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Life has been happening like crazy on this side of the line. Add holidays and heat and pure, unadulterated laziness and you get a blogging slump. It would also be a reading slump if it wasn’t for YA audiobooks and daily newspapers (a holiday tradition and zen moment).
I need a bit of incentive because my spirit breaks just by looking at the two months backlog. Anyone interested in doing a buddy-read or something? Any easy read-alongs going around? Interesting projects?
Meanwhile, and while inspiration doesn’t strike, I’m doing a meme. They’re not usually my thing, but these are desperate times and maybe thinking about the books I’ve planned for the upcoming months will help.
Top Ten Books on my Fall TBR List
Gillespie and I by Jane Harris
Harris’ The Observations didn’t do much for me, but everyone seems to be raving about Gillespie and I so I’ve decided to give it a try.
Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
My most anticipated re-read is Tigana, my favorite book by Guy Gavriel Kay. I’ve decided to tackle it in audio format this time around.
Chroniques de Jérusalem by Guy Delisle
All books by Guy Delisle are an instant best-seller here in Brussels, European capital of the graphic novel. I’ve never read anything by him but heard lots about this one, a birthday present from my co-workers.
The King of Attolia (The Queen’s Thief, #3) by Megan Whalen Turner
I’ve recently re-read the first two in the series just so that when I’d pick this one up for the first time everything was fresh. I hear it’s the best one of the series so far?
The Unicorn Hunt (The House of Niccolo, #5) by Dorothy Dunnett
I’m trying to go through The House of Niccolo series reeeeeeally slowly because you only read Dunnet for the first time once. It was a Herculean effort not to lunge for this one right after Scales of Gold and its extraordinary ending. I’ve waited long enough.
Moab is My Washpot by Stephen Fry
Whenever I don’t have a formed opinion on a certain topic, I Google Fry’s thoughts on it and always find myself nodding in agreement. Moab is My Washpot is an autobiography covering his first 20 years of life. The Fry Chronicles is already in the TBR waiting its turn.
The Mauritius Command(Aubrey/Maturin Book 4) by Patrick O’Brian
Another series I want to make last, although its 21 volumes-long… The previous book, HMS Surprise, is set to become one of the best of 2012.
Mayombe by Pepetela
For Kinna’s Africa Reading Challenge, this will be my first by one of Angola’s most famous writers. Everyone I know who reads in Portuguese seems to have read at least one of his books.
She’s Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff by Annalee Newitz & Charlie Anders (Eds.)
To celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, on 16 October.
Un día de cólera by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
At the beginning of the year one of my goals was to read more books in their original languages. I’ve done well in Portuguese and French but haven’t picked up anything in Spanish yet. This hour by hour description of 1808′s Dos de Mayo Uprising in Madrid will put me back on track.
It’s because of books like this that I’m Reader with capital R, and why that’s such a big part of what defines me. Dorothy Dunnett is a genius, so once again here I am (as always after reading one of her books), struggling to write a post in which I’ll never be able to do justice to her awe-inspiring work.
Before going into the plot let me just say that Scales of Gold has one of the best, most unexpected and emotional endings I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I felt those last pages physically - punch-in-stomach, hairs standing up, pupils dilated.
If Dunnett could be see me at that moment I’m sure she’d have a little victorious smirk on her face, because for over 500 pages she expertly and purposely took me along, getting me to feel exactly what she wanted me to feel, think what she wanted me to think, just so the end could turn my world upside-down. Just as she planned from page one (I’m not the only one feeling this, but unlike Stephanie I’m a masochism and loved the gut-wrenching moment). Like I said: genius.
But about the plot. There’s great freshness in reading historical fiction that’s not yet again set in Tudor England or Second World War wherever. Scales of Gold picks up right after our hero Niccolò manages to escape Cyprus. It’s 1464 and he’s about to enter yet another crazy commercial endeavor, this time to the heart of Africa, towards Timbuktu. Were you ever curious about what The Gambia, Guinea and Mali looked, smelt and sounded like in the 15th century? This book is your chance.
Accompanying Niccolò is an entourage of extraordinary characters that include a Flemish missionary who wants to evangelize Ethiopia, a confident and intelligent young woman who blames Niccolò for the death of her sister, her formidable Scottish companion and an ex-slave with a mysterious past.
This unlikely group of companions is led by a crew of experienced Portuguese sailors down the Coast of Africa and into the barely mapped “Dark Continent”. The plot is intricate, the setting is lush, and the succession of adventures kept me on the edge of my seat for hours.
The Discovery Period was an interesting time that encapsulated the best and worst about us: 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?). Dunnett explores this very well by getting a group of well-developed characters with different visions of the world in (literally) the same boat, experiencing the same hardships and pleasures.
