Bookworming

Bulk Review: Victorians and More Victorians (Faux-Victorians, Though)

Welcome to round two of speedy book reviews. It seems my reading choices have become a bit monothematic lately.

The French Lieutanant’s Woman

By John Fowles

What it is
One of early postmodern novels (written in 1969), it tells a classic Victorian story of a misalliance but with a twist, the twist being that you shouldn’t take your stories too literally.

Best things about it
It’s undoubtedly well-written and reads great. The first time I read it, in college, it delighted me so much. Fowles shows honest interest in Victorian mind and philosophy and his analysis of those tends to be the most interesting part of the book, once you know not to focus on the story too much. It teaches you a bunch of rare words, too.

Worst things about it
This isn’t so much a criticism of this particular book as the whole bunch of those postmodern novels: all the winking and nudging gets old really fast. It becomes boring to be constantly reminded that you’re only dealing with a construct and not to take anything too seriously and stops you from getting involved in the story. As a result, it left me somewhat cold (and this is the easily digested kind of postmodernism, too).

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Wide Sargasso Sea

By Jean Rhys

What it is
This, on the other hand, written three years earlier, shows how you can do a similar thing with heart and for a good reason. Rhys writes a story of Edward Rochester’s (of Jean Eyre) first wife, the mad woman in the attic. She focuses not on the events known from Bronte’s novel but on Bertha’s past (though it’s not even her name here), creating a study of colonialism and misogyny.

Best things about it
First time I read this book I was freshly awed by the original Jane Eyre and I suppose I expected a kind of fan fiction, only better written, so I actually disliked the Sea. This time it awed me with its subtlety, with the strength of creating a world that is completely different from that of Bronte’s novel and yet so convincing, and especially with the searing (but only implied, because subtlety) criticism of Victorian English society.

Worst things about it
It’s not a criticism but feel warned that it’s one of those books you need to grow up to.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Night Circus

By Erin Morgenstern

What it is
Let’s finish with a light version of Victorian fascination. This is a story that happens during Victorian era (but mostly only nominally) and tells of two magicians locked in a mysterious contest (and in love), all happening in a strange circus. I suppose you could classify it as young adult literature, though it’s less obvious than most books of this genre.

Best things about it
It creates the world of the story with attention to detail and a sense of poetry. The magic in the novel is not flashy, impressionistic rather than Harry Potter-esque. The focus remains on the emotions of the characters. Even though it slows down sometimes, it remains a pleasant read.

Worst things about it
I wish the book tried harder to pay homage to the Victorian period it choses to represent – if not in the way the characters act, then at least in some of the language (at the very least in dialogs). Otherwise, why set it in this time at all? Except for the lack of modern technology, very little in the story feels like it’s actually happening when it’s supposed to be happening.
Also, Bailey takes up too much time with nothing to hook the reader up to his story.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

 

Advertisements
Standard
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.

Standard
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

 

Standard
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

Standard
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

Standard
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

Standard
Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Crooked Kingdom

Summer is great for reading books for pleasure, particularly when your doctor tells you to spend a part of the day in bed and so: no remorse!

er-crookedkingdomCrooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
A sequel to Six of Crows, a YA (but not infantile) adventure fantasy about a group of teenage criminals who take on the system, conning merchants, armies and politicians with nothing but a handful of talents and the power of friendship.

How I found it:
I read the first volume – maybe last year? I quite enjoyed it but forgot the story so completely that before reading Crooked Kingdom I needed to read an online summary.

Summary judgment:
Pure entertainment, but of a very competent and enjoyable kind.

Best things about it:
Bardugo builds an interesting world based loosely on historical places (the Netherlands, a sort of idealized Russian empire, only with magical mutants, Scandinavia) and the entirety of this volume takes place in Ketterdam, the capital of the Dutch-like Kerch, where profit is god (literally), which allows her to focus on the city and make it more than just a location. The specificity of the place differs the story from most adventure fantasies with their stock locations.

Worst things about it:
I guess the fact that I forgot the first volume proves that this is a fairly forgettable experience. Still, it’s better than pretty much any adventure movie you could watch instead

Other pluses:
✤ The book never bores you, always swift with the action and properly entertaining. Some of the twists manage to be surprising.
✤ The completionist in me really enjoys the fact that it’s just the duology. I’m always a little daunted by those multiple-volume fantasies.
✤ I liked some of the characters, particularly Nina.

Other minuses:
✤ I’m not a fan of the typical adventure story structure where each chapter ends on a cliffhanger but at least in Kingdom‘s case I could hope that each new chapter will soon grab my attention, too.
✤ I feel the characters could use a bit more development. We don’t learn much about them beyond what was already revealed in the previous part.

How it enriched my life:
I simply enjoyed reading it, without necessarily changing my outlook or learning anything in particular.

Cover notes:
The crow-city combo was done better on the first volume’s cover. Here, while the crow is expressive, the buildings become a little naive. I have minor complaints against the typography (even though the fancy title typeface works inside of the book) but despite my whining it’s still levels above your average YA cover.

Follow-up:
Bardugo wrote more books about her Grisha mutants and I’m not opposed to reading one of those some other lazy summer (or, you know, winter).

Recommended for:
Fans of good YA adventure with careful world building.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Cloak & Dagger

Standard