armchairaudies

It’s that time of the year again: the Audible nominations are out and the Armchair Audies are open for business! Jennifer and Bob launched it in 2012 and it rapidly became one of my favorite book bloggers events. Glad to see the Audies gaining track in general, so much so that Audible even has a dedicated page.

The last two years I’ve tackled the History category, but this year I’m changing to Non-fiction. Two reasons: this category is almost always overwhelmingly US-centered and once again Audible doesn’t offer some of the nominees to non-US-based costumers (so frustrating!).

On the other hand, lots of good arguments in favor on Non-fiction this year: all books are available, Malcolm Gladwell, cheese, environmental classics and no book too long.

Are you participating? Which category are you “judging”?

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Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill, narrated by Sandy Rustin
Was always curious about Scientology, it’s good opportunity to know more.
David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants written and narrated by Malcolm Gladwell
I’m a Gladwell fan, so this book sealed the deal for me.

The End of Nature 
by Bill McKibben, narrated by Jeff Woodman
A 10th Anniversary Edition of an environmental classic. I’ve heard good things about McKibben.

The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese
 by Michael Paterniti, narrated by L.J. Ganser
CHEESE! This is the one I’m more looking forward to.

Thank You for Your Service
 by David Finkel, narrated by Arthur Bishop
A journalistic-style book about life after coming home from a war.

Republic of Thieves

Oh noes. I was afraid of this. The Lies of Locked Lamora was one of my favorite books of 2011: fresh and with a border-line hyperactive plot. My mind wandered off several times during book 2, Red Seas Under Red Skies, but the clever writing was still there, as well as a kick-ass female character. Unfortunately, The Republic of Thieves continued the downwards tendency.

To be fair, I was disappointed but it was still enjoyable, or not even Michael Page would get me to listen to 24 hours of audiobook. I’ll give it a solid 3.

Two things I enjoyed, and two I didn’t: 

I continued to love the Lynch’s humor. Like the earlier in the series, The Republic is peppered with hilarious conversations and one-liners that Michael Page once again delivers to perfection. Lynch is one of the best when it comes to coarse cursing, right up there with Shakespeare. Also, just by themselves the foul-mouthed Sanza twins were worth the time I invested and I wish they’d be around in the future.

Lynch’s amazing world-building is also still alive and kicking. Every book is set in a different country and you can tell that a lot of thought went into developing separate political systems, manners and habits, architecture, gastronomy, etc. A good world-building goes a long way to make me loyal to a fantasy series.

Now for the down side. The plot interweaves two stories: in one Locke and Jean and hired by the bondmagi to rig an election in Karthain, with the (in)famous Sabetha as their opponent. The interludes are about Locke’s and the Gentleman Bastards’ early years, in particular a play they staged in their teens as a sort of team-building exercise. This supposedly secondary story is given as much time as the main one and even takes over the title of the book (the play is called The Republic of Thieves), which confused me a bit.

I though the details about Locke’s childhood were interesting, but the play became lumbering after a while. I was hoping it would bring an insight into the main story, but it wasn’t the case. In the end it felt like Lynch was just using this book as a platform to realize his dream of writing Shakespeare-style theater (there are pages of the actual play being declaimed, all very meta). This plot line should have been a separate book, like the upcoming The Bastards and the Knives (Gentleman Bastard, #0).

Regarding the “present” adventure in Karthain, I was expecting an Ocean’s 11 or Mission Impossible type of plot. Rigging an election has huge potential for a plot full of baroque twists and turns, but instead Lynch focused on the romance side of the story. I wouldn’t usually defend plot over character development, but here I longed the relentlessness action of the first book. Also, in Camorr Locke and Jean had control over events and the narrative, even when plans apparently didn’t come together. In Karthain they only had a hand full of halfhearted pranks up their sleeves and were mostly puppets in the hands of their employees. I was hoping for a big a-ha! moment at the end, but was again disappointment.

Still, my biggest problem with the book was Sabetha. During the two earlier book Lynch built her up so much that in the end her entrance was just felt anticlimactic. There was no chemistry between the two, and her personality never goes beyond being a repository for Locke’s obsession and emasculation. I understand that falling in love with the leader of your gang must be hard, but it’s still no excuse for just how whinny and annoying Sabetha turned out to be. 

A final aside: at some point I wondered if this book would pass The Bechdel test. Conclusion: the play part would, Karthain, not so much.