Despite its horrible consequences, the romantic Portuguese in me, fed from childhood on poetry about my country’s immortal deeds, cannot but admire the spirit of the Discoveries. The image of the lonely caravels braving the Unknown always got me a bit teary. There’s a quote in Scales of Gold that really encapsulates this. Niccolò is at Sagres Point, Europe’s Western-most point:
Standing at Sagres, or on the single Cape that lay westward, one looked down sheer sandstone cliffs twenty times the height of man with the white of dashed foam at their feet; and abroad at the flat, shoreless oceans, upon which laboured the flecks that were vessels and the infinitesimal specks that were souls, witness to man’s perseverance, his greed and his courage.
What else can I say? It’s a marvelous book, full of wonder and characters you grow to know as if you were also in their boat, surrounded by the vast Ocean, or part of their caravan, slowly making its way into deep Africa, in search of legendary riches.
Other thoughts: I’ve been reading lately (yours?)
I’m tempted to follow an idea Simon had during a twitter conversation and just post a photo of this book with a single line: “Read it!” But I won’t because a) that would be cheating (right?) and b) although Dorothy Dunnett is one of my favorite authors, and most people have never heard of her, I’m always a bit afraid to recommend her to everyone.
The House of Niccolò series take place in the mid-15th century, at the height of the Renaissance, in all its glorious political intrigues and (mis)alliances. Once again Dunnett covers locations and events not often seen in historical fiction, brilliantly mixing fictional and real characters: the first book, Niccolò Rising, was mainly set in Flanders; the wonder that’s The Spring of the Ram takes us to Trebizond, last strong-hold of the Byzantine Empire, and Race of Scorpions is about the battle for Cyprus.
Two siblings – James and Charlotte – fight for control of the island and its wealth, but there’s more at stake than Cyprus’ sugar plantations. The fate of this strategic trade post may tip the balance of power between the different European Kings and Queen, between Catholics and Muslims, the Pope and the Sultan, between Genoese, Florentine, Venetians and other mercantile powers.
Both James and Charlotte know about Niccolò de Fleury’s abilities and resourcefulness and both want him on their side. They know he grew up as a mischievous apprentice in a Bruges dye-works, but that his youthful and unassuming exterior hide a brilliant mind that feeds on riddles, mathematics, mechanics, pranks and patterns of all types. A mind that over the last two books created one of the richest banks and textile companies in Europe, and played an important role in the fate of Trebizond.
So the scene is set for a fantastic romp through the Mediterranean.
Before starting Race of Scorpions I read two books that warned about the myth of the “lonely genius” that single-handedly changes the world. While in theory and in real-life I tend to agree, these characters make up one hell of a story! Niccolò is that type of person.
You’re constantly being surprised by his next move. He consistently manages to get into hard spots, but the web of connections and loyalties he’s carefully accumulated usually provide a way out – often an unexpected way, and almost always a way that makes you realize he has outwitted you, and everyone else, yet again.
There are eight books in the series and I’m reading them at the rate of one per year, to make them last. Race of Scorpions was part of my Top 10 of 2011.
As always when I post about Dorothy Dunnett I must make a disclaimer: they’re not easy books. The plot seems larger than life and the political intrigues are complex and demanding. But she rewards you ten-times over for your effort.
Little aside for those who’ve read the book (no spoilers): at one point I felt a decrease in my reading speed (and interest), when Niccolò keeps travelling from one place to the other. Two minutes after I formulated that thought Dunnett hits me with The Moth Scene. Wow. Probably the best literary scene of 2011. Also, I’m looking forward to having Gelis back in Scales of Gold – hope she’s at Philippa’s level!
Second and last part, again in no order of preference.
7. Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge (England, UK)
It’s not a complete unknown (its sequel is on the shortlist of the Guardian children’s fiction prize), but I only know three other people who’ve heard of it.
As I’ve mentioned in my review, someone in Goodreads said that Fly By Night was “written as a gushy Valentine to the English language” and I’m hard pressed to come up with a better description.
Fly by Night is the story of 12-year-old Mosca Mye. She loves words and it’s her favorite treat to find new ones to play with. Before her father died he taught her how to read, a dangerous skill in a world where education is feared and books are distrusted. When a travelling storyteller passes through town, she sees her opportunity to explore the world.
It’s a children’s story, but adults will appreciate it as well (even more?). It has many layers, it’s too subtly political, full of dark humor and clever sarcasm. I’m glad there’s a sequel because, as Mosca said, “True stories seldom have endings. I don’t want a happy ending, I want more story.”
