The Polysylabic Spee is a collection of essays Hornby published in the literary magazine Believer. A reader’s chronicles of books bought and read. At first I though this would be just an ok read because Horny has a very particular sense of humor and occasionally his chatty style becomes rambling. But the more I read the more I enjoyed it. Several weeks after finishing it I still find myself bringing it up in conversations.
I think I’ve only read (or even heard of, or have any desire of reading) very few of the book Hornby talks about, but it didn’t really matter. I was nodding when he gets picky about tiny inconsistencies in Notes on a Scandal even though I never read it (“Would a contemporary teenager really complain about being treated as ‘the Kunta Kinte round here’ when asked to do homework?“), enjoyed his gushing love of Dickens even tough I don’t share it, and was intrigued by his belief that for “domestic purposes” the Trivial Pursuit system of organizing books works better than Dewey. The most hilarious moment was his attempt at writing with a Freakanomics-inspired distorted logic – he starts “On the face of it, World War II and Pamela Andreson’s breasts would seem to have little in common.”
There was one side of Hornby’s personality that was a joy to discover: her has no problem in admitting certain books are meant to go straight to a “permanent home on the shelves, rather than onto any sort of temporary pending pile”. He actually buys these books! Isn’t it refreshing and reassuring? Nick Hornby is an enabler.
“… all the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. (…) I don’t have the wall space or the money for all the art I would want, and my house is a shabby mess, ruined by children… But with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.”
He also goes “That’s me! And you, probably! That’s us!” when reading this quote byGabriel Zaid: “…the truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more.”
I think we’re kindred spirits.
The universe doesn’t deviate too much from your typical steampunk novel, but (or because of it?) it’s still good. There are airships, pirates, alchemy, a golem, daemons, high-society balls, political intrigue and other fun elements that could make it the perfect escapade read. I appreciated that Wooding tried to give a “scientific” explanation to the elements that would normally be considered magical. Maybe that’s why there’s a divide on Goodreads on whether this is fantasy or sci-fi. I’m on the sci-fi side.
The Firefly link. At points I could pin-point exactly the episode that inspired a particular scene. For instance, the opening, when Mal and Wash Frey and Crake are being held hostages, clearly came from War Stories. This worked for me and I was thankful for the nostalgic moments.
Also: that cover!
What disappointed me
Too much telling going on and not enough showing (you need to trust us more Mr. Wooding!). For instance, Frey, the ship’s captain, goes through a dramatic change when it came to his loyalty towards his crew. Through heavy-handed inner monologues, we get all his feelings spelled out: what changed, why it changed, how does if feel to have changed, his regrets, his hopes, etc, etc, etc.
And then there are the female characters. *sigh* Where to start? First, I wish that in the crew of seven there was more than one woman (navigator Jey). As Dan put it so well (such a great review!):
… having one female character out of seven is the worst possible option. Zero out of seven, and you have a setting in which women don’t fly airships, which is absolutely fine. Put in exactly one, and you suddenly have a society where women are apparently perfectly accepted on the setting equivalent of the Spanish Main, but never the less you’ve only got one in your crew. Zero is a better number than one in this situation is all I’m saying.
When I first read the book I underlined the scene where Jey is first introduced to the crew, explaining why Frey decided to hire her. Looking at it now, I’m disturbingly reminded of the recent debacle with scientist Tim Hunt. Take a look (Frey’s inner monologue):
Her features were petite and appealing but she was rather plain, boyish and very pale. That was also good. An overly attractive woman was fatal on a craft full of men. They were distracting and tended to substitute charm and flirtatiousness for doing any actual work. Besides, Frey would feel obligated to sleep with her, and that never worked out well.
I also wish all other women weren’t Frey’s whinny or crazy exes. His relationship with Trinica was especially cringe-worthy. She’s the captain of a much bigger ship than Frey’s, a renowned pirate, feared and ruthless, “a dread queen of the skies“, so it means she’s just about ready to be brought down by her womanly feelings.
Once upon a time, before her pirateering begun, Trinica was just the daughter of a rich aristocrat and was engaged to Frey. But then she got too clingy and Frey abandoned her at the altar. Pregnant. In a conservative world that did not look kindly on single pregnant young women. Trinica tries to commit suicide and survives, but her unborn child doesn’t.
