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: 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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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

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Lady Audley’s Secret

I still read books. But ever since I’ve had a kid I read less. Instead, I have found at least two ways to listen to books. One is while I exercise (and then it’s mostly bad fantasy). The other is while I work. It doesn’t make for a particularly in-depth read but it does bring up the number of books I read. But since my focus when I listen to books is not as strong as when I read them, I choose things I don’t particularly care to know in every detail. Like

er-ladyaudleyssecretLady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing | and here’s the LibriVox free audiobook I listened to

What it is:
A sensational novel written in 1862, and basically a worse Wilkie Collins. It tells a story of Lady Audley, who comes from nowhere, marries rich and, no duh, has a secret (it’s – spoilers, barely – bigamy; and a son; and possibly madness). The story is mostly told from a point of view of Robert Audley, a perfect (and perfectly useless) gentleman with unexpressed homosexual tendencies and includes a surprising amount of violence.

How I found it:
I searched through LibriVox for something that you can listen to during work.

Summary judgment:
It’s not good, strictly speaking, but it’s fun enough.

Best things about it:
It reads easily and keeps you mildly interested. The characters remain memorable through their quirks.

Worst things about it:
This novel has such a weird structure where the reader is constantly promised secrets and revelations but every answer is obvious pretty much from the beginning. The coincidences are quite ludicrous and sometimes you wonder why the book takes so long to unveil a secret which barely deserves the name.
No, wait! I didn’t guess George was still alive but only because in a better book he wouldn’t have been, I declare.

Other pluses:
Robert is actually, almost, it feels, accidentally, a fascinating character: in turns seductive and infuriating. He incorporates the perfect nonchalance of a gentleman (that only a danger to his beloved friend can sometimes shake). His musings on women are, on the other hand, terrible.

Other minuses:
✤ It’s not so obvious from a modern point of view because social mobility, homosexuality and undomesticated women aren’t very scary to most people any more, but this book based its attraction on stirring Victorian readers’ anxieties. I don’t approve of fear-mongering.
✤ I wish lady Audley was a more complex character. I know a modern critic may easily reinterpret her as a victim of women’s disenfranchisement but, frankly, the book doesn’t care about that. She’s barely more than a ghoul to scare people with.

How it enriched my life:
It kept me good company during many hours of work.

Fun fact:
If you don’t know LibriVox, give it a try. It’s like Project Gutenberg for audiobooks where enthusiasts devote their time to record public domain books for anyone to enjoy. It’s free, it’s uneven, I love it.

Follow-up:
Whatever I find when I’ve got the kind of work that makes it possible to listen to books. But not Braddon, probably.

Recommended for:
Fans of Victorian trash literature, villainous women and gloriously lazy gentlemen.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Pretty in Pink

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: The Glass Castle

Memoirs are not among my favorite genres but I read one every now and then. Like

er-theglasscastleThe Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
A memoir about growing up in a dysfunctional but exciting family. Jeannette and her three siblings are carted around by their extravagant parents: an artistic mother who refuses to make sacrifices and a charismatic drunken father. They live in several states, fiercely independent, but often with nothing to eat and nowhere to wash.

How I found it:
I saw a trailer for the movie adaptation and then heard a casual reference to the book somewhere and it was enough to get me interested.

Summary judgment:
I admire the tone of the book and it reads really well.

Best things about it:
While some facts from Walls’s childhood shock, she manages to recreate a child’s point of view that only slowly grows more judgmental of her parents, replacing perfect trust with disappointment. I read criticism of the dispassionate tone of the book but I actually find it believable and engaging: at some moments you want to shake the parents awake for the children who love them too much to do that.
And even though Walls grows in disillusionment as she matures, the underlying love for her misfit family never disappears, elevating the book from a tearjerker to a head-scratcher: despite everything, there are positive things about the Walls parents values.

Worst things about it:
A few times I found the anecdotal style of the book, with the memories mostly disjoined into separate snippets a bit mechanical. But it’s a minor complaint.

Other pluses:
✤ Walls manages to paint very vivid pictures of the different places where she lived, particularly the desert and Welch. You easily see yourself there.
✤ It bears emphasizing: it would be so easy to presents parents like these as monsters. It’s a testament to a child’s devotion, but also to the strength of human spirit, how Walls never condemns them, even when the reader has, and so makes you see positive things about them: their courage, their optimism, their free spirit.
✤ I found Lori the most interesting of the siblings but all the family members except for the youngest child make such strong characters.

Other minuses:
Of all the places, I found the description of New York least compelling.

How it enriched my life:
Despite everything it’s an enjoyable read and more than that, it makes you wonder about people who choose very different lifestyles.

Fun fact:
I can’t imagine anything less fun than having your grown-up child write a memoir of how you raised them, even if you did your best to strive for perfection. The more do I admire Mrs. Walls for her alleged support for the book.

Follow-up:
I’m interested in Walls’s other book, Half-Broke Horses, about her grandmother.

Recommended for:
People with perfectly (or at least mostly) conventional childhoods curious about different experiences. I have no idea how it might work for people who got traumatized in dysfunctional families themselves.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Back to True Blood

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