8. The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley (USA)
The Mists of Avalon (39,925 ratings on Goodreads) is very popular, but Firerbrand (only 2,911) doesn’t have the recognition it deserves. While I agree that The Mists is the better of the two, Firebrand is a (very) close second.
I’m a sucker for Greek mythology, so that might be the source of my amazement. Firebrand is the re-telling of the Trojan War and Homer’s Illiad (that “boys story”), seen through the eyes of Kassandra, the priestess cursed with seeing the future, but never being believed. She’s also the twin sister of Paris, the Prince who brought Helen to Troy.
Great historical detail, a nice dose of magic, a strong female heroine and a wonderful love story. What more can you ask?
9. The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett (Scotland, UK)
Is it possible to be in awe of a book, to obsess about it, put it in your top-3 best of all time, and at the same time be afraid to recommend it? Yes. This might also be why The Lymond Chronicles are probably the most under-rated books in this whole list.
So here’s a warning: The Lymond Chronicles might be some of the most challenging books you’ll ever read, but also become the best and most rewarding.
They are a series of six novels set in mid-sixteenth century and telling the story of a young Scottish nobleman, Francis Crawford of Lymond, a Renaissance man through and through: polyglot, philosopher, military strategist and musician. We follow him from Scotland to the deserts of North Africa, from Istanbul to Moscow.
The detail is exquisite and the plot extremely intricate, readers are never spoon-fed, but you’re constantly in awe of Dunnett’s genius. You won’t find a staggering amount of reviews online, but notice the high average rating and praise.
10. The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (Un viejo que leía novelas de amor) by Luis Sepúlveda (Chile)
Like Captains of the Sands, this book is very popular in the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking world, but never made the jump to the wider world. I’ve heard it talked off as the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of Amazonian deforestation.
António Proaño is a simple man. He lives in El Idilio, an isolated village in the Ecuadorian part of the Amazon forest. The dentist comes only twice a year and brings with him the romantic novels that António started to love after his wife died.
He wants a quiet life – his hammock, his monkey meat, his rum, his novels – but all is disrupted when gringos start hunting ocelot cubs and push the animal into a killing spree. António respects the ocelot, but is asked by the El Idilio’s nasty mayor to kill it.
The Old Man Who Read Love Stories is a beautiful tale about the jungle, man’s impact and Nature’s response when threatened.
11. The Royal Game (Schachnovelle) by Stefan Zweig (Austria)
While Dr. B is in a Nazi prison, he keeps a fragile grip on sanity because of a book he stole from a guard. The book is about chess, a compilation of the games of past masters, so Dr. B starts playing chess in his mind, endlessly, voraciously. After learning every single move of any variation in the book, and having nothing more to explore, Dr. B begins to play the game against himself, developing the ability to separate his mind into two: I White and I Black.
After the war, a traumatized Dr. B has given up chess, until on a cruise he’s challenged by an arrogant world champion…
Don’t really remember how I came to read this, suspect it was a book-ring organized by Bookcrossing, but I’m glad I did. Zweig was a friend of Freud and you can see his influence in the way Zweig writes about blind passion, obsessive, over the top, all-consuming, Id-type of passion.
12. Os Olhos de Ana Marta by Alice Vieira (not translated yet, but would probably be something like The Eyes of Ana Marta) (Portugal)
Nymeth over at “things mean a lot” actually offered to translate this book and buy copies to give away through her blog. I’d do the same in a heart-beat, so Editorial Caminho, if you’re listening: we can help promote it, just make it happen!
A girl called Marta thought she didn’t belong to her family. Her mom is “fragile” and her father distant because of The Great Calamity, a mysterious event that happened long ago and no one in the house speaks about. Marta is raised by the house-keeper-come-nanny, in a house with rooms that are always closed and questions that can never be asked.
I had the same thought after finishing it as I did after To Kill a Mockingbird: I’ve just witnessed perfect storytelling. I’m only sorry most of you won’t be able to enjoy it too
So this is it! Hope I’ve increased my karma by spreading The Joy and that I’ve persuaded you to at least try some of them. I’d really like to hear about your own hidden-gems!
Is it possible to wholeheartedly love a book that often boggles your mind? I’ve actually come to realize that it’s the books that make me feel out of my depth that often become my favorites.
I remember that after reading One Hundred Years of Solitude I went on a scholarly discovery of Colombian history and that The Mist of Avalon brought me as close to religion as my atheist self ever was. Most importantly, these books led me to other books, which led me to other intensive searches.
The meatier the book, the more a Companion enhances the reading experience and as a history-buff I’ve found them especially useful with historical fiction. I’ve realized that if my 21st century brain understands all dialogues and references then I’m either being spoon-fed or the book is far from realistic.
