Petroglyph's 2019 reading

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Petroglyph's 2019 reading

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Edited: Jan 18, 2019, 10:53am

Hello, all. This will be my first year here, and I’m looking forward to reviewing and discussing most of my readings for 2019 in this thread. .

I'm a European who likes to read eclectically (mainly litfic, science fiction, fantasy, assorted non-fiction), but I could do a lot better in terms of spread -- geographical, temporal, linguistic, and racial. Then there’s the TBR pile, portions of which I’m outgrowing, or my tastes have changed. Also, I want to talk about books more often.

One way of achieving all that is to systematically keep track of what I read, and maintaining a thread here seems like a good start.

Goals / Reading projects
  • My TBR tag, as of 1st of January, has 285 uses in my library. That figure needs to go down, particularly since it includes books that have been there for over a decade (and more) and so I’ll be forcing myself to grab those books off their shelves this year.

  • I mainly read in English, and I really ought to consume more media in not-English. That means I will be reading more in my weaker languages (mainly French and German); more contemporary Swedish authors (I live in Sweden); and more in Dutch (my mother tongue), especially “canonical” authors and works

  • More by women. Four or five years ago, the proportion of female authors in my library was 23%. Now that figure is 31.94%. That’s the right direction, and it’s led me to wonderful discoveries, and so I see no reason not to continue along that path.

  • Reading globally: books and authors from nations I have not read (enough of). Particularly: reading non-Western Europe and Africa. Reading the Ancients and the Middle Ages, i.e. nations no longer in existence. Less by American authors: too much of my media intake is US-based.

  • Genres I’ve never read or generally avoid: I’m thinking things like bodice-rippers, vampire smut, memoirs, yaoi, fanfic, christmas stories. I also should read something by my parents' favourite authors -- Hedwig Courths-Mahler, Alistair Maclean, Gérard de Villiers -- which I know I’ll most likely hate, but I should try and read at least one book by each author. (Abandoning an execrable book at the halfway point is acceptable to me.)

  • More genre fiction. I plan on finally getting to a few science fiction classics I’ve shamefully never read (e.g. Brave new world, Ubik), as well as catching up with a few more recent authors (Ann Leckie, N. K. Jemisin).

  • For the past few years I’ve been participating in a TBR challenge (this is my 2019 thread; the one for 2018 is here), where I commit to reading 24 books which might require a nudge or two to get to. Reviews of those books will be cross-posted here, too.

Edited: Jul 4, 2019, 8:20pm

  1. The image of a drawn sword by Jocelyn Brooke (Novel)
  2. The gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald (Novel)
  3. Een zwerver verliefd by Arthur Van Schendel (Novel)
  4. Een zwerver verdwaald by Arthur Van Schendel (Novel)
  5. The skeleton's holiday by Leonora Carrington (Short stories)
  6. In the Vanishers' palace by Aliette de Bodard (Novella)
  7. Het fregatschip Johanna Maria by Arthur van Schendel (Novel)
  8. Ten days in a mad-house by Nellie Bly (Non-fiction)
  9. Sverige 1628: bilder och texter kring ett årtal by Christine Östling (Essays)
  10. The privilege of pain by Caroline Kane Mills Everett (Essay)
  11. The top of the volcano by Harlan Ellison (Collection)
  12. We should all be feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Essay)
  13. The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir by Karin Tidbeck (Short story)
  14. Escurial: drame en un acte by Michel de Ghelderode (Play)
  15. Academic exercises by K. J. Parker (Collection)
  16. Die Türme des Februar by Tonke Dragt (YA novel)
  17. De wereld een dansfeest by Arthur van Schendel (Novel)
  18. *Penric and the shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold (Novella)
  19. A portrait of the artist as a young man by James Joyce (Novel)

  1. So you've been publicly shamed by Jon Ronson (Non-fiction)
  2. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie (Novel)
  3. Le pigeon by Patrick Süskind (Novella)
  4. The hunter from the woods by Robert McCammon (Collection)
  5. De erfenis by Connie Palmen (Novella)
  6. Goody two-shoes by Anonymous (Short story)
  7. Brave new world by Aldous Huxley (Novel)
  8. Frappe-toi le coeur by Amélie Nothomb (Novel)
  9. The shadowy horses by Susanna Kearsley (Novel)
  10. Ancillary mercy by Ann Leckie (Novel)
  11. Oväntade fläckar på Vasa by Ann Fernholm (Non-fiction)
  12. Ubik by Philip K. Dick (Novel)
  13. Passing strange by Ellen Klages (Novella)
  14. Lazarillo de Tormes by Anonymous (Novel)

  1. Les prénoms épicènes by Amélie Nothomb (Novel)
  2. Cereus blooms at night by Shani Mootoo (Novel)
  3. Nighttime is my time by Mary Higgins Clark (Novel)
  4. Zur linken Hand getraut by Hedwig Courths-Mahler (Novel)
  5. The bluest eye by Toni Morrison (Novel)
  6. The swindler by Francisco de Quevedo (Novella)
  7. *The Anti-Christ Handbook Vol. 2: The horror and hilarity of Left Behind by Fred Clark (Non-fiction)
  8. Mayeia by Coburne Spencer (Novella)
  9. Convenience store woman by Sayaka Murata (Novella)
  10. Le diable au corps by Raymond Radiguet (Novella)
  11. En man som heter Ove by Fredrik Backman (Novel)

* Not (yet) reviewed

Edited: Jul 4, 2019, 8:22pm

  1. Het hemelse gerecht by Renate Dorrestein (Novel)
  2. The beauty by Aliya Whiteley (Novella)
  3. Lock in by John Scalzi (Novel)
  4. Mieke Maaike's obscene jeugd by Louis Paul Boon (Novella)
  5. De zeven tuinen by Arthur van Schendel (Novel)
  6. Angel by Elizabeth Taylor (Novel)
  7. Gloriant, gevolgd door de klucht van de Buskenblaser by Anonymous (Plays)
  8. The only harmless great thing by Brooke Bolander (Novella)
  9. No one writes to the colonel by Gabriel García Márquez (Novella)
  10. The prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope (Novel)
  11. The juniper tree by Barbara Comyns (Novel)
  12. You were never really here by Jonathan Ames (Novella)
  13. Modellen: Vasamodeller från när och fjärran = The model: Vasa models from near and far: Vasamuseet, 31 Oktober 1997-10 Maj 1998 by Vasamuseets vänner (Non-fiction)
  14. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (Novel)
  15. La nostalgie heureuse by Amélie Nothomb (Novella)
  16. Kattresan by Ivar Arosenius (Picture book)

  1. A second chance at Eden by Peter F. Hamilton (Collection)
  2. Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote (Novella)
  3. The art of space travel by Nina Allan (Novelette)
  4. The Young Visiters or, Mr. Salteena's Plan by Daisy Ashford (Novella)
  5. The alchemist by Paulo Coelho (Novel)
  6. De allerlaatste caracara ter wereld by Peter Verhelst (Novella)
  7. As on a darkling plain by Ben Bova (Novel)
  8. Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare (Play)
  9. Orbit unlimited by Poul Anderson (Novel)
  10. Dix rêves de pierre by Blandine le Callet (Collection)
  11. The women of Nell Gwynne's by Kage Baker (Novella)
  12. Utan pengar, utan bikini by Cecilia Davidsson (Collection)
  13. Un roman anglais by Stéphanie Hochet (Novel)
  14. That game we played during the war by Carrie Vaughn (Short story)
  15. Spring så fort du kan by Sofia Nordin (Novel)
  16. Roulette cambodgienne by Gérard de Villiers (Novel)
  17. The flying saucer by Dede Kamkondo (Short story)
  18. Sveket by Birgitta Trotzig (Novella)

  1. Nouvelle histoire de Mouchette by Georges Bernanos (Novel)
  2. Do androids dream of electric sheep? by Philip K. Dick (Novel)
  3. *Älven by Anna-Karin Palm (Short story)
  4. Tabac by Gerda Dendooven (Novel)
  5. Letters to a young novelist by Mario Vargas Llosa (Essays)
  6. The black tides of heaven by JY Yang (Novella)
  7. Poison or protect by Gail Carriger (Novella)
  8. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (Play)
  9. Le colonel Chabert by Honoré de Balzac (Novella)
  10. The song (Short story) by Erinn L. Kemper (Short story)
  11. On a red station, drifting by Aliette de Bodard (Novella)
  12. The breast by Philip Roth (Novella)
  13. La place by Annie Ernaux (Novel)
  14. The arrival of missives by Aliya Whiteley (Novella)
  15. Problemski hotel by Dimitri Verhulst (Novel)

* Not (yet) reviewed

Jan 5, 2019, 2:11pm

July - Aug - Sep

Jan 5, 2019, 2:12pm

Oct - Nov - Dec

Edited: Jul 4, 2019, 11:19pm

Figures & statistics Until 2019-06-30

  • Items read: 95
  • Male / female / other ratio: 39/52/4 (42% / 55% / 4%)
  • Languages: 6
    • English: 60
    • Dutch: 10
    • French: 12
    • Swedish: 10
    • German: 2
    • Middle Dutch: 1
  • Types:
    • collection: 6
    • drama: 3
    • essays: 3
    • non-fiction: 6
    • novel: 40
    • novella: 21
    • short story: 12
  • Formerly owned but unread: 31

Jan 5, 2019, 2:12pm

Ok, thread open!

Edited: Jan 12, 2019, 7:18pm

The image of a drawn sword by Jocelyn Brooke

Why did I choose to read this?
This was an impulsive purchase, and the only unread item from a 2014 London book haul. Some kind of fantasy-horror to do with World War Two. Sounds like the kind of thing I would read ;)

Review (Also posted here.)
This wasn’t quite fantasy-horror, but more of a cross between Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense and Kafka’s The Trial.

Reynard Langrish, former soldier declared physically unfit during WWII, lives with his mother just outside a village outside the town where he works at a bank. Above all, he feels increasingly untethered to reality: his senses are dulled, and the world feels washed-out. One night, a particularly dark and stormy one, an army captain called Archer calls at his house, claiming to have taken a wrong turn and asking for directions. The two strike up an awkward, almost compulsory friendship. As Langrish’ encounters become increasingly dreamlike, he soon finds himself training to join a British Army battalion that is being raised in secret.

This was a weird read: not quite horror, not quite Weird Fiction, not quite suspense. Horror tropes that are seemingly used straight (cf. the dark and stormy night when Langrish and Archer meet) are treated as irrelevancies; the nightmarish quality present in the Weird is primarily due to a regimented and unquestioned army bureaucracy; and the dreamlike reality flows along a little too predictably for the suspense to be gripping. This short novel is situated in the periphery of several different genres but isn’t really at home with any of them.

At 140 pages, this is a quick but unsettling read, as much for its contents as for its genre indecisiveness.

Jan 5, 2019, 2:13pm

Currently reading The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald, who published her first novel when she was sixty. Enjoying it very much, in part because of Fitzgerald-esque paragraphs such as the following. One of the main characters, Daisy, has just been dishonourably dismissed from the hospital where she had a position as a nurse-in-training:
It was made clear that she must leave by Monday week. This was a concession, because it was known that Daisy had no home to go to. Kate Smith and some of the eighteen other second-year probationers -- but not all of them, some were cautious -- bought a leaving present for her. There was not much time, and they had to settle for a travelling salt-and-pepper set, said to be new china, and decorated with a view of the coronation of George V. Daisy was grateful. Disgrace contaminates, even though it makes everyone else feel a little safer.

That combination of slightly absurd, barely-humorous mundanity (the uninspired farewell gift) with resigned but true observations about the unpleasantness of human interaction: I just love that about her writing. She's been around, and writes such truths, such insights into how people in a society treat each other. It's fiction, and made-up people, but it all feels so true.

Jan 5, 2019, 2:24pm

Welcome ! I'm looking forward to reading your thread.

Jan 5, 2019, 9:34pm

welcome to CR and thanks for the Penelope Fitzgerald quote. Good luck with your goals. The Image of the Drawn Sword sounds curious.

Jan 6, 2019, 1:44am

>8 Petroglyph: Thank you, I've wishlisted this. I read Brooke's Orchid Trilogy many years ago and remember enjoying it although the only other thing I remember was that the titles were a bit peculiar--The Military Orchid, A Mine of Serpents and The Goose Cathedral. He seems now to be obscure enough that although there is a Wikipedia page for him, there is none for any of his books. From the Wikipedia page:
Though the Orchid Trilogy strays into a typically English vein of humour, the idyllic land of his childhood and his obsession with le paradis perdu often bring in an element of intense melancholy, something developed in paranoia and isolation in The Image of a Drawn Sword.

Jan 6, 2019, 6:53pm

>11 dchaikin:

>12 haydninvienna:
melancholy turning into isolation is definitely a good description of The image of a drawn sword, whose title derives from a passage from Beowulf, so who knows where those other titles came from.

Jan 7, 2019, 10:26am

Welcome! Expecting to stop here from time to time to see what you are reading.

Jan 7, 2019, 10:45am

>13 Petroglyph: I can at least tell you where the first 2 titles came from. A "military orchid" is an actual orchid, a rare wild species of ground orchid found in parts of southern England. A "Mine of Serpents" is a firework, which figures significantly in the novel.

Jan 7, 2019, 12:42pm

>14 avaland:
Welcome back at you!

>15 haydninvienna:
Huh, interesting

Jan 7, 2019, 1:57pm

The gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald

Why did I choose to read this?
After Jane Austen, I’ve decided to make Penelope Fitzgerald my next Completist Author, meaning I’ll be reading all nine of her novels. Four I’ve already read, and and this is the only unread book by her I own (though I might buy and read more by her in 2019). From the blurb, The gate of angels is an academic novel and a romance set in 1912 Cambridge. Also, it apparently features a character based on M. R. James, whose early 20thC horror stories I will always have a soft spot for.

Review (Also posted here.)
An academic novel and a romance set in 1912 Cambridge is indeed a good way to describe this novel. The two main characters, Fred Fairly and Daisy Saunders meet by (literal) accident, and since the former is a Physics fellow at a tiny Cambridge College, and the latter is a working-class nurse-in-training, there is the expected attraction of opposites. Well, kind of. The book never specifies that that is what’s going on, but merely implies it.

In fact, Fitzgerald leaves lots unsaid in this book: she juxtaposes sections that may differ in tone, location, sometimes even genre, and leaves it up to the reader to connect them -- the well-read reader, who knows how romances and academic novels typically develop. Characterization is bare-bones, mainly done through dialogue and Omniscient-Narrator commentary, only hinting at a more coherent personality in the background -- all this is again to be assembled by the reader. I imagine that this may feel disjointed or even unfinished to some, but reading one section in the spirit of the others worked wonderfully for me (or perhaps I merely like the way my own imagination works). Carrying over the subtle silliness and absurdity from some of the sections and treating the novel as though that is the kind of heightened reality in which it is set makes the whole thing come together beautifully.

For silly and absurd is what this novel is -- quietly and occasionally at first, but the mainly straightforward romance plot, which runs so much on readers’ expectations of both romances and academic settings, acquires more and more sudden absurdities and tongue-in-cheek moments until it reaches a crescendo and turns into what I unrepentantly call “uproariously funny”. I giggle-laughed with delight repeatedly.

It turns out there is a character based on M. R. James in there -- a pipe-smoking mediaeval palaeographer who writes ghost stories in his spare time and is fond of reading them out loud to colleagues at various Colleges. Fitzgerald even includes her take on one of his ghost stories -- a case of sudden genre shift, at which point the novel finally comes into its own as an unapologetically funny book. Seriously, the crowning moment of awesome in this book is a reference to another writer’s style -- I love it when media can pull that off. (Does it work if you haven’t read M. R. James? Totally! The genre shift even comes with foreshadowing!) After that, the book coasts to an ending on a wave of good-will.

Penelope Fitzgerald has an exquisitely calibrated sense of humour, and she puts it to excellent use in The gate of Angels. I absolutely loved this book: it’s going to be hard to beat this one in terms of shameless fun.

Edited: Jan 8, 2019, 8:14am

Een zwerver verliefd (English title A wanderer in love) by Arthur Van Schendel

Why did I choose to read this?
From the TBR pile. One of an omnibus of four novels spanning the career of an early 20thC Dutch author of the Neo-Romantic persuasion. I liked one of his books enough to buy this collection.

Review (Also posted in Dutch here.)
A wanderer in love is historical fiction, set in twelfth-century (I think) Northern Italy during the wars between the Holy Roman Emperor and the forces of the Pope. The titular wanderer is Tamalone, unable to hang around the same place or the same people for too long. And so he wanders passionately, taking full advantage of his network of wealthy contacts around the city states and his near-total lack of strings attached. Then, when hanging around the retinue of a friendly Imperialist warlord, one of his contacts, he is tasked with keeping safe the warlord’s mistress, and he falls in love.

This short novel is short on substance. Characterization is barely there, emotions and nature descriptions too saccharine, too Romantic. The setting -- Northern Italy during the Investiture Controversy -- seems ripped from an uninspired children’s book: Tamalone and his friends walk everywhere with ease, nothing’s too far away, travelling is fun, and food and shelter and clothes present no obstacle whatsoever. Van Schendel clearly expected the Big Emotions to do most of the legwork, the passionate paean to carefree vagrancy and, above all, the tropes of Courtly Love. Sadly, I think I may have outgrown those tropes.

So yeah. This didn’t do it for me: too facile, too childish, too hackneyed, too antiquated.

Jan 8, 2019, 3:58am

>17 Petroglyph: Good to see another completist on these threads. Enjoyed your excellent review of the Gate of Angels

Jan 8, 2019, 1:40pm

Fun reviews, two interesting authors.

Edited: Jan 10, 2019, 7:55pm

Een zwerver verdwaald by Arthur van Schendel

Why did I choose to read this?
One of an omnibus of four novels spanning the career an early 20thC Dutch author of the Neo-Romantic persuasion. I liked one of his books enough to buy this collection.

Review (Also posted here, though in Dutch.)
This book picks up the story a few months after Een zwerver verliefd. Tamalone, on a mission for one of his wealthy contacts, has temporarily settled in Venice, and meets a noble lady who falls in love with him. Just like in the previous book he'll have to choose between love, which perhaps will finally settle his profound longing for something unknown, and the carefree wandering life, which is at least a known pleasure.

Van Schendel once again tries to build the novel up around the theme of Fate: the outcome, in the end, is ineluctable. And once again, I must admit I am not convinced. Tamalone refuses to think through his decisions and takes everything as it comes; instead of Fate I think it is systematic unpreparedness and panic attacks that really drive this novel's plot.

Still, I enjoyed this one more than the previous book: no more love triangle, no more bland Courtly Love. Instead, we get a disappointing and unreliable human being whose imprecise dreams of stability will only ever see half-hearted attempts at realization. That, I can appreciate!

Jan 10, 2019, 8:18pm

The skeleton’s holiday by Leonora Carrington

Why did I choose to read this?
Last year I immensely enjoyed Carrington’s novel The hearing trumpet, and so I wanted to read more by her.

Review (Also posted here.)
A few very short and very surreal stories. Proper surreal, that is, like a Dalí or Magritte painting: the sentences are carefully constructed to zig and zag into pleasantly unconsidered semantics. Sweet!

Jan 11, 2019, 12:47pm

Enjoying your summaries of Tamalone’s wanderings.

Jan 11, 2019, 1:03pm

>8 Petroglyph:

This short novel is situated in the periphery of several different genres but isn’t really at home with any of them.

By all evidence something one could say about the reticent, gay author himself. I wouldn't dream of imposing a singular reading on a world as mysterious as Brooke's but his novels are more or less autobiographical and fairly obviously shaped by the experience of homosexuality. Some important aspects of it emerge only when considered in that light--dare I notice, a twinkle reflecting off a drawn sword? :)

Jan 11, 2019, 8:36pm

>24 LolaWalser:
I did not know Brooke was gay, but I suspected based on the novel's male gaze when it caresses shirtless soldiers.

It does throw an interesting perspective on an unyielding, faceless bureaucracy that can conceive of only itself, and that has no place for you, only a mold and an unconsidered insistence on individuals fitting in.

a twinkle reflecting off a drawn sword? :)
Nice one!

Jan 12, 2019, 6:50pm

In the Vanishers’ palace by Aliette de Bodard

Why did I choose to read this?
This novella was a 2018 SantaThing gift, by an author whose short work I’ve enjoyed before.