Many years later she and Frey meet again and that scene made my eyes roll all the way to the back on my head. Frey accuses her of murdering their child (an accusation that neither the text nor Trinica contest) and calls her a coward for attempting suicide. Trinica’s self-assured mask quickly crumbles and Fry admits to himself he’s also partially to blame for the death, because after all, he allowed her to stifle him and make him a coward, leaving him no other option but to run away.
Look, I know it’s often tricky to distinguish between the characters and the author’s own assumptions, so I might be wrong here, but my experience with Retribution Falls is that Frey’s douchebagness was something we should relate to, especially because we’re told over and over that He Changes. This apparently means he no longer hates Trinica, but now forgives her for making him abandon her, and while we’re told his attitudes towards his crew go from zero-cares to full-fledged charismatic leader, from the first to the last scene he continues to risk their lives unnecessarily.
When I first started this post I was on the fence about whether to continue the series, but the more I wrote the more I realized I had serious problems with the book. So I’m afraid the Ketty Jay series are not for me.
Other thoughts: Ferret Brain, The Book Smugglers, Asking the wrong questions, Eve’s Alexandria, Sandstorm Reviews, The Lightning Tree, Fantasy Book Critic, SFF Book Reviews, The Wertzone, Graeme’s Fantasy Reviews, Neth Space, The Mad Hatter’s (yours?)
Thing have been quite over here, but normal service will resume shortly. Between holidays in Morocco and a work assignment in Senegal, both with somewhat unreliable internet connections, blogging was neglected, but much reading was done!
I’ve finished Retribution Falls by Chris Woodding (loved the Firefly vibe, but the tell-not-show style, among other things, was a let down), and The Brontës Went to Woolworths by Rachel Fergoson, re-read Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn after a weekend in Paris where I saw the Cluny tapestries live for the first time (wow!) and started Sayers’ Busman’s Holidays. Also listened to Mandel’s Station Eleven (well deserved hype) and my first Flannery O’Connor, Everything That Rises Must Converge (sooo good, but not the lightest of reads).
Looking forward to digging into my Feedly and know what y’all were up to!
Courtyard of our riad in Marrakesh. I wish the photo could carry the smell of orange blossoms…
Reading Dorothy L. Sayers in Dakar
This was a such a fun and vibrant reading, exactly my cup of tea.
The author Marguerite Abouet spent her childhood in Ivory Coast in the 70s before moving to Paris, and Aya is based on her memories of those happy days. It was a time when Ivory Coast was going through a peaceful economic boom and this book is meant to portray an Africa that’s not about war, disease or poverty. I does exactly that, but I just couldn’t completely escape the knowledge that it won’t last.
But anywhoo. I loved Aya. It’s one of the best comics of the year so far and I can wait to read the second one. There’s nothing mind-blowing about the story, it’s just a snapshot of the lives of a group of middle-class teenagers: they study, date, are acutely aware of social norms, follow the fads and rebel against strict parents. And yet, Yopougon in the 70s is a fascinating place to read about, full of colour, hope and energy. It’s at the same time familiar (heavily influence by their former French colonizers) and completely foreign.
Aya, the title character, is a steady-fast teen that seems to be the moral compass of her friends and neighborhood – not in a holier-than-thou way, she’s just reliable and principled. Her father’s reaction when Aya told him about wanting to become a doctor is a great example of how this apparently mild book is in fact about more serious social topics.
Clement Oubrerie’s illustrations perfectly complement Abouet’s writing, with their vibrancy, warm and creative angles.
At the end of each book there’s a section about Ivory Cost, where different characters give us recipes, teach us how to tie a skirt the Ivorian way, etc. It’s a cute detail that helps us connect even more with this small community.
I think this is the one comic book I’ve ever read not only written by an African author, but actually set in Africa – can you recommend any others?
The story has been adapted for the big screen, here’s the trailer in French. It gives you a good feeling for the book.