On-wards to The Thorn of Emberlain, better times will come I’m sure :)

***

Other thoughts: BookLustFantasy Book CriticPat’s Fantasy HotlistThe WertzoneNeth SpaceA Dribble of InkThe Little Red ReviewerScience-Fiction and Fantasy Book ReviewsSpeculative Book ReviewVal’s Random CommentsIn Bed with Books (yours?)

#comicsfebruary

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I never could resist graphic novels with impressive urban architectural landscapes. That’s why I love François Schuiten so much. I’d never heard of Mathieu Bablet (his blog here, in French) until I came across this cover at my local bookshop. It immediately caught my eye: the colors, the perspective, the visual impact of that giant worm!

The story is set in a nameless mega city, home to the (as far as we know) few human survivors of an insect-like alien invasion that all but exterminated the human race. The survivors’ hopeless lives are spent hunting for food and trying to avoid the insects.

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I was completely hooked on the first half of the story, about the survivors’ day-to-day, the change of seasons, their squabbles and survival routines. But Bablet lost me once the action really started. Then things just got weird and went all mystical. I preferred the subtle and slow melancholy of the first part to the existentialist feel and chilling events of the second.

I wished the story had taken another turn, but I wouldn’t change a thing in the illustration, which was amazing. I went back to the bookshop to buy another Babet book the next day just because of it. The spaces seem to be wide and claustrophobic at the same time. The geometry of the huge and repetitive buildings captures the eye and is the perfect scenario to show just how lonely these characters are. It’s like they’re insects themselves.

Certain angles almost caused me vertigo and I loved all the details in the scenery: the thread-bare couches in the abandoned apartments, the aging piping, the growing vegetation. Also, Bablet populated the story with several pop-culture Easter-aggs, that The Dork Review collected. The ones I noticed:

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This was Bablet’s first album and I’ll report of his second - Adrastée Tome 1 - as soon as I finish it. By the way, I was looking around and found no concrete evidence that this was translated to English (I only found a cover with the translated title, but nothing else), so let me know if you know about it.

aisforalibiHad this on the TBR for ages, waiting for one of my inevitable cravings for an old-fashion detective story. It delivered, it was ok, but not great. Everyone that enjoys crime novels and their dog knows this series, so I imagine they improve with the following books?

As it’s not unusual in the first in the series, it felt a little clunky, with little action and even less character development. It read like a report of Kinsey’s (the 30-something, no-nonsense, cop-turned-private-investigator and main character) moves: she talked to this person, then she talk to this other person, she drove to this place to talk to yet another person, she jogged 5 miles and ate a burger, she stayed at this motel and then followed this route to yet another interview, etc, etc.

So. Don’t have much more to say about it…

Have the feeling the series would improve by adding a regular side-kick to spark tension and interesting conversations – a secretary, a partner, a snitch. Does this happen, by any chance?

***

Other thoughts: Stacy’s Books, Mervi’s Book Reviews, Mysteries in Paradise, My Two Blessings, The Book Frog, Follow the Thread, Geeky Blogger’s Book Blog (yours?)

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

Has it ever happened to you that a book is so understated you’re certain you’ll forget it easily, only to have it haunt you often? Have you ever went thought a slow re-evaluation of a book over time? I can only remember feeling it once before, with Gillespie and I, which I initially dismissed as too long and slow, but was still ardently discussing months afterwards.

I’m going through that process with Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. It’s a collection of short-stories about unimportant people with unimpressive lives and initially I just couldn’t understand the purpose of it all. It’s all about the details in this book, but it’s about them I’m still thinking about.

You could just as easily argue that little or nothing happens in these stories, or that too much happens, and I’m inclined to think that it take a great writer to pull that off successfully. The seemingly mundane events that Munro focuses on can seem very inconsequential when you first read about them, and yet they are the same events that make your own world turn: small-town pasts often comes back to haunt new cosmopolitans, a one-night stand could become the biggest single memory of a life, it’s hard when the partner of a good friend is a jerk, etc.

Munro is an expert at capturing the small lives that she writes about, but in this case small lives do not equal  sweetness or fluff, on the contrary, most stories leave a bitter taste in your mouth. There’s a vaguely melancholic feel about all of them, a sense of disappointment and disillusionment. It’s only now, almost 3 weeks after I finished the book that I recognise just how complex each story was. It reminds me of Austen’s quote about her bits of ivory.

Just a small shout-out to the last story in the book, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain“, the basis of the movie “Away From Her“, and probably my favorite story of the nine. You can read it in The New Yorker online.

***

Other thoughts: A Book A WeekSteph & Tony Investigate (yours?)

toptentuesday

I’m also counting future versions of our world, not just fantasy-worlds-created-from-scratch.

