You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘book review’ category.
One of my favorite spoof accounts
A couple of weeks ago there was a pub quiz round on the six wives of Henry VIII and it made me finally pick up this biography by Antonia Fraser, that was lingering on my shelves since time immemorial. Right from the start it reminded me of probably my favorite biography – The Brontës by Juliet Barker – in that it was chunky but read like The Hunger Games.
It’s always refreshing to read well-research biographies about women in history and even more refreshing that Fraser’s focus was not on King Henry and his perspective, but on his wives, their upbringing, their education, their tastes, and how they shaped their fate (as Fraser put it, none of them were married against their will). These women’s lives is worthy of a telenovela, so much so that many stereotypes about them became ingrained in the collective mind. Fraser is not exactly in the business of myth-busting (because, let’s face it, a lot of it is true), but at least she’s trying to give these women more depth:
It is seductive to regard the six wives of Henry VIII as a series of feminine stereotypes, women as tarot cards. Thus Catherine of Aragon becomes The Betrayed Wife, Anne Boleyn is The Temptress, Jane Seymour The Good Wife, Anna of Cleves is The Ugly Sister, Katherine Howard The Bad Girl; and finally Catherine Parr is The Mother Figure. (…) These are elements of truth, of course, in all of these evocative descriptions, yet each one of them ignores the complexity and variety in the individual character. In their different ways, and for different reasons, nearly all these women were victims, but they were not willing victims. On the contrary, a remarkably high level of strength, and also of intelligence, was displayed by them at a time when their sex traditionally possessed little of either.
Fraser did really well in remaining neutral without making the book boring. She always makes a point of using references (most from primary documents) and letting us know when she’s citing the POV of someone who was either not present or was biased (and how likely is it that they got it right). As much as possible she includes different perspectives of an event. Even with all these considerations, there’s enough intrigue, death and sex in these lives to make for a riveting read.
I thought it’d be easy to pick out the author’s favorite wife, but she remains very professional, and we only notice her personal voice when she allows herself a bit of sarcasm, usually at the expense of King Henry (all those masons hurriedly changing coat of arms; the French Kings receiving yet one more report of a new wife at the English Court).
Of all the details Fraser gives us, the ones I appreciated the most was knowing what the each of the wives was reading and how these books were both a cause and effect of their believes and personalities.
Have Fraser’s biography of Mary Queen of Scots in the TBR and will pick it up sooner rather than later, especially since I’m staring a re-read of the Lymond Chronicles. I know she’s written other books, so let me know if you have any recommendations.
Other thoughts: Resolute Reader (yours?)
The enthusiasm in Mercedes’s video was so contagious that I immediately got this in audio. It’s a weird one.
I kept thinking about poetry slams, where aspiring poets declaim angry poetry in almost full darkness, with lots of anaphoras and hyper-realistic imagery (disclaimer: the narration might be to blame). There’s humor and satire, but not enough for it all not to feel a tad pretentious.
I love the premise and can’t put it better than Gavin: “What if the men of Duck Dynasty suddenly had two brain cells to rub together? What if they suddenly became filled with the immense, combined word-horde of all of Western Civilization?” Thinks Flowers for Algernon meets The Big Lebowski. Technically it’s sci-fi, but it only in an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Minds way.
I’m really attracted to the overall theme of how higher intelligence would affect our lives, personalities and choices (according to Elliott, not much). The problem is that she goes for language at the expense of believable characters and engaging plot. Even when we’re shown their background stories, it’s still the way they’re described that’s important, not the effect. Elliott focuses so much on hyper-reality (how many ways can you describe headaches and drug binges? Many!) that she ends up on the other side, where everything feels unreal. The way characters talk, especially after the brain enhancement, was so over the top, full of references to medieval literature and obscure philosophical theories (do genius really talk like that?), that everyone just becomes a caricature.
Also, the plot builds up a series of mysteries – evil company doing brain experiments! Hogzillas and other mutants roaming the forest! Mysterious woman in online group that knows too much! – but they all end up in lukewarm places. Don’t get me wrong, I love good gimmicky literature, but think Romie Futch wanted to do it all and lost focus.
Still, I gave it 3-stars. Mostly because it kept me intrigued and I respect an effort to create something different. It would be a great bookclub choice!
Sweetland is the story of a 70-year-old man resisting the resettlement of the island where his family has lived for 12 generations. At the start of the book he’s one of the only two people who still hasn’t signed the very profitable deal to leave the island. There’s major pressure from his neighbors to take the money because it’s a “all or none” deal and he starts being a victim of pranks and anonymous threats.
