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Henry_VIII_2722274cOne 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.

the six wives of henry VIII Antonia FraserI 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.

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Other thoughts: Resolute Reader (yours?)

61WJgNOFHKL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_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!

 

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.

wellDon’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!

 

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Other thoughts: BookNAround, (yours?)

armchairaudiesRead 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.

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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?!

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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.

Finally got my hands on Lumberjanes because I’m nothing if not a slave to your recommendations.

I get the love: the art is fresh, the girl-power theme is amazing, it’s laugh-out-loud funny at times. It’s all that so it deserved a bit more… depth. It felt really short mostly because its 24 pages are action-oriented and don’t leave much room for character development or exploration of their world.

In stories about a group of people I immediately find a favorite. In Lumberjanes I had some difficulty making that call – there’s just not much that distinguishes them (apart from Ripley being The Crazy One). In the end I went with Jo because she had books and pictures of stars and planets in her bunk:

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To be fair, it’s only the first in the series and there’s a hint of background stories to come, like Molly’s fear of her family being informed about their adventures. But I can’t help but compare it to another very short, very popular, first-in-the-series, action-packed, kick-ass girl gang comic that takes the time to tells us (and make us care) about individual characters: Rat Queens.

The world-building in Lumberjanes also left me a bit confused: Magic? Fairy tales? Greek mythology? All? Two weeks after reading it I’m left with a vague sense of The Goonies meets Chamber of Secrets with a bit of Percy Jackson.

All this to say that I really had fun and will definitely pick up the next one in the series. I just wish it went a bit deeper with the story and its people, even if it’s “just” a first volume.

I’m ready for the rotten tomatoes to fly now… *ducks*

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I’ll skip the stats this year for lack of time, but still wanted to record for posterity a general impression of 2015 and make 2016 reading goals.

2015 was a good one, professionally probably the happiest I’ve ever had, but also did great travelling and really enjoyed family life (it helps we’re back to almost normal sleeping patterns…).

The highlights:

  • Watching David grow – how fascinating to see him become a little boy!
  • Visited 3 new countries: Lichtenstein, Morocco and Senegal (other travelling highlights: Edinburgh and Paris with BBFs, south of Portugal and Genova with family)
  • The Dave Matthews Band concert in Lisbon this fall was one of the best of my life
  • My quiz team was top-3 in the yearly Quiz League
  • Working on the inception of the Sustainable Development Goals

(see 2014, 2013 and 2012)

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It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a good reading year really makes a good year in general. To get me back into blogging and pre-David reading performance I joined lots of challenges and other community activities and managed to complete every one of them. This includes:

  • The Armchair Audies – always one of my favorite book blogging events
  • Jay’s Deal Me In Challenge – one short-story per week the whole year. Also a good challenge, although I didn’t blog much about it. Two quick thoughts: 1) German classic short-stories are great and want to read more of them and 2) modern short-stories are obsessed with infidelity!
  • The Re-Read Challenge – very worth while, led me to some of the year’s best
  • Graphic Novel Challenge – 2015 was my comics/GN year. Read an average of 2 a month.
  • Books in Translation Challenge – 12 books (one a month, yay!), written in Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, French, Spanish, German and Italian.
  • Book Riot Read Harder Challenge – It was an interesting one to join, although I ended up with the feeling it didn’t really challenge me much, as most of the books that ticked the boxes were already in my TBR. I’ll take that as a good sign!
  • Sherlockian Month
  • German Literature Month
  • A More Diverse Universe
  • Finding Ada

And looking back at my 2015 plans:

  1. Continue to re-read, 100 Years of Solitude and Emma a priority: re-read both and 3 others
  2. Read more sci-fi: read 15 sci-fi books, 9 more than in 2014. Highlights: The Martian, Saga, Station Eleven
  3. Read more in Portuguese, Spanish and French: read 2 in Portuguese (+1 than 2014), 4 in French (=) and 2 in Spanish (+2).
  4. Read the only two Brontë sisters’ books I’ve never read: fail in both
  5. Finish several series: fail in all but Narnia
  6. Participate in more blogging events: success – see above!

Plans for 2016

  1. Continue to re-read, at least at the same rate as 2015. Consider His Dark Materials, Atonement, Harry Potter, Lord of the RingsA Short History of a Small Place, some by Guy Gavriel Kay.
  2. Continue to read in different languages and in translation, also at least at 2015 rates
  3. New try: read the only two Brontë sisters’ books I’ve never read (Shirley and The Professor)
  4. New try: finish several series (The Tea Rose, A Series of Unfortunate Events, The House of Niccolo, The Dark is Rising)
  5. Less challenges, but more read-alongs/bookclub books, recommendations welcome!

Happy 2016 everyone!

 

Happy New year everyone! I have a good feeling about 2016 🙂

Things have been a bit quiet around here, but work then laziness happened. Still, I read a lot: 104 books, which puts me back to pre-Baby levels (comics and travelling for work helped).

