My cat died recently, so I was extra susceptible to this book (though I'm not a "cat person" of the kind described in here, I don't think). The illust...moreMy cat died recently, so I was extra susceptible to this book (though I'm not a "cat person" of the kind described in here, I don't think). The illustrations are really witty and charming, and the narrative itself is deeper than it might appear.(less)
2. Part of me is always looking for more Mary Renault - it is why I have never read the rest of Mary Renault's books (I like to know that they are waiting for me, somewhere, there's a place for us, a time and place for us!) (also, I suspect I have already read the best ones). So I was excited about The Song of Achilles! Especially since it got a really nice write up from one of the few book blogs I actually read. I need to learn not to do this, though.
3. The Song of Achilles isn't a bad novel, or anything: it's a quick read! It's hard to breeze through very bad books, because there is no desire to turn the page, or even (in some instances) finish a sentence. So the fact that I finished this - and not out of spite (I often do this, since there is no piece of literature that cannot be conquered by contempt - except, apparently, Drood) - says something good about the book, I think. "Well, I finished it willingly" is, actually, a significant thing to say about a book or a film. 3a. Especially, speaking even more from my personal tastes and experiences than usual, this is an accomplishment in a work about Achilles. He's a difficult character to relate to. 3b. One of the things I find alienating about works like The Iliad or The Aeneid is that discussions of war often omit anything like a "hey, so killing somebody else - that's kind of weird, right?" conversation. Miller's work doesn't have that problem, because Patroclus is quite uncomfortable with killing other people (until, you know, he has to, or whatever). But articulating that kind of moral discomfort can also cause a problem in a novel based on the Iliad.
4. So, what is the problem with The Song of Achilles? It is sanitized. It is, even, toothless. I don't mean that Miller glosses over rape and murder and the horror of war, or that the cruelty of the politics are handwaved away. I mean that she places them in the blandest, most conventional emotional context. The love story is a very simple one, without the kind of personality conflict that makes relationships tough work and good reading. I mean, Achilles and Patroclus (our narrator) argue . . . a little . . . but they argue about concrete problems, there isn't any internal conflict seeping outward. So they feel half-baked and insipid. I wanted more depth of feeling from this novel, which, after all, takes its premise from an epic poem that has inspired other artists for thousands of years.
5. Elizabeth Cook's novel is more interesting. It's also stranger - more intense - more experimental.(less)
The Jade Peony is the kind of book you read with a sense of ever-growing dread, because it seems like something horrible waits around the corner. But...moreThe Jade Peony is the kind of book you read with a sense of ever-growing dread, because it seems like something horrible waits around the corner. But in some ways, that sense makes reading about the bad stuff that does happen a lot easier - the devastating stuff is indeed devastating, but it's mostly the sort of devastation you can handle. You know: it's just the business of living.
I thought it was a brave choice to refuse any kind of traditional narrative closure. The three narrators, all equally sympathetic and equally compromised (this is all sort of an exercise in agnotology) by childhood myopia, hand off at partings/epiphanies. Choy's writing is clean and effective, conveying nuances to the readers that the narrators may miss.(less)
1. There are definitely numerous similarities between The Hand That First Held Mine and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox - I mean, more profound simil...more1. There are definitely numerous similarities between The Hand That First Held Mine and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox - I mean, more profound similarities than split narratives, slightly unwieldy titles, and being about women.
2. One of things I like a lot about this book is that the trauma in the contemporary story isn't located exactly where you expect it from the opening. (That said - yes, a lot of the book is obviously going in one direction, and it gets a little wearing, and yes, I know this is called dramatic irony. It gets wearing!)
3. I also like that Lexie's story rewards her perseverance and her disinterest in the conventional. Certainly, there have been plenty of women like her in fiction, but so often they get ground down or made into martyrs. Lexie loses a lot, but she wins a lot too - she never invites pity. And there is even something flinty about Elina, not in a Molly Weasley way, but in a Colette way (except ... definitely better at the parenting part).