I’m also a Collector, so I get a big kick out of owning stuff connected to literary favorites. (I also do the same for certain movies and series, but that’s a whole different post…)
Do you also use book Companions?
Here are some of the best:
The Dorothy Dunnett Companion I and II by Elspeth Morrison
These books are companions to Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles (16th century) and The House of Niccolò (15th century) series, some of the most well researched novels I’ve ever read. Her fictional characters interact with actual historical figures and they both use literary quotes in different languages (Lymond in particular is a poetry-lover, a polyglot and a show-off). Dunnett also has no qualms about realistically portraying the complex geopolitics of the time.
The Companions (which Dunnett helped compile) provide background information on historical figures and events, explain the many obscure literary references, and offer translations, maps and genealogical trees. They’re the perfect guide to help readers navigate through the tortuous world of Renaissance life and politics.
Typical entries :
Entre cuir et chair : LIONS, 6: ‘Secretly’, or, literally, ‘between skin and flesh’. Said here, rather eerily, of knowledge privily stored.
Kiss any arm you cannot break: UNICORN, 39 : A Saying which continues: ‘And pray God to break it’.
Sea of Words: A Lexicon and Companion to the Complete Seafaring Tales of Patrick O’Brian by Dean King, John B. Hattendorf and J. Worth Estes
Patrick O’Brian’s Navy: The Illustrated Companion to Jack Aubrey’s World by Richard O’Neill
Here’s a normal dialogue in one of Patrick O’Brian’s novels:
‘What luck?’ asked Jack.
‘Well, sir,’ said Killick, ‘Joe Plaice says he would venture upon a lobscouse, and Jemmy Ducks believes he could manage a goose-pie.’
‘What about pudding? Did you ask Mrs Lamb about pudding? About her frumenty?’
‘Which she is belching so and throwing up you can hardly hear yourself speak,’ said Killick, laughing merrily. ‘And has been ever since we left Gib. Shall I ask the gunner’s wife?’
‘No, no,’ said Jack. No one the shape of the gunner’s wife could make frumenty, or spotted dog, or syllabub, and he did not wish to have anything to do with her.
You see the challenge? And it’s not even related to naval history, so imagine when he goes on about the different types of sails…
The wonderful things about both these two books in particular is that they’re much more than a glossary of obscure 18th century terms. Among other juicy information, they explain the flora and fauna of Maturin’s studies, map the places mentioned (some of which changed names meanwhile), show pictures of medical instruments and diagrams of the ship’s organization.
For good measure I also have Musical Evenings With the Captain: Music from the Aubrey/Maturin Novels of Patrick O’Brian. It’s a great experience to actually be able to listen to specific songs when O’Brian mentions then in the books.
Notes on League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – free site
I know there’s actually a Companion book, but the online version has been good to me so far.
These graphic novels are every fan of Victorian literature’s wet dream. They are brimming with references, some of them easy to spot, but others from books that are all but forgotten. I also found the site really useful in pointing out small details that I might have otherwise ignored:
Page 1. Panel 1. A further indication of how far Mina Murray has fallen from the Victorian ideal of “proper” womanhood is seen here: she’s smoking.
The site is a communal pool of knowledge and is constantly being updated. Contributors often put forward theories that are more or less farfetched, but always interesting:
Page 16. Panel 4. This is the second time in this issue that Nemo has raised the idea of an aerial bombardment of Britain. There are many precedents in the popular fiction of the day for such a thing; perhaps Moore is indicating that Nemo has encountered a “lethal airship”?
Certain details in the novels are so vague that they give wing to multiple interpretations:
Page 18. Panel 2. I’m quite certain that the waif in the nightgown is meant to be someone, though I don’t know who. Paul Crowley suggests that she’s simply meant to refer to the plight of poor children in Victorian England, poverty having driven her to prostitution. Dave McKenna suggests that the waif might be Alice Liddell and Lewis Carroll, while Emilio Martin sees Dr. Gull, the murderer in Moore’s From Hell.
Jane Austen in Style by Susan Watkins
These are not officially “Companions”, but in their different way each has helped me better understand Austen’s world and writing.
Watkins’ book is more specific than the other two, as she focused on lifestyle. There are details about the furnishings, fashions, china and glass of the period that can still be admired today. Lane’s are wider scoped and cover the author’s life, family and her time.