I’ve a weak spot for novels set in remote islands. Newfoundland seems a fertile ground for them (Latitudes of Melt, The Shipping News, An Orange from Portugal) so it’s no wonder that my favorite thing about this book was its sense of setting: the isolation, the cold, the claustrophobic community life, the inevitability of a dying life style.
I’m also sure that when thinking about it in the future I’ll also remember that selfish feeling of being upset because the author didn’t take the story where you wanted it to go! #readersproblems
It’s a slow book that ends up not being so much about the relocation as about loss, getting old, community and ties to the land. I didn’t really connect a lot with the characters but was interested in knowing where their stories led. There’s this mixture of humor and tragedy in the writing that make you unsure whether they’ll get a happy ending or not. (Books like that make me a bit anxious, but maybe that’s a good thing?).
On the audio, John Lee has a very particular intonation that, although interesting, is distracting. He uses it in all characters, even if they have distinct voices, so it becomes very difficult to forget there’s such a thing as a narrator.
Overall an enjoyable book about a place I’m curious about, but not an Armchair Audies winner. I can see it turned into a movie soon!
Happy 25 April everyone! Day of Freedom, of the Carnation Revolution, the end of a 50-year dictatorship and colonialism. I wish I was in Lisbon right now, walking down the Avenue, singing with the crowd.
Reading wise, for the last few days I’ve been totally emerged in Antonia Fraser’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII. I keep forgetting how much I enjoy well-written, chunky biographies of women in history (Juliet Barker’s The Brontës is another great one).
Recently finished listening to The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr, also a non-fiction on another favorite topic: art history, restoring, forgery and detectiving. It was a quick listen and interesting enough, but more suited for a long magazine article.
Then immediately started listening to the last title in my Armchair Audies category – Little Big Man by Thomas Berger (apparently there’s a Dustin Hoffman film adaptation?). I wasn’t too excited because it’s 20 HOURS LONG and in a meh genre – western – but it’s also a satire and it’s turning out to be pretty funny. In a strange way it reminds me of Barbara Pym and Dorothy Whipple.
That’s it. What about you, reading anything interesting?
My first-ever book set in Trinidad and one of the few from the Caribbeans. Right now can only think of Wide Sargasso Sea and (partially) Captain Blood.
Don’t be fooled by the covers, that indicate a lighter type of story than this really is!
Went into the book without knowing anything except it’s nominated for the Audies 2016. It turned out to be a great surprise and one of those reading experiences enhanced by the audiobook.
The story begins in the 40s and mostly follows Marcia Garcia (can still hear the narrator in my mind saying Má-cia-a Gá-cia), that at sixteen meets Farouk Karam, a Trinidadian policeman of Indian background. They set of on a stormy relationship that we follow throughout many years.
There’s a lot of topics running through book – social and racial status, matriarchal families, immigration – but it doesn’t feel crowded or overwhelming. It’s easy to become emotionally invested in Marcia and her family, and the two narrators (Bahni Turpin and Ron Butler) play a huge role in that. Their colorful narration perfectly fits the story and adds something to it. For a while I was talking to myself in their accents.
The main reason why I didn’t give it a 5/5 was that the second part was mostly an illegal immigration story set in the USA. I wish the author had just focused on Trinidad. It’s learning about the island, it’s people, culture, food and history that makes the book so unusual and special. Strangely enough, the strong sense of place is lost when we jump to the much more familiar Manhattan.
If you know of any more good books set in the Caribbean please let me know!
Other thoughts: BookNAround, (yours?)
Read for Armchair Audies 2016
Literary Fiction & Classics category
If you ask any Portuguese kid of the 80s about their favorite cartoons, there’s a high probability many will say either Dartacão or D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers (manga version). Chances are they might also start singing the songs.
Because of them my hopes for the canon were really up. I was expecting an adventure tale to rival Scaramouche and Count of Monte Cristo, with fun, heroic, lovable characters and wicked villains. What I got was one the biggest literary disappointments of my life and the destruction of my childhood ideals.
In the book, the Musketeers turn out to be selfish irresponsible dandies of limited intelligence who take advantage of women, hit their servants, and kill and maim at the slightest provocation to their precious honor. They’re more concerned about buying gear and horses than fighting injustice and helping the oppressed.
In the midst of all these disappointments, the biggest one was Athos. He was my favorite, my Musketeer crush. He was the leader and yet very discreet, the most mysterious, with hints of a secret past with Milady. Even in the live-action movies he was always one of the most developed characters (also: Keith Sutherland and Matthew Macfadyen). In the book he surrenders his leadership 5 minutes after meeting 18-year-old D’Artagnan, he wants Milady dead at all costs without any grey areas, and there’s this chapter about one day in his life that goes more or less like this: “woke up early, was bored, played dice. Lost my horse, lost D’Artagnan’s horse, lost D’Artagnan’s diamond ring, lost my saddle, won saddled back, lost all my equipment, divided my servant into 10 parts and played with that. Won servant back, and the ring, and D’Artagnan’s horse. Lost my horse. Shall I bet D’Artagnan’s horse again?”