Review (Also posted here.)
The novella In the Vanishers’ palace feels like it is trying on all the genre labels. It’s coming-of-age YA, for one, a little more so than I am used to from de Bodard. It is also is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast (particularly the animated Disney film, including a Library Scene), uses both sfnal tropes (a post-apocalyptic world abandoned by malevolent Aliens) and fantasy tropes (magic spells and dragons), against a setting that borrows from Vietnamese folklore. And it’s also a queer romance, specifically one of the paranormal and interspecies kind. Plenty of labels, forms of address, and pronouns to go around.

And it works, on most levels -- so many, in fact, that not all of them have to come into play to enjoy this novella. The parallels with the Disney movie, for one, are obvious, but only once you start looking for them; it can be read largely as a paranormal romance that happens to be queer, or vice versa. But it’s never less than at least three genres simultaneously, and it works out very nicely, mainly because de Bodard keeps the whole thing firmly grounded emotionally and psychologically. Ambitious, but solid.

Edited: Jan 13, 2019, 7:46pm

Het fregatschip Johanna Maria by Arthur van Schendel

Why did I choose to read this?
One of an omnibus of four novels spanning the career an early 20thC Dutch author of the Neo-Romantic persuasion. I liked one of his books enough to buy this collection.

Review (Also posted here, though in Dutch.)
Het fregatschip Johanna Maria, or in English The frigate Johanna Maria, is about the forty-year career of a three-masted sailing ship, and about the sailor whose life merges with hers over the decades. In other words: a man and his ship, or perhaps a ship and her man.

This was a classically beautiful book, the kind of old-fashioned sentimentality that my parents and grandparents would appreciate. Van Schendel does tug on those heartstrings sometimes, but not to the extent that pathos begins to dominate. As a novel, this book reminded me a lot of the Naturalistic Farm Novels (cf. Streuvels), and of other Neoromantic novels (cf. Den Doolaard, or perhaps The old man and the sea): there's tacit suffering through abuse, pure hard graft for an uncertain reward years in the future, the fusing of Man and Nature.

At times I was even reminded of sad animal books, of the type where the family dog or the racehorse is stolen and ends up in various criminal milieus: the ship’s standing, through ever-changing owners, names, and career paths, has its ups and downs as it traverses the seven seas. But the steadfast sailor is always there to see her through the worst of it.

In all, I must say that I was pleased with this novel. Not overly sentimental, entertaining enough, and tastefully nostalgic for the lost art of handling square-sailed three-masters. Three and a half stars!

Jan 14, 2019, 8:12pm

Ten days in a mad-house by Nellie Bly

Why did I choose to read this?
Back in the 1880s an investigative journalist had herself temporarily committed to an asylum for the insane in New York, in order to write a series of articles documenting the (mal)treatments that the inmates were subjected to. That sounds super interesting! (As does the rest of her life, btw.)

Review (Also posted here.)

Well, this was a sobering read. It’s also really good, and it’s freely available online.

Nellie Bly, an investigative journalist from the 1880s, had herself temporarily committed to an asylum for insane women in New York, in order to write a series of articles documenting the (mal)treatments that the inmates were subjected to. This book was a reissue of those articles to satisfy the high demand.

Things start off amusingly, when Bly has to try and convince people to section her -- essentially, she shows up at a short-term lodging place for women and acts suspiciously, while pitying the kind people she is deceiving in the process. But once she is transported to the asylum, she puts on her journalist hat, acts completely normal, and records what is allowed to happen to her.

It’s not pretty. The inmates are always cold (due to insufficient clothing, non-existent heating, and cold baths); the food is execrable; they are under constant threat of violence; and humiliations are frequent and issued with glee by the power-tripping staff. The maltreatment of the patients rises to the level of prison camp torture: they are deliberately and methodically kept in a state of sleep deprivation, malnourishment and under-stimulation. Worse: there is no way to prove their sanity, nor will the staff be even willing to listen. A diagnosis equals a sentence for life.

Bly describes a typical day as she underwent them, which is a terrible enough ordeal, and adds other inmates’ stories and experiences -- which are worse (lifelong imprisonment for not speaking English? How xenophobic can your medical system get?). Bly uses no rhetorical flourishes; there is no need for jokes or cutesy asides: drily narrated reality is harsh and unforgiving and undermines trust in fellow human beings, if not in society at large. I knew 19th-century treatment of The Other was atrocious, but reading contemporary reports really drives home that message.

The only good thing about Bly’s undercover stint is that, as a response to this exposé, the city of New York increased the funding (and, through increased inspections, the living standards) of its asylums.

Finally: my edition of this book also contains two shorter articles, in which Bly goes undercover to secure a job as a maid, and works briefly as an inner-city factory girl. Those as well show off her on-point observational skills. Good stuff!

Jan 14, 2019, 8:54pm

Sverige 1628: bilder och texter kring ett årtal, or Sweden 1628: images and texts from around that year, edited by Christine Östling

Why did I choose to read this?
I like everyday history, reading about the daily life of regular people, explained by experts using everyday objects and the more boring kind of historical documents (bills and deeds of sale and the like) and this booklet promised several such essays.

Review (Also posted here.)
This is a collection of essays discussing the everyday history of early 17thC Sweden, most starting from a document or an image from 1628, the year that Gustavus Adolphus' proud warship Vasa sank in the harbour of Stockholm.

One or two essays are by-the-numbers (e.g. the opening essay about the changeover from geocentrism to heliocentrism) or feel padded (the one about whether runes were still in use by the 17thC, as evidenced by an officer encoding portions of a letter with them), but most are quite interesting, and a few were standouts. One of the latter was the contribution discussing the average Swede's religious formation, which is based on a priest's notebook from when he systematically issued the same catechesis questionnaire to an entire village to make sure everyone believed the right things. Another memorable essay dealt with Sweden's copper mines, how the nation's economic plan depended on them, and how copper money was issued a few years during the 1620s to deal with the surplus after the global market collapsed. Super interesting!

At 121 pages, this was precisely the right length. Informative, but not too dense, and the contributors -- usually -- chose excellent points of departure.

Jan 15, 2019, 1:20pm

Enjoyed these last three. Cool about Bly, she must have been quite a character. And the book on Sweden 1628 sounds fun. I made it to the Vasa museum once, fascinated stuff.

Jan 15, 2019, 7:31pm

>30 dchaikin:
Bly was an interesting character! I've added her Around the world in seventy-two days to my wishlist!

Edited: Jan 19, 2019, 4:34pm

The privilege of pain by Caroline Kane Mills Everett

Why did I choose to read this?
A random find among Project Gutenberg’s latest issued ebooks. A quick read during meal prep.

Review (Also posted here.)
This booklet, published in 1920, is the expanded version of a lecture earlier delivered by the author, Caroline Kane Mills Everett (or, as the title page has it, Mrs. Leo Everett). In it, she argues that physical disabilities, illnesses, handicaps, missing limbs, blindness, and the like, should not really matter in how people are judged. For, “while civilization has undoubtedly undermined our physique, it has also abolished the circumstances which made strength and endurance the supreme necessities of the battle of life.”

Most of the chapters in this booklet are lists of famous people from history (soldiers, philosophers, poets, novelists, statesmen, musicians, protestant reformers) who are known to have been sickly, disabled or otherwise physically impaired. Interspersed among these are more meaty chapters, where Everett makes the substantial points of her essay.

It is not a perfect text. Style-wise, mere listings are tedious. And I have a few more issues with this almost 100-year-old text: the viewpoint is positivist and optimistic about the upward trend of civilization; the perspective is entirely Christian; Urban Americans are contrasted with Australian bushwomen. But the genesis of this text lies in a medical doctor’s casually discarding of physically non-fit people in general and female soldiers in specific: “mental and moral man gets his strength and efficiency only from the physical man. A sick man, just as a sick race, is the one that goes to the wall.” Everett, thinking of the countless disabled World War veterans, took issue with that, and produced this text. As an angry response, I can appreciate it.

And I can also get behind the central message, which is that, given a society where physical strength and fitness are not the pinnacle of human achievement, “[n]o physical disablement is a barrier to achievement.”

Jan 17, 2019, 11:09am

The top of the volcano by Harlan Ellison

Why did I choose to read this?
This book was part of a Humble Bundle a few years back, one of the few from that batch I had not yet read. It collects some of Ellison’s prize-winning short fiction. I actually read most of this in 2018 (I started browsing stories a few weeks before his death in 2018), and today I finished.

Review (Also posted here.)
This is a collection of some of Ellison’s prize-winning short fiction (short stories, novelettes, novellas), and it was my first sustained readthrough of Ellison material. Some of these I’d read before, individually, in anthologies, but most were new to me.

Ellison had a distinctive, unforgiving style. These stories share a harsh view on reality, an almost blasé treatment of the nastiness out there in the universe -- both real-world and in-universe. Sometimes even to the point of showing off, but mostly I liked the interplay between gritty narrator and unpleasant environment. I also found them very visually appealing, in that many would lend themselves very well to a Hollywood treatment.

A good collection. Many more hits than misses.

Jan 18, 2019, 1:05pm

I hadn’t heard of Harlan Ellison, so I looked him up on Wikipedia. Quite a character.

Jan 18, 2019, 1:17pm

He's (justly) infamous as the editor of science fiction's "most famous unpublished book"... Outside SF, I think, he's mainly famous for his impassioned "Pay the writer" rant (youtube link).

Jan 18, 2019, 2:31pm

>35 Petroglyph: Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions blew my 14-year-old mind in a very good way. Makes me think I'd like to reread them and see what I think some 40 years later. NYPL only has print copies of the first one, but I could always place a hold... (See, going off on tangents like this is why I'm so bad about reading books I already own.)

Jan 19, 2019, 3:27pm

Oh, yes, those tangents -- they are why I set myself wide-open goals (read more genre fiction; read more in language X or Y). They'd derail any more systematic schedule I set up almost instantly. I love being seduced by the allure of the moment.

A more productive tangent would perhaps be to catch up with some later work by the authors in Dangerous Visions? Or to try and track down some of the materials that might have been included in The last dangerous visions?

Jan 19, 2019, 3:41pm

We should all be feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Why did I choose to read this?
Read more by women and POC.
I’d seen the TEDx talk; found this super-cheap, so why not?

Review (Also posted here.)
In this essay/talk, Adichie sets out what I think is a basic. all-round case for feminism: if you think women and men ought to be treated equally, and if you think that sexism and patriarchal structures present obstacles, then you are a feminist. It's astonishing how popular such a basic statement of intent is: none of it should be controversial, but apparently it still is.

Part of that is perhaps that it's easy to affirm basic moral principles without then also taking action. Part of it is, perhaps, a measure of virtue-signaling. Then again, freedoms and ideals are always under threat, and efforts to preserve any gains that may have been won are at least as important as the effort spent in acquiring them in the first place.

So yes, it's sad that basic texts like these are still necessary, but it's a good thing that people keep putting them out there.

Jan 19, 2019, 3:44pm

The Last Voyage of Skidbladnir by Karin Tidbeck

Why did I choose to read this?
Read more genre fiction. Read more by women.
I regularly browse the latest free fiction on -- it’s an easy way of dipping into the work of new (to me) genre authors.

Review (Also posted here.)
Meh. A little too facile, a little too twee, even. This story knows the tropes for what makes a ship and her crew type stories good, but is too sloppy in applying them.

The living entity that uses buildings as a hull just crawls inside an office building and takes off? No radiation shielding, no air-lock, no life support system, no space-proofing in general? Sorry, I just can't buy that.

So to me, this felt like a failed Firefly-type story. I did like the in-universe Babylon-5-esque tv show, though.

Edited: Jan 27, 2019, 9:33pm

Academic exercises by K. J. Parker

Why did I choose to read this?
This book was part of a Humble Bundle a few years back, one of the few from that batch I had not yet read. It's a collection of stories and novellas (and a few essays on military history that read like wikipedia digests).

Review (Also posted here.)
I’m not sure if I want to call K. J. Parker (pseudonym of Tom Holt) a new favourite author.

On the one hand, I loved many of these stories and novellas. For instance, I did not know I needed a novella in my life in which a scholar of history has his conjectures proven right by a rival privately, forges a manuscript that proves him right publicly, finds that someone uses that forgery to decode directions to a lost continent, gets roped into sailing off on a voyage of discovery, and wanders around a dead civilization. But it turns out I did need that rollercoaster in my life, and now I’m thankful that Parker wrote it. Moreover, I liked Parker’s heroes in general: middling scholars, fond of illuminating manuscripts, whose preferred path to victory is a blend of academic research, underhanded shortcuts and reluctant realpolitik. I really like that combination of interests! The plotting of the stories, too, is uniformly tight, with endings that are pitch-perfect, despite the unexpected swerves that may have occurred on the way there.

There are a number of drawbacks, though. Most obviously, Parker’s main characters read like they might almost be the same person: they are all scholarly types who love to read, they publish highly specialist papers in journals, they illuminate manuscripts as a hobby, they force confessions by showing prospective victims their torture implements rather than using them, and they share the opinion that people who want to be in power should never be allowed to be in power (which leaves them to do the job, against their will). Parker also recycles his jokes too often for comfort.

That said, I still enjoyed these stories immensely, probably more than I’m comfortable admitting -- apparently they scratched a few itches simultaneously, several of which I did not know I had. So yeah: maybe Parker is my new guilty pleasure?

Jan 27, 2019, 9:38pm

Escurial: drame en un acte by Michel de Ghelderode

Why did I choose to read this?
I want to read more in French, especially by Belgian authors, and this, as a very short, one-act drama by a Belgian surrealist/expressionist fit the bill.
Also, apparently there is such a thing as The Belgian School of the Strange. Two reactions: one, why have I never heard from this? And two, I’ll definitely be reading more by authors included in that tag list!

Review (Also posted here.)
Set, ostensibly in El Escorial, this one-act play feels very expressionist: a grotesque King, almost baying at his hounds to be quiet, engages in a testy dialogue with his scruffy Fool, and we get to witness their recalcitrant tug of war.

It’s gloomy, grotesque, and I really want to see it performed now. Two thumbs up!

Jan 27, 2019, 10:08pm

Die Türme des Februar or in English The towers of February by Tonke Dragt

Why did I choose to read this?
I want to read more in German, which is one of my weaker languages, and so I picked up this YA novel, one I hadn’t yet read by one of my favourite authors when I was a kid. Originally published in Dutch.

Review (Also posted here, albeit in Dutch.)
The towers of February is ostensibly the diary of Tom Wit, presented as a found manuscript edited and published by author Tonke Dragt.

Tom, who has lost his memory, finds himself on a beach next to a quaint town, and slowly discovers he has ended up in an alternate version of our world. Much is familiar, but their level of technology is lower: two uninhabited housing estates of twelve floors are treated as mysterious and almost unknowable tourist attractions, since they too appeared out of thin air a few years before and now tower above the dunes. Tom also discovers he is not the only one to ever have made it across the border between worlds.

Tonke Dragt always manages to invest her fantastical plots with at least the appearance of lived reality: she succeeds in circumventing my instinctive scepsis by promising a thrilling fictional ride. I suspect this book would have been a frequent reread had I discovered it as a teen.

Jan 31, 2019, 5:32am

Catching up and enjoying your reviews. The Nelly Bly book sounds up my street - will look out for it.

Feb 2, 2019, 12:14pm

>17 Petroglyph: I have Fitzgerald's book on my tbr list and your excellent review is pushing it closer to the top. Fitzgerald's writing is always a treat.

Feb 2, 2019, 4:28pm

>43 AlisonY:
I have a feeling that the Bly book will end up being one of the more highly-rated books I read this year, in terms of instant appeal, as well as inherent interest, and as well as the excellent execution and fulfilment of those promises.

>44 VivienneR:
She did write books that leave memorable impacts for the slight and delicate contraptions they appear to be at first blush. I want to read all of them, but at the same time I want to savour them slowly. Don't know if I can withstand their siren call for long, though!

Feb 3, 2019, 5:01pm

>45 Petroglyph: I just finished my first Fitzgerald today (The Blue Flower). I will definitely be back for more.

Feb 5, 2019, 1:35am

>46 AlisonY:
Good to hear that. Always happy to nudge someone into P. Fitzgerald.

Feb 5, 2019, 4:08pm

My favourite Penelope Fitzgerald was The Golden Child set in what appeared to be the British Museum where a new exhibit was opening. I used to work in a museum and Fitzgerald's characters must be the nature of the beast because she hit it right on the nail.

Feb 5, 2019, 7:22pm

>48 VivienneR:
I work part-time in a museum, and that is indeed the next book by her I've been making eyes at.

She does get her settings absolutely right, I agree: 50s Oxbridge, 1790s Saxony, 1910s Moscow... Such effortless-seeming world-building.

Edited: Feb 8, 2019, 3:53am

A few short reviews, since I don't feel strongly enough about the items in question to write much.

  • Penric and the shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold: This is the second in a series of six (so far) fantasy novellas by Bujold. I think they're pretty good, the way they focus on emotional and psychological character building rather than flash-bang magic. But they don't require much mental effort. Ideal for reading in bed. (Review also posted on the work page.)

  • So you've been publicly shamed by Jon Ronson: This book deals with online shaming and the psychological effect it has on its targets. Ronson interviews a few people who were infamously pilloried on Twitter and, while interesting, this book does read like a book-length treatment of the wikipedia article on online shaming, which is really too long. Ronson initially supports twitter shaming as a grass-roots, voice-of-the-common-people way of calling out misbehaving billionaires, only to come around when considering the outsize and life-ruining effects that a single tweet may cause an online hate-mob to hand out. So this book is interesting and slight at the same time, and it also overstays its welcome a little. (Review also posted on the work page.)

  • Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie: This is the second volume in a space opera trilogy. Leckie presents a world in which a vast star-spanning empire sinks into civil war while an effortlessly superior alien race threatens to erase it. But the main action is kept laser-focused on interpersonal conflict, matters of colonialism and social justice, and the main character's psychological adjustment to human life (she's an ex-AI). This contrast between background and foreground may seem a little frustrating (it was for me), or even like a bait-and-switch. Your mileage may vary. I'll have to read the third volume to say which side I come down on. (Review also posted on the work page.)

  • The hunter from the woods by Robert McCammon: This book is a series of historical fantasy short stories and novellas with the same main character. The setting is the middle of the 20thC, and the main character is a werewolf of Russian origin who gets drafted into the British Secret Service. Most of the stories/novellas are individual espionage missions around or during the Second World War.

    I got this book as part of a Humble Bundle a few years back, and it is one of the less-appealing sounding ones that I put off reading, and I think I was right in doing so. The writing is perfunctory. The plots would make for by-the-numbers action movies. Quick, forgettable 1980s-seeming pulp. Would have given it two stars, but for the sequence with the torpedo in the story set on a freight ship: that was excellent use of the Rule of Cool. (Review also posted on the work page.)

  • Goody two-shoes by Anonymous: a short story courtesy of the Internet Archive. This is the story that popularized the phrase "goody two-shoes", and it is one of those horrible morality tales for children where virtue is rewarded -- especially the kind of female virtue that is demure, long-suffering and harder-working, and that serves as childhood indoctrination. The kind of made-up, unrealistic, ideologically pure story that intensely Christian people or blinkered political pundits would hold up as evidence that their ideology is right. (Review also posted on the work page.)

Feb 9, 2019, 4:56pm

a lot of books, pg. I'm curious about So you've been publicly shamed.

Feb 10, 2019, 5:32pm

I'm bingeing!

So you've been publicly shamed, well, like I said, you can read the wiki page instead, or you can watch his talk on the subject.

Edited: Feb 11, 2019, 1:01pm

De wereld een dansfeest by Arthur van Schendel

Why did I choose to read this?
This is the fourth and final item in an omnibus of four novels (published between 1904 and 1938) by the neoromantic Dutch writer Arthur van Schendel. I bought this omnibus over a decade ago on the strength this, the fourth novel, which I’ve read twice already (it is due for a reread).

Review (Also posted here, albeit in Dutch.)
I love this book.

Published in 1938, De wereld een dansfeest is a romance with a narrative twist. The love story develops normally (that is, with delaying obstacles) between two people who love to dance: Daniel de Moralis Walewijn, and Marion Ringelinck. The twist is that neither of the couple gets to speak directly to the reader. Instead, each of the nineteen chapters is told in the first person by someone who knows them or who knows of them. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out what the current narrator’s relation is to the main couple, or how far time has jumped forward. That said, the structure does provide a solid framework: the plot develops chronologically, starting when Daniel and Marion are children in the Netherlands in the early 1900s, and ending when they are adults living in London post-WWI; and the chapters alternate between Daniel and Marion.