A lot of choices this week. Emily from Reading as Female was just commenting on twitter yesterday on the lack of sci-fi set in a pleasant future, especially in YA. As she very well put it, “Can someone please write a book where the future isn’t a pile of shit?” :) and “I just find it worrisome that the only future we seem to be able to imagine is a terrible one.”

Nice futures don’t sell? No intense social commentary arising from successfully tackling climate change? An interesting challenge for authors.

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1. Oceania, 1984.
If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.

No privacy, no freedom, no love, no independent thought. One thing bothered me in particular: Newspeak. If you don’t know the world for freedom, can you image the concept?

2. World State, Brave New World.
“No social stability without individual stability.”

The sex, drugs and rock&roll of Huxley’s world might not seem so bad compared to other dystopias, but the use of genetics to create a social hierarchy soon becomes the stuff of nightmares. This was one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read: order and predictability are so easily appealing! The scene with the babies and the sunrise still haunts me.

3. Other World, Coraline.
“My twitchy witchy girl I think you are so nice, I give you bowls of porridge And I give you bowls of ice-cream.”

I’ve no doubt I’d be traumatized if I’d read Coraline when I was a kid. How can something as innocent-sounding as buttons for eyes become so scary?

4. Wonderland. Alice in Wonderland.
“You would have to be half mad to dream me up.”

Any book with a surreal vibe make me anxious. I’d definitely not like to live in a world where all rules are off and anything could happen. Wonderland seems so much fun yet I’ve always seen it as ruthless. Also, everyone has a laugh at your expense!

5. Future America, Fahrenheit 451.
“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door…Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?”

Do you need any other reason to fear this world apart from their hate of books? It’s one of those scenarios that feels too close for comfort.

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6. Republic of Gilead, Handmaid’s Tale.
“Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”  

And talking about a possible future. For me, scarier than a government-controlled world, is a religion-controlled world. Is what’s done today to women in the name of religion and morals that different from what’s done in Gilead?

7. Earth, The Windup Girl.
“We are nature. Our every tinkering is nature, our every biological striving. We are what we are, and the world is ours. We are its gods. Your only difficulty is your unwillingness to unleash your potential fully upon it.” 

This one really brought home what raising oceans really means, in practical terms. It’s also a future full of deadly plagues caused by GMOs and mutant pests and viruses. Basically, the (eco-)system is breaking down. 

The book is set in a Bangkok below sea level, protected by a complex system of levees and pumps. I read it while in Thailand and let me tell you, I could almost feel the threat. I don’t know how the Dutch do it.

8. Libria (Equilibrium,the movie)
“Happiness is the most insidious prison of all.”

Equilibrium is very similar to 1984, but here even war was eradicated. Everything that’s negative no longer exists, as well as its possible sources: love, friendship, humor. With a little help from artificial emotion-suppressors, humans are now perfectly content machines.

9. Earth, Never Let Me Go.
“We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all.” 

It’s not so much the twist that’s scary as the peacefulness and niceness of this future. People and gentle and care about you and your well-being. It’s all for the greater good. *shiver*

10. Earth, The Lottery.

I know everyone will include Panem in their list, but before Panem, even before Battle Royal, there was Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short-story (A chilling tale of conformity gone mad.“). Its realism beats anything similar out there.

Fault in our Stars--CoverI wonder if there is anyone left in the world that can be objective about John Green. And if there is, can they be objective about a John Green book about teens dying of cancer?

I struggled with this post because when I tried to pinpoint what didn’t work for me – scenes that seemed unrealistic or stereotypical – I kept thinking: how do you know what you’d do in their situation?

But that’s part of the point of The Fault in Our Starts: it makes us face the possibility. How would I handle the fine balance between protecting my loved-ones and my need to panic, to complain, to revolt, to assign guilt? Would I also just want to watch ANTM re-runs or would I write a book and plant a tree? Just for making me this uncomfortable, I must thank John Green and I give value to the book.

That being said, the dialogues were a major barrier. And by dialogues I mean the characters. I’ve read several reviews of the disappointed minority and this seems a common denominator. The unrealistic way these teens talk (“existentially fraught free throws“; “all of this (…) will have been for naught”), might be put down to how intellectual they are, how they had to wise-up and come to terms with their mortality when they should feel invincible. But that excuse didn’t stick because this isn’t my first John Green book.

If you’ve read him before, you’ll probably also see Hazel as another Miles or Quentin, Isaac as Hassan and Marcus or Gus as Alaska. In general they all sound very much alike and could easily be transposed into each other’s novels without major issues, including all having a road-trip! Also, if you’ve ever seen a Green interview or vlog you’ll know that he is these characters: he’s smart, hip, funny and cynical. So for all the praise it got for its realism and freshness, The Fault in Our Stars felt very much as just another John Green book.

