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It was a hit & miss month:

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Preacher, Volume 1: Gone to Texas by Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon

Still not exactly sure how I feel about Preacher. I’ve the notion it’s very clever and deep, but ended up feeling I didn’t quite get it. Maybe because I’m not religious and the point is to ruffle believers’ feathers? Maybe because, in a story so full of layers and questions about Good and Evil, the villains are 100% bad, no grey areas?

Glad I’ve read it, but will file it under “Good, but not for me”.

Ms. Marvel, #1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson & Adrian Alphona 

Hurrah for books that live up to the hype! Both the story and art felt so refreshing, and unlike Preacher, it was written just for me. Most reviews focus on the fact that Kamala is the first Muslim super hero, but for me the innovation is that’s not the most important thing. Ms. Marvel is still a classic story of a superhero’s origins, where the superhero just happens to be a girl, and a person of colour and a Muslim. Like Peter Parker before her, Kamala also struggles with her costume and the “with great power…” thing, she’s still trying to figure out who she is. The book is good because it has characters that are genuinely interesting, writing that’s full of smart humor, a gripping plot gripping and attractive artwork.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier by Alan Moore

Oh Alan Moore, you’re losing me. With every new League book I’m trying to regain the magic of the first two, without success. Were they also this trippy, full of naked women for no apparent reason, and I just didn’t notice?!

Saga Vol. 2 and Vol.3 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

The series just keeps getting better and better. I’m loving every new character, from Gwendolyn to Upsher and Doff, as well as all the backstories (Alana’s love for that book!). I could have done without the implausible black-whole baby in Vol. 2, the “He’s the man I love!” line in Vol. 3, and still not convinced about the opposite of war thing, but hey, who’s counting?

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The_Martian_2014This is one of the most uplifting books I’ve ever read, the perfect antidote to last week’s events. Who knew that a book about an astronaut left for dead by his crew on Mars could be this fun?

It’s basically an ode to human intelligence and ingenuity, to the power of science, courage and team work. After Charlie Hebdo, this book left me thinking “we’ll be ok” and for that I’ll be forever grateful to Weir.

I just wish my knowledge of chemistry and physics would do it more justice. Although the science parts were well explained and concise, I’m sure I’d have been even more impressed if I knew more about space exploration.

Don’t have much more to say about it, really. It deserved to show up in so many bloggers’ best-of-2014 lists. And a big thank you to who recommended the audiobook version.

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Other thoughts: Dribble of Ink, The Guilded Earlobe, The Speculative Spaceman, That’s What She Read, Stainless Steel Droppings, Speculative Book Review, The Book Cove, Cheap Thrills, the Little Red Reviewer, Love, Laughter and a touch of Insanity, Rinn Reads, Book Chatter, Collateral Bloggage, Don’t be afraid of the Dork, Jenn’s Bookshelves (yours?)

BRRead for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge:
A sci-fi novel

7126I’ve given it a solid 4 stars, right there between the 5-star adventure fun and the 3-star characterization (especially female) and depth.

So on the plus side we have the Count, the perfect embodiment of the avenging angel with unlimited resources. We also have the plot, that messy, over-the-top fest, masterfully convoluted and deliciously dramatic. It’s full of clichés but I was enthralled for most of the book, especially during the jail scenes.

Despite its length the story flew, except for the bandit and shepherdess chapters, which I skipped after reading the summary on Wikipedia. Mostly, I just sat back and enjoyed every mad idea that popped into Dumas’ head come to life: buried newborns are saved! Beautiful Greek Princesses become a slave! A murderess aristocrat! A paraplegic grandfather saves the day using his eyes! The least romantic proposal in literary history!

On the more meh side, character development was sacrificed in making sure the twisty plot came together, and Dumas broke no ground in the way he portrayed his women. They were flat-out flat. The only one that stood out was Eugénie, who wasn’t given enough page time to become someone real. Lovely Haydée was nerve grating. Beautiful Haydée of the “transparent hands” and the Stockholm Syndrome. Did I mentioned she was beautiful? And a Princess? I’m not surprised most adaptations don’t include her…

il_570xN.191707470Wants it!

In general the characters’ emotions and actions existed for dramatic effect and to support the over-the-top plot. This created a distance between me and them, which was only slightly broken by Abbé Faria, Eugénie and Mr. Nortier.