The Dead Will Tell (Kate Burkholder, #6) by Linda Castillo, narrated by Kathleen McInerney
An Amish family is murdered after a botched robbery, but no one is brought to justice. Thirty-five years later, a series of mysterious murders all have in common a connection to that almost forgotten horror. Chief of Police Kate Burkholder is chosen to investigated and the case will strike a chord with her: many years ago she was also part of the Amish community before deciding to leave.
The story was interesting, mostly because of what I learned about the Amish. Castillo really captures the tension between them and the “English” community in what (I thought) was a realistic way. The book also had good pacing and characterization, especially for a relatively short mystery, but the actual plot was less catching (whodunnit easy to figure out). Don’t have much to say about it – it’s one of those books that get a solid three-star because it was good but don’t produce any strong feelings. I’m afraid I’ll forget all about it in a year or two…
When books are told in the first person a good narrator is essential, and in this case Kathleen McInerney discreetly but confidently became Chief Burkholder. She was a good choice for this book – her voice is expressive but calm, which suited the Amish theme, but could also handle the action scenes. Also, she was comfortable with German words and sentences. I’ve added a couple of books to my Audible wish-list because of her, so that’s a good sign!
Yes, that rarest of things: a stand-alone mystery book. But one that was not my cuppa. The story revolves around Detective Kat Donovan, who’s persuaded by a friend to enter an online dating site. On her first time browsing profiles she comes across one with the photo of her first love, but under a different name.
This triggers a plot that involves kidnapping, live burials, mafia, prostitution, closeted parents, mental illness and I don’t know else all wrapped in coincidences that should be confined to Dickens. And don’t get me started on the romance *eyes rolling to the back of my head* Sorry to be this blunt but it’s a short post and it’s that kind of day and that kind of book.
I know Miss Susie, my fellow mystery category armchair judge, disagrees with me, but I felt that LaVoy’s narration was often over the top – she positively purred at some points (see her interpretation of a drunk guy trying to pick up women at a bar). On the positive side, LaVoy’s narration style really matched the book, so she was a good casting choice. I guess?
A bit like Malice, Providence Rag puts a twist on the typical sequence of a mystery plot, which made him stand our from the other books.
During the start of his career as an investigative reporter, Liam Mulligan helps police arrest one of the youngest serial killers in recorded history. The community wants him in jail for life, but a loop-hole in Rhode Island’s law dictates he must be free at 21. Through a series of fabricated charges the killer has been kept in jail, but now one of Liam’s colleagues decides to report on these illegalities, igniting the anger of the justice system and general citizens against the newspaper. While Liam’s colleague pursues a story that will likely release the killer, Liam goes after a legal way to keep him behind bars.
It’s an interesting premise and ethical dilemma that actually sparked a good debate at my dinner table one night. I had fun with the different characters and the way the story was told, with different POVs and with interludes, although I wouldn’t mind a more fleshier characterization of the main people.
Providence Rags probably has the biggest number of speaking parts of all the books in this category and Woodman really does an amazing job in distinguishing each one of them. Often it’s a very subtle different, but just enough for the listener to easily follow a dialogue without getting confused about who’s talking. He managers several different accents, intonations and pitches, which is a hard thing to pull off and a sure indication of the narration’s quality. My first audiobook by him, but definitely not the last.
The only book in the list that I listened to before Armchair Audies started, and by far the story that gave me more pleasure to follow. I like to think I’d feel the same if it wasn’t so famous, but who knows? The fact is: JK Rowling is an amazing story-teller and her characterization is on a different level from any other on the mystery list.
This second novel sealed the deal and I’m now completely engaged in the lives of Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacot (and shipping them hard!). It’s also one of those books where you can tell the author is having fun in writing about the publishing business, exposing its dirty little secrets.
As an narrator, Glanister started off with an advantage because I can’t resist a British accent ;) He doesn’t get as many opportunities to shine as Woodman (see above), but for such a deep voice, it’s pretty impressive the range Glasnister managers to pull off. He doesn’t make women sound too whinny or childish and is the perfect voice for Cormoran (rough with teddy-bearish glimpses). There were some characters that could easily come out as stereotypes if read by a less professional narrator, but Glanister keeps them well under control.
My perdition for the 2015 Armchair Audies mystery category
I’d say it’s a call between Jeff Woodman and Robert Glanister, but since I have to chose one, I’ll go with Woodman. Mostly for his flexibility and creativity in creating so many distinct characters in Providence Rag.
