Bookworming

Bulk Review: Victorians, Goblins and Dominicans

I don’t have time to write proper reviews but I still manage to read some interesting books, thanks mostly to nursing, so here’s a summary of a few recent reads.

No Name

By Wilkie Collins

What it is
A Victorian psychological and social drama showing the ruinous consequences for two daughters when their parents die without leaving a will.

Best things about it
Collins is one of my favorite Victorian writers and every time I read him, his skill surprises me. This, though long, flows nicely, populated by an array of vivid, somewhat theatrical characters. The author’s, and readers’, special love was clearly reserved for the drifter uncle.

Worst things about it
I enjoyed all of it.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Goblin Emperor

By Katherine Addison

What it is
A psychological fantasy which holds back on all the usual thrills of fantasy: there’s very little magic and a lot of world building (if by world you mean an emperor’s court).

Best things about it
This is a shockingly original thing unlike any fantasy I read. It focuses thoroughly on politics and its effects on the main character. It does so unapologetically, only developing those elements of the story which serve this theme, but developing them strongly, up to coming up with a social and diplomatic grammar.

Worst things about it
I have no qualms.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

By Junot Díaz

What it is
A Pullitzer Prize winner, a story of nerdery tangled with Dominican history.

Best things about it
The lively language which confidently mixes nerd references, Spanish and postmodern devices, with mixed up styles, genres and points of view. I’m all for that.

Worst things about it
It reads fast but except for the course in Dominican history it doesn’t give one much to engage with. Not to mention that South American history leans to the depressing side.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

I’ll be back with more, promise.

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: An Enchantment of Ravens

While I read a lot of what some of you more discerning readers might consider crap, especially if it comes in a fantasy envelope, I rarely enjoy it without question. This time I did.

er-anenchantmentofravensAn Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:

A fairy tale for (young) adults. Isobell lives in Whimsy, a land for people selling their work to fairies. She is a gifted portrait painter who has learned to manage the tricks of the fair folk rather well – until she meets a very special fairy.

How I found it:

I don’t remember but I think I expected a different book and mixed them up – luckily.

Summary judgment:

It’s surprisingly lovely.

Best things about it:

I was surprised to be so, ahem, enchanted by the world Rogerson creates: it’s got the charm of a fairy tale in which you just buy the premises of the magic world and enjoy being in it. However, it’s more developed than most fairy tales, with characters more fully drawn and quirkier. The tension between the romantic leads feels real and you believe all the reasons why they can’t be together even though you know eventually they will be.

Worst things about it:

It’s just a simple pleasure reading that you can’t boast about having read but for what it is, it works. I just wish it didn’t try so hard to be a teen book because Isobell didn’t need to be 17 – she felt older.

Other pluses:

✤ I liked all the details about fairies and their world: they made sense.

✤ While you have the general sense of where the book is going, the reveals don’t feel boringly obvious.

✤ The simplicity of the story and the sole focus on Isobell’s point of view work: they make for a clean, controlled narrative.

Other minuses:

Honestly, I’m good.

How it enriched my life:

I read it while nursing and it made the whole thing so much better.

Cover notes:

While the illustration leaves me indifferent because it doesn’t have enough character to be memorable, at least it’s competent. (I do wish they’d found someone who could create an oil portrait style illustration though to go with the story; wasted potential.) I wish they kept the typography simpler because the embellishments don’t work.

Follow-up:

Rogerson has another novel in the works and I might read it if I come across it.

Recommended for:

People who are not embarrassed to read a good, romantic fairy tale.

Enjoyment:

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Since I’m back from the short hiatus, I’ll try to keep up with the once-a-week schedule. Next Emma, the movie

 

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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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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, 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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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Tropic of Cancer

Every now and then I will give my reading habits a self-educational slant and read a classic I managed to miss in school. I rarely review them because, really, what can I add to the discussion of Madame Bovary, but this time I have a few things to say.

er-tropicofcancerTropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
An American classic, for a while considered too pornographic to be allowed in the USA, Miller describes the adventures of a Henry Miller in Paris in late 1920s. He lives as a bum, with no money and no prospects, sort of working on a book and expertly leeching off people he meets, sleeping with every prostitute he can find.

How I found it:
The first time I heard of Henry Miller was in high school, from my high school teacher who said he was her favorite writer. I mixed him up with Henry James and said I’d read him and found him boring, which really surprised her. Then I did start Miller but did indeed find him boring and only returned to him now as a sort of project to fill some of the gaps in my literary education.

Summary judgment:
I had this category for required reading that I finished because I was a good student but had to make myself finish: a feat of endurance. This wasn’t quite so hard to get through but really didn’t do much for me.

Best things about it:
Miller has a good sense of place. The Paris of his book is not the Paris I know and love (which is a very touristy, very postcardy one) but it lives and his description of the other places he visits are even more lively.

Worst things about it:
In general, I didn’t find particularly good reasons to immerse myself in this unpleasant, (literally) lousy world that Miller creates – other than a (misplaced?) intellectual ambition.
But if I were to choose one thing that was the worst, I would say the philosophizing, which would always turn into indecipherable, “poetic” drivel with nihilistic undertones. Oh, and sometimes when you felt it couldn’t get any muddier he would start describing a dream, which is generally the most useless writerly activity in the world.

Other pluses:
Sometimes when Miller focuses more on the people his character meets than on his insufferable inner monolog, the book flows better and reads faster. Some characters he describes remain fairly memorable, even though that’s usually because of how callously he writes about them.

Other minuses:
✤ It’s been discussed many times and there’s no disputing the fact: Miller’s depiction of women is offensive and heartless (and it doesn’t help much that his depiction of men has little heart as well). It was bad to begin with but it has grown old even worse.
✤ When you’re no longer 13 and sex scenes are not something exciting because you read them on the sly in your parents’ books, you appreciate how boring most sex descriptions are. So when their presence is the main thing that made the book famous, the book doesn’t stand the test of time too well.

How it enriched my life:
I can tick off one more book from the list of unread classics and now I can dislike Miller in an informed way.

Fun fact:
The book was banned as pornography in the USA and Great Britain and only became legally available in the 1960s. You can see why, of course, but the decades that passed since have really made us less sensitive to this kind of thing.

Cover notes:
A classic shot of a naked lady is a safe choice that’s hard to dispute and I could get behind the framed typography, especially that it makes for a recognizable series. But the last frame, with the Cancer, has no outline and rounded corners and this I just can’t approve of because it shows the designer’s helplessness.

Follow-up:
I’m quite happy never to take up another Miller again.

Recommended for:
This book should only be read by two kinds of people: American lit professors who need to know the classics and pretentious teenagers who still think descriptions of sex make a book some kind of revolutionary.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Next time: Wonder Woman

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