Almost at the end of the long book the Count starts to realize that his obsession with revenge went too far. Instead of exploring these feelings, Dumas quickly exonerates the Count through religion and leaves the reader (at least this one) hanging there waiting for a little more development on a topic that’s central to a 1000+ page novel. Maybe Dumas wanted to do it, but hey, writing about morals and ethics is less fun. It had been a long book, maybe Dumas just wanted to get it over with.

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Other thoughts: Becky’s Book Reviews, Shelf Love, The Englishist, Wuthering Expectations, Fleur in her World, In Spring it is the dawn, Avid Reader’s MusingsCapricious Reader, Reading Thru The Night, Tif Talks Books (yours?)

(Fear not, spoilers are duly marked, although this post is mostly for people who’ve read the book)

93575Oh book – How did I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Gaudy Night is a mystery novel that’s unapologetically intellectual and I love it when authors let their more brainy side show. It can be read in different ways, but I think it’s mostly about the struggle between the heart and mind, about academia vs the ‘real world’, the risks of being an intelligent woman, about mistakes, growth, self-knowledge and love. It’s that rarest of books that makes you think hard and yet still feel light.

It may sound like the story is all about these Important Topics (which it may be), but they definitely fit naturally within the overall mystery. Also, there’s a good dose of smart humor, dynamic writing and it all goes nicely with the Oxford background.

It was especially interesting to see the characters’ different positions on the central topic of women balancing their personal and professional/intellectual lives. Sayers doesn’t pretend that all women are in favour of equal rights, haughty ice-queens, or repressed virgin spinsters. She gives us a great (and refreshing) variety of female characters don’t come out as caricatures: the single middle-aged don fully committed to her career, the working mom who loves her career and is trying to balance it all, the working mom that thinks it shouldn’t be a woman’s role to provide for her family, the student whose biggest ambition is a happy marriage.

(Women getting stuck between professional achievement and relationships: 80 years after Gaudy Night is written, it still resonates… sigh)

On another note, don’t think me sadistic, but it was a pleasure to see Harriet struggling with her past and her growing affection for Peter Wimsey. I mean, it’s always a pleasure to see a well written character arc, but this one goes to my top list. Because of the events in Strong Poison, Harriet feels she tried to live following her heart and lost part of her identity (and almost her life) because of it. Five years later, she’s learning to trust her emotions again, but in a way that does not completely eclipses her rational and analytic mind.

Just a small note on Peter: in Gaudy Night he’s particularly flawless – but in a way I find impossible to fault! I’m convinced Sayers ruined Mary Sues for me because I’ll never be able to turn my nose up at them again.

Two final comments – SPOILERS AHEAD!

I wish it was Harriet who identified the criminal. That being said I don’t think that the way the solution came about is either demeaning to Harriet or out of character for either her or Peter.

I also wish the criminal had been one of the dons. The occasional classism (or intellectual snobbery?) made me a bit uncomfortable. And I’m still horrified that they locked the “scouts” at night, I don’t care how much it’s for their own safety!

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Other thoughts: things mean a lot, Vulpes Libris, Notes from the North, The Indextrious ReaderStella MatutinaSteph & Tony Investigate!Jenny’s Books (yours?)

Republic of Thieves

Oh noes. I was afraid of this. The Lies of Locked Lamora was one of my favorite books of 2011: fresh and with a border-line hyperactive plot. My mind wandered off several times during book 2, Red Seas Under Red Skies, but the clever writing was still there, as well as a kick-ass female character. Unfortunately, The Republic of Thieves continued the downwards tendency.

To be fair, I was disappointed but it was still enjoyable, or not even Michael Page would get me to listen to 24 hours of audiobook. I’ll give it a solid 3.

Two things I enjoyed, and two I didn’t: 

I continued to love the Lynch’s humor. Like the earlier in the series, The Republic is peppered with hilarious conversations and one-liners that Michael Page once again delivers to perfection. Lynch is one of the best when it comes to coarse cursing, right up there with Shakespeare. Also, just by themselves the foul-mouthed Sanza twins were worth the time I invested and I wish they’d be around in the future.

Lynch’s amazing world-building is also still alive and kicking. Every book is set in a different country and you can tell that a lot of thought went into developing separate political systems, manners and habits, architecture, gastronomy, etc. A good world-building goes a long way to make me loyal to a fantasy series.