The thing that binds the central couple together is dance. Both Daniel and Marion are portrayed as natural dance prodigies: everyone they know remarks how essential music and dance are to them, how their lives seem are governed by an innate rhythm that makes them different from everyone else but perfect for each other. At the centre, really, this novel is a love story along along traditional lines -- tragic separation, will-they-won’t-they, psychological obstacles, and a joint passion that makes the central couple seem like a natural fit.

But the splintered narrative device functions as a tempering balance to a saccharine love story. For one, merely telling the story through nineteen indirect narrators has a distancing effect: the love story is kept in the middle distance, and so it develops mainly through hearsay and second-hand comments. That tones down the sentimentality considerably.

Secondly, the novel is primarily concerned with the effects of the central couple’s story, rather than with the romance itself. Individual narrators have their own concerns: they are stuck in a rut, lonely, working through a divorce, cynical, living through a world war, or sunk in poverty. Having Daniel and Marion pass through their lives, even briefly, brightens the narrators’ existence a little and leaves them with wistful memories. Think how easy it is to give people musical earworms -- songs they’ll be humming for days whether they want to or not. That is the effect Van Schendel goes for. The central couple aren’t merely brighter and more special than anyone else by authorial fiat, they have a noticeable impact on the people around them, too. The narrators have, in their own way, been swayed by the charms of one of the couple, by the conviction that the two belong together, or by the universal allure of music. That kind of worked contagious.

I thought this balancing effort worked splendidly: on the one hand there’s a Romantic romance to indulge in, and on the other there are the layers of emotional distancing to work through that really work to encourage said indulgence. The way that the novel’s seductiveness and the required mental work build on each other left me feeling very satisfied at the end.

Feb 11, 2019, 1:43pm

A portrait of the artist as a young man by James Joyce

Why did I choose to read this?
I’m unlikely to ever read Ulysses, and I’ll never read Finnegan’s wake, but I remember enjoying Dubliners. Joyce’s other book has stood unread on my shelves since I was 17, and this year I’ll finally scratch that vague itch and move it into the Read section of my library.

Review (Also posted here.)
In Portrait, James Joyce dramatises incidents and periods from his own childhood and adolescence, and I don’t really know what to feel about this book. Parts of this were brilliant: the writing, the rhythm, the selection of words and images. This book is excellent at expressing the unscratchable ache that is growing pains: the death of a child’s naïve belief in Justice when unfair punishment is handed out; the intensity of adolescent frustrations, both sexual and religious; and the search for fundamental meaning in life.

On the other hand, well, there were numerous occasions where I felt like rolling my eyes at the text, because I’ve read too many books about sensitive, intelligent, precious little main characters who struggle mightily against their schoolboy tormentors and an understimulating environment. I know that I can’t really hold that against this book -- the century of intervening literature that makes this kind of story feel so trite is not this book’s fault. But still: the story feels so trite in many places.

This book left me feeling very ambiguous. For example: a very large section of this book is taken up by a series of fire-and-brimstone sermons delivered by a Jesuit hell-bent on frightening children into good old Catholic obedience through extensive and lascivious descriptions of torture. I can appreciate what Joyce was going for here, and it’s well done indeed: I can really taste the hunger for power, the emotional manipulation, the all-encompassing prison that this kind of mentality wants to enforce. But these sermons take up 12% of the text. 12%! That is way, way too long, and spoils the effect. Then there are later bits, where the main character expounds his views on beauty and art which serve as a replacement for his earlier religiosity, and which are intellectually impressive, but they are shoehorned in in the clumsiest of ways. Again, the effect is spoiled.

Both of these -- the fire-and-brimstone, and the intellectualizing theories -- overstay their welcome and tip the balance from “Impressive, well done” into “Man, Joyce really loves hearing himself talk”. And self-important smugness is a sin I find hard to forgive. So yeah. Three stars?

Feb 11, 2019, 2:31pm

>53 Petroglyph:

You made that sound very enticing. I'll be looking for it.

Feb 11, 2019, 5:42pm

>54 Petroglyph: Interesting review of A portrait of the artist as a young man I read this at school for exams and I wonder what I would make of it now. I remember thinking the sermons were too long at the time.

Feb 12, 2019, 1:49pm

>54 Petroglyph: I enjoyed your review. I've been skirting around this Joyce book for a while, but I think you've happily saved me some precious hours I'd never get back. I'm fairly sure the overdone intellectualisation and excessive sermons would annoy me after a while.

Feb 14, 2019, 1:19pm

Enjoyed these last two posts a lot, P. I don’t know anything about Schendel, but Joyce - some day.

Feb 14, 2019, 6:37pm

>1 Petroglyph:

I read Ubik this year: my first by the author and my first foray into science fiction. The story was fun and certainly engrossing. I think you'll enjoy it even if I don't have a means of reference with any other works.

Feb 14, 2019, 6:46pm

>54 Petroglyph: Great review of Joyce's book! I read it when I was young and thought it was so clever. I don't think I'd be able to stick with it to the end now.

Feb 14, 2019, 7:50pm

>57 AlisonY:
Portrait indeed rubbed me the wrong way there. Other aspects of the book were great -- as I've said elsewhere on LT "many of his scenes are spot-on evocations of what it feels like to be a child or an adolescent. They are intensely accurate, feel-wise. And the language is beautiful. It's just that the novel's shortcomings, as I see them, are in very different areas (showing off, bloviating clumsily about art)."

I'm glad I read the book, for those scenes, and for lit-crit cred. I don't think I'll want to read it again.

>58 dchaikin:

I don't think Van Schendel has been translated into English. And Joyce, well, he is part of the homework that the Canon can be.

Edited: Feb 14, 2019, 7:54pm

Frappe-toi le coeur by Amélie Nothomb

Why did I choose to read this?
Nothomb publishes one short novel every year. She has been since 1992, and I’ve read every single one, except for the 2017 and 2018 ones. This is her 2017 book.

Review (Also posted here.)
A slight, shallow book. It’s not charming, not when the main character is all kinds of perfect: pretty, capable, hard-working, admired, super precocious. And especially not when the book has nothing substantial to say about maternal abuse.

Reading these Nothomb novels has become a chore rather than a pleasure. They are well past the point of diminishing returns. I should give up on them.

Feb 14, 2019, 8:44pm

Wonderful variety! I managed to dodge bullets on this visit but expect to pick some up on subsequent tries. I'm following this group for the first time this year, although my own reading thread is over in the Green Dragon. Visitors welcome!

Feb 14, 2019, 11:38pm

>62 Petroglyph:

I also used to read Nothomb's books every year but I find now that gaps are starting to come up. I find her semi-autobiographical books to be her best and so I still look forward to those still but the others are quite often filler. At least they don't take more than 2 hours to read.

Feb 15, 2019, 6:30am

>63 Jim53:
Welcome! Feel free to drop in and comment anytime!

>64 lilisin:
Gaps, indeed, and a lack of new books by her to recommend to others. I'll read Les prénoms épicènes soon, just to catch up, but I might not read her 2019 book this year -- two chore-reads per year are more than enough.

Feb 16, 2019, 2:51pm

Passing strange by Ellen Klages

Why did I choose to read this?
A world fantasy award winning novella. I knew nothing about it going in, except that it had a pretty cover.

Review (Also posted here.)
The bulk of this novella takes place in San Francisco, in the 1940s, predominantly in Chinatown and the lesbian/trans/crossdressing subculture that was illegal at the time. Much of the text plays out like a romance, with a little magic sprinkled on top, and finished with a frame story set in the present day.

This was simple and straightforwardly told -- a slice of historical life, from a subculture that (to me at least) was new. The level of fantasy added pushed this a little beyond magical realism and into fantasy proper, but it forms a fitting complement to the darker currents in the story. Admirably balanced.

Edited: Feb 16, 2019, 2:59pm

Ancillary mercy by Ann Leckie

Why did I choose to read this?
Third in a trilogy.

Review (Also posted here.)
This wrapped up the trilogy nicely. The story arc lands exactly where it should, and doesn’t fall out of line with the other two books -- social justice against a military sf / space opera background.

Edited: Feb 16, 2019, 3:23pm

De erfenis "The Inheritance" by Connie Palmen

Why did I choose to read this?
Palmen is a well-known Dutch author, part of the contemporary canon, but prior to this I’d never read her.

Review (Also posted here, albeit in Dutch.)
The main character in this novella takes on a temporary job when a famous author hires them as a live-in secretary-cum-nurse to prepare her archive for her final publication -- final, because she is terminally ill. That sounds like a standard premise for a traditional litfic, and that is what this novella delivers: a discussion of perspectives on living and dying without many digressions.

This was my first book by Palmen, and I’m not opposed to reading more by her. The philosophising may have been a little too artificial, and the density of quotes a little too high for what this was, but that would not have been a problem in even a slightly longer work.

Feb 16, 2019, 3:22pm

Brave new world by Aldous Huxley

Why did I choose to read this?
As bona fide classic as science fiction comes, but I’ve never read it.

Review (Also posted here.)
There’s little I can add at this point, so I’ll keep my review very brief.

This was an easy read. I can see why it is a classic, and I was not bored while reading it, despite the influence it’s had on the dystopian subgenre.

I really liked the prevalence of images drawn from music theory (I’m eyeing his Point counter point as my next read by Huxley).

Feb 17, 2019, 1:40am

>67 Petroglyph: My notes for this book stated that it was a fitting end to the trilogy (all of which I enjoyed very much).

I read Provenance late last year and while I liked it well enough I didn't think it was as excellent as the Ancillary trilogy.

Feb 18, 2019, 5:45am

>70 rhian_of_oz:
I feel like I've read enough Leckie for the time being. Perhaps in a few years? I don't think I care enough about her work to read it as it comes out, nor to put up with waiting times between series instalments.

Feb 18, 2019, 6:57am

A friend sent me an advance copy of Leckie's The Raven Tower. I hadn't been too motivated to read her previous books—I'm not the biggest sf reader and tend to stay away from series—but he said this one was both really different from her other works and very good (and not traditional fantasy fare, another genre I'm a bit skittish of unless it's done super well). I'm thinking it'll be a good palate cleanser when I need to read something entirely different from my usual.

Feb 20, 2019, 1:12pm

>69 Petroglyph: I just like seeing this book pop up. It’s the first one on my list of books read, from 1990. (At this point my actual memories of the book are unreliable scattered bits and pieces)

Feb 21, 2019, 8:03am

>69 Petroglyph: I feel like I read this in my early to mid teens and it had a big impact. I don't know how many times I've read it, but the last time was in 2010 so it may be time for a reread.

Mar 1, 2019, 3:37pm

>74 rhian_of_oz:
It addresses notions of civilisation and savagery and the role of the individual, and it does so in a fairly mature way -- I can see why it would leave a mark!

Edited: Mar 1, 2019, 4:14pm

The life of Lazarillo of Tormes by Anonymous

Why did I choose to read this?
This is half of this year’s Big Classic: a book containing the 16thC The life of Lazarillo de Tormes (Anonymous) and the 17thC The swindler (El buscón) by Francisco de Quevedo. I’m fond of reading the occasional picaresque tale, and this year I’ll finally be reading a purchase of eleven years ago.

Review (Also posted here.)
This was fun!

I do like a good picaresque story now and again, and this stone-cold classic of the subgenre did not disappoint me much. The main character, Lazaro, is a down-on-his-luck rogue, who prefers easy money and free food to honest work and paying his dues. He serves a succession of masters, each of which is a terrible human being, and develops a taste for conning people along the way. It’s unapologetic in its comedy and gleefully and consistently mocks 16thC authority figures, and it does so echoing New Testament verbiage when appropriate. Good stuff.

My edition also included a sequel, written after the original had become popular, and which purports to be by the same author as the first instalment (although it isn’t). That one was less fun: it’s less concerned with taking up overinflated authorities and more with illustrating the dog-eat-dog world that is everyday life. Everyone tries to out-con everyone else, and while that setup leads to more overt laughs, it’s a more diffuse approach as well. This section also indulges a little in fantastical nonsense when Lazaro is suddenly able to survive under water, which is a jarring break with the rest of the narrative.

Mar 3, 2019, 5:59am

Interesting to read a review of the Lazarillo de Tormes novels.

Mar 3, 2019, 4:09pm

>62 Petroglyph: I read Frappe-toi le coeur a few weeks ago as well. My first book by Amélie Nothomb, maybe the last one. I've heard that her earlier books are better, but not sure I will give her a second chance.
Although I do not have your perspective on her work, I agree with your review and share the same feeling of emptiness.

Mar 3, 2019, 4:16pm

>76 Petroglyph: I read that one as well, a few years ago, however I did not enjoy it as much as you did.
I had heard about this novel in Spanish class a long time ago and always wanted to read it. But it was not what I was expecting. I thought it would be more profound, with some kind of philosophical message, while I think your approach was better, reading it for what it is, which is a collection of comic stories. Maybe I should reread it with this new lens.

Mar 5, 2019, 12:35pm

>77 baswood:
It's hard to say something about them: they're originators of an entire genre (well, -ish), and so come with a mass of baggage. I wrote the review more for completeness' sake and to include a few things I notices while reading (e.g. snarky quotes from and references to the New Testament).

>79 raton-liseur:
I first heard about this novel in a European Lit class too, and it's been on my radar ever since. I must say, though, that I have not come across many picaresque stories that go much beyond boisterous mischief: subtlety or scoring philosophical points aren't the genre's strong points.

I'm reading this in an edition that also includes Francisco de Quevedo's The swindler. Perhaps that one will be more philosophical!

Mar 5, 2019, 12:43pm

>78 raton-liseur:
Yeah, most of her really good works were published before 2010, I think. My favourites by her are Hygiène de l'assassin (her debut), Les catilinaires, Antéchrista, Stupeur et tremblements, Ni d'Ève, ni d'Adam, and Métaphysique des tubes. Her autobiographical books, I find, tend to be more consistently good (even though they, too, have been slipping, I feel).

Edited: Mar 6, 2019, 5:10pm

Le Pigeon or in English The pigeon by Patrick Süskind. Translated from German.

Why did I choose to read this?
I need to read more in French, and a novella by the author of Perfume (translated from German) seemed appealing enough.

Review (Also posted here.)
A slightly neurotic middle-aged man spends his working life as security at a Parisian bank, standing still all day long. The rest of his time he spends in his one-room flat, eating and sleeping; even here he hardly moves about. Decades go by like this, and the man is quietly contented, if not happy. And then, one morning, an inane detail triggers an existential threat: a pigeon has been let into the hallway, and it frightens him beyond measure.

This novella technically covers only one day, but there are extensive flashbacks (especially towards the beginning) that fill in the main character’s pre-Parisian life. And for what it is, I guess it did well enough? I was not bored while reading it, but the creeping insanity and tumbling-down worldview didn’t really feel true to me. It feels very magical-realist, but aimlessly so, as if the novella ended up that way on a whim. it’s well worth reading for what it is, I guess, but it didn’t captivate me.

I must also add that this novella reminded me of a 1995 short film by Sylvain Chomet: La vieille dame et les pigeons (imdb link): that one, too, features pigeons as ominous harbingers of an impending life-altering impact. (It’s been uploaded on Youtube, and its visual storytelling almost without spoken lines allow anyone to watch it).

Mar 6, 2019, 10:46pm

Ubik by Philip K. Dick

Why did I choose to read this?
I’m not as well read in classic science fiction as I’d like to be. PKD is a particularly large lacuna in my reading: I haven’t really read him, apart from a handful of short stories and dim recollections of reading The man in the high castle as a teen (I thought it was confusing and didn’t make much sense). His novel Ubik comes highly recommended by a literature professor at my department. So here goes.

Review (Also posted here.)
This one was weird -- the kind of weird that makes me feel like it was a first draft that ended up different than what the author imagined at the start. For such a bonkers book it felt pretty uninspired.

Ubik is an almost Van Vogt-esque series of plot twists that don’t read like they were planned. The beginning of the novel is set up as a conflict between a group of telepaths and precogs used for corporate espionage, and a counter-corporation of “inertials”, who nullify the gifts of the former group. But every few chapters, the plot turns around, time travel is introduced, and a new series of concerns takes over the main stage. What starts as a futuristic telepath corporation on a lunar mission ends in an American hotel in 1939 where telepathy is entirely irrelevant, with a “plot twist” that really is an infodump out of left field. (The infodump is another reason I suspect this novel was largely unplanned.) There’s an aimless critique of sorts of capitalism that runs through the novel, but it all peters out into nothing of substance.

Ubik was written in the late sixties and I found it dated in many ways. For one thing, its future setting with colonisation of the solar system and organised psi power corporations is the year 1992. I tried, but I couldn’t suspend my disbelief: in 2019 more years have passed since 1992 than there were years between 1992 and 1969, when this book was published (27 vs 23). Then there was the ostentatious drug-taking, and the madcap clothing choices -- I couldn’t take that seriously either. There are also many plot devices that have been done to death since the sixties, including the big twist at the end, where it turns out everything takes place in someone’s headspace.

In addition to being a very 1960s book, this was also a very American book, and a number of factors would have more of an impact on me if I were either from the US or had lived through the sixties. For instance: the USA have ceased to exist as a nation, having been absorbed by the North American Freedom Confederation; the fact that the former US is now called a Confederation; the Confederation’s currency is routinely accepted in Zürich, Switzerland; taking drugs -- both uppers and downers -- is an entirely normal part of daily life. Also, the time travellers can tell what year they are in by looking at car models and the kind of brands for sale in shops, and those sections were very nostalgic for certain kinds of americana. All that felt decidedly part of the unexciting American wallpaper to me, a 21stC European.

So yeah. This one was not really for me: I found it pretty lacklustre. The Van Vogt-esque plot was not entertaining, and many other things were either too dated or too American for me.

Mar 7, 2019, 2:08am

>83 Petroglyph: the kind of weird that makes me feel like it was a first draft that ended up different than what the author imagined at the start
A good summary of Philip K. Dick work in general, isn't it?

My first read from him was Substance mort (A Scanner Darkly). It was a long time ago, but I remember enjoying it a lot. I have not always felt the same in subsequent readings. Have you read that one?

Mar 7, 2019, 1:13pm

>84 raton-liseur: A good summary of Philip K. Dick work in general, isn't it?

Oh dear, are they all like that? I have really only read a few short stories of his, as well as his The man in the high castle in the long-long-ago. The only other novel by him I was planning on reading shortly is Do androids dream of electric sheep?.

I've seen the film version of A scanner darkly, and based on that I've no inclination to read the book. If Do androids... disappoints me (or, you know, is way too dated), I think I'll just give up on PKD altogether.

Mar 14, 2019, 9:59pm

The shadowy horses by Susanna Kearsey

Why did I choose to read this?
I don’t usually read romance, but this year I wanted to push myself to move outside my comfort zone. This book at least promised to meet me halfway: the plot centres around archaeologists on the trail of the 9th Legion, a Roman legion briefly stationed in Britain that famously disappeared, or whose fate is at least unknown, and around which plenty of historical conspiracy theories have emerged. I’ve previously enjoyed fiction exploring said conspiracies, so why not give this one a shot?

Review (Also posted here.)
Disclaimer: I don’t usually read romances, but I read this with an open mind.

This book is set in the Borders, southern Scotland, and centres around archaeologists on the trail of the 9th Legion, a Roman legion briefly stationed in Britain that famously disappeared, or whose fate is at least unknown, and around which plenty of historical conspiracy theories have emerged. The heroine is a clever, brown-haired Londoner, the hero a strong-jawed Scots-talking Scot.

I think I will remember this book primarily as an enormously cozy read -- on so many levels. The intrigue and the villains are cozy-level, of course, but it went way beyond that. For one, the novel is set in the picturesque fishing village of Eyemouth, and the author went to some lengths to present the town, its sights, its inhabitants and its couleur locale in a charming and positive light only.

For another: stereotypes, often involving hair colour or nationality, are presented in their kernel of truthiness, and in a spirit of accepting the world needs all kinds of people. For example:
“I wouldn’t have guessed Peter Quinnell was Irish. He had, after all, that beautifully elegant voice, with no trace of a brogue whatsoever – but now that I’d had the fact pointed out to me I could recognise that indefinable quality, the faint hint of horses and hounds, that marked a certain segment of the Anglo-Irish gentry.”
So while that character’s ethnic background is indeed presented as saying something deep and true about them, the stereotype is mainly there to cash in on the reader’s familiarity, to do the heavy lifting of characterization. Not surprisingly, much of a character’s personality is tied to their looks, their dress styles, and other externalities. Crucially, though, only the positive aspects of such typecasting are explicitly invoked.