This, my friends, was a big blow for the 8-year-old in me! Where are my heros?!
Then there’s a strange unbalance in the way Dumas arranges the plot. The famous adventure to get back the Queen’s diamonds takes a few chapters, but then there’s endless descriptions of what the boys do to get money for their armors.
Let’s just talk a bit more about Milady (some spoilers). For Dumas she’s the She Devil, the Temptress. She was put in
prison the convent and had the audacity to escape by seducing a priest! How is that different from the way D’Artagnan used Kitty or Porthos the lawyer’s wife? They all used other (innocent?) people for their gains. About her marriage to Athos: in his own words, she always behaved in a dignified way and never betrayed him. She didn’t tell him about the convent and the branding, but considering what he did when he found out (not even a question before wanting to kill her), I’d probably hide it as well. After that episode Athos is presumed dead, so technically she’s not a bigamist! There’s also no proof that she murdered her second husband. She manipulated Felton to get out of jail. Also, for such a cunning survivor her obsession with revenge at the cost of her freedom and life felt really out of character. When they finally capture Milady she doesn’t even get a fair trial but is judged by “her peers”, meaning, the musketeers and Lord de Winter. They only need the word of her first husband’s brother that just… shows up?, but everyone ignores that his version contradicts Athos’ account.
Excuse Milady for being smart and resourceful. At least she killed for France and to survive, not because someone insulted her horse or whatever, as someone else I know…
Anywhoo, I’m persuaded that the reason we love the Musketeer so much is because no one really cares about the book and just enjoys the great (if not faithful) adaptations out there.
Also, in the manga version, Aramis was a woman in disguise, and I’ll never forgive Dumas for not including that.
Simon and Kaggsy started a Club where bloggers review books published in the same year during the same week. I read Pablo Neruda’s 20 Love Poems and a Desperate Love Song for the 1924 Club last year but then life happened and I never posted anything. This time around I read Pomfret Towers for the 1938 Club.
I made the HUGE mistake of reading Invitation to Waltz (1932) right after Pomfret Towers. They’re both from the same period, both deal with a party at a big English country house, both follow shy girls maneuvering their way through a crowd of Characters. In my mind they’ve almost completely merged, so I had to really concentrate to write this post :S
If you enjoy the likes of Dorothy Whipple, Barbara Pym or event P.G. Woodhouse you’ll like Thirkell. Her social criticism comes less from sharp wit than outright comedy (often of errors). Her characters are a bit exaggerated but never really cartoonish: the self-centered artist, the middle-age writer of very successful formulaic romances, the young social butterfly, the snooty butler, the crusty Lord of the house, his kind but depressed wife. There’s dancing, shooting parties and changing for dinner, so Downtown Abbey and Gosford Park fans will feel right at home. It’s also set in Barsetshire, the county created by Trollope. (Doesn’t it give you a comfy feeling just thinking about it?)
On the whole, I don’t think Thirkell worries too much about realism. She set out to produce a fun, light book that probably had her chuckle to herself while writing it, especially during her jabs at the publishing industry. It was predictable, full of happily-ever-after endings and a pleasure to read.
I was about to write that for a 30s book there’s almost no reference to the past war or hints of the one to come, but then realized something: the whole plot is triggered because the son and heir of the Pomfret Towers aristocrat is killed during the war. This is why his wife is depressed and mostly away from home (she returned temporarily so the weekend party is in her honor), it’s why the moms are trying to get their daughters to cross the path of the distant-cousin-cum-heir, and why the cousin worries about the pressure of that’s to come and attempts to educate himself on the ways of a country gentleman.
So in a way that must have been the reality of 1938: the war can be a distant memory, but it changed everything and still has very clear impacts on the present.
It was a fascinating read, this story of a family’s breakdown after a mad man casts a prophecy. On one hand it reads like a Greek tragedy, or at least like something based on mythological, folkloric or even biblical traditions. There’s a healthy amount of foreboding, nature-relate metaphors and “you as your own worst enemy” themes. This feeling is re-enforced by the way the story is told by 10-year old Benjamin, looking back on events. It could’ve easily become heavy-handed, but Obioma always threaded on this side of compelling.
On the other hand, there are incredibly sweet and funny moments. Then the whole thing becomes a coming-of-age story of four brothers growing up in a small Nigerian village, getting into scrapes and going on adventures. There was also a satisfying amount of background into the political landscape of Nigeria in the 90s, which I knew nothing about.