The best of luck to all nominees!
Whenever I think about escapist fiction, fantasy is always the first genre to come to mind, but lately I’ve come to realize that my ultimate comfort reads might be Persephone-style books: mid-20th century stories about women, where at first glance nothing much seems to happen.
Mildred Lathbury is a 30-something single woman living in London in the 1950s. Between church affairs and a part-time job at a genteel women’s support association she leads a quiet and contented life. The novel starts when the flat below Mildred’s is rented by an exotic couple, so Excellent Women is sort of a gentle version of the stranger-walks-into-town plot.
Mildred is the personification of the “excellent woman”: capable, nice, practical, dependable, part of the background until someone needs a favor (cooking a piece of meat, instructing movers, organizing a jumble sale, writing notes to estranged husbands). Pym is fantastic at kindly exposing the quirks of these excellent women as well as those who take advantage of them.
I really loved Mildred, mostly because, against all odds, she’s not naive and has an acute understanding of her social standing. Together with her wit, this makes for a sarcastic and self-deprecatory internal commentary that’s great to read. She’s also (internally, at least) proud of her slightly drab and genteel independence. Ultimately, Mildred is someone I’d love to be friends with and someone I’d likely be if I’d been born 60 years earlier.
‘Now, Julian, we don’t want a sermon,’ said Winifred. ‘You know Mildred would never do anything wrong or foolish.’
I reflected a little sadly that this was only too true and hoped I did not appear too much that kind of person to others. Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.
Also, it is a truth universally known that an excellent women must be in want of a husband. Everyone assumes Mildred’s in love with every unmarried men in her vicinity, especially the vicar, and some of the funnier scenes happen when he gets engaged and Mildred is comforted as if she missed her final chance at married and a happy life.
Mild spoilers ahead
Reflecting back, the ending prevents Excellent Women from being a Happy Novel. It’s charming, no doubt, but in some ways sad. There is humor in Mildred, and fierce independence, but also fatalism. For a moment I though she’d have a happy ending with Everard because I let myself imagine that he really liked her (was the meeting at the church really just a coincidence?). I was ready to describe Excellent Women as a gentle love story.
But then that final dinner happens, and Mildred doesn’t leave in a burst of righteous indignation. And I realize that Pym isn’t that sort of author. There will be no miraculous make-over, no over-heels-in-love knight in shinny armor, the austerity of daily life continues and her “excellent-womaness” persists. If they eventually get married (as a follow book of Pym suggests) Mildred will likely just become a married excellent woman.
It’s one of the best books of the year so far, so if you like quiet stories with thoughtful, rich characterization, you won’t go wrong with this one.
Other thoughts: Vulpes Libris, RA for All, Meet Me in the Library, Hogglestock, A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook, Lakeside Musing, Lizzy’s Literary Life, The Indextrious Reader, Booklust, Shelf Love, Desperate Reader, Book Snob, Girl With Her head in a Book (yours?)
… the worst ever. I only got 2 right (TWO!). And I call myself a booklover…
- Who was the feminist author of “The Women’s Room”, “The War Against Women”, “Women’s History of the World” and “From Eve to Dawn”? [Answer: Marilyn French]
- How many days did it take Phileas Fogg to get around the world? 
- What was the title of A. A. Milne’s second collection of stories about Winnie The Pooh? [The House at Pooh’s Corner]
- In which novel by Tolstoy does Konstantine Levin appear? [Anna Karenina]
- What is the name of the omniponent head of state in 1984 by George Orwell? [Big Brother]
- In which Charles Dickens novel does the character Alfred Jingle appear? [The Pickwick Papers]
- What did George Eliot described as “Snowy, Flowy, Blowy, Showery, Flowery, Bowery, Hoppy, Croppy, Droppy, Breezy, Sneezy, Freezy“? [The months]
- To which literary figure was Anne Hathaway married to? [William Shakespeare]
- From which former province of Spain did Cervantes’ Dom Quixote come from? [La Mancha]
- Which well-known children’s story was written by Swiss author Johann Weiss? [Swiss Family Robinson]
How many would you’ve gotten right?