The strange thing is that I enjoy the John Greeness in John Green’s previous books (and other Gilmore Girls-style of stories), but in this one not so much. I couldn’t escape the image of the puppet master, wanting me to cry hard, and think about the Purpose of Life, Disappointing Heroes and Remaining True to Yourself in the Face of Unimaginable Hardship (while reciting Great Poetry).

Because of all the buzz around the book, I expected Green to leave his formulas behind, take risks and make something truly different – the theme alone deserved it! Maybe the perceived freshness relies on the fact that it’s a YA book about teens dying of cancer and that should be enough. I found myself being much harder on Green exactly because it’s a book about teens dying of cancer, while feeling that everyone was giving him a free pass because of it.

It’s not fair to judge a book based only on my expectations and what I wanted to writer to do, but there you have it.

To finish on a high note: dying in these circumstances is not tidy or romantic and that was well reflected in the book. I’ve been there and I’m thankful for Green not to gloss it over. Because of this, the last chapters softened me up towards book, but not without some kinks. For instance, the scene where Gus tries to buy cigarettes is incredibly moving, but then Hazel, while calling 911, goes “I need an ambulance. The great love of my life has a malfunctioning G-tube”. *Smack upside the head!* Didn’t lines like that distract you?

I came late to the TFIOS’ blogging debate and wish I could persuade my bookclub to read it. Maybe talking would help me to better figure out why I feel about the book the way I do.

 

 

From TTT’s Central: “if you could make authors write about these things you would. Could be a specific type of character, an issue tackled, a time period, a certain plot, etc.

For each of these, recommendations are welcome!

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1. Historical Fiction set outside the US, Central Europe and Russia

… as I have the feeling only about 10% of them do. Or at least the ones that cross my path. What a breath of fresh air Dunnett’s Scales of Gold was, set in 15th century Timbuktu.

2. Novels set in Istanbul/Constantinople/Byzantium

I have a fascination with the city. Here’s my Istanbul bookshelf on Goodreads.

3. Novels set in Brussels

When I first moved here I looked for books in English set in the city and didn’t find many. Everyone always recommends the same ones: Brontë’s Villette, Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn and a couple of Poirots.

4. Portuguese Discovery Period seen from the POV of Africans and Asians

The Discovery Period was an interesting time that encapsulated the best and worst of Portuguese history: an ode to human spirit and bravery, but it also marked the beginning of globalized slavery and colonialism (the best of times and the worst of times?).

I’ve only started reading about Portuguese history as seen from foreign eyes in the last 10 years or so. Until then, most of what I knew had the official sugar-coat of history classes.

5. Fiction about the Silk Road

Another source of fascination, especially after last years’ visit to Uzbekistan. I’ve looked around and there’s not much available. Do you know of any books about it? Non-fiction recommendations are also welcome, but a good historical fiction would be amazing!

Ad infinitum

In general, more books about all the stuff I’m curious about, including:

1003617As I said on my previous post, there aren’t many writers that make me want to read everything they ever wrote or will write. Elizabeth von Arnim is one of them, all because of the lingering effect of Elizabeth and Her German Garden, that was written just for me.

So after Enchanted April, I picked up her 1914 work, The Pastor’s Wife. It’s the story of Ingeborg, the sheltered daughter of an English Bishop, the “plain sister”, considered by all as forgettable and of no consequence. Because of her ”unmarriageable” status, she becomes her father’s secretary and everyone, including Ingaborg, is ready to settled down to a life of not much at all.

Until the day a toothache brings Ingaborg to London, where her dentist solves her problem in no time, leaving her with two weeks to spend in the city by herself. On a reckless moment she signs up for a week-long tour of Lucerne, in Switzerland and that’s where she meets German Lutheran Pastor Herr Dremmel.

There are two distinct parts in the novel: pre- and post-marriage. If it wasn’t for Ingaborg’s father, the first part would be a perfect example of von Arnim at her funniest, lightest and wittiest. But I’m considering putting the Bishop on my list of worst literary villains, right there with Dolores Umbridge and Mrs. Danver. He’s not the murderous type, but his lack of empathy, self-righteousness and relentless intolerance probably cause more damage. The Bishop is a nasty passive-aggressive emotional bully. Every single dialogue with him was hard to go through, but unfortunately von Arnim didn’t give me the show-down with Herr Dremmel I was hoping for. Oh what a magnificent scene that would have been!