Other stereotypes, too, take central stage in positive characterization. There’s hair colour: Blondes are attractive and promiscuous whereas the brunette heroine is more sensible (and either is presented as perfectly acceptable). Fishermen have dependably rough exteriors with gentle hearts. Mothers manage their (man-)children with superior sensibility. Scotsmen are more weather-resistant than Englishmen, who are better with computers.

The familiarity to all these stereotypes means that there’s a predictability and, therefore, an easy coziness to them.

Other than that: the romance was surprisingly subdued, and I didn’t think the more fantastical elements of the novel gelled well with the rest of it.

So yeah: to the extent that I will remember this book at all in a few years’ time, I’ll probably remember it as a book that does its best to invoke feelings of warm, gentle coziness. At that, at least, it succeeded very well.

Mar 14, 2019, 10:34pm

Nighttime is my time by Mary Higgins Clark

Review (Also posted here.)
This was my first read by Clark -- certainly an éminence grise in the field -- and I must say enjoyed it. I picked this up because I read was about a class reunion as the setting for a former nerd taking murderous revenge on his onetime bullies, and that is exactly the kind of petty fantasy nonsense I can empathise with.

While the reunion part was disappointing, the other plotlines that were introduced picked up the slack. Essentially, the reunion is there to provide a plethora of suspects, and Clark skilfully makes it seem as though they all could be the killer. Of course, tension ramps up towards the end. Nothing surprising, but a quality crime read nonetheless.

So. Not a raving review, but simply a solid whodunnit.

Mar 15, 2019, 9:55am

Zur linken Hand getraut by Hedwig Courths-Mahler

Why did I choose to read this?
Hedwig Courths-Mahler is, according to Wikipedia, “the most popular female German writer by number of sold copies”. She wrote extremely cheesy romances from the 1910s through the 1940s and to this day you can find her dime novels in lower-end supermarkets and waiting rooms in geriatric hospitals all over Germany and the Low Countries.

I’m not that genre’s target audience, at all. In fact, I loathe that brand of uninteresting romance in whatever medium it presents itself. But Courths-Mahler is my mother’s favourite author, and so I feel I owe it to myself to push through at least one such dime novel. I chose to read a digital copy I found online a while back, no doubt a copyright-infringing copy, but I simply don’t care enough to seek out a physical copy.

Review (Also posted here.)
This was terrible: almost a self-parody of romances that give the genre a bad name.

Set in a vague late 19thC, early 20thC Bavaria, Zur linken Hand getraut takes place among the lofty German nobility. Upper-class Dukes and Counts fall in love with lower-born women, and vice versa, and one generation later their offspring fall in love with each other, and the settings are all pretty, and so are the gowns.

This thing was never going to appeal to me: I don't object to details or aspects of the book, but to its fundamental approach. At its core, this book is day-dreamy wish-fulfilment, and saccharine to the exclusion of all else. It's surface-oriented only, concerned with how pretty or sweet the plot and characters can be made to feel. I generally avoid that kind of media.

For one thing, almost all the romantic appeal lies in the outer trappings of wealth and love: vast landholdings, sled-rides through snowy Bavaria, upper-class balls, pretty gowns, dramatic revelations, happy couples looking lovingly into each other's eyes. Love is a stormy emotion in one's soul that is kept a secret, though reliably conveyed through blushes and meaningful glances. Until, of course, in one dramatic conversation the pair not only reveals their mutual attraction but also decide to get married.

For another, none of the so-called characters rise above fairy-tale stock characters: the men are all interchangeably noble and kind in a nondescript way; the women are all interchangeably demure and nurturing, have pretty smiles, feel happy when they can dote on their siblings/husbands, and are generally good with children. Evil women are gossipy and nasty to children, again in an unmotivated and nondescript way.

More generally, all of this means that the book's outlook is one of unquestioned naivety, a sugary-sweet dreamworld where gossip and social disapproval of one's love interest are the worst that stock characters can do to each other. And I simply cannot suspend my disbelief that much. The best way I can think of to describe this dreck is that it's the written equivalent of those horrible 1950s Sissi movies (imdb link), the ones with Romy Schneider: they, too, rely entirely on day-dreamy wish-fulfilment about gowns and wealth, and fairy tale stock characters.

I read this because Courths-Mahler is my mother's favourite author. I knew roughly what to expect going in: that it'd be atrocious. So it was, but it was also mercifully short. I've done my filial duty now, and I'll never have to read this author again.

Mar 16, 2019, 4:20am

Romance is in the air

Mar 16, 2019, 8:45pm

>89 baswood:
Well, it was Valentine's...
(I'm a little behind in review-writing)

Mar 17, 2019, 11:25am

>88 Petroglyph: I am super impressed by the care and effort you put into the review of this book.

Edited: Mar 17, 2019, 5:19pm

>91 rhian_of_oz:
Why, thank you.

I guess I feel defensive about hating the book so much I want to have a good answer ready. (Same reason why I hate-read The kite runner all through to the end, even though I hated it thoroughly.)

Edited: Mar 23, 2019, 6:00pm

Convenience store woman by Sayaka Murata

Why did I choose to read this?
I found out about this book through janeajones’ review on her 2019 thread, and amysisson's, and it seemed like a quick but highly entertaining read. And so it was. Thanks for the reco!

Review (Also posted here.)
This was an oddball character study that aims high and pulls it all off.

The novella’s narrator is Keiko Furukawa, autistic. She has a hard time figuring out how to behave in ways that society finds acceptable, and so when she speaks to people, she copy-pastes her intonations, word choices and speaking styles from various colleagues. Fortunately, she works part-time in a 24/7 convenience store, where lots of colleagues work for brief periods before moving on, and so she has plenty of people to copy without her camouflage ever becoming obvious.

That part-time job was a great way of seeming “normal” when she was eighteen, and her family was happy for her then. She’s thirty-six now, though, and shows no hint of ever wanting to change her life, and that is making Keiko seem suspiciously abnormal to society in general and her family and friends in particular. But the job is perfect for Keiko: after all, it came with a manual that tells her exactly how to address customers, and with a training video that illustrates the correct inflections and level of enthusiasm to display -- and she does them perfectly. She couldn’t fit better into her job, but it’s the very thing that is threatening to undo her camouflage.

Enter the central conceit of the novella: Shiraha, a male colleague her own age, who definitely displays many features of misogynistic toxic masculinity -- he considers himself beta and has given up on even trying to compete with ambitious, high-earning alphas for both money and access to females (though he does not use those terms). As it turns out, autistic Keiko and misogynistic Shiraha find common ground in their issues with all the things society expects from them and which they are not equipped to handle.

That is the central idea of the book, and I think Murata did a really good job of developing it into plausibility (though it’s not a complete success). But where this novella really shines is Keiko’s inner life: her tools and tricks of the trade of appearing “normal”, her contentedness with her (to outsiders) dead-end life, and her out-of-left-field planning to prevent her life from derailing.

Very well done. I think I shall be recommending this to lots of people I know.

Mar 24, 2019, 12:55pm

>93 Petroglyph:

Great review! I like reading other people's thoughtful reviews of books I've already read; it almost always gives me new insight. You've made me think about Keiki's camouflage techniques more deeply.

Mar 27, 2019, 3:02pm

Good review -- glad you enjoyed the book.

Mar 27, 2019, 5:37pm

>94 amysisson:, >95 janeajones:
Thanks for the recommendation!

Mar 28, 2019, 7:23pm

En man som heter Ove or, in English, A man called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Why did I choose to read this?
Recommended by a friend. I want to read more contemporary Swedish authors, because that’s where I live.

Review (Also posted here, though in Swedish.)
Ove is a grumpy, aged widower, increasingly out of touch with the world. His own comfort zone consists of elbow grease, getting your hands dirty, and fixing things yourself, but the new world of immigrants, gays and computers that awaits him outside his front door seems to value none of those skills. And so, missing his wife and feeling useless, Ove decides to kill himself. Several attempts in various ways, in fact, because his attempts keep failing: there’s always someone or something that needs help -- a neighbour needs to be taught to back a U-haul into a driveway, a frozen cat needs thawing and a home, and so on.

I went into this expecting a cute yet black comedy. Instead I got a straight-forward feel-good tale full of life-changing friendships, and I hated it. Such media is really not for me. Frustratingly, Backman reuses the same narrative trick where he shows Ove being grumpy and contrarian, only to conclude with a short comment to indicate that there’s a story behind his behaviour, or that there’s an emotional trauma, you guys! Pffffft.

I’m too cynical, I’m afraid. I don’t do well with sugary-sweet family-oriented feel-good stories. If that’s your thing, well, I recognize that this book is professionally written to scratch that particular itch. But it’s not for me.

Mar 28, 2019, 7:38pm

The swindler by Francisco de Quevedo

Why did I choose to read this?
This is half of this year’s Big Classic: a book containing the 16thC The life of Lazarillo de Tormes (Anonymous) and the 17thC The swindler (El buscón) by Francisco de Quevedo. I’m fond of reading the occasional picaresque tale, and this year I’ll finally be reading a purchase of eleven years ago.

Review (Also posted here.)
This one was a lot grittier and more bleak than The life of Lazarillo de Tormes: the main character genuinely suffers, and has the permanent scars on his face to show for it.

Unlike Lazaro, the narrator of The Swindler is not born into conning people: Pablo of Segovia starts off as a good-natured, naive youth, before bullying and an unreasonable first master abuse that out of him, and he sets himself the goal of becoming a systematic con-man, because that is exactly what the world deserves. As he travels around central Spain, he tells the reader all about his tricks, his cheats, his misadventures. But where Lazarillo de Tormes was cheeky and at least trying to arrive at a place of quiet and independent wealth, Pablo of Segovia is stuck in the Spanish underbelly, with no hope of ever leaving his dishonest days behind.

That also makes for a more boring book: there is no narrative arc, no movement towards an ultimate goal. Just episode after episode, and then the book just ends, promising the next episode that doesn’t materialize.

Apr 4, 2019, 5:02am

The beauty by Aliya Whiteley

Why did I choose to read this?
I saw this author mentioned in an overview of some recent New Weird writing, and decided to see if her novellas could scratch my Weird Fiction itch.

Review (Also posted here.)
This novella is weird and twisted, but I loved it. It’s been a while since I had a dose of freakish literature, and this gender-questioning tale covered in mushrooms made me realise how much I’d missed it.

The story is set among a survivalist commune with a deliberately flat structure, without leaders; and the main character is their storyteller. When this novella opens, the Group, as they call themselves, have been forced to redouble their efforts at survival and society-creation because a fungus-like disease has killed off all the women. Soon, though, yellow mushrooms grow on the women’s graves, and unnatural things start to emerge, which the storyteller starts calling The Beauty. And at that point, the separation between natural and unnatural is up for a complete renewal.

One of the best features, though, is the writing: lush, lyrical, and it fitted the “time for a new world” aesthetic perfectly.

This won’t be for everyone, but do give this one a try if you can handle Weird Fiction.

Edited: Apr 4, 2019, 5:41am

Het hemelse gerecht by Renate Dorrestein

Why did I choose to read this?
Reading more by women not already in my catalogue, reading more in Dutch, reading more by authors from the Dutch 20th/21stC literary canon.

Review (Also posted in Dutch here.)
Twisted, but in a good way!

Two codependent sisters run a restaurant right next to a levee; they service the small village a few kilometers upriver. Together with their male kitchen help they form what seems to be a poly triad that no-one seems to call by that name, and that is kept hidden from the villagers anyway. The sisters are unstable, subject to frequent mood swings, and inherently distrustful of the outside world. Once their kitchen help announces he is leaving because he will no longer put up with their antics, things spin rapidly out of control.

This story reminded me of the gothic horror that is Shirley Jackson’s We have always lived in the castle (one of my favourite books): a secluded house with its idiosyncratic family dynamic that abhors outside influence or oversight. The novel builds up this crescendo of impending doom, with playful use of horror tropes, such as an unseasonable heatwave, a mysterious disease, a flood, and the sisters’ mental issues that slip out of control. (There are more, but those would be spoilers.)

Very nicely done!

Apr 4, 2019, 8:17am

Yesterday I also started reading Angel, by Elizabeth Taylor. It's great fun so far (I'm about one quarter in).

It looks like it's shaping up to be a female, teenage version of Hadrian the Seventh, that self-indulgent catholic fan-fic written by Frederick Rolfe -- that, too, deals with an impossibly smug writer convinced of their natural superiority and unwilling to compromise.

Apr 5, 2019, 5:09am

Enjoying your reviews. I really should read Two Spanish Picaresque novels and your review of The Beauty is intriguing.

Apr 5, 2019, 6:04am

>98 Petroglyph: Reading and enjoying your review, I feel it's about time I try picaresque novels again.
This one seems interesting, I'll have to see what is available in French.

Apr 6, 2019, 10:38am

>99 Petroglyph: The beauty is definitely going into my wishlist! Thanks for the review.

Apr 6, 2019, 7:08pm

>102 baswood:

>103 raton-liseur:
Fayard have published a translation called "La vie du truand Don Pablos de Ségovie, vagabond exemplaire et modèle des filous".

>104 Dilara86:
You're welcome: I'm always happy to push books onto people. I'll be reading another of her novellas soon, The arrival of missives, and I'll review it here, too.

Edited: Apr 6, 2019, 7:13pm

Mieke Maaike’s obscene jeugd or in English Mieke Maaike’s obscene teenage years by Louis Paul Boon

Why did I choose to read this?
Reading more by authors from the 20th/21stC Dutch-language canon. Louis Paul Boon is one of the main Dutch-language post-war authors in Belgium, but I’ve barely read him. This book is one of his infamous ones: banned by religious conservatives in the 70s for its explicit erotica.

Review (Also posted in Dutch here.)

Trigger warning: this book is hard-core porn, featuring sex with children from ten years old onwards.

All I knew about this novella going in was that it was erotica and that it famously shocked the religious conservatives back in the 1970s. I was wrong: it's straight-up hardcore porn, and would be controversial today -- though with a slightly different focus, I think.

Mieke Maaike, at the age of nineteen, presents her history of sexual escapades, from the early fascination with penises and the tingling feelings in her genitals at the age of ten, through full-blown nymphomania from the age of thirteen onwards. Up to the age of thirteen, her partners are unwilling to penetrate her (she’s too young) and limit themselves to exhibitionism, oral stimulation, and heavy petting. This is presented as kindness and consideration on their part.

By the age of fifteen, Mieke Maaike’s well-established fetishes are anal play, urinating on things, sex in semi-public, and a preference for unfulfilled married men (this was clearly written by a middle-aged man); she occasionally engages in bestiality and incest -- again, before she even turns fifteen. Later in her teenage years she develops a fascination for slapping people during intercourse.

So yeah. On the one hand, this is a man writing about a ten-year-old girl enthusiastically demanding oral sex; on the other he's careful to note Mieke Maaike's initiative and explicit consent. Controversial as this would be (even today) I don’t think that this novella warrants much in the way of commentary. For one thing, it’s hard-core porn: the story plays out in that haze of porn where everyone and anyone is always up for sex and where it's the most important thing on anyone's mind (similar to those 1970s martial arts movies where absolutely everyone knows Kung Fu). For another, the author strives mightily to include puns and silly wordplay and misquoted bible verses as often possible, and the sex is frequently too absurd for words -- it’s a sequence of over-the-top sexual situation comedy, as opposed to genuine sexual fantasies. Finally, this was written in the 1970s, and clearly aims at portraying all the taboos that conservative pre-Sexual-Revolution society would uphold. In other words: 1970s trolling.

So as comedy-porn it’s just that, with some Sexual-Revolution-era shock-jock attitude thrown in.

Apr 7, 2019, 5:09pm

Lock in by John Scalzi

Why did I choose to read this?
This was a gift from my SO, who knows I’ve read and enjoyed other books by Scalzi.

Review (Also posted here.)

This is a police procedural, set a few decades in the future. Self-driving cars are the norm, and a meningitis-like disease called Haden’s Syndrome has caused millions across the globe to experience lock-in, a condition where their bodies are completely paralyzed but their minds are largely unaffected. And so a concerted political push for alleviation has augmented neurological research to the point where brain implants allow the Hadens to remote-control human-shaped robots. (The setup is slightly similar to the Bruce Willis flick Surrogates) Twenty-five years after the disease hits, those robots are a normal sight, and Hadens (while piloting their machines) enter the workforce -- including the FBI. Some crimes, too, start cropping up where either Hadens or their robots are a factor.

I don’t have much to say about this one: it’s a futuristic crime novel, and that’s exactly what you get. It’s competently done, but not something I will remember the plot of two years from now. A tad predictable sometimes (the Navajo data centre, for instance, was way too obvious).

(Also, the main character’s gender is never revealed, leaving readers’ interpretations wide open. The audio book comes in two versions, read by a man and a woman.)

Edited: Apr 9, 2019, 6:59pm

De zeven tuinen or The seven gardens by Arthur van Schendel

Why did I choose to read this?
This was the only unread book I owned by Van Schendel, and having worked my way through an omnibus of his works, I thought I might as well be completist.

Review (Also posted in Dutch here.)

The titular seven gardens are an adjacent set of parks, forests, meadows, ponds and brooks: the collected estates of a number of wealthy families whose teenagers grow up together. The seasons alternate, the teenagers come of age, and the interactions between the Humans follow the rhythms of summer and winter, storm and sunshine.

So far, so Naturalistic. Nothing wrong with that, per sé. What I didn’t like was the narration: large portions of this novel consist of stream-of-consciousness monologues by various park keepers who comment on the trees and the nesting birds and on which teenagers had an argument or played music together. Alternating with those monologues are nature descriptions about the behaviour of flowers and teenagers.

None of the teen-age “main characters" (if I can call them that) ever get to speak; we only hear what the foresters gossip about, and even that is often reported speech (“Master so-and-so told me that…"). I can understand Van Schendel’s intention: this distancing narration equalises the Sturm und Drang of both Nature and the Teenagers to the same level. Van Schendel aims to express his Romantic views on the role of Humanity within Nature, and to some extent that works. . But the narrators that do get to talk do so in an annoyingly patronising voice: older, more experienced nature-people who have seen it all and who can afford to take the long view, confident that at least some of the teenagers will come around to their point of view, i.e. the Correct Way.

Unfortunately there are more teenagers than I can comfortably keep apart, too many characters for what little plot there is, and the folksy older-and-wiser narrators really got to me after a while. My patience wore out about halfway through, and I finished the book mainly out of a sense of duty.

Apr 9, 2019, 8:09pm

The bluest eye by Toni Morrison

Why did I choose to read this?
Because it is high time I read something by her.

Review (Also posted here.)
This was very good. Starting with Claudia and Frieda, two preteen sisters from a dirt poor black family in Ohio in the 1940s, the focus soon shifts to twelve-year-old Pecola, a temporary foster child, whose father raped her and got her with child. Later in the novel, extended flashbacks delve into the histories of each of Pecola’s parents.

This is not a happy read: essentially, the book deals with successive generations succumbing to cycles of abandonment, violence and internalised inferiority complexes. It is about concentric circles of rancor: within each marginalised group a power dynamic develops that recreates that external enmity -- all the way down into the individual. The bluest eye is not a straightforward read, either: different focalisers skip from first-person to third-person, and the story jumps back and forth between several decades.

Speaking as a white person, grokking systemic racism is hard to do. This book definitely helps in turning intellectual understanding into a glimpse of, well, grokking.

Apr 12, 2019, 11:19am

>107 Petroglyph: I quite enjoyed this and I agree, it does what it says on the tin. To my shame I never noticed that Chris' gender was never revealed and I assumed Chris was male.

Apr 12, 2019, 6:57pm

>110 rhian_of_oz:
Scalzi does that from time to time: there's a courtesan-type character in (I think) The god engines whose gender is left unspecified. I was aware during my reading of Lock in, but trying to view the character as either gender and flipping back and forth didn't really add much to the story. It's unobtrusive -- like what colour their hair is or whether they are a Beetles fan or a Rolling Stones fan (or both). Not really relevant to the novel at all.

Apr 12, 2019, 7:27pm

>110 rhian_of_oz: If it helps, you aren't alone. I never noticed it, either and also spent the entire novel blithely assuming Chris was male. Once it was pointed out to me afterward, I felt kind of bad that that's what I defaulted to... Maybe my excuse is that most of the Chrises I've known have been male.

Edited: Apr 13, 2019, 6:39pm

Gloriant. Gevolgd door de klucht van de buskenblaser by Anonymous

Why did I choose to read this?
I purchased this slim volume twelve years ago. It’s about time I got to it.

Review (Also posted in Dutch here.)