The narrator did the book justice (Nigerian accent helped!) and I could clearly hear both the sadness and the joy in his voice. He managed distinctive characters without using lazy falsettos for the women and farcical voices for men. I’m ready to bet he’s a strong contestant for this Audies category.
For those of you who’ve read it: have you noticed the use of formal English and fancy words? “These people greeted our parents (…) with a boisterous effulgence of geniality.” At points I thought it was just the father’s way of speaking, but the narrator does the same. In the story there’s an explanation on how Nigerians use different languages for different purposes, but I can’t help but wonder: was it a deliberate effort by the author to… Write English Literature?
I’m surprised this is a debut novel and I look forward to reading more by Obioma!
Read for Armchair Audies 2016
Literary Fiction & Classics category
Haven’t done much blogging or reading but for a good cause. My organization is organizing a big event in Addis and I was there recently for prep work. It was a busy time, but still managed to do some tourist stuff. Will return in a couple of weeks and plan to explore the Ethiopian jazz scene, which I’m told is one of the best in the world.
Have you been? Any recommendations?
The obligatory coffee ceremony
Saw many women carrying huge piles of wood down Entoto Mountain and asked to give it a try. Didn’t manage a single step. Actually, it took all my strength to just stand. My respect to these ladies. At least I gave them something to laugh about.
Ate A LOT of injera bread. This picture was taken at the Lucy restaurant, named after the celebrity Australopithecus in the nearby museum (highly recommended).
Some shopping may have been done…
Reading Dorothy Dunnett at the Kaldis Cafe.
Moments from a work-related field visit:
When this one started making the rounds and seducing everyone it touched, it seemed so much up my alley I was afraid to start if for fear of disappointment.
In the end, although I’m not completely head-over-heals in love, I really liked it, and it leaves me with the warm, fuzzy feelings so many reviewers described. Also: that cover!
In the tradition of Firefly, the story follows a crew of space tunnelers (it’s complicated) that accepts a commission in… a small angry planet far far away. Most of the team is human, but there are others as well, including a sentient AI and a doctor/cook that made me think of Alice’s Hookah-Smoking Caterpillar.
There’s not a lot of action in the book, which is refreshing for a sci-fi set mostly in starships. Its power comes from how Chambers introduces us to these characters and then let’s us watch them interact. When two non-humans interact it especially brings out Chambers’ amazing world-building where no detail is neglected: from biology to politics, from relationships with other species to matting habits, from language to family structures. Everything makes sense and I want to extend a big thank you to the people who backed her Kickstarter project and allowed her to spend 2 years just thinking about these things.
But the best scenes come when humans interact with other species. There’s a lot of sci-fi out there about “what it means to be human”, but right now I can’t think of another one that does it so well and poignantly (edit 30m later: maybe the closest is Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow). It reminded me of the times people praised the sound of Portuguese and I wish I could hear it from the outside. Well, this book made me look at humans from the outside and gave me hope. There’s this one conversation in particular that is genius, where two aliens have a hilarious rant about us.
Another unusual thing about this book is that the human race actually manages to evolve! This happens mostly because we 1) were forced to exodus after destroying Earth’s environment, 2) only to be saved when we ran into another species by chance and 3) later joined the Galactic Commons, where humans are a minor and rather uninfluential species. You see, we evolved by eating a well deserved dose of humility pie!
In general, Chambers’ universe is a good place to be and a welcome antidote to the dystopias and alien invasion stories that dominate sci-fi. This is a less sexist, racist, homophobic, and transphobic universe that actually feels realistic.
The only thing that felt not quite right was the captain’s style of leadership. Doing what he does, under those conditions, I’d expect someone… stronger? He was born in the Exodus Fleet so is a pacifistic that hates guns, but that’s not why I’m questioning his authority. At times he was just too unprepared. It also got me thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of having a boss that’s your buddy, especially in potentially dangerous environments. Would have loved to discuss this in a bookclub!
I’m still amazed that Chambers manages to put so much in just 518 pages, and although I really welcome the sequel already in the making, part of me wishes that she’d made it a stand-alone: contained and strong. But I get it, it’d be a waste of good characters and world.
So, don’t pick up A Long Way if you’re looking for a science-focused space-opera with lots of laser guns and thingy-propellers, but go for it if you’re in the mood for a character-driven novel with lots of food for thought. It’s also the perfect book to recommend to sci-fi virgins or resistants.
Other thoughts: A Dribble of Ink, The Speculative Scotsman, Eve’s Alexandria, Dear Author, Awesome Audiobooks, Boomerang Books, The Android’s Conundrum, Rambling of an Elfpire, Common Touch of Fantasy, Kalanadi, Kitty G, Books and Pieces, Mercy’s Bookish Musings (yours?)