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: Three Princes

Some books are a gamble and you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into. But some that seem like a very safe bet might still surprise you.

er-threeprincesThree Princes by Ramona Wheeler

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
It’s the 19th century and the Egyptian empire built by Caesar and Cleopatra rules most of the world, only rivaled by the Inca empire in South America – who are trying to travel to the moon. Victoria heads the future revolution against the Egyptian dominance and Bismarck acts as her main agent while the faithful agents of Egypt try to stop their nefarious plans and also to learn about the Inca technology of air travel. It doesn’t get more alternative history than that and you could use the premises for three or more books.

How I found it:
Honestly, I have no idea. It sounds like something I’d get from a list of best steampunk books and maybe that’s where it came from. In theory it sounds like something written specifically for me.

Summary judgment:
I failed to connect with this book on most levels.

Best things about it:
I appreciate the ambitious idea and that the author clearly loves the world she created to such an extent that she thought out many (arguably unnecessary) world-building details. Some descriptions are quite vivid and all of them very detailed.

Worst things about it:
I never got really interested either in the story or the characters. For something so packed with travel and spy adventures the book felt slow and a bit aimless. I don’t know if it’s planned as a part of series but at some point I started wondering if the author would manage to finish the main story within the remaining part of the book or would she end it with a big cliffhanger (she managed to finish it). Not a single one of the three princes earned my interest and I found all of them rather idealized.

Other pluses:
✤ It is a fairly visual book, which I always appreciate even if I found some of the descriptions too long.
✤ The idea of not-queen Victoria as a revolutionary is probably my favorite alternate history element and I got quite excited when it was introduced but very little happens on this front.

Other minuses:
✤ The sense of just starting a long series informs the whole experience of reading the book. Many characters, especially female ones, seem just sketched and undeveloped. Consequently, it’s hard to care about their fate.
✤ For such an exotic, little-known culture as Inca I would expect the part happening there to be more thrilling, even in the descriptions.

How it enriched my life:
I liked some of the imagery, not necessarily the most thrilling parts even.

Fun fact:
I love the author’s name. Anyone named Ramona will always get a plus from me.

Follow-up:
Even if other books are going to follow this one, I’ll pass.

Recommended for:
Fans of alternate history stories who like wild, original premises.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Next time: Whiplash; but seriously these posts take forever to post now because I’m useless these days. Ask anyone. So we’re not quite back to the regular schedule but once a week is a promise and I’m working on the backlog again.

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Bookworming

Wildly Enthusiastic Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

If you wondered why there’ve been no book reviews for a while (you weren’t, were you), it’s because one book took all my reading time:

er-jonathanstrangeandmrnorrellJonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Category: Books

Find it on: Amazon

What it is:
Clarke’s debut from 2004, a massive novel and, quite possibly, a masterpiece. In three volumes it tells the story of two magicians destined to bring back English magic who take up the task during the Napoleonic wars. It’s alternative history at its best, with the style resembling the classics of 19th-century English novels and the tempo I can only describe as gentlemanly. If there ever was fantasy for adults, this is it (and not a single sex scene in this one, it’s not what I meant).

How I found it:
This was actually my second meeting with the book. First time I found it in a library soon after it was published – and I only finished the first volume. Apparently, as my notes tell me, I found the tone jarring but I suspect it must have been the translation. I’m certainly glad I gave it another try.

Summary judgment:
What a lovely beauty this one is, and unlike anything else I know. Also, definitely my favorite read of the year so far.

Best things about it:
It’s complex. It’s impressive. It knows exactly what it wants to be and adeptly goes about it. The portrayal of the two magicians is magnificent, both in their strengths and weaknesses. I rooted for Strange because he was so likeable but I really understood Norrell (who was anything but) and in the moment when, against his character, Norrell takes Strange on as a student, I realized the book was more than I’d expected.

Worst things about it:
There’s only one thing: I read it for two months (honestly, it’s embarrassing) and it completely ruined my reading statistics for the year. Yes, it’s a long book (and I don’t have nearly enough time for reading these days). But then again, when it’s over you wish it was longer.

Other pluses:
✤ I like the idea of fairies as borderline mad by human standards. The whole supernatural part of the book is so poetic and convincing.
✤ The footnotes work great. I read that some people didn’t like the idea but it’s the right touch and I loved all the semi-historical, semi-anecdotal stories they tell.
✤ The pastiche feels just right to me: not a direct copy of older novels’ style, more of a reverential nod.

Other minuses:
I’m good. No complaints.

How it enriched my life:
It delighted me so much. It shows the value that a slightly older debutante writer brings into their work. It inspires all sorts of Victorian fantasies.

Fun fact:
Yes, I do have reading statistics. They got less impressive in the last two years though.

Follow-up:
I am re-reading this one for sure. Now that I know the story I will be able to focus on closer reading and I’m sure it will reveal many interesting things I overlooked. There’s only one more book by Clarke, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, and I’m going to read that one too. I wish there were more though.

Recommended for:
Me. Or, more precisely, anyone who’s into similar stuff, like Regency/Victorian literature, fantasy, postmodern twists on literary classics… Also, if it’s you, give me a call and let’s hang out.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Next time: The wonder of Penelope

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Bookworming

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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Bookworming

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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Bookworming

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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