This is one of four known abele spelen or “noble plays”: a group of secular plays written around 1350, the earliest non-religious plays in Dutch. (Wikipedia link)

Gloriant is a straight-forward story about Courtly Love. The hero is an arrogant, woman-hating Duke Gloriant, who nonetheless is eminently noble; the heroine is the equally noble Florentijn, daughter of a rival Duke. She falls for his reputation and sends him her portrait; he falls for her beauty and her reputation, and sets out to claim her.

The main obstacle is that both protagonists practise different religions: Gloriant is (obviously) christian; Florentijn is muslim. Well, muslim-ish: she not only worships Mohammed (!), but various heathen gods, too -- the writer was either uninformed about Islam, or uninterested in depicting it accurately (or both). The whole thing ends, of course, with a picture of perfect Courtly Love: Gloriant learns that at least some women are worth his attention, and Florentijn converts to christianity.

Each of the serious Noble Plays comes paired with a short farce (about 200 verses), in this case the Buskenblaser: an old, ugly man is conned by a swindler and believes his beauty has been restored; his angry wife scolds him for his stupidity and his waste of money. Good old folksy stock characters.

A very short read, this. Interesting to dip into a text that clearly functioned in a society with different standards.

Apr 13, 2019, 6:42pm

The only harmless great thing by Brooke Bolander

Why did I choose to read this?
This novella was nominated for a Nebula Award.

Review (Also posted here.)
This novella tried to do a number of things simultaneously, not all of which were successful.

Where this novella worked for me was its treatment of the Radium Girls: those US female factory workers who, between the world wars, applied self-luminous paint to watches and contracted radiation poisoning as a result; they were taught it was safe to point their brushes with their mouths (Wikipedia link). I was not familiar with that history, and I’m glad I know about it now.

Also, this novella tells an alternate-history version of the story of Topsy, a much-abused elephant who was publicly electrocuted in 1903 at Coney Island for entertainment purposes. (Wikipedia link. Trigger warning: actual footage of the event.)

And finally, this novella also considers what would be an effective and future-proof way of warning people away from cancer-inducing radioactive waste, especially people who live in a distant future, after our society has collapsed or understanding of present-day symbols and languages has died out. Its answer is pretty cool: put it all in a mountain and surround it with bioluminescent intelligent elephants who will remember the danger for us.

Unfortunately, the only way in which these things can be brought together is through fantasy and alternate history, and I can’t say I’m impressed with either. The fantasy part consists of the aforementioned intelligent elephants, who have been taught sign language to communicate with humans, and whose matriarch-centric way of life is passed on through generations as Stories told by the Many Mothers. And I don’t know why, but that’s further than my suspension of disbelief is willing to stretch. There’s more than a whiff of YA-levels Dragonriders of Pern there, or similar caricaturesque telepathic animal familiars from the 1970s-1980s. It was too far-fetched for my tastes.

As for the alternate history, the novella follows two main characters, decades apart, who try to improve the elephants’ lot. One is a Radium Girl dying of cancer (necrosis of the jaw); another is a scientist pushing for her plan to turn elephants bioluminescent. Only the former really worked, I think.

The novella managed to keep my interest up mainly because it is told out-of-order, and in two storylines decades apart. I don’t think the story would work if it were told chronologically: without the puzzling-it-all-together aspect, the silliness would be much more central.

In essence, Bolander’s themes are social-justice-adjacent (several scenes are merely there to show kick-ass females, or to humiliate former oppressors in front of their erstwhile victims), and there is nothing wrong with that in principle. But in The only harmless great thing it is the execution through frankly caricaturesque fantasy what made this novella fail for me.

Apr 15, 2019, 12:31pm

Interesting to read about Gloriant A secular plays from 1350. How difficult was the Dutch to read or was it a translation?

Edited: Apr 16, 2019, 4:30pm

>115 baswood:

I read it in the original. The Middle Dutch was fairly easy to read, actually. I grew up speaking Dutch, for one. But also, I've read plenty of Middle Dutch before, for medieval lit classes at uni, and then the occasional book in post-uni years. Also, since they're essentially brief plays for popular entertainment, the language used is not very elaborate or intricate.

I'd compare it to reading Chaucer in the original if your first language is English. Present-day English has incorporated quite a bit of French influence (some 60% of English vocab is derived from French), and that makes Chaucer a little harder to read today than medieval Dutch texts are. But by and large the same factors that make Chaucer easier to read make Middle Dutch easier for me. Being familiar with other Germanic languages helps, as does a familiarity with one or more dialects of your first language: words from Medieval texts no longer present in the present-day Standard Language you may know from e.g. German or Scots. Having read plenty of 16thC and 17thC literature helps, too: versions of the language that are in some ways intermediate between the present day and the Middle Ages.

It had been a while since I read my way through a work in Middle Dutch, and I should do more of it. One of the four abele spelen I haven't read yet; I want to do so soon.

Edited: May 5, 2019, 12:46pm

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

Why did I choose to read this?
I’ve been itching to dip into the books of Elizabeth Taylor -- no, not that one -- and this book, about a writer’s life, is what a local independent bookshop happened to stock.

Review (Also posted here.)
This book, about a writer’s life from around 1900 through the 1960s, started off as great fun and grew more serious as it went on. But all of it was good. As an introduction to Elizabeth Taylor it’s certainly made me want to read more by her.

The best comparison I can make is that Angel starts like a female, teenage version of Hadrian the Seventh, that self-indulgent catholic fan-fic written by Frederick Rolfe: that one, too, deals with an impossibly smug writer convinced of their natural superiority and utterly unwilling to compromise. Angellica Deverell (to give Angel her full name) is a confident teenager who is bored with her and her timid mother’s bland life above a shop they keep for someone else, and decides randomly to start writing a novel. The end product reflects Angel’s values: great flights of fancy, purple prose and a firm conviction that her imagination is a superior substitute to real life -- in short: over-wrought romance among the upper classes. Her manuscript sees print on a lark, by a publisher who laughed themselves silly at Angel’s so-bad-it’s-hilarious efforts. In later sections of the book Angel will become a wealthy, highly successful author whose career and emotional life will see the impact of the events of the 20th century.

I have a penchant for books about what I call magnificent megalomaniacs, larger than life characters who take their obsessions so seriously they become absurd. And that is definitely what Angellica Deverell is: she goes all the way and pursues her (petty and ridiculous) goals with a seriousness that commands respect. And in many ways, that is how this book feels on a meta level, too: Elizabeth Taylor definitely sees the funny side of Angel, tongue firmly in cheek, and she makes sure that at least a few of the other characters are prone to snarkiness and eager to egg things on just to see how far they will go. But Taylor herself does not relent in supporting Angel all the way: any meanness in the humour is entirely the characters’. Like any good parent, Taylor stands by her creation and insists on seeing them develop on their own terms, socially awkward though they may be. That is the space in which this novel develops, and Taylor did a masterful job of being fair to all sides.

In all, I think this was a lovely character study of a slightly absurd, magnificently megalomaniacal writer. A very charming surprise, but a book I loved and one which I recommend warmly!

Apr 21, 2019, 7:14pm

>117 Petroglyph: I’ve had that in the shelf for ages, along with a couple other Elizabeth Taylors. That was definitely a bump, thanks!

Apr 22, 2019, 12:48pm

>118 lisapeet:
With pleasure! I think you'll like this one!

Apr 22, 2019, 12:53pm

Les prénoms épicènes by Amélie Nothomb

Why did I choose to read this?
I’ve read all of Nothomb’s novels (a tradition dating back many years; she publishes one book every year); this is her most recent work.

Review (Also posted here.)
A young girl from provincial France marries a somewhat older man and lives with him in Paris. It turns out he’s not just an emotionally unattached workaholic, but he’s playing a very long game.

While I did not like Nothomb’s 2017 effort, Frappe-toi le coeur (review here), this one was a step up. Not bad at all, actually, even if the ending wraps things up a little too neatly.

Apr 22, 2019, 1:12pm

The prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope

Why did I choose to read this?
A barely-remembered read from my teenage years. I remember enjoying this Victorian swashbuckling novel, and upon finding out there was a sequel, I thought I might as well reread the first instalment.

Review (Also posted here.)
This was a reread for me, but having read The prisoner of Zenda as a teen, I remembered nothing but the central conceit: an English gentleman discovers that he looks exactly like the future king of the made-up Central European nation of Ruritania, and has to take his place in an adventure of politicking, swashbuckling and Victorian doppelgänger fun.

And fun it was. Pulpy, light-hearted and short, The prisoner of Zenda plays to its strengths: it exploits the doppelgänger and impersonation in all its wish-fulfilling revelry. There’s a compelling villain, a fondness for swordplay, and the overt enjoyment of a relative nobody play-acting at being King for a day. Perhaps the romance comes with a tad too much of pathos, and there’s an obvious bit of sequel-baiting at the end, but that I can forgive. Less charming is the dismissive attitude that women are too emotional to be useful.

Also, reading it in the 21stC, it’s not nearly as thrilling as I think it should have been (Hope is way too proud of his tea-table trick), but I can’t really hold the book’s age against it.

Apr 22, 2019, 9:28pm

Le diable au corps or Devil in the flesh by Raymond Radiguet

Why did I choose to read this?
Reading more in French. Le diable au corps is apparently also included in the 1001 books you must read before you die list, which I sometimes browse for new reading material.

Review (Also posted here.)
A sixteen-year-old adolescent falls in love with a twenty-year-old married woman. Her fiancé (and later husband) is off fighting in the Great War, and the two carry on their relationship more or less frankly while he is away. The villlage disapproves.

This was short, and most of it was very good.

The book focuses almost solely on the inner life of its main character -- an adolescent experiencing love while society does not consider him an adult. It reminded me a lot of James Joyce’s A portrait of the artist as a young man, especially in how spot-on and how evocative Joyce’s descriptions of adolescence were; Le diable au coeur shares that strength. The desire for things that lose their appeal as soon as you voice them, the immediacy of feelings, the impatience, the way expectations are constantly adjusted to reality (and vice versa), resulting in contradictory behaviour and mood swings… Radiguet got things exactly right.

Still, in places I thought this novella dragged things out a little, kept treading water instead of moving forward. Also, the resolution (if it can be called that) felt a little like a cop-out. But I’m glad I read this: its strengths more than outweigh its weaknesses.

Apr 25, 2019, 11:24am

>117 Petroglyph: Love the term 'magnificent megalomaniacs'. I wonder if the narrator of Wish Her Safe At Home would fit the bill.

Apr 25, 2019, 2:59pm

>123 wandering_star:
Sounds interesting! And indeed Wish her safe at home seems like a likely candidate for my Collection of magnificent megalomaniacs.

One of the related books there might fit as well: The lonely passion of Judith Hearne.

Apr 27, 2019, 5:37am

>117 Petroglyph: Angel is fun, but it's also oddly unlike everything else Taylor wrote. Which is well worth exploring further.
Your review reminds me that I keep meaning to have a look at something by the real Marie Corelli just to see how unfair Taylor was being to her. Still haven't done that...

>121 Petroglyph: Have you seen George MacDonald Fraser's very 1960s take on the Prisoner of Zenda plot in Royal Flash?

Apr 28, 2019, 5:28am

>125 thorold:
I'm about three quarters through Taylor's Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, and I can see that it was written by the same author: there's that focus on social niceties that cover a less-than-perfect reality, that impish humour, the absolutely brutal editorial comments that leave people's hypocrisies bare and raw. Both Angel and this one remind me sometimes of Arrested Development, where characters say one thing, and the narrator bluntly contradicts them for tragi-comedic effect.

I've also downloaded a few of Corelli's books off Project Gutenberg. Can't bring myself to embark on one quite yet: they're so massive...

And I've never even heard of GMF, or of Harry Flasman, but those books sure do sound fascinating. Are you trying to book bullet me?

Apr 28, 2019, 5:31am

No one writes to the colonel by Gabriel García Márquez

Why did I choose to read this?
This year I’m reading a short story collection by García Márquez anyway, and this was very short with such an intriguing title.

Review (Also posted here.)
A former colonel and his wife languish in poverty in a small Colombian village. They have lost their only son. They sell their possessions, juggle multiple lines of credit, and rest their only hopes on a rooster that will surely bring in money if it wins in the cockfighting ring a few months from now. Every Friday, the colonel goes to the post office to see if the new government, which he helped install decades ago, have remembered him and have finally sent him his pension.

This was a nicely told story of characters stuck in a rut, choosing to stick with ideals, hopes and dreams that only through a miracle can ever again comport with reality. I liked it, and am looking forward to reading more of García Márquez’ short works.

Edited: Apr 28, 2019, 2:11pm

Les éphémérides by Stéphanie Hochet

Why did I choose to read this?
This author and her works formed the basis of a fictional writer from one of the books of Amélie Nothomb (one of my Completist Authors: I read everything she puts out). That’s enough for me to check her out!

Review (Also posted here.)

Ce roman est parfois nommé “Récit pré-apocalyptique", car il se déroule durant les trois mois avant le 21 de mars, quand une catastrophe laissée sous-entendue détruira la civilisation occidentale. (On peut soupçonner que la catastrophe est d’une nature biochimique, mais Hochet ne divulgue que quelques détails.). Il ne reste qu’un dernier hiver, ce qui provoque des réactions extrèmes -- Le Royaume Uni est devenu une société tyrannique pour se protéger contre le chaos.

Tout ça se passe en arrière-plan; le roman se concerne presque uniquement avec les relations entre quelques personnages. Tara est dominatrix dans un club à Glasgow. Ensemble avec sa femme Patty elle gère un élevage illégal de chiens de plus en plus transgéniques -- plus féroces, plus fauves, moins canines. À la fin, le résultat sera un espèce qui saura survivre les conditions post-apocalyptiques. Alice, ex-amante de Tara, vient les visiter; bientôt elle emportera sa cousine de neuf ans, Ludivine. Simon, artiste à Londres, a le cancer de la gorge, et se met à peindre furieusement -- son spécialité est la représentation du cri. Il commence une liaison également féroce avec Ecuador, qui dépense les restes de sa fortune pour se livrer de toutes les joies qui restent. Et finalement, à Paris, Sophie, mère de Ludivine, s’est repliée sur sa fille dès sa naissance: elle la gâche et elle lui cache que le monde finira bientôt.

Avant La Fin, le printemps qui ne viendra plus, tous ces individus devront décider ce qu’ils vont faire avec le temps qui reste et avec les gens avec lesquelles on choisit de s’entourer.

La lecture de ce roman m’a plu beaucoup. Le style est simple, sans caprices, mais avec beaucoup d’élégance quand-même. Presque tous les personnages sont réalisés comme des individus croyables et plus ou moins 3D. Hochet combine les ruminations désespérées de ses personnages avec des rapports romantiques touchants et avec des menaces imminentes de ses propres fabrications, et elle le fait comme si cela coûterait aucun effort; le résultat est captivant. Je lirai sans doute plus d’elle.

Edited: Apr 28, 2019, 2:10pm

Editorial comment: sometimes I can't be bothered to translate my reviews. So it goes. Sorry!

Apr 28, 2019, 3:02pm

Here's a few more short reviews, for books I don't feel need a longer write-up:

  • Oväntade fläckar på Vasa or in English Unexpected stains on Vasa by Ann Fernholm.

    The royal warship Vasa, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1628, spent a few centuries decaying under water before being raised in the 1960s; a decades-long project of preservation and restoration followed. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a white residue appeared on several locations around the ship; this turned out to be the result of destructive acids, and had to be taken care of immediately.

    This booklet is a popular-scientific explanation of the chemical processes that Vasa’s waterlogged wood underwent both before and after the salvaging: absorption of various corrosive contaminants underwater, the effects of oxygen and the various preservatives used, the build-up of acids inside the wood. Fernholm also delves into the measures taken to protect the ship from developing similar issues in the future.

    Fernholm herself is a journalist, and much of this book is her write-up of interviews with various experts on waterlogged wood and scientists and carpenters working on the Vasa herself -- which is a good thing: making expert knowledge available to a wider audience is precisely what Fernholm set out to do.

    (Review also posted here.)

  • Modellen: Vasamodeller fran nar och fjarran = The model: Vasa models from near and far: Vasamuseet, 31 Oktober 1997-10 Maj 1998 by Various

    This is a booklet containing several essays concerning the building of ship models, especially models of the 1620s warship Vasa, which stands rebuilt in her entirety in a museum in Stockholm, Sweden. I read this because at least one of the chapters/essays (written by former museum director Klas Helmerson provided me with a few details about the process of restoring the ship after she’d disintegrated almost entirely under water prior to the salvage. Another essay (by Hans Soop) talked specifically about how people figured out where all the decorative statues were placed originally on the ship; that, too, is useful knowledge.

    The other essays were less interesting for me: their target audience consists of enthusiastic ship model builders, and that I am not. Still, I think it was worthwhile for the few essays of interest to me (It cost me less than €3). Besides: the booklet is richly illustrated with photos of dozens of models around the world (including a life-size tourist ferry in Japan!).

    (Review also posted here.)

  • Mayeia by Coburne Spencer

    This was a random find on the subreddit FreeEbooks.

    YA short story in which an unnamed main character visits an underwater utopia. Plenty of teenage cynicism, and there's some awkward writing here and there. But shows promise!

    (Review also posted here.)

Apr 29, 2019, 3:30am

Enjoyed your review of the García Márquez book. I've not read anything by him yet, but this sounds enjoyable and you push him further up my wish list.

Apr 29, 2019, 2:22pm

>131 AlisonY:
It was pretty good! I don't think I'm cut out for long-form García Márquez (I can't abide family sagas), but his short work does seem appealing. I've embarked on a short story collection of his as well, and so far I haven't been disappointed!

Edited: May 1, 2019, 6:14am

La nostalgie heureuse by Amélie Nothomb

Why did I choose to read this?
Nothomb is one of my Completist Authors: I’ll read anything she publishes. This was the last unread book by her -- it had taken me a while to track down a copy.

Review (Also posted here.)
La télévision française propose à Amélie Nothomb, écrivain célèbre, de revisiter le Japon ou elle a passé ses premiers années et où elle a abandonné son fiancé japonais; on veut tourner un documentaire. Nothomb accepte: elle va tenir un journal durant la semaine qu’elle va passer dans le pays de son passé.

Filmée à toutes les heures de la journée, Nothomb traverse ses vieux repaires, s’étonnant que tant a changé. Elle se considère presque mi-japonaise, bien qu’elle ne peut que balbutier le japonais mal construit, bien qu’elle n’aurait peut-être jamais retourné au Japon de sa propre initiative. Cognée contre tous les changements, contre ses ex-connaissances qui mènent des vies tout à fait indépendants d’elle, Nothomb commence à réaliser qu’elle est plutôt touriste que japonaise.

Dans La nostalgie heureuse Nothomb nous emporte lorsqu’elle découvre ses propres limites et ses défauts -- un livre plus intime que d’habitude. Néanmoins, ce bouquin présuppose qu’on a lu les livres autobiographiques de Nothomb. En bref: un livre gratifiant pour ses admirateurs.

Edited: May 2, 2019, 1:49pm

The juniper tree by Barbara Comyns

Why did I choose to read this?
Comyns seems like an intriguing author, and this book by her promised a retelling of a macabre Grimm fairy tale. Sounds like it’d be up my street!

Review (Also posted here.)
Comyns’ The juniper tree is a novel based loosely on the Grimm fairy tale of the same name. The main character, Bella, is a single mother to a mixed-race daughter. She finds a new job running an antiques boutique and becomes friends with a nearby wealthy family whose husband decides she needs an education in literature, art, and theatre; the wife, Gertrude, becomes a close friend. Their mansion’s garden becomes a park that Bella and her daughter frequent. Then there’s her mother, who is a severe narcissist, though Bella is rather good at enforcing No Contact -- the mother doesn’t even know about Bella’s daughter.

As the book develops, the story flows along nicely, avoiding major speed bumps. Gradually, though, a few details start feeling slightly off: there’s thieving magpies in the garden; the narcissist mother turns up for semi-regular visits and turns out to be horribly racist as well; her ex-boyfriend wants to impress her with his new conquest. Pushing in from beyond Bella’s new idyllic life are ominous reminders that the Outside World is cruel and self-serving, though they remain under the surface; their pressure is subtle. .

It was nice to read a book centring on the stepmother character, and a sympathetic portrayal at that. Other than that this book was just plain well done. It was a gentle, languid read, and, like a fairytale, feels largely untethered to the decade in which it is actually set (the 1980s) -- large sections of the books it could have been set in pre-War London, too, or even the 1800s. If I have any point of criticism it is that the events in the plot were kept a little too much in the middle distance -- again, like in a fairy tale: sometimes it feels more like we’re being told about a series of events rather than seeing them happen through the main character, particularly as the story nears its conclusion.