I gave 8 books 5-out-of-5 stars, one less than last year. The resolution to re-read more payed up (3 of the list) and I’m also happy about their variety: historical, classics, children’s, crime, 2 not written in English, 6 by women, 4 audiobooks.

best2015

Rosa, minha irmã Rosa by Alice Vieira
A favorite from my childhood that brought me to tears. It’s about a 10-year-old girl adjusting to a new-born sister. Unfortunately, there’s only translations from Portuguese to Spanish and Hungarian.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The plan was to re-read it ahead of Go Set a Watchman, but that one is still on the TBR. I just didn’t have the courage to ruin Atticus…

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez
Still a beautiful book and once again, 15 years after, I’m awed by Márquez’s genius.

Saga Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
What’s there to say about the series that hasn’t been said before? All the hype was well deserved.

best2015-2

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
One of those book where the brilliancy of the author just shines through. A gentle story with hidden depths.

Desolation Island by Patrick o’Brian (Aubrey & Maturin #5)
Aubrey and Maturin travel to Australia with a hold full of convicts. Shenanigans ensue. Five books into the series, the quality remains.

Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith
The surprise of the year and the most underrated book I’ve read in a long time. Also, the best audiobook of the 36 I listened to last year, closely followed by:

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith
I was expecting to like it, but not love it. It pushed all the right buttons and proved once again that just because it’s genre, it can have just as much characterization as the best literary fiction. It was the book that got me more emotionally involved with the characters, and that’s saying something when Maturin and Finch are on the list.

Honorable mentions:

  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John mandel
  • We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen
  • Emma by Jane Austen
  • Busman’s Honeymoon (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, #11) by Dorothy L. Sayers
  • The Martian by Andy Weir
  • Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman

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October is Sherlockian Month at Book Bloggers International and to celebrate it I listened to Benedict Cumberbatch read Sherlock Holmes: the Rediscovered Railway Mysteries and Other Stories by John Taylor using Canon Doyle’s style.

Come over and join the fun!

x

giphy

coroners-lunch1If you’re looking for your next mysteries series, you might want to give this one a trial. It’s more Alexander McCall Smith than Jo Nesbø, but I’m reluctant to call it cozy. Just as the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, it’s main attraction is the different setting, this time Laos at the beginning of the communist rule, in 1976. I knew very little about this time and place and the book got me to cruise Wikipedia, which is a good sign in itself.

The “detective” is a 72 year-old doctor who’s reluctantly nominated as the county’s only coroner. He’s a “communist for convenience” and old enough not to care much about using his biting humor to point out the often comic surrealism of the system. He’s awesome!

The other characters and the plot are also interesting, but it’s definitely the setting that steals the show. Imagine the challenge of crime-solving in a bureaucratic dictatorship with very little resources.

There’s an element of the supernatural that I’m carefully apprehensive about, as I usually like my mysteries very much based on hard-core evidence and logic. I’d be able to accept it better if it didn’t actually contribute to solving the crime. It didn’t disturb me too much, I suspect because I was just focusing on the great setting-relate details, but I wonder what’ll happen in the next books once the novelty wears off.

I’m surprised this was first published in 2004 because it has everything to make it an instant favorite and I hadn’t hear about it until very recently.

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Other thoughts: Boston Bibliophile, Letters from a Hill Farm, Crime Scraps, Books and Quilts, Olduvai Reads, Book Lust, Crime Scraps Review (yours?)

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It took me way too long to read this. A bit over two months, to be exact, with others in between. For a moment there I was afraid it’d be a just-ok 900-page mammoth, but it got me hooked after the first fifth or so. It’s my first Sharon Kay Penman, but I actually had this and two others by her in the TBR, just because she sounded like something I’d really enjoy (do you also do this?).

The Sunne in Splendour is an epic novel about Richard III, that most controversial of Kings, the last Plantagenet, from his early childhood to his death. His life is one of those stories that feels to dramatic to be true, just like Henry VIII. Richard didn’t have six wives, but had the War of the Roses, the Princes in the Tower, and other such delights.

Sharon Kay Penman does it all this great justice, and writes a really extraordinary book. Huge, but no word wasted, and with the perfect pacing, which is not to be taken lightly in such a complex story. Kay Penman has a great instinct for how long to spend on a battle and when to add a private scene to let us get closer to the characters. I cannot even begin to imagine how many hours she must have spent preparing for this, deciding what to focus on each chapter, what to add and leave out, not to mention the research. Good historical fiction authors are the best! By the end of the book, I felt I really understood this extremely complicated bit of English history. I’m now looking forward a War of Roses round on pub quiz 🙂

If not for Dorothy Dunnett, The Sunne in Splendour might have become a top-of-the-tops favorite,  but Dunnett ruined all historical fiction for me. Despite the careful characterization (except that Richard might had been a teensy-weensy idealized?), I never felt too emotionally involved with any of the characters, even with Anne Neville, that had everything to win me over completely. I cannot clearly articulate why, only that if feels different with Dunnett – yes, I know, it’s unfair, but inescapable!

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Other thoughts: reading the end, Kristin King Author, Devourer of Books, Vulpes Libris, Semicolon, Pages of Julia (yours?)