It’s not just about adjusting the language to sound like her or “borrow” her plots or characters. O’Brian understood that sometimes, all you need to do is capture the feeling of her novels. For good measure he throws in a couple sentences that any Janeite would recognize:
No, Captain Aubrey, do not get up: you shall tell me about your Spanish journey. There is nothing that interests me more than travel, I declare; and if I had had my health I should have been a great traveler (…)
The Aubrey/Maturin books are famous for their naval backdrop, but Post Captain starts out as a novel of manners. During the Peace of Amiens, Captain Jack Aubrey, now a rich gentleman, decides that country life is the thing for him, so he rents an estate close to a house full of marriageable ladies (sounds familiar?). Stephen goes with him and for the next 100 pages we see these two men maneuvering this social environment and often finding it more taxing than naval battles.
I enjoyed meeting the two main female characters, determined Sophia and fabulous anti-heroine Diana (to whom both Aubrey and Maturin are attracted to). I’m sure it’ll be a pleasure to get to know them more in the next books.
But soon this not so idyllic setting is broken by the news that Jack has lost all his money and needs to return to the Navy to make more and escape being arrested for debt.
In Master and Commander we see these two men getting closer, but Post Captain is dominated by their conflict, that grows both because of Diana and Stephen’s spying activities. Both men don’t play much music in this book, instead, the story is filled with tension. What’s amazing is that in the midst of all these undercurrents, O’Brian still makes the reading so much fun. There is a kind of joy to everything, from hunger, to possible arrest, to suicide missions. It’s all done with such gusto!
I mention in my post about M&C that I really appreciated O’Brian’s approach to narrative, where sometimes he’s inside a character’s head and suddenly zooms out to a panoramic of the situation, to then just as quickly starts describing a canvas being pulled up. In Post Captain my attention was focused on time sequence, which felt almost dreamy. In one sentence Jack is telling Stephen how concerned he is about a meeting at the admiralty, and in the next sentence we already catch him in the middle of a conversation with the Admiral. There are also paragraphs that fast-forward you many months. It’s all done beautifully and once again I felt flattered that O’Brian assumes his readers can keep up.
I love a writer that doesn’t spoon-feed me
Once again I also felt the similarities with Dorothy Dunnett. It seems there is no proof that they ever met or read each other, so I might be imagining things. The fact is that these two authors have the knack to write in a way that stimulates and challenges me, that makes me go “wow, that was good!”.
One trick they both use is starting a chapter with a scene that seems wholly unconnected with what just happened before: different place, different characters – what is going on? But if you’re used to their mischief you go with it and pay attention. For instance, once we know that Jack needs to flee from certain arrest a section opens in Carcassonne, with a convoy of English prisoners who are demanding entertainment from a passing nomad artist and his bear. Where are our heroes? Are they among the prisoners? Could they be disguised as guards? Are they going to make an entrance at any minute? Could… surely not! Could Jack be inside a bear costume, being made to dance by his “master”, Stephen?!
So O’Brian’s talents did it again: great narrative, a pinch of romance, subtle wit, and elaborate historical detail – all combined to keep me awake at night.
I leave you with a poster Jack commissioned to attract men to his badly built boat. He was in desperate need of a crew and desperate times call for a less-than-truthful measures:
5,000 a man! (or more)
WEALTH EASE DISTINCTION
YOUR LAST CHANCE OF A FORTUNE!
HMS Polychrest will shortly sail to scour the seas of ALL KING GEORGE’S enemies. She is desined to SAIL AGAINST WIND AND TIDE and she will Take, Sink and Destroy the Tyrant’s helpless man-of-war, without Mercy, sweeping the Ocean of his Trade. There is no time to be lost! Once the Polychrest has gone by there will be no more PRIZES, no more fat French and cowardly Dutch merchantmen, loaded with Treasure, Jewels, Silks, Satins and Costly Delicacies for the immoral and luxurious Usurper’s Court.
This Amazing New Vessel, built on Scientific Principles, is commanded by the renowned
whose brig Sophie, with a 28lb broadside, captured 100,000.s worth of enemy shipping last war. 28lb, and the Polychrest fires 384lb from either side! So what will she do, in this proportion? More than TWELVE TIMES as much! The Enemy must soon be Bankrupt – the End is Nigh. Come and join the Fun before it is too late, and then set up your Carriage!
Captain Aubrey has been prevailed upon to accept a few more Hands. Only exceptionally wide-awake, intelligent men will be entertained, capable of lifting a Winchester bushel of Gold; but PERHAPS YOU ARE THE LUCKY MAN! Hurry, there is no time to be lost. Hurry to the Rendezvous at the – YOU MAY BE THE LUCKY MAN WHO IS ACCEPTED!
No troublesome formalities. The best of provisions at 16 oz to the pound, 4lb of tobacco a month. Free beer, wine and grog! Dancing and fiddling aboard. A health-giving, wealth-giving cruise. Be healthy and wealthy and wise, and bless the day you came aboard the Polychrest!