But on the whole this book was a quiet, understatedly nasty read. Not quite character-driven enough, but the buildup and the gentle flavour of the narrative more than make up for that.

May 2, 2019, 2:35pm

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Why did I choose to read this?
I finally saw the movie last year, which I thought was kinda cute, and this novella seemed like a good way of sampling some of Truman Capote’s work.

Review (Also posted here.)
The tragicomic life of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (Wikipedia link). Usually that doesn’t really work for me, but this time it does: Holly Golightly is not really there as the catalyst in the writer-protagonist’s development; she’s just there on her way to work some things out and then disappear off to somewhere else.

This was charming -- not so much the characters, but the atmosphere and especially the writing. The way this story is told feels so very New York City and the writing style is on point: there’s lots of lovely similes that really are unexpected but quite evocative nonetheless.

Written and set during Segregation, and it shows.

Edited: May 2, 2019, 3:54pm

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

Why did I choose to read this?
Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Angel, by the same author, I wanted to read more by Taylor. This book I’d given as a present to my SO, and so it was a natural choice.

Review (Also posted here.)
This was such a distressing book -- and I don’t mean that as a spoiler for the ending, but as a description of the characters and the writing style. At the same time, it’s also so very very good. An excellent novel!

Mrs Palfrey is an ageing widow who has enough money left to avoid the disgrace of a nursing home: she can take a room at the Claremont, a formerly respectable residential hotel located on a thoroughfare in London. While the hotel does cater to fly-by guests, the permanent residents are all in the same boat as Mrs Palfrey: approaching death, proud, but barely wealthy enough to maintain the status-quo.

From this setup, Taylor develops a genuinely distressing story. The elderly residents live all but fake lives: their social dynamic revolves around pretending that nothing is changed, that they are doing fine, that money is no object. And so their interactions become merely sustained hypocrisy where real relationships become impossible. Any family member who is still alive and who might visit becomes someone to boast about -- bonus points if they’re young and handsome, then one can really lord it over the others. The inmates are too set in their ways to admit even to themselves that their bodies are inevitably betraying them -- their appetites and their mobility cannot be seen to have diminished. In short: one-upmanship is the sole source of social status, and appearances must be kept up. This entails the saddest, most distressing aspect of the book: there is no recourse for these people, no help to be got, and it is all their own fault.

Taylor’s writing in this book is wonderful: its matter-of-fact dryness cuts mercilessly through the pretense. Taylor frequently feels compassionate about her côterie of end-of-life losers, but has no patience with their sham lives: she trains her scalpel squarely on the social niceties that cover a less-than-perfect reality, and she does so with an attitude that ranges from impish humour to absolutely brutal editorial comments that leave people's hypocrisies bare and raw. The style reminded me of Arrested Development, where characters say or do one thing, and the narrator bluntly contradicts them for tragi-comedic effect.

No part of this novel is sentimental; on the contrary: it is almost harrowing in its unflinching directness and desire for honesty. And the writing is so confident, so perfect in tone and delivery. My SO and I now have both read this, and our summary of this book goes “It’s so sad! But so good! But so sad! But so good!".

May 2, 2019, 4:32pm

You were never really here by Jonathan Ames

Why did I choose to read this?
I saw the movie last year, and I thought it was a wonderful non-actiony action movie. I was interested enough to pick up the source novella.

Review (Also posted here.)
This was a short, well-written thriller of the gritty and noir variety. The main character is Joe, ex-marine, ex-FBI, who lives off the grid (though with his ageing mother), and who works as investigator for hire. His specialty is recovering young teens who have been sold into paedophile networks and prostitute rings. His favourite weapon is a hammer because his father used one to beat both him and his mother with.

You were never really here is a competent thriller novella: you get exactly what you expect. Though I still think the movie was better.

May 2, 2019, 5:36pm

>134 Petroglyph: Do you read a lot of retold fairy tales? I went through a period about 10 years ago when I read quite a lot of them but have since moved away from them. Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels is excellent and retells Grimms' Snow White and Rose Red; it is a favorite. And if you haven't read Angela Carter yet, her work is well worth a read (I love her work!) I have read two Barbara Comyns but I remember very little about them.

Edited: May 3, 2019, 6:30pm

>138 avaland:
I do sometimes read retold fairy tales, though usually as short stories or novellas, and I prefer darker retellings to plain reworkings. My reading in that area is rather lacklustre, though -- I have very few checkmarks on the tag page for retold fairy tales. That said, Tender morsels does look interesting -- the tags mention "incest", which makes it seem like it might be on the darker side (which I like, as I said).

Thanks for the tip about Carter! Nights at the circus seems like an intriguing novel! And so does The bloody chamber! Always on the lookout for weird-ish books!

May 3, 2019, 2:06pm

>133 Petroglyph:
I very much liked this one by her. I feel her semi-autobiographical books are best so I love when she takes us back to Japan. I'm in Paris right now but I have decided to not buy the books of hers I'm missing as I still haven't read some of the others on my TBR.

Edited: May 4, 2019, 4:48pm

>140 lilisin:
This one was indeed nice: it just flowed so nicely and was actually stimulating. She's very much aware that her Japan is a rosy-tinted nostalgiafest and more of a fairy tale -- self-insight is definitely a plus. I also liked that she becomes less eager to identify herself as Japanese the more time she spends in the Japan where so much has changed.

Ah, Paris. My next trip to France will be in the non-Paris region (on previous trips I've only ever been to Île-de-France, shame on me), but I really want to go back there.

My advice would be to read the ones you have first: I think her output has become weaker, and you might not want to spend money on something you might not want to read. YMMV, of course.

May 5, 2019, 12:38pm

The Young Visiters or, Mr. Salteena's Plan by Daisy Ashford

Why did I choose to read this?
I happened to be reading an article about books written by children that were published by bona fide publishing houses. This one seemed like it would be fun. And it was!

Review (Also posted here.)

The young visiters or, Mr. Salteena’s plan is a novella-length story written in 1890 by then-9-year-old Daisy Ashford. It wasn’t published until 1919, when the then-adult author could be convinced to make this particular juvenilia available to the public.

This was such enormous fun to read. It’s a romantic story about social climbers; Ashford at nine was clearly familiar with Victorian literature. The main characters, Ethel Monticue and Mr. Salteena, would very much like to be part of the upper class, though they take different pathways there.

To start with, the story is obviously written by a child. The characters read like petulant children that talk in a mixture of phrases the author has picked up from books and from adults around her, all of it presented in its original clumsy spelling. Their behaviour is erratic: the logic behind their behaviour is that of children who don’t quite understand why adults do and say the things they do. Also, the author thinks it is of the utmost importance that every character has their name mentioned (even the extras), and that all of their clothes are described in detail, to the point where several characters change outfits multiple times per day. Taken together, that means the story is a great example of unintentional hilarity. On the other hand, the whole thing exudes such confidence and such seriousness -- it demands to be considered on its own terms. And in some ways the writing is pretty competent, too: there’s two separate storylines whose interplay is handled just fine. And while the story may be told clumsily and naïvely, the romance and the social climbing are most definitely grown-up book material.

And that why I loved this book so much: awkwardly spelled, clumsily imagined and naïvely characterised it may be, but it’s done with with such earnestness and, frankly, skill that I cannot but call it extremely charming. It’s a genuinely endearing booklet that cannot but command goodwill. It works because the discrepancy is only obvious to adult readers: the author simply does their best.

My e-copy was free, from Project Gutenberg, and came with an introduction by J. M. Barrie. Yes, him. I gather it’s been turned into a stage play and a musical, as well as a a 2003 BBC movie. The latter features Hugh Laurie, Lyndsey Marshal, Jim Broadbent, and Bill Nighy, and it looks like it’s a genuinely funny flick.

Go read it. It’ll take less than an hour and I guarantee you’ll feel enriched after.

May 6, 2019, 3:25am

>134 Petroglyph: - thank you for this review - I have read several of Comyns' books, but hadn't even heard of this one. It seems to be out of print, but it's always good to have a couple of things you're hunting through second-hand bookshops for!

May 6, 2019, 6:37am

>143 wandering_star:
There was an eighteen-year gap between her A touch of mistletoe (1967) and The juniper tree (1985), perhaps that's why.

The 2011 reissue by Capuchin Press seems to still be available, at least on Amazon and Abebooks (search for isbn 9781907429194).

I'm definitely reading more by her. I've got my eye on Who was changed and who was dead and Our spoons came from Woolworths, and will tackle them probably in that order.

May 6, 2019, 10:27pm

The alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Why did I choose to read this?
A bona fide classic of New Age Nonsense. Going by some of Coelho’s other works that I’ve read, an extensive list of quotes from this book over at GoodReads and a thorough browse through the reviews here at LT, I will loathe every page, but if I am going to slag the book off, I’d better actually read the damn thing.

This will be the third book I read by Coelho, and it’s his last chance with me. I was underwhelmed by Veronika decides to die; I thought Like the flowing river: thoughts and reflections was pseudo-deep nonsense. I’m not expecting anything better from this one.

Review (Also posted here.)

TL;DR: Pseudo-deep nonsense, full of magical thinking, pretending to profundity that isn't there. New Age gobbledygook. Feelgood nonsense. As insightful as a horoscope. Filed under "hate-reads" and "shiterature".

This book is an exasperating mess of magic thinking and pretentious deepities. Coelho immerses his readers in feel-good poeticality: he likes it when something can be made to sound deep and wise, hinting at vast reaches of self-actualisation that the boogeyman of daily drudgery makes inaccessible to us. He will probably introduce a wise and mystical character -- though only one at a time -- to put it in a one-liner.

The Alchemist is the kind of book in which the New Age versions of Christianity, Islam, Dream Interpretation, Alchemy and Generic Spirituality are all true, and, properly considered, they're all the same thing. People who truly, madly, deeply "follow their heart" and are really really serious about seeking out their spiritual purpose in life (their "Personal Legend") understand this; they become so attuned to the Universe that they see that "all is one". And because at that point everything is so much in harmony, the Universe itself cannot but conspire to fulfil their dreams. Everyone else is probably too inhibited or scared to make that leap. (There is a great deal of patronising head-shaking at such folk.)

To make that muddled lack of thinking even more wishful, everything that can be learned is a "language", too: the way sheep behave is a "language": wordless, but comprehensible nonetheless, if only you find the right perspective. Reading between the lines of what people say and understanding unspoken assumptions and desires is another such wordless language. So is the way a caravan travels across the desert, and even the way the desert just keeps existing. Even the ecological pyramid of a balanced ecosystem (a small number of top-level predators supported by increasingly large numbers of prey) can be properly appreciated as mutual affinity and love, a finely calibrated "language" to be understood. You do have to have reached the proper profundity of thought, though (more pitiful head-shaking at the inhibited masses). Fortunately, in fine, all such languages really boil down to Love, as of course they do: Love, a.k.a. The Soul of the World. Even more fortunately, all this wordless meaning you can be attuned to is substantially the same thing as that christian/islamic/spiritual muddle I mentioned earlier, but you've got to be alchemist-level profound to understand that. And while anyone could arrive at that position -- we all already know this, deep down; it’s just been repressed and buried and whatnot -- most people won’t. Sad.

The vehicle that Coelho has chosen to deliver this murky mess is an almost allegorical fable. An Andalusian shepherd boy has a recurring dream of finding a Treasure in the pyramids at Giza and sets out to find it. Along his "quest" he first learns the “language" of his flock of sheep; then a mythical thousands-of-years-old biblical king appears to him and promptly cons him out of his sheep (but it’s for his own good, to teach him a zen lesson or something). He also meets a crystal shop owner, an English alchemist-in-training, the love of his life, and the famed Alchemist himself, all of who lead the boy, knowingly or not, towards deeper and deeper insights through an accumulation of "languages", and an incremental attunement to "omens". He keeps having visions that show him futures that can be changed and that warn him of danger. Towards the end, the boy has become so enlightened that he is able to have conversations -- in words! -- with his heart, the desert, the wind, the sun and god himself . The whole thing is too silly for words and collapses under its own pretension.

Look, this was never going to appeal to me: other works by Coelho’s that I’ve read, an extensive list of quotes from this book over at GoodReads and a thorough browse through the reviews here at LT told me exactly what kind of drivel this was going to be. I simply have no patience with pseudo-deep nonsense. At least now I can say that I’ve actually read the book, all the way through, and I am justified in never reading anything by Coelho again.

May 7, 2019, 10:25am

>144 Petroglyph: Thank you!

May 7, 2019, 5:48pm

So you didn't like The Alchemist? I think you were a brave person to read it. Enjoyed your review.

May 8, 2019, 3:41pm

>147 baswood:
So you didn't like The Alchemist?

That would indeed be a not inaccurate way of putting it, yes. And lest my bravery is overstated: it was short, surface-y and transparent as anything.


Edited: May 8, 2019, 5:12pm

Short reviews for a few short reads:
  • De allerlaatste caracara ter wereld or The very last caracara in existence in English, by Peter Verhelst.

    I chose to read this because I’ve read and enjoyed books by Verhelst before -- he writes dreamy postmodern litfic with a mythological feel -- not quite magical realism.

    I wasn’t bored reading this novella, but it didn’t really grip me, and it didn’t have much to say about the post-colonial population of the French-Caribbean island where it is set. Forgettable, even though it aims for memorable imagery.

    (Review also posted here, albeit in Dutch

  • The art of space travel by Nina Allan

    This science fiction novelette was a nominee for the Hugo Award in 2017, and I thought it was worth my time.

    Earth is readying itself for a manned Mars mission. The previous attempt failed (the ship exploded during liftoff), and even this time the astronauts will be going on a suicide mission: their task is to prepare a base for future use, but there won’t be a return voyage. The neat thing is that this story isn’t really concerned with any of that: the foreground is the person running the hotel where the astronauts are going to stay. Preparing the hotel staff, handling the press, taking care of her increasingly senile mother.

    I’d have wanted perhaps a little more meat, but this was not a bad read at all.

    (Review also posted here.)

  • Kattresan or in English, The journey on the back of a cat by Ivar Arosenius

    This was a picture book from 1909 that my SO had as a kid. We also watched the 1982 animated version. (That one is in Swedish and has no subtitles, but the visuals make clear enough what’s happening. 7 minutes long.)

    A children’s picture book about a girl who meets a cat and who rides on its back, meeting an increasingly strange series of animals and people. Cute.

    (Review also posted here, albeit in Swedish.)

May 9, 2019, 3:07pm

>145 Petroglyph: this review was great fun on Coelho. Pardon if I don’t follow your lead and actually read it.

I’m catching up from some 40 posts back. Really enjoyed all your reviews. Noting, especially, your take on Elizabeth Taylor. Also hoping you’re enjoying Marquez. I read through almost all his works last year and my favorites were the collections of novellas and short stories, which together leave a rich sense of who he was as a starving writer before he became famous.

May 10, 2019, 1:55am

>105 Petroglyph: Answering late, but well, catching up with your threat (and enjoying doing so). Thanks for the tip.

May 10, 2019, 11:48pm

>145 Petroglyph: I absolutely *love* this review. I've been hit with whatever we decide the opposite of a book bullet is. Maybe something like I avoided stepping in this pile of book guano?

May 11, 2019, 3:12pm

>150 dchaikin:

Taylor is an author I'd been looking forward to for a while, and feels like such a reward now that I've discovered I really liked two of her books in quick succession.

García Márquez I appears to be really good in short form (I've only read a few of his short stories in the collection I'm using), but I'm enjoying them so far. I don't think I'd be up for many of his longer works, though (much less all of them, brave you!): I'm not a big fan of sweeping century-long family sagas.

May 11, 2019, 3:13pm

>151 raton-liseur:
Avec plaisir!

May 11, 2019, 3:15pm

>152 rhian_of_oz:
My pleasure! Part of the reason why I persevered (though it's mercifully short as well as told in very simple words) was so I could write my dislike into a review. Glad you enjoyed it!

Instead of a book bullet, perhaps a bullet dodged? ;)

May 11, 2019, 4:07pm

>153 Petroglyph: That’s a special collection. Hope you enjoy. One thing I learned last year is that One Hundred Years of Solitude is a once-only for Marquez. He didn’t publish anything else like it. You might want avoid it, but he doesn’t have any other family sagas. : )

May 12, 2019, 1:27pm

>145 Petroglyph: I started and stopped my adventure with Coehlo with The Alchemist. Surely one of the most overrated books ever? I feel like there must be something more to the ridiculous and undeserved success of this book. Was he sleeping with all the world's most eminent book critics per chance?

Edited: May 15, 2019, 9:56am

>157 AlisonY:
Maybe? I myself am pretty averse to rampant feelgood nonsense that promises more than it can possibly deliver. But apparently a lot of people don't care, or they really really want to believe in whatever. A large dose of feelgood sugar makes the empty pill go down.

Which is just a long-winded way of invoking Hanlon's razor, really.

Edited: May 13, 2019, 7:50pm

As on a darkling plain by Ben Bova

Why did I choose to read this?
As a teenager I picked up a science fiction omnibus from a library sale, containing three novels translated into German. I only ever read the first of those (Heinlein’s The moon is a harsh mistress or Revolte auf Luna. This is one of the other two, which I started but never finished.

Review (Also posted here.)
TL;DR: some nice ideas, but pretty badly written. I can’t recommend this in good conscience.

This book reads like three linked stories clumsily-stitched together -- a fixup, in other words, though it isn’t one. In the first story a manned mission is sent to Jupiter to find out more about strange Alien machines on Saturn’s moon Titan; the second story deals with a set of explorers investigating an Earthlike planet around Sirius; and the third deals squarely with the ancient but still functioning machines on Titan. The frame story is a ridiculous “love triangle".

There’s a few good story-ideas in there: an ancient human space-faring civilization that arose between the Ice Ages is a thrilling what-if prompt (Graham Hancock-style pseudo-science works best as SF), and I also liked the concept of a hunter-gatherer tribe of Neanderthals in space, all that is left of a colony of the aforementioned Ice Age Space Society. Both of these are prominent in the second story, which I thought most amusing.

But whatever enjoyable story ideas this fix-up offers are more than offset by the poor writing: Bova’s style is turgidly perfunctory; his characterization is non-existent; and his imagination concerning Alien motives just isn’t, well, imaginative. The love triangle that Bova tries to tie these stories together with simply doesn’t work: he cannot get his non-characters to act in a manner that would make their troubled relationship believable.

May 13, 2019, 8:25pm

Orbit unlimited by Poul Anderson

Why did I choose to read this?
As a teenager I picked up a science fiction omnibus from a library sale, containing three novels translated into German. I only ever read the first of those (Heinlein’s The moon is a harsh mistress or Revolte auf Luna, several times, at that. This is one of the other two, which I started but never finished.

Review (Also posted here.)
Orbit unlimited was pretty good in terms of sheer science fiction adventure, but at the same time it was such an off-putting right-wing American book. I like it less and less in hindsight.

The heroes of this novel are drawn from a strong-jawed, all-American subculture of a future One World Government that rules iron-fistedly over an enormously overcrowded earth. Earth in general is tired and has become inward-looking; space exploration is all but extinct. The rebellious subculture’s way of life is being eroded intentionally by the Government’s schooling programme, infusing their children with mysticism, driven away from rationalism. In response, they invoke the US constitution and various American resistance movements against overreaching governments (protestants, Mormons), and they start stockpiling weapons and planning their boycotts. That is, until they are offered the opportunity to leave Earth and start afresh on a newly-discovered Earthlike planet, for which they have to sell their Earthly possessions to book passage on a Generation Ship. Once they have arrived on their New World they become egalitarian ranchers who live in log huts and whose wilderness skills are a necessity for survival as they struggle with the unfamiliar native lifeforms. Naturally, they will soon bring forth a new nation, with a new breed of genetically engineered people who will inherit this New World as their birthright.

So yeah: standard but pretty solid SF-adventuring on the one hand, and quite a lot of US self-aggrandisement on the other.

May 13, 2019, 8:37pm

A second chance at Eden by Peter F. Hamilton

Why did I choose to read this?
Peter F. Hamilton gets rave reviews for his Space Opera, but his books (trilogies) are massive. I wanted a sample before signing up for a potential multi-book commitment

Review (Also posted here.)
A varied bundle of stories and novellas: there’s a near-future dog-fighting story; there’s a whodunit set on a bio-technological mining station around Jupiter (against the background of “normal humans" versus “enhanced humans"); there’s a quiet story about the owner of a frontier orchard trying to maintain her economic independence; and also a “humans find alien derelict" story; and plenty more besides. The timeline is chronological, from near-future to far-future, with excellent science fiction technology that is both clever and intriguing. Hamilton does excellent worldbuilding and plays with genre tropes like a pro.