Now for the down side. The plot interweaves two stories: in one Locke and Jean and hired by the bondmagi to rig an election in Karthain, with the (in)famous Sabetha as their opponent. The interludes are about Locke’s and the Gentleman Bastards’ early years, in particular a play they staged in their teens as a sort of team-building exercise. This supposedly secondary story is given as much time as the main one and even takes over the title of the book (the play is called The Republic of Thieves), which confused me a bit.

I though the details about Locke’s childhood were interesting, but the play became lumbering after a while. I was hoping it would bring an insight into the main story, but it wasn’t the case. In the end it felt like Lynch was just using this book as a platform to realize his dream of writing Shakespeare-style theater (there are pages of the actual play being declaimed, all very meta). This plot line should have been a separate book, like the upcoming The Bastards and the Knives (Gentleman Bastard, #0).

Regarding the “present” adventure in Karthain, I was expecting an Ocean’s 11 or Mission Impossible type of plot. Rigging an election has huge potential for a plot full of baroque twists and turns, but instead Lynch focused on the romance side of the story. I wouldn’t usually defend plot over character development, but here I longed the relentlessness action of the first book. Also, in Camorr Locke and Jean had control over events and the narrative, even when plans apparently didn’t come together. In Karthain they only had a hand full of halfhearted pranks up their sleeves and were mostly puppets in the hands of their employees. I was hoping for a big a-ha! moment at the end, but was again disappointment.

Still, my biggest problem with the book was Sabetha. During the two earlier book Lynch built her up so much that in the end her entrance was just felt anticlimactic. There was no chemistry between the two, and her personality never goes beyond being a repository for Locke’s obsession and emasculation. I understand that falling in love with the leader of your gang must be hard, but it’s still no excuse for just how whinny and annoying Sabetha turned out to be. 

A final aside: at some point I wondered if this book would pass The Bechdel test. Conclusion: the play part would, Karthain, not so much.

On-wards to The Thorn of Emberlain, better times will come I’m sure 🙂

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Other thoughts: BookLustFantasy Book CriticPat’s Fantasy HotlistThe WertzoneNeth SpaceA Dribble of InkThe Little Red ReviewerScience-Fiction and Fantasy Book ReviewsSpeculative Book ReviewVal’s Random CommentsIn Bed with Books (yours?)

#comicsfebruary

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I never could resist graphic novels with impressive urban architectural landscapes. That’s why I love François Schuiten so much. I’d never heard of Mathieu Bablet (his blog here, in French) until I came across this cover at my local bookshop. It immediately caught my eye: the colors, the perspective, the visual impact of that giant worm!

The story is set in a nameless mega city, home to the (as far as we know) few human survivors of an insect-like alien invasion that all but exterminated the human race. The survivors’ hopeless lives are spent hunting for food and trying to avoid the insects.

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I was completely hooked on the first half of the story, about the survivors’ day-to-day, the change of seasons, their squabbles and survival routines. But Bablet lost me once the action really started. Then things just got weird and went all mystical. I preferred the subtle and slow melancholy of the first part to the existentialist feel and chilling events of the second.

I wished the story had taken another turn, but I wouldn’t change a thing in the illustration, which was amazing. I went back to the bookshop to buy another Babet book the next day just because of it. The spaces seem to be wide and claustrophobic at the same time. The geometry of the huge and repetitive buildings captures the eye and is the perfect scenario to show just how lonely these characters are. It’s like they’re insects themselves.

Certain angles almost caused me vertigo and I loved all the details in the scenery: the thread-bare couches in the abandoned apartments, the aging piping, the growing vegetation. Also, Bablet populated the story with several pop-culture Easter-aggs, that The Dork Review collected. The ones I noticed:

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This was Bablet’s first album and I’ll report of his second – Adrastée Tome 1 – as soon as I finish it. By the way, I was looking around and found no concrete evidence that this was translated to English (I only found a cover with the translated title, but nothing else), so let me know if you know about it.

aisforalibiHad this on the TBR for ages, waiting for one of my inevitable cravings for an old-fashion detective story. It delivered, it was ok, but not great. Everyone that enjoys crime novels and their dog knows this series, so I imagine they improve with the following books?

As it’s not unusual in the first in the series, it felt a little clunky, with little action and even less character development. It read like a report of Kinsey’s (the 30-something, no-nonsense, cop-turned-private-investigator and main character) moves: she talked to this person, then she talk to this other person, she drove to this place to talk to yet another person, she jogged 5 miles and ate a burger, she stayed at this motel and then followed this route to yet another interview, etc, etc.