My expectations to see married Ingaborg develop into a liberated and confident person were also unfulfilled. Her marriage is a happy, but lonely one. Herr Dremmel has his own pursuits (manure!) and Ingaborg must navigate alone a different country, language and culture. Hilarity often ensues, but despite some really laugh-out-loud scenes and the general wit of the first part, this is not a happy-go-lightly book.

Ingaborg’s loneliness is inescapable: her monomaniac husband, her bigoted mother-in-law, her attempts to connect to her children and an uninterested community. Surprisingly, it’s also difficult for the reader to connect with her. I agree with Claire that Ingaborg is a “likeable heroine, if not necessarily a sympathetic one”. Her lack of consciousness of herself was my main barrier.

She is utterly insensible of what others think of her. She also seems unaware that she can have a say in her destiny, much less rebel again what others want of for her. She’s been meticulously trained by the Bishop to bend to his will, so it comes naturally to bend to Herr Dremmel’s will as well. Even when she takes the decision to quit the marriage bed after child-bearing nearly kills her, almost instantly upon recovery the next overwhelming man enters her life. Here is Herr Drumeel’s thoughts when considering Ingaborg after her decision:

A wife who is not a wife, but who persists in looking as if she were one, can be nothing but a goad and a burden for an honest man. Either she should look like someone used up and finished or she should continue to discharge her honourable functions until such time as she developed the physical unattractiveness that placed her definitely on the list of women one respects.

It was really a very interesting book, a fine balance of light and shadow that in the hands of a less subtle writer could go very melodramatic or boring. It’s not a story of female rebellion against control or a cautionary tale of the consequences of not having free will. For me it was all about the limited options of Ingaborg and the women of her time. In her case: a tyrant father, a distant husband, or an egotistical lover? As the Portuguese proverb goes, evil for evil, let the Devil come and choose.

Just a final note to say I was very surprised at how realistically von Arnim described a difficult birth and breastfeeding experience. She did not bother with gentle hints and prude innuendos, and as someone who went though something similar, she has my respect.

***

Other thought: The Captive Reader, Verity’s Virago Venture, Tales from the Reading Room, TBR 313 (yours?)

toptentuesday

I know this week’s TTT is about Debuts, but I had nothing to put on that list, so I’m cheating and making the post about general releases.

I’m that rare breed of book bloggers who don’t really care about recent releases. I think it’s a mix 1) not being an early adopter of anything, 2) having a soft-spot for delayed gratification and 3) being a reserve-judgement-on-a-book-by-book-basis reader instead of a hard-core-author-fangirl.

I’ve only stayed in line to buy the new Harry Potters and there aren’t a lot of living writers that would get me to make an pre-order or buy their fresh-of-the press hardbacks. I can immediately think of George RR Martin, Hilary Mantel, Scott Lynch, Guy Gavriel Kay (I’m ignoring Isobel), and I want Edmund de Waal’s book about the color white yesterday.

Instead, I prefer to get a feeling for the General Opinion before trying new books. Some friends and fellow bloggers’ opinions are especially valuable, as well as GoodReads’ rating, although that’s more often a hit or miss.

So it was a challenge to put together this list. Even after a lot of research I’ve only found six books that would tempt me to read them within, say, a couple of months of their releases.

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Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen (January)
My ultimate comfort read. My experience with Addison Allen has been flawless. Even the books that weren’t in the same league as Garden Spell still left me with a smile on my face and a perfect blood-pressure score.

The Caller (Shadowfell 3) by Juliet Marillier (March)
Marillier is my Addison Allen of fantasy. I’d prefer it if it was one the Wildwood series, but won’t complain too much…

Shadow Scale (Seraphina #2) by  Rachel Hartman (April)
Seraphina was one of the best of 2012 and I’ve recommended it left and right. I’m sure the book blogosphere will explode in April.

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue (April)
And talking about books I recommend, Room would probably top the list. This is the 2014 release I’m more afraid of… please let it be a good one!

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (May)
We Were Liars already has a buzz, which is not surprising considering the way the internet loves The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. I haven’t been tempted to pick up any of Lockhart’s other books until I read the synopsis of this one.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (September)
I’ve skipped Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (why? no idea. They’re his non-sci-fi novels and gut feeling/experience/reviews told me I wouldn’t find them spectacular), but have a good feeling about this one:  “the story of Holly Sykes, who runs away from home in 1984 and 60 years later can be found in the far west of Ireland, raising a granddaughter as the world’s climate collapses.” (The Bookseller)

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