I liked these: I picked up this bundle to sample Hamilton, and I think I will enjoy tackling his longer works.

May 13, 2019, 8:47pm

The women of Nell Gwynne’s by Kage Baker

Why did I choose to read this?
Carefully executed Steampunk looks so damn cool, but the media I’ve read/watched so far has largely failed to live up to my expectations. So I browsed through LT’s tagmash for steampunk novella, in hopes of finding something short but good.

Review (Also posted here.)
The women of Nell Gwynne's is an adventure/espionage novella with steampunk aesthetic. It failed to entertain me.

The plot sounds appealing enough, though: a young Victorian Lady lives through war, gang rape and a siege in India, which is why she is then shunned by her family and her former social circles. She takes up the profession of higher-class prostitute and is recruited by a secret espionage organisation (the titular women of Nell Gwynne's) who train spy prostitutes; their James Bond gadgets are advanced steampunk technology. That's a great setup for a spy series!

Unfortunately, this novella did not really appeal to me. The writing was terrible, for one: too much telling and not enough showing; it was as if Baker was trying to describing a film to me. That is partly due to the novella being burdened with too much plot: it has to set up the main character's back story, take us through her recruitment, and give us her first real mission, which comes with a number of red herrings and a useless whodunit subplot (which requires the introduction of too many temporary characters).

This should either have been an entire novel, where Baker would have the space to deal with all of this appropriately, or the main character's first mission should have been much more straightforward. Either way, large portions of this novella could do with a rewrite and some expanding. The ideas are there, it's just that Baker positively rushes past a great many of them, and so there is no time to build up proper tension.

May 13, 2019, 9:07pm

Utan pengar, utan bikini or Without money, without bikini by Cecilia Davidsson

Why did I choose to read this?
A more or less random book with an interesting blurb picked up at a library sale because I want to read more by contemporary Swedish authors.

Review (Also posted in Swedish here.)

Very short, but also very interesting stories. They reminded me a lot of the Danish author Naja Marie Aidt: both Aidt and Davidsson write short and subtle stories about people being nasty and evil towards each other. Not in grand, dramatic arcs, and usually not because they’re evil at heart, but merely everyday nastiness that is often too subtle to put words to -- relationships that don’t really work out, family dynamics that feel off, a lonely person feeling shame without properly understanding why.

Not bad at all.

May 15, 2019, 5:19am

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Why did I choose to read this?
General owned-but-unread. I’ve only read a handful of Shakespeare’s plays, and while I have no intention of reading all of them (or seeing them performed), I should read at least a few more. I’ll start with the ones I haphazardly purchased over the years but that have since languished on my shelves.

Review (Also posted here.)
I found this so-so. Both Antony and Cleopatra are portrayed as fickle individuals absorbed in their love-making to the exclusion of everything else. Cleopatra in particular is whiny and manipulative; Antony plainly gives up on all duties. The play only becomes tragic and imbued with grandeur once I allow myself to not think of these people as, well, humans but as larger-than-life figures, household names straight out of Great (Wo)Man History. I’m not sure I want to do that.

The quality picks up towards the end, but the earlier acts contain some good back-and-forth banter and penis jokes.

Edited: May 15, 2019, 7:53am

>113 Petroglyph: Gloriant seems like an interesting read. I really enjoy discovering classics from other countries. However, I can't trace a copy in French or English, which is a pity... Sometimes, translation (or absence of translation) can be frustrating.
However, thanks for opening my literary horizons! Thanks to your thread, I discover interesting books (although sometimes inaccessible) that I had never heard about.

May 17, 2019, 5:37am

>165 raton-liseur:
Same here: your Club Read list consists largely of authors I'm unfamiliar with (I'm woefully under-read when it comes to French-language literatures). I'm keeping a list for my next trip to a francophone region!

May 19, 2019, 9:12am

>166 Petroglyph:: Looking forward to seeing what books you will pick and what you'll think about it!

May 24, 2019, 10:15am

Enjoyed reading your reviews of those early science fiction novels.

May 27, 2019, 6:54am

>168 baswood:
Thanks! There'll be more of those in the near future!

Edited: May 30, 2019, 6:43am

Roulette cambodgienne by Gérard de Villiers

Why did I choose to read this?
This year I’m making myself read books by my parents’ favourite authors, and this is from a series that my father read frequently. I remember him bringing home one instalment of this series per weekly library visit, and so I picked one at random. It’s a spy/thriller kind of series, a trashy James Bond from the looks of it.

Review (Also posted here.)
This was absolutely terrible. In a word: Trashy James Bond -- the uninspired kind you want to avoid.

The main character in this series, Malko, is an Austrian nobleman who moonlights as a freelance special agent for the CIA, who drop him into various spy/thriller scenarios. In this instalment he is posing as a US Aid worker dealing with refugees in Cambodia, when the Khmers Rouges are besieging Phnom Penh. Malko is shown around the city, which seems little more than a giant black market where decadence, alcohol, opium and prostitutes make up daily life. Corruption is rife as Cambodian state forces, the Americans and the Khmers Rouges are making deals behind the scenes.

At least the bare trappings of a by-the-numbers spy thriller are there. The Big Bad is an evil general; his main henchman is an amputee named Phuong, who is an admirable fighter despite the lack of his legs. And of course, Malko is introduced to a number of sexy asian ladies (SALs), who are all a little bit mysterious, very pretty with small breasts, and upon meeting Malko they all default to the role of helpful assistant who intensely desires the sexy white male.

If this sounds like a setup for a minor James Bond film with at least a modicum of promise, the book is actually much worse. De Villiers writes with a limited vocabulary that is repeated ad nauseam (guns fire only in rafales, explosions déchiquetent people). There are awkward sex scenes of questionable Gary-Stu quality. The Big Bad is said to be the Big Bad, but is not given a chance to show his evilness; and so there is no real tension. Several non-white characters express themselves in even less than Hulk Speak, particularly a Chinese action girl with the very un-Chinese name of Monivanh (number one = "good”, number ten = "bad”; no sweat / beaucoup sweat = "no problem / big heap problem”, tic-tic = ”have sex”). And worst of all: Malko is almost entirely passive in this book and takes virtually no initiative. For most of the book he gets carted around by CIA agents and by the SALs and is introduced to various people; he doesn’t speak any of the local languages, which means that many setups for the grand finale go through an intermediary -- the aforementioned agents and SALs; his assassination goes wrong in the clumsiest of untrained amateur ways and a SAL has to rescue him; his master plan is executed by someone else; and in his final action scene his weapon, his transport, his intel and his exit strategy have all been handed to him by a SAL. Some action hero! In fact, if Malko were any random red-blooded male who imagines themselves capable of withstanding a little torture before the cavalry show up, this book's plot would not only play out exactly the same, but there’d be at least some kind of excuse for Malko’s lack of initiative.

And then there are facepalm-worthy passages such as the following. After Monivanh has fought off evil henchman Phuong (Malko, of course, was knocked semi-unconscious almost immediately), she takes Malko back to his hotel and gives him a divine blowjob which, incidentally, involves a cup of tea. Then we get this (my translation):

Flirtant avec l’infarctus, Malko était incapable de répondre. C’était encore plus éprouvant que le combat avec Phuong… Monivanh avait vraiment des ressources très diversifiées. Elle savait peut-être même faire la cuisine...
Feeling close to a coronary, Malko was unable to respond. This was even more grueling than the fight with Phuong… Monivanh’s skills really were quite diverse. Perhaps she even knew how to cook...


This is a shockingly bad book -- the kind of trashy that makes me feel I wasted my time on it. It doesn’t really use the tropes of flashy spy fiction efficiently, it merely mentions their external trappings and bets that that will be enough to keep people interested. I would say it even fails to clear the very, very low bar that is cheap self-insert fantasy: its protagonist is too passive and the stakes he faces are too low.

May 29, 2019, 11:06pm

>170 Petroglyph: I feel like we should be paying you something like danger money for these bad books you read so that we don't have to :-).

May 30, 2019, 12:04am

>171 rhian_of_oz: Seconded! I keep coming across mentions of Malko in French novels, and vaguely thought I’d better have a look at one some time to see if they’re really as bad as all that - now I’m spared that chore...

May 30, 2019, 2:21am

>170 Petroglyph: That made me smile and roll my eyes at the same time in recognition! In the seventies and eighties, SAS books made up a good part of my dad's reading. He was always a bit defensive about his SAS habit, although he never claimed it was good literature. Thinking back on it, my mum must have expressed her disapproval. She can't have been happy about the content, not to mention the covers! The bit you quoted is awful! I don't know where they went - they were probably chucked out when we moved. Incidently, it took me some time to stop conflating politician Philippe de Villiers with Gérard de Villiers...

May 30, 2019, 5:57am

>160 Petroglyph: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was my favorite Heinlein novel and I doubt I can remember why:-)

May 31, 2019, 1:25pm

>170 Petroglyph: sorry it stunk, but your review was entertaining.

Jun 1, 2019, 1:53pm

And what a great book cover

Jun 2, 2019, 2:14pm

>171 rhian_of_oz:
Payment? And here I was thinking a deeper better understanding of my parents was reward enough of itself. I'll PM you my bank details! (I'll gladly accept additions to mount TBR, too).

>172 thorold:
The main character is completely extraneous to the action. And that is not by design, but because of disinterest, or writing on autopilot, or incompetence, or just De Villiers not being familiar enough with Cambodia to convincingly set a novel there. I'm not sure. But I do know I've spent enough brain cycles on this book and I refuse to speculate about the reasons why it failed!

>173 Dilara86:
I was a teen when my father read the series and I felt too awkward about the covers to really broach the subject. I didn't want my parents to think I was interested in reading those books, because it would have invited more scrutiny of my own library hauls. Come to think of it, quite a few classic fantasy and sf books I was reading at the time had less than palatable covers...

>175 dchaikin:
I'm sorry it stunk, too, but I'll thank you for the compliment!

>176 baswood:
Those covers... In explaining to people why I made myself read an SAS book, I always have to make excuses for the cover. I kind of have to show the cover because it provides a one-glance explanation of the kind of book it is.

Jun 2, 2019, 2:16pm

>174 avaland:
I think it is my only Heinlein novel. Others I started but could not get into as a teen. I should perhaps try and read one more novel by him this year, to plug that "gap" in my reading of classic SF.

Jun 2, 2019, 6:45pm

Cereus blooms at night by Shani Mootoo

Why did I choose to read this?
A gift from my SO. Set in the Caribbean.

Review (Also posted here.)
This was such a solid read that I paradoxically have very little to say about it.

Cereus blooms at night is the story of Mala Ramchandin, set at various stages during her life, but all in and around the same village. As a semi-senile she is barely tolerated at her nursing home, though one caretaker goes the extra mile and becomes quite close; he is the focalizer of these chapters. Prior to her (forced) admission there, she lived on her own in her family’s dilapidated home, shunned and feared by the village, though a former lover’s son secretly brings her food; he is the window into Mala’s life here. Only as a child is she her own main character, but even then her life is one of generalized abuse lightened by a few individual loves and friendships.

Much of the appeal of this book derives from that tension: a harsh life of poverty, violence, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, bullying, incest, shunning, abandonment and sacrifice made bearable by one or two largely secret friendships. And these happy patches do make things better, though they also make the nearly all-enveloping maltreatment comparatively harsher. Dealing with abuse involves sneaky rebellion, and may take place over a timespan counted in generations rather than years.

Several characters in this book are casually LGBTQ: Mala’s caretaker is gay; her mother runs off with a lesbian lover; her former lover’s son is trans. And by "casually" I mean that their orientation is barely remarked-upon and is not presented as an obstacle or as a conflict-generating device.

I thought this was a pretty good book, and memorable, too, and a very solid read written in beautiful language.

Edited: Jun 4, 2019, 2:32am

>179 Petroglyph: Interesting review. And a nice title and nice cover. I might get tempted (although this author does not seem to have been translated into French yet).
Sorry to pry, what does SO mean?

Jun 4, 2019, 3:32am

>180 raton-liseur:

SO is short for "significant other" which can be your boy/girlfriend or husband/wife or just a partner if you prefer not to give a label to your relationship.

Jun 4, 2019, 5:52am

Jun 7, 2019, 3:13pm

Nouvelle histoire de Mouchette by Georges Bernanos

Why did I choose to read this?
Trying to read more in French. Also, Bernanos seems like an important 20thC author. I chose this fairly slim book to sample him and see if longer works by him might appeal to me.

Review (Also posted here.)
Mouchette, all of fourteen years old, leads an isolated existence. She’s the odd one out at school -- her family is dirt-poor; she can’t sing; her hands are always filthy -- and the headmistress systematically singles her out as the bad example other pupils would do well to avoid. Things are much the same at home: she is barely tolerated within her poverty-stricken and child-rich family, in that she’s just useful enough to deserve her food and lodging. Her father is an alcoholic who is physically abusive; her mother is distant and a stranger to caresses.

One night, while lost in a forest during a storm, Mouchette runs into the local smuggler, Mr. Arsène, who shelters her from the elements, shares his illicitly distilled alcohol with her, and makes her complicit in his maybe-he-did-maybe-he-didn’t murder of the gendarme by making her his alibi. He also rapes her.. In the hours that follow, Mouchette will see, understand, really grok that a woman’s expected lifestyle, in her village, is one of suffering in silence, even though she lacks the words to verbalise that understanding.

This novel was short, but pretty well-written. In keeping Mouchette firmly at omniscient-narrator distance, its readers are forcibly reduced to powerless observers. Its themes of social injustice and gendered discrimination fall out naturally from its almost-ya story and its setting in a timeless hamlet by the sea. Recommended (given the appropriate trigger warnings)!

Jun 7, 2019, 4:30pm

>178 Petroglyph: There are many, younger, SF writers who have no time for Heinlein, so you'd be in good company if you didn't read any more of his books. I think his reputation will recover someday, but not soon.

Jun 8, 2019, 6:05pm

>184 dukedom_enough:
Well, I've read that his "juveniles" are supposed to be good, and that his main body of work is good, too, but that his later works are soap-boxy and full of far-right author screeds. If I do end up reading one of his books, I'll have to browse his wikipedia page first to find something that might interest me.

The book of his I could not get through as a teen was The cat who walks through walls. Reading about it (again on wikipedia, but also the reviews here), I'm not surprised. I might just read Stranger in a strange land and leave it at that.

Jun 8, 2019, 6:12pm

Do androids dream of electric sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Why did I choose to read this?
PKD is one of the really big names in SF that I’ve read very little of.

Review (Also posted here.)
I would call this novel almost decent. Not a success, but it hangs together just enough.

Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, hunting and killing androids that are virtually indistinguishable from non-artificial humans. In one day he has to track down and kill six of the most recent type of android, who might be advanced enough to pass all known detection tests.

This book exists in a weird tension between several paradoxes. For instance, even though the world is entirely destroyed, the level of technology is far advanced: there are colonies on Mars, the survivors on Earth fly around in hovercars, and artificial humans are only distinguishable from the real thing by complex psychological tests. This extends to animals, too: with real live animals being virtually extinct, the ownership of fake but convincing electric animals has become a marker of status and inter-citizen rivalry. Also, while there is no mention of any of the present-day religions, the semi-mythical prophet figure Mercer and the movement he started appear to be the dominant religion -- people tune into a shared hallucination where they experience Mercer’s sufferings. And then there’s the mood organs: everyone has a private hormone-mixing apparatus where they can “dial" any mood they desire, including the desire to dial for moods; but barely anyone appears to be using them.

Some of these paradoxes are intentional -- the blurring between nature and machine -- but others aren’t, and I don’t think they fit together all that well in the same universe, despite their shared association with empathy or humanness. The Mercerism subplot felt shoehorned in, for instance, and the mood organ could easily have been cut: it only gets mentioned when PKD remembers it was a big part of the opening scene, and people’s (non-)use of it is never actually relevant to anything else.

Then there’s the parts where the ideas are there but their implementation felt half-hearted. For instance, while the androids aren’t really capable of empathy, neither are many of the actual humans, it would seem, and this cannot but bring up the question of whether there is any fundamental difference between the two. But this question is not developed so much as brought up; and that is not enough. There’s some idle fretting, too, about whether the main character is human or an android; and I sometimes wondered whether any character at all were a non-artificial human, in-universe. But none of it is systematic enough to rise to the level of “theme" or even “discussion"; instead it feels like deliberate obfuscation in lieu of actual writing. So here is yet another paradox of this book: it clearly wants to broach big ideas, but it doesn’t really do anything with them. (Perhaps this was different in the sixties.)

It feels like PKD went for a scattershot approach and hoped that tying absolutely everything to the human capacity for empathy would by itself make things cohere. That didn’t quite work, I think. But some of the main bits did stick together, enough to lend this novel a sense of cohesion that I’ve found lacking in other work by this author.

Jun 10, 2019, 3:03pm

>185 Petroglyph: Stranger is more like the later novels, though. Methuselah's Children might be OK. Politics held to a minimum, no weird sexual business. Part of later Heinlein's problem is that he reached a point where he could say no to editors.

>186 Petroglyph: Sheep was the thirteenth novel PKD had published since The Man in the High Castle in 1962, amid many short stories. At the rate he was rushing work out, it's no wonder it was a bit lacking in cohesion. The book is not much like Blade Runner.

Jun 11, 2019, 1:11pm

>186 Petroglyph: >187 dukedom_enough: Sadly, haven’t read PKD and this is the one novel I do want to read since I have heard so much about it, care of the movie. Interesting.

Jun 13, 2019, 8:06pm

>187 dukedom_enough:
"Part of later Heinlein's problem is that he reached a point where he could say no to editors."

Ego is a hard drug ;) Too bad...

"The book is not much like Blade Runner."

It isn't. I haven't seen that film in a few years, but going by my recollection the book is not as good. I think I'll rewatch it soon.

Jun 15, 2019, 2:20pm

>188 dchaikin: Well, most of the best PKD novels have a cohesion problem. Did I mention how many drugs he was taking? One reads them for other reasons.

Jun 16, 2019, 9:27am

>190 dukedom_enough: I think I remember The Man in the high castle was unexpectedly coherent. Was he taking less drugs when he wrote that one? It is one of PKD's novels I enjoyed most.

Jun 16, 2019, 2:57pm

>191 raton-liseur: I don't know, but there's probably a PKD biography where one could check. I think you're right about High Castle.

Jun 17, 2019, 1:04pm

>191 raton-liseur:
I read that as a teen, and I have very few recollections of it. Perhaps it's due for a reread if, as >192 dukedom_enough: says, it's more coherent.

Jun 17, 2019, 1:05pm

Letters to a young novelist by Mario Vargas Llosa

Why did I choose to read this?
It’s a book about writing, by a successful author (though I’ve never read him). Having acquired this at a library sale back in 2007, it was high time I got to it.

Review (Also posted here.)
This was interesting, but uneven. Vargas Llosa has penned a few essays (thinly disguised as letters to a probably non-existent addressee) in which he treats aspects of novel-construction. A few are quite boring, in particular the early ones dealing with selection of narrator and the difference between narrated time and narration time. But as the essays move on to more abstract features, such as levels of reality, he mixes in more interesting comments and introduces useful tools for analysis.

Every essay is peppered with examples from novels that Vargas Llosa liked that particular aspect of, so conceivably this book could be used as a source of recommendations. A comprehensive list of authors and works cited is included at the back; of these only three are women. Make of that what you will.

Edited: Jun 27, 2019, 4:19pm

The black tides of heaven by JY Yang

Why did I choose to read this?
I’ve read short work by Yang before and I liked it enough to come back for more.

Review (Also posted here.)
This novella was uneven. I know this is the first in a series, but The black tides of heaven felt incomplete in ways I don’t expect first-in-series books to be.

In terms of world-building it felt as though there was too much going on: there’s a magical system (think The Force filtered through Five-Elements-style categories) that exists alongside real-world technology; there’s the secondary-world history, where fairly standard imperialist conquerors lord it over the down-trodden conquered; there’s various factions and ethnic groupings, not all of which were clearly introduced; and there’s the gender setup, where children are “they" until about 17 when they choose their gender and doctors magic their bodies into the appropriate forms. Some of these things were organically worked into the narrative, but others were dumped into it at the three-quarters point. This novella felt like it should have been expanded into something a bit longer.

With so much going on in the background, the main plot skips and jumps from event to event. Chapters are named after the twin protagonists’ ages (the sixth year, the seventeenth year), and while the plot and intrigue are interesting enough in their own right, the episodic nature of the narrative makes it hard to appreciate things like character development and motivation. Here, too, this novella felt as though it should have been longer than it was.