4. I have a hard time imagining the audience for Maggie O'Farrell's novels - I once saw them in an airport bookstore, though, so I expect they do pretty well. There's something the tiniest bit "chick lit" about them, though - or that's not quite fair, but they definitely feel like "women's novels," in the same way lots of early novels did, or in the same way studios used to put out "women's pictures." I'm not sneering at them (women's pictures or Maggie O'Farrell!) when I say this, because loads of those movies are awesome. But, yeah - it's difficult to imagine men picking these books up.
5. Also, Ursula LeGuin once pointed out that women artists are underrepresented in fiction, and they are especially underrepresented in a way that validates their artistic ambitions. So if you're interested in a book that does this, check this one out.(less)
I'd really no expectations about this novel, although I picked it up because I thought Maggie O'Farrell's Writers and Co. interview was interesting, a...moreI'd really no expectations about this novel, although I picked it up because I thought Maggie O'Farrell's Writers and Co. interview was interesting, and her books sounded interesting too. I certainly wasn't expecting the visceral experience of reading The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, which is a slim, compact, and disturbing/affecting novel that swallows you. O'Farrell juggles a couple different narrative voices and styles, interweaving them with each other and moving back and forth in time. It's never confusing, just intriguing, and the revelations come close on each other in ways that feel organic and believable. Interesting and compelling.(less)
1. The AV Club talks about laundry TV - shows that your mom can watch while she folds laundry (or not - my mother doesn't). Sometimes those shows tran...more1. The AV Club talks about laundry TV - shows that your mom can watch while she folds laundry (or not - my mother doesn't). Sometimes those shows transcend their genre (The Good Wife). A Month in a Country is what I think of as a Saturday-morning book, the sort of light and absorbing short read you finish on Saturday morning without bothering to change out of your pyjamas or clean up the house around you while you make breakfast. These are not, by any means, bad books and they will at least be done well, but all the same you notice when they surpass your expectations. Like this one.
2. Something I didn't expect at all was the humor of the novel. It's not only witty, but funny. The humor isn't a defensive mechanism or a way of keeping you out, but of inviting you in. Also, in very important ways this is a novel about happiness Of his time in Oxgodby, Birkin says "for many years after their happiness haunted me" - haunted by happiness! Although that's not really funny, here: "she used to come up on most days, sometimes bringing her younger brother Edgar who had wide believing eyes and only spoke on demand - normally a sharp elbow." It's wry and clever, as befits a book about looking back. This is a pause, though, in order to move forward. It's not about wallowing in the past.
3. Carr is pretty transparent about what he owes to Hardy, and particularly to Under the Greenwood Tree. Although I've not read it, I suspect there's something of Far From the Madding Crowd in it, too. Or maybe I mean The Return of the Native? I haven't read either, and yet I confuse them. Oh, well. Anyway, there are similarities, but A Month in the Country is very much its own creature, a self-sustaining book. (So, I guess, it is also like Cold Comfort Farm.)
4. "Getting over WWI" books are a dime a dozen, but Carr treats that theme with a light touch. Birkin's time in the trenches is an important element of who he is, but it is not definitive - he knows it was awful, everyone else knows that too, sometimes they talk about it. I mean, they go to the "war is hell, but trenches especially" place, but it's in the context of a Last Judgment painting, so really that's far more appropriate than clichéd.(less)
1. Master Georgie reminds me, for sad and obvious reasons, of Helen Humphreys's novel Afterimage - a book I sometimes think no one else has read, alth...more1. Master Georgie reminds me, for sad and obvious reasons, of Helen Humphreys's novel Afterimage - a book I sometimes think no one else has read, although that's obviously impossible. They are kind of contemporary with each other, published within a year of each other and with the action of both books set only 11 years apart. Both deal with photography, both have lower-class young women with odd and deep ties to the family. I haven't read Afterimage in a while so the details are fuzzy, although I remember really liking it; I have a feeling there are deeper resonances between this book and that one that a second reading of each would reveal.
2. Speaking of, Master Georgie really cries out for a second reading. It is slim and deceptive, there is simply no way a single reading could grasp it.
