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:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

 

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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: 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: 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

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: Nights at the Circus

Sorry for the skipped week but I’m pregnant and busy and sometimes something has to give. But let’s discuss this rather good book I read last month:

er-nightsatthecircusNights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Category: Books

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
Fevvers is a wonderful aerialiste: a woman with wings who charms the circus goers of the entire Europe, now starting her international tour. She tells her story to a sceptical journalist, Walser, who despite his better judgment falls into the thrall of her storytelling and her personality. The historical setting – the turn of the last century – allows Carter to shed light on the more bizarre areas of the Victorian society, while, most of all, proclaiming her love for narrative.

How I found it:
I read about it in How to Read Novels Like a Professor (such a dumb title but a good book) and it sounded interesting (incidentally, that’s also how I found The Poisonwood Bible a while ago).

Summary judgment:
It’s a breath of fresh (linguistic) air to read a more literary book – I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Best things about it:
Like its heroine, it’s a vivacious story that seduces its reader, inviting them to ask the novel’s question: “Is it fact or is it fiction” and eventually to reject it as irrelevant. It confirms Carter’s love for the performative, the marginal. It paints an original, convincing but not too constrained picture of the end of the nineteenth century.

Worst things about it:
Personally I was less interested in the clowns, maybe because (like all reasonable people) I’m not a fan of the profession. However, the role that Carter ascribes them, is interesting and fits with the rest of the narrative.

Other pluses:
✤ Almost goes without saying but Carter is wonderful with language, building another tier to the narrative just with her choice of words. The first scene in Fevvers’ changing room should convince anyone.
✤ I’m always in for another story on storytelling, as long as the story itself remains interesting.
✤ The Siberian, shamanistic part proves Carter’s mettle with how it is both a part of the whole novel and remains separate.

Other minuses:
You know, I’m good. If you buy the concept of the book, you just enjoy the ride.

How it enriched my life:
It enchanted me with its language and setting and made me think about marginal areas of the Victorian world. Also, reading a truly good novel is a different experience to reading a merely interesting novel and I don’t do it nearly often enough these days.

Follow-up:
I think I’ve already read all of Carter that I had a particular interest in but I might return to this one.

Recommended for:
Fans of good historical novels with a strong postmodern tinge. Fans of old-school circus. Lovers of storytelling.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: The latest Avengers

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Bookworming

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Jane

I checked out another adaptation of a Victorian classic, this time one of my favorites: Jane Eyre, in a comic form.

er-janeJane by Aline Brosh McKenna

Category: Comics

Find it on: LibraryThing

What it is:
A modern-day adaptation of (bits of) Jane Eyre’s story. Jane escapes her unloving family to New York, where she enrolls in an art college and starts working for a mysterious businessman as his daughter’s nanny. But there’s a door upstairs she’s never allowed to touch. What’s behind the door? (You know what. Not a twist.)

How I found it:
I heard the author talking about her comic on a podcast about script writers (she normally writes the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, something of which I bounced off pretty hard). The idea, obviously, appealed to me immensely.

Summary judgment:
All in all, it’s a wasted opportunity but the great art saves it from being a waste of time.

Best things about it:
Definitely the art by Ramón Pérez. He has a casual lightness of line and an ease of switching between styles that elevates the story and makes it oh-so-pretty. His art remains engaging but never becomes too artsy and so inaccessible.

Worst things about it:
The story doesn’t justify the idea. Why choose to work on Jane Eyre if you have nothing new to tell about the tale and don’t even seem to care about the original story as it is?

Other pluses:
✤ In addition to Pérez’s great art, the competent coloring by Irma Kniivila deserves a special mention.
✤ What I found the most interesting part of the story was actually the cursory foray into artistic education (which doesn’t really have time or space to develop realistically). I feel maybe Pérez employed some of his own experience in this part? I would much rather read a story about a girl from nowhere trying to become a New York artist.

Other minuses:
✤ The story doesn’t even try to do anything worthwhile with the inherently problematic character of Rochester, his morality and his decisions. Sure, the wife thing is slightly mitigated but just enough to make it boring, not justifiable.
✤ New side characters only seem introduced for the sake of diversity but nothing happens with them.
✤ I found the criminal/gothic ending particularly disappointing, as if the author realized she’s almost out of pages and the story needs wrapping up. In fact, I generally felt there was not enough space to do the story justice.

How it enriched my life:
I really enjoyed the art and found it inspiring.

Fun fact:
So where I mostly know Pérez from is his work on Wolverine and the X-Men – a comic I always liked, also for the art, though didn’t make the connection without visiting Pérez’s website.

Follow-up:
There’s not a direct thing to follow up with but I’m sure I would enjoy more of Pérez’s work in this style. I’m also up for any future adaptations of my Victorian favorites. Bring it on.

Recommended for:
People who care about art more than about story. People who will take any Victorian adaptation gratefully.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Hatin’ on Strictly Ballroom (you’ve been warned)

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