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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.

The-1938-ClubSimon 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

pomfretIf 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.

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Other thoughts: Shelf Love, Iris, Books & More, Desperate Reader, (yours?)

 

 

 

 

 

 

ALWTASAPWhen 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.

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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?)

 

 

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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There’s not much I can say about this book that hasn’t been said 1.000 times before, so just some quick thoughts for posterity:

I went into One Hundred Years of Solitude with some fear, because it has happened that my re-reads turn teen favorites into just-oks. This one however, was still as amazing, as captivating and as fierce as I remembered. It’s that type of book that’s experimental and “intellectual” and yet emotionally engaging. Like a Michelin-star meal that really make you feel full.

The plot is simply summed up as the story of a family in a remote village in an unnamed South American country, but then each character is a world in itself, and the language… oh the language!

Márquez’s style is very much in the oral tradition, as if he just captured what he’d heard from someone old, wise and incredibly funny. That’s why the magic realism feels so real, why every relationship and emotion are described with such power and why the way he moves from one character to the other flows so well. The book may have the most depressing title ever and it does deal a lot with loneliness, but in fact it’s a really bright, energetic, colorful story, that feels always in motion. Hard to explain, you have to read it!

One of the biggest complains I’ve read about One Hundred Years is that the characters’ names are all the same (e.g. father José Arcadio Buendía, son Aureliano, grandson José Arcadio) and it confuses everything. Well, that might be true (as of the 4th generation I had to draw a family tree), but for me it’s a demonstration of Márquez sense of humor.

Also, surely Úrsula Buendía should belong to all the lists of “Best heroines of all time”.

I’ve read it in Portuguese but I’m aiming to pick up the original next time. I wonder how it reads in English and can see how part of the language’s richness is lost. I was debating with myself whether the “solitude” in the English title shouldn’t be “loneliness” instead. “Solitude” is almost a voluntary isolation, and the Spanish “soledad” doesn’t read like that.

Have you read this one? Any thoughts?

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Other thoughts: A Striped Armchair, Jules’ Book Review, Confessions of a Bibliophile, Man of La Book, Other Sashas, of blog, Shelf Love, Fifty Book Project, The Labyrinth Library, Avid Readers’ Musings, bookhimdanno, Passion for the Page, My Library in the Making, Rivers I have Known, Old English Rose Reads, The Reading Life (thoughts?)

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image (2)Read for the A More Diverse Universe Challenge

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.Re-Read Challenge.. and the Re-Read Challenge

La fièvre d’Urbicande (Les Cités obscures, 2) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

Les Cités obscures or Cities of the Fantastic is one of my favorite comics series. I’ve spoken about them before and I’m looking forward to the day they’ll finally explode in the Anglo-Saxon literary world.

Each City in this universe has a distinct architectural style that influences and is influenced by its political structure, life-style and even in the way people dress. Urbicand is a city of massive structures that evokes the Futurist architects popular in the early 20th century. Buildings are huge and the few inhabitants seem insignificant is comparison.

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We follow Eugen Robick, a urbatect (architect who designs entire cities) who is obsessively pursuing permission from Urbicande’s austere government to build a bridge. Without it, there’s an unbalance in the symmetry of his ambitious plans for the city.

Off-scene, some friends sent Robick a small, mysterious black cube built from an unknown material. Shortly after, he notices the cube is slowing multiplying and expanding. It continues to do so over the next months, passing through everything without damaging it and expanding to a point where it becomes a network that facilitates communication between different areas of Urbincande, areas that until that point had been mostly isolated.

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In the style of many Franco-Belgian comics, La fièvre d’Urbicande is a surrealist story with lots of food for thought. I especially appreciated the way architecture/aesthetics and politics mix and reflect each other. There is something inhuman about Urbicand, a city seemingly not designed with the human scale in mind. It reminded me of the plans by Nazi architect Albert Speer.

It’s a complex book, unapologetically intellectual, and really rewarding to read.

L’archiviste (Cities of the Fantastic spin-off) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

The Archivist is almost like a coffee-table book. There’s a story, but it’s clearly meant to be eye candy.

Isidore Louis is an archivist that is given the task of debunking the myth of the Cités obscures. Each page includes one of the visual materials he’s unearthed and with each page we also see him slowly becoming convinced of the Cities’ existence.

There are also a wonderful connections with Jorge Luis Borges. Because of spoilers I can’t say much about the main one, but the story is very similar to Borges’ Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.

I want to cover a wall just with posters from L’archiviste.

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Rat Queens Vol. 1: Sass and Sorcery by Wiebe & Upchurch

Even if I’d been immune to all the rave, Rat Queens would still have had me at this synopsis: “Who are the Rat Queens? A pack of booze-guzzling, death-dealing battle maidens-for-hire, and they’re in the business of killing all gods’ creatures for profit.

The plot is not ground-breaking and doesn’t deviate from the typical story about a group of coarse, bad-ass, bad-mouth, swashbuckling, bordering-on-mad mercenaries. Actually, I suspect the whole thing is a spoof of role-playing games that’s not taking itself too seriously.

Unlike unlike plot, character development is taken seriously and in this volume we’re already presented with interesting backstories that made me want to know more. Just the fact the mercenaries are all women (and such a diverse group is so many aspects!) gives Rat Queens extraordinary freshness. It’s impossible not to have a favourite but right I’m still divided between Dee and Violet.

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Chew, Vol. 2: International Flavor by John Layman, Rob Guillory

Another outrageous plot and I loved every minute of it. Not much more to say.

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Atticus force

Read for nomadreader’s Read-along. Didn’t do much “along”, but at least managed the reading part!

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird almost 10 years ago, on pre-blogging times. I remember turning to my then boyfriend and say “This is a perfect book.” I was completely awed by it.

I know there’s not a lot I can say that hasn’t been said a thousand times before, so just some quick thoughts for posterity:

This time around it didn’t feel as flawless, but I found new depths. It especially struck me how the idea of empathy (or perhaps of empathy as a way to critical thinking?) is so omnipresent.

The book starts with Atticus telling Scout “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view (…) until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” and ends with Scout really internalizing this idea, as she looks out on Maycomb from Boo Radley’s house:

“Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.”

And in between those two moments hard lessons need to be learned (so hard that many adults in Scout’s life never get there) and beliefs challenged. Atticus demands this empathy from his kids and Lee demands it from us for every single character, from Dill and his mysterious life in Mobile to Mayella’s pretty flowers, from Dolphus Raymond’s Coca-Cola to Maycomb in general, that apparently throws Atticus under the bus. It’s brilliant how we’re brought along Scout’s journey and at the same time are challenged ourselves. For instance, I was ready to completely dislike Miss Caroline and nasty Mrs. Dubose, no clemency.

Growing up is hard, and race and class are some of the hardest things to deal with. I continue to be awed by the way Lee shows us Scout’s mind opening up and struggle against both the status quo and any challenges to it. Reminds me of the time when I began to travel and read more widely and started questioning the glorious Portuguese history I’d learned since early childhood.

Favorite characters the first time around: Atticus and Calpurnia. Favorite characters now: Calpurnia and Miss Maudie. Miss Maudie is amazing and I hope to see a lot more of her on the upcoming Go Set a Watchman.