3. Of the three narrative voices, I think Dr. Potter's is perhaps the saddest. But perhaps the other two don't have the luxury of sadness - the end hints at Myrtle's grief, Pompey Jones is probably too pragmatic for sorrow - whereas Dr. Potter, already something of a failure and eternally overcompensating and trying to recapture/relive his youth, and utterly lacking in purpose, is sort of essentially a tragic figure. (But also a ridiculous one. He belongs in an E. M. Forster novel.) (less)
1. Books etc. I was reminded of while reading Cold Comfort Farm: Bleak House, The Pursuit of Love but especially Love in a Cold Climate (Flora ≈ Cedri...more1. Books etc. I was reminded of while reading Cold Comfort Farm: Bleak House, The Pursuit of Love but especially Love in a Cold Climate (Flora ≈ Cedric, also shares qualities with Fanny), Mary Poppins (and I am sure, if I'd seen it, Nanny McPhee), Under the Greenwood Tree, Terry Pratchett's witch books, Vile Bodies (not Scoop so much, despite Jill Neville's blurb on the back; Scoop is bitter in ways Cold Comfort Farm emphatically is not), The Reluctant Deubtante, I Capture the Castle (although Smith's novel is much sadder and less amusing - takes itself more seriously? - than this one), Little Dorrit, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (I hear it's a book, though I've only seen the film), and of course - Gibbons is very invested in this and makes a point of the similarities - Jane Austen's novels.
2. Cold Comfort Farm is a book about a young woman insistent on bring her relatives forward into the 20th century - or perhaps back into the 18th, you get the feeling that either destination would suit Flora just fine, but since the 20th century has amenities like daily baths, hot water, and cold champagne she'd really rather they went forward. Her goal is to bring them out of Brontë books and into Austen books - or out of tragedy and into comedy. She's rational, organized and orderly, urbane, interested in happiness rather than romance. (Not that she doesn't appreciate romance: her reshaping of Elfine is much more thoughtful and layered than it might look at first.)
3. Ultimately, it's a very funny book. Gibbons blends the pastoral with comedy and romance, and even (surprisingly and rather awkwardly) with science fiction - I think that is the book's biggest flaw for me. The science-fictional flourishes do not mesh well with the other genres, and more importantly they don't fit well with Flora herself, who seems so rooted to the time period in which the novel was written and published that it's difficult to imagine she would actually have been born after it's 1932 publishing date. I guess that's not really Gibbons's fault, since she couldn't have predicted the enormous changes that would take place in the next decade, but I still think it mars the overall atmosphere of the book.
4. But, man, the jokes are really good - especially the ones that clearly take aim at other books. There is a delicious amount of wordplay in Cold Comfort Farm, and my favorite instances were probably the ones where there'd be a lush but gloomy passage describing a Starkadder or focusing on something nature-related . . . and then Flora breaks the mood with her equanimity and cool common sense. It's a lot of fun.(less)
One of the things I found interesting about The Story of Lucy Gault was that it's a novel of personal (family or domestic) tragedy. So much Irish writ...moreOne of the things I found interesting about The Story of Lucy Gault was that it's a novel of personal (family or domestic) tragedy. So much Irish writing links personal tragedies with the national tragedy, so that all Irish Stories can seem to be Stories About IRELAND. Lucy Gault isn't, particularly, although its historical setting is very much a part of the story (because otherwise why make it historical fiction?). Still, it's not about Ireland, but about Lucy Gault and her family, and the people who care for her - or can't care for her, depending. Trevor carefully examines the crippling effect of grief on this group of people. It's distressing to read about, but then it really should be nothing less.(less)
It's difficult to speak or write coherently about the books in The Dark is Rising because for me, and for most of the books' readers, they come with a...moreIt's difficult to speak or write coherently about the books in The Dark is Rising because for me, and for most of the books' readers, they come with a heavy and significant emotional attachment. Certainly I look for different qualities in the literature I read now - especially in the sff I read now - but whenever I pick up one of these books (The Dark is Rising is my favorite Christmas-time reread) and open it again, my twelve year old self does much of the reading. These aren't exactly nostalgia picks, but they certainly carry a lot of baggage (nice baggage!) with them.