So. Don’t have much more to say about it…

Have the feeling the series would improve by adding a regular side-kick to spark tension and interesting conversations – a secretary, a partner, a snitch. Does this happen, by any chance?

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Other thoughts: Stacy’s Books, Mervi’s Book Reviews, Mysteries in Paradise, My Two Blessings, The Book Frog, Follow the Thread, Geeky Blogger’s Book Blog (yours?)

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

Has it ever happened to you that a book is so understated you’re certain you’ll forget it easily, only to have it haunt you often? Have you ever went thought a slow re-evaluation of a book over time? I can only remember feeling it once before, with Gillespie and I, which I initially dismissed as too long and slow, but was still ardently discussing months afterwards.

I’m going through that process with Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. It’s a collection of short-stories about unimportant people with unimpressive lives and initially I just couldn’t understand the purpose of it all. It’s all about the details in this book, but it’s about them I’m still thinking about.

You could just as easily argue that little or nothing happens in these stories, or that too much happens, and I’m inclined to think that it take a great writer to pull that off successfully. The seemingly mundane events that Munro focuses on can seem very inconsequential when you first read about them, and yet they are the same events that make your own world turn: small-town pasts often comes back to haunt new cosmopolitans, a one-night stand could become the biggest single memory of a life, it’s hard when the partner of a good friend is a jerk, etc.

Munro is an expert at capturing the small lives that she writes about, but in this case small lives do not equal  sweetness or fluff, on the contrary, most stories leave a bitter taste in your mouth. There’s a vaguely melancholic feel about all of them, a sense of disappointment and disillusionment. It’s only now, almost 3 weeks after I finished the book that I recognise just how complex each story was. It reminds me of Austen’s quote about her bits of ivory.

Just a small shout-out to the last story in the book, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain“, the basis of the movie “Away From Her“, and probably my favorite story of the nine. You can read it in The New Yorker online.

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Other thoughts: A Book A WeekSteph & Tony Investigate (yours?)

Fault in our Stars--CoverI wonder if there is anyone left in the world that can be objective about John Green. And if there is, can they be objective about a John Green book about teens dying of cancer?

I struggled with this post because when I tried to pinpoint what didn’t work for me – scenes that seemed unrealistic or stereotypical – I kept thinking: how do you know what you’d do in their situation?

But that’s part of the point of The Fault in Our Starts: it makes us face the possibility. How would I handle the fine balance between protecting my loved-ones and my need to panic, to complain, to revolt, to assign guilt? Would I also just want to watch ANTM re-runs or would I write a book and plant a tree? Just for making me this uncomfortable, I must thank John Green and I give value to the book.

That being said, the dialogues were a major barrier. And by dialogues I mean the characters. I’ve read several reviews of the disappointed minority and this seems a common denominator. The unrealistic way these teens talk (“existentially fraught free throws“; “all of this (…) will have been for naught”), might be put down to how intellectual they are, how they had to wise-up and come to terms with their mortality when they should feel invincible. But that excuse didn’t stick because this isn’t my first John Green book.

If you’ve read him before, you’ll probably also see Hazel as another Miles or Quentin, Isaac as Hassan and Marcus or Gus as Alaska. In general they all sound very much alike and could easily be transposed into each other’s novels without major issues, including all having a road-trip! Also, if you’ve ever seen a Green interview or vlog you’ll know that he is these characters: he’s smart, hip, funny and cynical. So for all the praise it got for its realism and freshness, The Fault in Our Stars felt very much as just another John Green book.

The strange thing is that I enjoy the John Greeness in John Green’s previous books (and other Gilmore Girls-style of stories), but in this one not so much. I couldn’t escape the image of the puppet master, wanting me to cry hard, and think about the Purpose of Life, Disappointing Heroes and Remaining True to Yourself in the Face of Unimaginable Hardship (while reciting Great Poetry).

Because of all the buzz around the book, I expected Green to leave his formulas behind, take risks and make something truly different – the theme alone deserved it! Maybe the perceived freshness relies on the fact that it’s a YA book about teens dying of cancer and that should be enough. I found myself being much harder on Green exactly because it’s a book about teens dying of cancer, while feeling that everyone was giving him a free pass because of it.