GOD SAVE THE KING
It’s at such times I realize how falling in love with a book is so similar to falling in love with a person. You don’t really know why it’s happening, but you feel a connection, a feeling of hopeful expectation, which over time, if you’re lucky, is happily confirmed. Or at least that’s how I do it
If you like historical fiction, sooner or later you’ll hear about Patrick O’Brian. I’ve been meaning to give him a try for a long time, but was afraid – when I read stories set at sea I often have no idea what’s happening because of the naval-speak, it’s almost like a foreign language.
The truth is, I did get lost at times while reading M&C, but I worked for my reward. I used Wikipedia, Google Earth, O’Brian’s fandom, videos of boats maneuvering on YouTube, and watching the movie also helped. Even with this amount of information there were times when I lost my thread, but soon realized that O’Brian uses the same tricks as the wonderful Dorothy Dunnett: they throw you into the action and ask you to go along until everything is explained. That’s when you become aware what an amazing time you’re actually having.
Also like Dunnett, O’Brian is completely at easy with cultural references. He mentions obscure details which must have involved a lot of research (see Johnson’s quote below), without insulting the reader with an explanation. The only time he does this is right at the start of the book, when Stephen is taken on a tour of the Sophie, but like us, he also feels an information overload. It’s said O’Brian kept a 1810 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica close to him while he worked, as well as early editions of Jane Austen, who he thought the finest of all novelists.
M&C is first book of a series of 21 (!) books. It’s here that Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin meet. Jack is a British lieutenant who’ll soon become master and commander of HMS Sophie and Stephen is a half-Irish/half-Catalan physician and naturalist who’s fallen on hard times and so decides to join the Sophie.
I’ve been trying to pin-point what exactly grabbed me so much. There’s 1) the vivid images of life aboard the brig, including the use of language that could be taken out of a real 18th century novel.
‘You know Dr. Johnson – Dictionary Johnson?’ ‘Certainly,’ cried Stephen, looking strange. ‘The most respectable, the most amiable of the moderns. I disagree with all he says, except when he speaks of Ireland, yet I honour him; and for his Life of Savage I love him.’
2) There’s the wit, which was a surprise until I knew he was an Austen fan.
‘There is a systematic flocci-naucinihilipilification* of all other aspects of existence that angers me.’
‘I have done with all debate. But you know as I, patriotism is a word; and one that generally comes to mean wither my country, right or wrong, which is infamous, or my country is always right, which is imbecile.’
‘I have never yet known a man admit that he was either rich or asleep: perhaps the poor man and the wakeful man have some great moral advantage.’
Also, 3) Stephen showed enough potential to likely become a Great Favorite, and may even be invited to my select dinner of fictional characters, if he plays his cards right. There are many layers to him, and an interesting past. (It also helps that Paul Bettany played him so perfectly in the movie.)
M&C has 4) one of the best opening scenes ever, probably because it’s so unexpected in a book about war and naval life. It begins at a concert. Still strangers, Jack and Stephen sit next to each other. Jack is so focused on the music that he start to tap to the beat. This annoys Stephen so much (Jack wasn’t even being accurate!) that they almost agree on a duel (the start of The Three Musketeers, anyone?). In the end, it’ll be this mutual love of music that’ll unite them. Another favorite was the 5) lovely scene where they play together for the first time.
‘I am really pleased with tonight’s exercise,’ said Jack, tuning his fiddle. ‘Now I feel I can run inshore with a clearer Conscience – without risking the poor sloop too much.’
‘I am happy you are pleased; and certainly the mariners seemed to ply their pieces with a wonderful dexterity; but you must allow me to insist that that note is not A.’
‘Ain’t it?’ cried Jack anxiously. ‘Is this better?’
Stephen nodded, tapped his foot three times, and they dashed away into Mr Brown’s Minorcan divertimento. ‘Did you notice my bowing in the pump-pump-pump piece?’ asked Jack. ‘I did indeed. Very sprightly, very agile. I noticed you neither struck the hanging shelf nor yet the lamp. I only grazed the locker once myself.’
I never studied literature and usually don’t think about the narration style, unless it’s either 6) especially good or especially bad. I did notice M&C’s narrator. It was like a camera that gets close to a character, then subtly moves to another only to, seemingly without a break, open the angle for a wider view. Author Jo Walton, when talking about O’Brian’s narrator on Tor.com said,
There’s also the camera eye omni, that sees everything but never gets drawn close to anything. There is a variant of that I call Lymondine, which can be seen in Dorothy Dunnett and Guy Gavriel Kay, where you’re usually very closely in somebody’s head but occasionally you pull right away and get a distant perspective. O’Brian’s glide is closest to that, but it’s also really different. He draws in and out almost imperceptibly. It’s very effective and very addictive.