The ending of the series is sort of infamous, though - I know it really upsets some people when they grow up/when they first read it, and of course that's a completely valid response. But for me the ending has always worked because both Light and Dark are intrusions upon humanity, and the plot of the sequence is predicated on ridding the earth of both: if the Light wins, both Dark and Light go away (this is why you want the Light to win), if the Dark wins then they both stay there (this is why you want the Dark to lose). I think this revelation is withheld to make the emotional impact more powerful, but I think that choice also weakens the logical strength of the series a little. It's not immediately apparent that the aim of this whole thing is a withdrawal (although it is a pretty Tolkien-esque situation: "we have to destroy Sauron and the Ring so that we can leave this place, and men can have the world"). That is the goal though, that they leave the world to the beings who really belong to it, and who then get to make their own destinies/societies/whatever. I think free will is an underutilized theme in sff (although I guess it's implicit in a lot of young adult sff - The Hunger Games for example).(less)
On paper, anyway, Shades of Milk and Honey is exactly the kind of book I would be crazy about. Riffing on Austen, fantasy of manners, sister relations...moreOn paper, anyway, Shades of Milk and Honey is exactly the kind of book I would be crazy about. Riffing on Austen, fantasy of manners, sister relationships, light and dry touches of humor, long conversations about art . . . these are all things I love. Unfortunately, although all those elements are present, they don't quite come together to form a cohesive, or even particularly nuanced, whole. The characters lack depth - as can sometimes happen with pastiche, because after all there's the context of the original work for readers to refer back to while they read this new one. But that's not enough, not really, and that kind of book always makes me wish I were reading the original work instead. I think something like The Cookbook Collector is a good example of how to do a lot of the things Shades of Milk and Honey wants to accomplish, but can't. (Minus the magic, unfortunately. The magic is easily the coolest part of this book.) It's particularly unfortunate that every single character in Shades of Milk and Honey is nails-on-a-chalkboard annoying. Even the "level-headed" heroine! She is twenty-eight, she should know better than to do like 85% of what she does.
Maybe the second in the series is better? I don't want to be really mean and be like "it would have to be," but I do wonder if having to dig deeper might not produce a richer, more rewarding novel. Shades of Milk and Honey is kind of flimsy. On the one hand, that makes it easy to read, but on the other it makes it profoundly unsatisfying. Maybe the second book fixes that problem?(less)
I have been wanting to start these books, because I thought they would be good for reading at bus stops/before bed, and if this is anything to go by,...moreI have been wanting to start these books, because I thought they would be good for reading at bus stops/before bed, and if this is anything to go by, I was right! I thought it was interesting that the book doesn't read too much like a mystery - for example: it takes a fairly long time for anyone to die, although Cadfael is canny enough to have the "hmmm, not everything is quite right about this situation" from, uhhhh, the first page - and could probably pass as a "regular" novel if you weren't too fussy about that sort of thing. It's also thoroughly charming and quite clever and witty, and just generally pretty lovely. Nice job, Ellis Peters.(less)
If I remember correctly from the (New Woman) criticism I've read, Hardy's later novels tend to be more socially radical/progressive than Under the Gre...moreIf I remember correctly from the (New Woman) criticism I've read, Hardy's later novels tend to be more socially radical/progressive than Under the Greenwood Tree. But then, I haven't actually read any of his other works, and my familiarity with the New Woman phenomenon has taught me that people who think women should have the right to vote don't necessarily disavow gender essentialism. And there's certainly rampant gender essentialism in Hardy's treatment of Fancy Day - but how many women do we have to compare Fancy with? I hesitate to call her a woman of substance, but it's true that we do get inside Fancy's head more than any other character's. It's interesting, because the way the novel is written is much more complex than the actual novel.