It’s not fair to judge a book based only on my expectations and what I wanted to writer to do, but there you have it.

To finish on a high note: dying in these circumstances is not tidy or romantic and that was well reflected in the book. I’ve been there and I’m thankful for Green not to gloss it over. Because of this, the last chapters softened me up towards book, but not without some kinks. For instance, the scene where Gus tries to buy cigarettes is incredibly moving, but then Hazel, while calling 911, goes “I need an ambulance. The great love of my life has a malfunctioning G-tube”. *Smack upside the head!* Didn’t lines like that distract you?

I came late to the TFIOS’ blogging debate and wish I could persuade my bookclub to read it. Maybe talking would help me to better figure out why I feel about the book the way I do.

 

 

1003617As I said on my previous post, there aren’t many writers that make me want to read everything they ever wrote or will write. Elizabeth von Arnim is one of them, all because of the lingering effect of Elizabeth and Her German Garden, that was written just for me.

So after Enchanted April, I picked up her 1914 work, The Pastor’s Wife. It’s the story of Ingeborg, the sheltered daughter of an English Bishop, the “plain sister”, considered by all as forgettable and of no consequence. Because of her ”unmarriageable” status, she becomes her father’s secretary and everyone, including Ingaborg, is ready to settled down to a life of not much at all.

Until the day a toothache brings Ingaborg to London, where her dentist solves her problem in no time, leaving her with two weeks to spend in the city by herself. On a reckless moment she signs up for a week-long tour of Lucerne, in Switzerland and that’s where she meets German Lutheran Pastor Herr Dremmel.

There are two distinct parts in the novel: pre- and post-marriage. If it wasn’t for Ingaborg’s father, the first part would be a perfect example of von Arnim at her funniest, lightest and wittiest. But I’m considering putting the Bishop on my list of worst literary villains, right there with Dolores Umbridge and Mrs. Danver. He’s not the murderous type, but his lack of empathy, self-righteousness and relentless intolerance probably cause more damage. The Bishop is a nasty passive-aggressive emotional bully. Every single dialogue with him was hard to go through, but unfortunately von Arnim didn’t give me the show-down with Herr Dremmel I was hoping for. Oh what a magnificent scene that would have been!

My expectations to see married Ingaborg develop into a liberated and confident person were also unfulfilled. Her marriage is a happy, but lonely one. Herr Dremmel has his own pursuits (manure!) and Ingaborg must navigate alone a different country, language and culture. Hilarity often ensues, but despite some really laugh-out-loud scenes and the general wit of the first part, this is not a happy-go-lightly book.

Ingaborg’s loneliness is inescapable: her monomaniac husband, her bigoted mother-in-law, her attempts to connect to her children and an uninterested community. Surprisingly, it’s also difficult for the reader to connect with her. I agree with Claire that Ingaborg is a “likeable heroine, if not necessarily a sympathetic one”. Her lack of consciousness of herself was my main barrier.

She is utterly insensible of what others think of her. She also seems unaware that she can have a say in her destiny, much less rebel again what others want of for her. She’s been meticulously trained by the Bishop to bend to his will, so it comes naturally to bend to Herr Dremmel’s will as well. Even when she takes the decision to quit the marriage bed after child-bearing nearly kills her, almost instantly upon recovery the next overwhelming man enters her life. Here is Herr Drumeel’s thoughts when considering Ingaborg after her decision:

A wife who is not a wife, but who persists in looking as if she were one, can be nothing but a goad and a burden for an honest man. Either she should look like someone used up and finished or she should continue to discharge her honourable functions until such time as she developed the physical unattractiveness that placed her definitely on the list of women one respects.

It was really a very interesting book, a fine balance of light and shadow that in the hands of a less subtle writer could go very melodramatic or boring. It’s not a story of female rebellion against control or a cautionary tale of the consequences of not having free will. For me it was all about the limited options of Ingaborg and the women of her time. In her case: a tyrant father, a distant husband, or an egotistical lover? As the Portuguese proverb goes, evil for evil, let the Devil come and choose.

Just a final note to say I was very surprised at how realistically von Arnim described a difficult birth and breastfeeding experience. She did not bother with gentle hints and prude innuendos, and as someone who went though something similar, she has my respect.

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Other thought: The Captive Reader, Verity’s Virago Venture, Tales from the Reading Room, TBR 313 (yours?)

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