It cannot be a coincidence that I’m such a fan of these three authors. If you spot any other good examples of this “camera eye omni”, send them my way.
Post Captain, the next book in the series, is set mostly in country houses and apparently it’s as much a novel of manners as a naval story. It’s said to be O’Brian’s homage to Austen. How can I resist?
Browsing the fan sites I saw this great quote: ”You know that’s not just a series of books, right? It’s a major lifestyle decision. You start reading those and you grow a new space in your brain devoted to them.” I don’t doubt it!
And another fan said: “Will someone write as lovingly about the Internet Age in 170 years as O’Brian wrote of the Age of Sail?” That’s a great image, and it does make you wonder…
*The act or habit of describing or regarding something as unimportant.
(reading Fables by Andre)
I’m back in Brussels after the Holidays. I’ve noticed most blogs were active but I’ve decided to really take a break and just veg-out on the couch, eat, see friends, shop and eat some more. I did manage to get some reading done, but I’ll just make short reviews in the next couple of days to come up to speed.
Meanwhile, I’ll do the classic 2010 round-up.
It’s been a good reading year, but mostly it will go down in History as The Year I Started Book Blogging. I’m already noticing that many of my choices were influenced by you and the trend will increase in 2011 for sure. Exciting times ahead!
I’ve read 88 books and 5 graphic novels. Of the books, 33 were audiobooks (not surprising considering I had laser surgery in April and couldn’t read for weeks), 1 play and only 6 non-fiction (these 6 were probably more than the last couple of years put together). I gave up on 5 books and 1 audiobook.
Top 10 fiction (in no order)
- Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
I know the last book of The Hunger Games disappointed a lot of people, but for me Collins was right on target. A great ending to a great trilogy.
- Gigi by Colette
Thank you book blogosphere for keep bringing up Colette. I’m in your debt!
- The Tennant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
After reading Agnes Grey, this one settled Anne as my favorite Brontë. So different from her sisters and in my humble opinion, the most ground-breaking of the three.
- The Spring of the Ram (The House of Niccolò #2) by Dorothy Dunnett
I bow my head to the genius of Dunnett.
- Notwithstanding by Louis de Bernières
My second de Bernières and he might enter my top 5 authors if Birds Without Wings is as good as I expect it to be. One of those authors that seems to be writing just for you. I only ever got that feeling before with E.M. Foster.
- Room by Enna Donoghue
Yep, I also surrendered to Room. The page-turner of the year.
- Wolf Hall de Hilary Mantel
Innovative novel of the year. Who said historical novels can’t bring anything new to literature?
- When you reach me by Rebecca Stead
Short YA book but full of well-developed characters, intriguing plot, humor, depth, mystery and meaning.
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome; Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; Niccolò Rising (House of Niccolò, #1) by Dorothy Dunnett; Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins; Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini; Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini; Agnes Grey de Anne Brontë; The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett; The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Great new authors
Dorothy Sayers, Anne Brontë, Colette and Rafael Sabatini
Only read one, but suspect they’ll become favorites as well
Brandon Sanderson. P.G. Wodehouse and Sarah Addison Allen
Top 3 non-fiction (in no order)
- The Mitford Girls by Mary Lovell
It wasn’t a masterpiece of literature, but it got me hooked and it made me want to know more, which is the best compliment I can pay a book.
- The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel
The best non-fiction of the year. A gripping account of the men and women who worked to preserve art during WWII and afterwards chased after the stolen masterpieces.
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Barbara Skoot
What’s in a cell? A lot! For instance, meaningful debates on the ethics of science and about how far is your body really yours.
Top 3 graphic novels (in no order)
Again, a big thank you to all the bloggers out there who are great graphic-novels enthusiastics.
- Les Murailles de Samaris (Les Cités Obscures, 1) by Francois Schuiten, Benoît Peeters
Straight into my “favorite graphic novel artist” category.
- Legends in Exile (Fables #1) and Storybook Love (Fables #3) by Bill Willingham
Fun and incresingly dark. Looking forward to what’s to come!
I’m a big fan of historical novels, they’re more than 1/3 of what I’ve read in the past 5 years, and if I had to take only one genre to a desert island that would be it. As far as that makes me an expert (!), believe me when I say that Dorothy Dunnett is the best. No one can put me there like she can.
I’m always surprised at how she’s not more famous – I only know two people in person that have read her and not that many more in the virtual world. No… to be honest, I’m not that surprised, because I’m always afraid to recommend her, especially to people who don’t read much (sounds snobbish, but it’s not, believe me!). Dunnett can write the most satisfying books, but they’re not a light read. The plot is intricate and there are many characters, at times you don’t know what’s happening until two chapters later a character says something and then there’s glorious light. Dunnett never spoon feeds you and makes you work for your rewards… but oh the rewards!
