or gimmick). They even managed an unrepulsive musical episode (gosh, how I normally hate those).

Other minuses:
✤ Even though she slightly grew on me, especially during the last season, it was still a long way to grow and I am not entirely sure I’ve forgiven Margo for being the worst.
✤ Some other characters that it took me a while to, well, even recognize, let alone care about are Kady and Fen. I just don’t find them as compelling.

How it enriched my life:
It gave me many pleasants evenings and the, already mentioned, child-like sense of enchantment and wonderment.

Follow-up:
I wish season 4 was here already because I’m really curious about what’s going to happen (unfascinating as the new big bad looks yet).

Recommended for:
People who love urban fantasy and Narnia-like fantasy and would like to see them not only combined but also from a (sort of) adult perspective.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Arthur & George

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Bookworming, Picture Perfect

Wildly Enthusiastic Review: The 50 States

In case you didn’t know this crucial thing about me: I love picture books!

er-the50statesThe 50 States by Gabrielle Balkan, illustrated by Sol Linero

Category: Books

Find it on: see nice pictures on our design blog

What it is:
A collection of illustrated maps of all the states in the United States, filled with facts and curios. For each state one gets to know basic data, important(ish) dates from history, location, famous people and a whimsical selection of things worth seeing in the state. Everything is gorgeously illustrated and very entertaining. And yes, technically it’s a children’s book but I enjoyed it thoroughly.

How I found it:
I think it might have been some random Amazon recommendation which my husband then bought for my birthday.

Summary judgment:
It’s both lovely to look at and quite educational, I kid you not.

Best things about it:
How lovely it looks. Sol Linero and the graphic designer Nicola Price have created a pretty object which gives joy to look at. It is especially impressive when you do a search for other books on the similar subject (spoiler: they’re ugly). The book uses a lovely color palette and charming, whimsical typefaces, plus many inherent design problems in page layout etc. are very well solved (I’m not going to get technical, just trust me). Learning about states becomes an aesthetic pleasure.

Worst things about it:
One, infinitesimally small thing: too many exclamation marks. They start irritating after a while.

Other pluses:
✤ The illustrations are charming in their simplicity and use a unified style, which is worth underlining because I’ve seen some books with a similar idea that didn’t manage to be stylistically consistent.
✤ Again, design is also very good, including typographic choices.
✤ I like the progressive politics of the book which mentions many important moments from the history of American struggle for social rights.
✤ The selection of facts manages to create a positive image for each state and convey its (sort-of) uniqueness.

Other minuses:
✤ This is an observation, not a minus: the book refers to so many children’s books that I never heard of. But, probably, American children, who are the real target of the book, will know them (especially those children who are into books in general) and it will even make them like 50 States more because it mentions their favorites.
✤ I guess the portraits of famous people are rarely recognizable. Cute, though.

How it enriched my life:
You’re going to laugh but I have actually learned a lot: I now know where all the states are and what their capitals are (seriously, you may quiz me). And before you conclude that I sound like a simpleton, this is not something generally required from an educated person here, some distance away from the US and I forgot all I learned about the geography of the US in the elementary school. It was actually fun to re-learn.
A completely different thing: this is certainly an inspiring standard for picture books. If I ever get down to creating one, I hope it’s not worse.

Fun fact:
If I had a bucket list it would be one thing: Making a picture book. This is only tangentially relevant but still worth sharing.
More to the point, I’ve always wanted to do a road trip across the US but this is so unlikely that’s not even on the bucket list.

Follow-up:
There is another book by the same authors, about American cities, and while it feels less essential, I will probably be getting that one too for some special occasion when nobody knows what to get me.

Recommended for:
Children interested in American geography and/or good illustration. People who love pretty, interesting books, even if they’re no longer children.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Next time: The Magicians

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