I can't say I either liked or enjoyed reading Under the Greenwood Tree, but I do think I would enjoy examining it critically. But ultimately, it's not the kind of book I find particularly interesting.(less)
1. Um, I TOTALLY LOVED THIS BOOK. It's funny in a very self-aware way, with a beautifully convincing and completely charming love story. Seriously, th...more1. Um, I TOTALLY LOVED THIS BOOK. It's funny in a very self-aware way, with a beautifully convincing and completely charming love story. Seriously, the Anthea/Hugo love story is amazing. I was completely invested in it, cheering them on and cooing over them. The last time that happened (which I guess wasn't too long ago, whatever) was in the movie Veer-Zaara. That's right: this romance is on par with a Sufi-inspired plea for reuniting India and Pakistan. (Although, I can't deny that The Unknown Ajax would probably have been improved by the presence of Amitabh Bachchan and some songs. Maybe someday. Rani Mukherjee can play Aunt Aurelia.)
2. It's actually kind of a mystery+romance+comedy of manners, and I think the mystery aspect works really well. Surprisingly well, maybe, because I've heard from a couple people that Heyer's mysteries kind of suck. But maybe it works here because the mystery is sidelined in favor of character development, aka, falling in love.
3. Part of the humor depends on Heyer skewering the gentry, which is kind of unusual for her (and it doesn't quite work, but it fails in ways that make it more interesting from an analytical/literary criticism standpoint, so I don't mind. Plus, it's so charming. Did I mention how charming it is? It's quite charming.). Most obviously, this happens with Hugo, but the book actually opens with a passage from the perspective of one of the footmen in the Daracott household. It continues slightly less obviously with some more tertiary characters (law enforcement) and the ongoing what-will-happen-to-Richmond plot.
4. I loved Anthea, although I've learned to be wary of heroines described as "spirited" because that is an overused word . . . at least in Regency romances, it is. But she manages to carry that characterization off, and with style. Her interaction with Hugo is joyful, and done with a very light touch.(less)
Although I enjoyed The Masqueraders, it's not nearly as successful as The Unknown Ajax, partly because people actually die (which ruins the fantasy) a...moreAlthough I enjoyed The Masqueraders, it's not nearly as successful as The Unknown Ajax, partly because people actually die (which ruins the fantasy) and partly because the twins' father is insufferable. STFU, Chessmaster. The primary romance is excellent, but the second doesn't work as well.(less)
Lord John and the Private Matter is a fun, clever book. John Grey is the book's biggest strength. He's one of the most likeable fictional characters I...moreLord John and the Private Matter is a fun, clever book. John Grey is the book's biggest strength. He's one of the most likeable fictional characters I've encountered in a while. It's an easy read and moves quickly. The plotting is a little rough (there were one or two events that seemed to lead nowhere, but they weren't red herrings - they kind of just took up space) but there is a great bantering style to the characterization that makes it a good summertime book. Gabaldon also gets major points for the setting, a time period that usually gets ignored for the Regency and the Napoleonic wars. It's a nice change to get books set earlier.(less)
Upon re-reading, I think Afterimage is a trifle schematic for my tastes - but I wonder if I'd think that if I read it a third time (every re...more02/15/2012
Upon re-reading, I think Afterimage is a trifle schematic for my tastes - but I wonder if I'd think that if I read it a third time (every reading is different!). Also, it's not a very long novel, and it benefits from a sustained mood achieved by reading over a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday morning, which is not how I read it this time. It has a quality I really appreciate in art (especially literature), which is that everything it achieves is on-purpose: Humphreys knows what she is doing, and so the work is controlled without being manipulative. It's an interesting book, and deserves more attention than it gets (although my library has it, so I guess a fair number of people read it?). I'd forgotten the literary allusions, and rediscovering them was really nice.(less)
Patricia McKillip has written better books than this one. More complex, more thought-provoking. However, The Bell at Sealey Head is charming, and I ve...morePatricia McKillip has written better books than this one. More complex, more thought-provoking. However, The Bell at Sealey Head is charming, and I very much enjoyed reading it. The romance is more central than in her other novels, and it is very sweet and convincing. I also enjoyed finding pieces of her other books in this one, which makes sense because in a lot of ways The Bell at Sealey Head is a book about the love of books. I can definitely sympathize with that.
If nothing else, it's worth reading for the way McKillip writes. But if you know anything about her, you must know that.(less)