The House of Niccolò series was written after her first books, the Lymond Chronicles, but follow one of Lymond’s ancestors: Nicholas vander Poele, an apprentice in a dye shop in Bruges who, with mathematical precision and the clever use of his dimples, climbs the proverbial corporate leader until he becomes head of the company. In the Lymond Chronicles, each book is set in a different place (Scotland, France, Malta, Turkey, Russia), and Nicholas also treats the world as his oyster. Book 1 starts in Bruges, with glimpses of Geneva, Venice and Milan, and this second book takes us further East.
In 1461, 20 years-old Nicholas is in Florence, where he persuades Cosimo de’ Medici to back him up on an ambitious trade journey. He will sail to the Black Sea until Trebizond, last outpost of the Byzantine outpost, and the last jewel missing in the crown of the Ottoman Empire. But things of course never run as smoothly as they should: Nicholas’s younger stepdaughter, 13 year-old Catherine, elopes with his rival in trade: a Machiavellian Genoese who races ahead of Nicholas, setting traps at each port he lands. Trebizond is a key trade connection to the East, and home to a decadent court who refuses to admit that at any moment they may fall to the Turks. Not all traders in the city are that blind and the plot is mined with political and commercial intrigue.
As always, Dunnett shows off her meticulous historical research and ability to blends historic characters with fictional ones. The meeting with Cosimo de’ Medici was especially well done - Nicholas gets into the old man’s good graces by enchanting his grandson Cosimino with a yo-yo he made himself. But the highlights are really her descriptions of the wonders of Trebizond, the incense in the air, the languid day-to-day life of its court, the hot-baths, the arrival of the camel caravan.
Also, in this immediate-world we live in, I’m also always fascinated by a past where news traveled at a slow pace. People could take months to arrive in Trebizond from Europe, a letter just little under that time, if a ship heading for the destination you want happens to pass by. It really makes me wonder how could anything outside one city could work and… be done. But it did and Dorothy Dunnett, better than anyone, gives you a glimpse at how trade, politics and personal relationships developed in the expanding borders of the mid-XV century.
I’d like to go to visit Trebizond – maybe to a trip around the Black Sea? The closest I’ve ever got was the entrance to the Sea, when we went to Istanbul. We were close to the ruins of a Fort that might have been the one in Dunnett’s description:
Then, three weeks on their journey, they reached the end of the Black Sea and faced its only exit: the waterway of the Bosphorus, lined by the guns of the Turks. They chose to sail through it in daylight. The ponderous Anadolu Hisari on the Asian shore and, on the right, the massive round towers of Bohasi-Kesen, its new partner. The throat-cutter, they called it; or the strait-cutter; because no ship could survive between the mouths of the two sets of cannon. They entered the Bosphorus, and the gun from Bohasi-Kesen fired.
Where Lymond was about dramatic escapades and a world changed by the ideas of the height of the Renaissance, the Niccolò series is about trade, the delicate balance of power it builds, and how it ultimately started globalization. In The Spring of the Ram, the journey undertaken by Nicholas is portrayed almost as a quest, right down to the mythic parallels. The sign of the Ram (or Aires), is the first in the Zodiac. Aires sometimes represent the Golden Fleece, sought by the heroic Jason and his Argonauts, whose steps Nicholas follows on his way to Trebizond. Dorothy Dunnett liked to play these little tricks. In Lymond, the titles were all chess moves and the story reflected it, and with Niccolò they’re all references to star signs. The next one, Race of Scorpions, will take me to Cyprus. I could go straight to it, but I want to make them last. You can only read Dorothy Dunnett for the first time once.
Over a month ago I meet a book blogger live for the first time. It was Joanna over at It’s all about me (time). She actually wrote a post about our meeting, and I agree with her: somehow, meeting a fellow book-blogger in person anchored this cyber-world into reality. We’ve been meeting every week for lunch at the bookshop Filigranes and talk about mostly books and what’s new in the book blogosphere. We even came up with an idea for a book challenge which we’ll share soon.
The last time we met, Joanna had a new idea: why not exchange 5 book recommendations to us to read over 2011? (I think Nymeth did this previously with another blogger with good results) So we almost immediately started working on our respective lists. There are no particular rules for the choice of books, but it would be ideal if they would include some books that we think the other will like, some that the other never heard of and some that will take the other out of their comfort zone.
So these are the books recommended by Joanna that I’ll read next year:
And this is the list I prepared for Joanna:
How exciting is this? I can’t wait to start! This is what book blogging is about: putting us in the path of good book and even better people