Jun 17, 2019, 1:57pm

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Why did I choose to read this?
General owned-but-unread. I’ve only read a handful of Shakespeare’s plays, and while I have no intention of reading all of them (or seeing them performed), I should read at least a few more. I’ll start with the ones I haphazardly purchased over the years but that have since languished on my shelves.

Review (Also posted here.)
I liked this one. There is some good banter at the beginning, the speeches over Caesar’s body are wonderful, and the scenes set at the battle of Philippi felt appropriately hopeful or despondent.

Caesar is a bit of a non-entity, though, and I’d have wanted a little more friction between Mark Antony and Octavian Caesar. But a very enjoyable play on the whole.

Jun 18, 2019, 8:45am

>196 Petroglyph: I saw a performance of this last year and was a bit underwhelmed (and I don't think it was the Bell Shakespeare Company's fault). My favourite bit was Marc Anthony's eulogy - the delivery was pitch perfect.

Jun 18, 2019, 9:29am

>197 rhian_of_oz:
I'll be the first to admit that I don't read/watch nearly enough plays, so my standards for "good" might be under-developed (I read that Julius Caesar is often taught to secondary school students). Perhaps I enjoyed individual portions so much that I overlooked the big picture. But as you say, that eulogy is so damn impressive! I really want to see it performed now!

Jun 18, 2019, 9:54am

>198 Petroglyph: My friend and I have started a tradition of going to see the Bell Shakespeare productions each winter. We saw Othello in 2016 and The Merchant of Venice in 2017 which were both superb. I'm hoping this years Much Ado About Nothing is as good.

Jun 18, 2019, 11:08am

>195 Petroglyph: I believe this is one of now four related novellas, so maybe all together form a more complete picture. Unsatisfying, to be sure.

Jun 26, 2019, 9:32pm

On a red station, drifting by Aliette de Bodard

Why did I choose to read this?
I’ve read and enjoyed several of de Bodard’s shorter work, and this novella was nominated for a Hugo.

Review (Also posted here.)
This was entertaining: a power struggle in a Chinese/Vietnamese-style clan, but set on a creaking space station. Lady Linh, former High Magistrate now reduced to the status of penniless war refugee, seeks sanctuary with distant relatives on Prosper Station. Said relatives are in charge of running the station under leadership of lady Quyen, who is capable but has never had the chance to realise her extra-familial potential. Linh and Quyen have, of course, very different ideas of how to run things.

Simple, but ably written. Neat!

Edited: Jun 26, 2019, 9:39pm

The arrival of missives by Aliya Whiteley

Why did I choose to read this?
I enjoyed another of Whiteley’s weird fiction novellas just a few months back, and was eager to read more by her.

Review (Also posted here.)
In post-WWI rural England, Shirley is an ambitious seventeen-year-old: she wants to become a fêted schoolteacher. There are simply not enough men around any more to fill all the jobs, and she intends to grow beyond the stifling limits of her tiny farming village and their pre-war standards. On the other hand, she seems naive enough to think that her infatuation with her teacher, a newcomer in her community called Mr Tiller, will translate directly into assistance with her career as well as a marriage. It turns out, though, that Tiller is an outsider in more than one respect, and that he has plans for Shirley. She believes she is magnanimous enough to accept his war injuries for what they are, even though they have earned him the reputation of “not a real man". This being Weird Fiction, of course, Shirley will be thrown into unexpected and mind-bending emergencies.

I liked this one, quite a bit. The body horror is fairly minimal, and the fantastical elements are sfnal and out of left field, but this novella compensates by taking a very different approach to what Weird Fiction usually tastes like: The arrival of missives is definitely a female flavour of Weird, and uses its post-war setting quite effectively. It’s also very well written: Shirley’s voice is one of the book’s best features.

Edited: Jun 27, 2019, 1:39pm

The flying saucer by Kamkondo Dede.

This short story was recommended to me as SF (see cover image), but it really should be marketed as some sort of mythological fantasy. The cover has nothing at all to do with the actual story, which is about twins trying to prevent their elder sister from marrying a cannibal with magical powers; there’s a spirit world at the bottom of the river, and quite a few people have cause to change into animals. This author is apparently fondly remembered by many in Malawi, but his works are very hard to get a hold of (I borrowed this from a literary scholar writing about African SF).

I’m not sure what to think of this: on the one hand, the story was too moralistic and authority-affirming for me; on the other hand, it’s written as a fairy tale, so those features are really part of the basic makeup of that genre. And it was a fun fairy tale that skipped from one crazy plot development to the next.

It was interesting to read something this nostalgic and rare. If I ever come across more by Kamkondo I won’t hesitate to pick it up!

(Review also posted here.)

Edited: Jun 26, 2019, 9:56pm

That game we played during the war by Carrie Vaughn

Vaughn’s science fiction shorts are always interesting exercises in the genre. This one features two veterans reconnecting after the war in which they were on opposite sides; their history involves POW situations. Their friendly games of chess are unusual, in that one of them is telepathic, and so unorthodox play is required from the non-telepath.

Nice. Barely SF, but nice!

(Review also posted here.)

Jun 26, 2019, 9:56pm

The song by Erinn L. Kemper

Short story about a near-future climate research facility installed on a repurposed drilling platform. Various species of whales, world-wide, have started singing the same song and committing suicide en masse; over it all hangs the gloom that is powerlessness. Well done!

(Review also posted here.)

Jun 27, 2019, 6:11am

>203 Petroglyph: This is extremely interesting. I'm actively looking for non-US/British SF and fantasy works, and I'd never heard of Kamkondo Dede. Into my personal wishlist and the Speculative Fiction from around the World list it goes!

Would you be willing to crosspost your reviews for The Flying Saucer and On a Red Station, Drifting (and any other book that might fit the bill) with us, over on Reading Globally's Speculative Fiction from around the World thread?

Edited: Jun 27, 2019, 1:54pm

>206 Dilara86:
From what I've heard -- from my SO, who has it from a scholar in post-colonial African SF she borrowed the booklet from, which is how I read it -- Kamkondo wrote a few SpecFic stories in the 1980s which Malawians in their 30s-40s remember reading as kids. There's even a SF prize named after him, though a quick google search indicates that it might not be that successful, FWIW.

I'll have the chance to talk to that scholar in the future, and will certainly ask her for more recommendations. I can forward those, if you like!

Re: crossposting: done!

Edited: Jun 27, 2019, 4:19pm

Tabac by Gerda Dendooven

Why did I choose to read this?
A Belgian author’s debut novel. I know Dendooven primarily as an illustrator of YA books; this is her first novel for adults.

Review (Also posted in Dutch here.)
This was a very Flemish book.

Tabac starts out as the story of a train trip to the sun. Thirty-something Connie sneaks out of her mother’s house at the butt-crack of dawn: she has at last found the courage to start a new life in southern Europe with Tabac, her partner who is much older. She is an adult runaway as much as she is enforcing no-contact with a toxic mother. Chapters about the train trip south alternate with episodes from her past: family trips to Italy; what her mother did to her dog; summertime chores; how Connie and Tabac met; how she was abused sexually in her teenage years. Typographically, these chapters are presented with a smaller line spacing, which makes them feel more petty-minded and repressive than the chapters set aboard the train.

It soon becomes clear that Dendooven’s main goal is to describe what life is like with a strict, almost narcissistic mother, a character so Flemish she approaches the status of archetype. She is a dominant control freak who will over-prepare for anything that smacks of novelty; her post-war frugality is pathological and is enforced with abusive discipline; her life is so regulated that each year is a repetition of the last; she has an unvoiced conviction that good behaviour is innate and that deviations are personality defects that deserve swift retaliation. Dendooven is clearly dealing with some issues.

While this novel may seem facile, I found it compelling: rather than a sequence of anecdotes that may or may not be autobiographical, Tabac is a confident exploration of a complex relationship between a daughter and her mother.

Jun 27, 2019, 4:13pm

The breast by Philip Roth

Review (Also posted here.)
This book was suggested to me during a discussion about an irksome segment of the 20thC literary canon: middle-aged male Americans obsessed with adultery, daddy issues or declining sexual appetite, usually relayed through obnoxiously academic or otherwise “intellectual” main characters, who think their navel-gazing is Such Serious Business. My example was John Updike; a friend suggested this novella by Philip Roth as a fun example of the subgenre.

And fun it was: The breast deals indeed with an aging American academic who is full of himself and who is obsessed with grandstanding through bragging about his intelligence and his sexual prowess. One day, though, he finds he has transformed into a female breast unattached to a body, an excessively grotesque development which leads to an unholy amount of introspection.

The fun part is that the novella is run through with a layer of tongue-in-cheek self-awareness: Roth walks the line between playing the subgenre straight and highlighting its pathological absurdity. Its over-the-top quality is what saves it: I don’t think it would have worked if any of it were any less outrageous.

Jun 27, 2019, 4:20pm

>200 dukedom_enough:
I haven't decided yet if I even want to invest in the other three volumes. Unsatisfying it is; but they can't all be winners. Fortunately, Yang has written other things, too: I'll probably choose something else next time.

Jun 28, 2019, 3:35am

>207 Petroglyph: I'll have the chance to talk to that scholar in the future, and will certainly ask her for more recommendations. I can forward those, if you like!

Yes please! And thanks for the link. I'll be following her.

Jun 28, 2019, 10:02pm

Dix rêves de pierre by Blandine Le Callet

Why did I choose to read this?
Part of an effort to read more in French. Dix rêves de pierre presents is a collection of ten short stories, historical fiction inspired by epitaphs from the last eighteen hundred years. Sounds like it would be interesting as well as easy to dip into from time to time.

Review (Also posted here.)
Le Caillet s’a laissé inspirer de dix épitaphes pour écrire dix nouvelles où elle imagine les circonstances dans lesquelles ces personnes ont décédés. Elles se situent dans des ères et lieues différentes: dès la deuxième siècle à Izmir, Empire Romain, jusqu’à Paris ou Bretagne dans la 21ième siècle.

Les premières nouvelles sont les moins intéressantes -- des simples histoires d’amour -- mais bientôt la thématique se diversifie et les intrigues échappent à l’uniformité. En général, cette collection contient des nouvelles vite lues, vite oubliées. Mais je n’ai aucun regret d’avoir passé du temps avec elles.

Jun 28, 2019, 10:16pm

La place by Annie Ernaux. English title: A man's place

Why did I choose to read this?
Part of an effort to read more in French. I really enjoyed Ernaux’ La honte / Shame last year and was eager to read more by her.

Review (Also posted here.)
After the death of her father Ernaux decides to write his biography and looks back on her relationship with him. And while the biography itself is interesting enough, it is the class lens through which Ernaux filters everything: her parents are decidedly and proudly working class (farming stock, but they operate a café and a small grocery store), while she herself has gone on to enter middle class. That filter adds a layer of melancholy as the class distinction precludes full understanding -- neither her father nor Ernaux herself would want to walk in the other’s shoes -- and I thought it really elevated the book into Proper Literature. Good stuff.

Jun 28, 2019, 10:21pm

Poison or protect by Gail Carriger

Why did I choose to read this?
Carefully executed Steampunk looks so damn cool, but the media I’ve read/watched so far has largely failed to live up to my expectations. So I browsed through LT’s tagmash for steampunk & novella, in hopes of finding something short but good.

Review (Also posted here.)
It’s good to read outside of your usual suspects, and while I don’t think I’ll be seeking out more of Carriger’s work, I appreciated this novella for what it was.

The setting is an alternate-history Victorian Era, with dirigibles and kick-ass Action Girls as well as vampires and werewolves and ghosts; to my disappointment, the Steampunk elements are little more than window dressing. Instead, I think this qualifies as a bodice-ripper.

The plot goes as follows: an English Lord will soon be voting in a way that upsets the Fenians, and so a Vampire faction and a Werewolf faction send a protector to safeguard him -- independently of each other. The Vampire’s choice is Preshea Villentea, the aforementioned kick-ass Action Girl, a four-time widow of a string of rich old husbands as well as a trained assassin. The Werewolves send a former army captain, the looming Scotsman Gavin Ruthven. Neither is sure whether the other is the assassin they’re supposed to be watching out for, but they are definitely making eyes at each other.

This novella is written very breezily, betting heavily on sass and intrigue-through-dialogue to carry readers along with the fluff. Past the halfway point the plot takes a back seat and romance and erotica take over the main stage. On the whole, I thought Poison or protect was a little too cutesy, but the delivery is so confident that it hardly matters. Fluff, but well-done fluff.

Edited: Jul 1, 2019, 11:25am

Le colonel Chabert by Honoré de Balzac

Why did I choose to read this?
This year’s Big French Classic (I try to read at least one per year). I gather that the main character got declared dead in absentia, but is very much alive and wants to reclaim their forfeited possessions. Sounds interesting enough.

Review (Also posted here.)
This was a lot shorter than I thought it was: my edition, slim though it may be, also contains extensive introductory essays and several appendices.

In Le colonel Chabert, the titular main character served under Napoleon and is believed dead at the battle of Eylau. As it happens, he survived, but he is in such bad health that he is reduced to vagrancy -- all his credentials were taken from him. By the time he has convalesced and returned to Paris to try and reclaim his name, several years have passed. His estate has been divided between the state and his widow, who has chosen to remarry a much wealthier man and who is a mother now, too. More generally, the political situation has changed drastically as well: in this post-Napoleonic era, France is once again a Kingdom, and few people of influence are willing to publicly support an Imperial claimant and his legal case for turning back time. It is much more convenient to pretend that the so-called Colonel Chabert is merely an impostor.

This is a very interesting situation to spin a story out of, and Balzac makes great use of it. There’s understandable emotional drama and ethical questions all-around, where (almost) every character has valid and above all just and even legal reasons for their behaviour: Chabert has been robbed of his estate, however legally binding the whole thing came about, and he is entitled to restitution; but the new situation has progressed so far that undoing it becomes itself a massive injustice to all involved. No surprise, then, that the main plot is concerned with finding a lawyer and with the legal intricacies of Restauration France.

I also liked the care that Balzac took to cite laws and governmental edicts (even though the footnotes point out where he confused dates) and to ground his work in actual fact: this novella is a great illustration of how day-to-day bureaucracy is run, and I don’t often get such a glimpse into a historical society. What I didn’t like, though, was the resolution, which I thought was a bit too facile. I won’t call it a cop-out, but I’m not really impressed, either.

Having said that: I enjoyed spending time in this bureaucratic universe, and I liked the way Balzac handled complex moral issues. I think I’ll read more by him.

Incidentally, I feel disappointed that the book I selected as this year’s Big French Classic turned out to be a short novella. My edition has only 188 pages, and it contains a lengthy Introduction, a Life of Balzac, and an extensive bibliography: the novella doesn’t start until page 60. And everything past page 130 consists of appendices -- editorial notes on the manuscripts and publications used for this text edition, as well as excerpts from the relevant laws and prescriptions. I feel like I should supplement at least one other book by Balzac for this one to properly count as a Big French Classic: 60 pages just won’t cut it.

Jun 30, 2019, 1:23pm

Sveket by Birgitta Trotzig, or in English Deceit

Why did I choose to read this?
Reading more by women, and reading more Swedish literature (I live in Sweden and am underread in the local canon). Trotzig appears to be an important 20thC author.

Review (Also posted here, albeit in Swedish.)

This was a grimdark story, but I thought it was very well done. It is set in rural southern Sweden at the beginning of the 20th Century. The main character Tobit helps run his parents’ farmhouse, much against his will. They live in a tiny hamlet where everyone knows everything about everyone. Tobit manages to find a wife, who gives birth to a daughter, who then grows up into a new generation.

And this simple plot serves mainly to let readers experience the desperation that is a poor farming hamlet’s future. Tobit’s house is filthy, because no-one has the mental wherewithal to do something about it; everyone is dirt poor; few people live long. One of the best features, I thought, is how Trotzig uses scent to great effect to create an all-encompassing despair: the people in this novella spread a foul smell, usually fever-sweat (regardless of whether they are ill); even the faces of the dead have to be towelled off. And worst of all: no-one really talks to anyone else in this book. There are few dialogues, and the descriptions instead detail unproductive behaviour or self-doubt and misery. Put briefly: a dumb and animalistic acceptance of fate.

So yeah: dark as hell. But I actually really liked this novella: it was very well written and extremely effective in making me feel the misery of its characters. I’ll have to seek out more work by Trotzig.

Jun 30, 2019, 2:56pm

Problemski hotel by Dimitri Verhulst

Why did I choose to read this?
General owned-but-unread. Verhulst is a Belgian (Flemish) author with an amazing sense for selecting exactly the right word. This is my only owned-but-unread book by him.

Review (Also posted here, albeit in Dutch.)
A photographer without empathy is one of many refugees held in a facility in Belgium. He is bored out of his mind and dreams of a day when he will have gathered enough courage to finally stow away onto a container destined for (hopefully) England without freezing or suffocating to death. He comments morosely on whatever passes for daily life inside the centre: there’s torture stories from other inmates, the endless waiting for the bureaucracy to deliver an answer (more than likely “no”), and a parade of get-a-residence-permit-quick schemes.

This is a black comedy: the narrative drips with cynicism, racism and an utter lack of empathy, all of it the result of total hopelessness instead of garden-variety xenophobia. Harrowing, life-altering civil war and cruel and sadistic war criminals will quickly beat their victims into an attitude that no-one will ever again have their best intentions at heart; worse: people will actively try to destroy them. Assuming the worst provides at once a protective mindset as well as a comfortable position to assign blame from. Hanging on to humanity even when violently transplanted may be an impossible duty.

This short novel is the result of Verhulst spending a few days in a refugee facility in Belgium. A biting book, this is, written with a superb sense of vocabulary.

Jul 1, 2019, 2:14am

>215 Petroglyph: I second your thoughts on this book, it's great and short!
If you want a heavier one, may I recommend Les Chouans? It is 300 + pages, maybe 400. It was my first encounter with Balzac, when I was 14 or so, and I stil have vivid memories of it.

Jul 1, 2019, 3:08am

>218 raton-liseur: It was my first encounter with Balzac, when I was 14 or so
You too? I can't remember whether I studied it in class, or whether it was on the recommended reading list, but I'm sure I read it in middle school, along with Quatrevingt-treize by Victor Hugo. It did not make a lasting impression, however.

>216 Petroglyph: >217 Petroglyph: Two more books on my wishlist! Although I won't be reading Sveket straight away: I'll start with Dubbelheten (Doubles vies) by Birgitta Trotzig, because I can get it from the library... Dimitri Verhulst is a great author, and he seems like a very empathetic and humane person too.

Jul 1, 2019, 5:19pm

>215 Petroglyph: Browsing in french book shops in the classics section often throws up editions where there are lengthy biographies and notes, probably to help or interest students. You just don't find the same thing in English bookshops.

Edited: Jul 1, 2019, 7:44pm

>218 raton-liseur:
Thanks for the tip! I did look at Les Chouans as my follow-up by Balzac, and thought I might couple it with Le Chevalier des Touches by J. Barbey d'Aurevilly, which deals with the same period and issues. Alternatively, I also considered La peau de chagrin -- Balzac using magical and gothic elements seems like a fun book. Either way, I'll post about it in this thread (or its follow-up)!

Jul 1, 2019, 7:46pm

>219 Dilara86:
Verhulst's sense for empathy is indeed finely-tuned. And my local library has several books by Trotzig, including Dubbelheten / Double vies. I'll pop by on my way to work next week.

Jul 1, 2019, 7:51pm

>220 baswood:
It's indeed different from how English-language books with additional material are marketed: Either those contain a low-effort author interview and a few inane book club questions in a book for the masses, or it's the full package with four lit-crit essays and a bibliography, aimed at an academic audience (and priced beyond reason). I think I prefer the French way, to be honest.

Edited: Jul 1, 2019, 8:53pm

Spring så fort du kan by Sofia Nordin, or in English Run as fast as you can

Why did I choose to read this?
This is the second volume in a Swedish post-apocalyptic ya trilogy. I liked the first instalment, and will doubtlessly read the rest. I’ve read and enjoyed other stand-alone books by Nordin.

Review (Also posted in Swedish here.)
Sofia Nordin’s post-apocalyptic trilogy continues delivering high quality ya. In this second volume Hedvig and Ella are joined by Ante, another teenager, who moves in with them, which causes a series of problems. For one thing, the chore list and the resources out there on the farm were set up to support only two people. For another, Ante is a boy, and that leads to some predictable hormone-driven teenage fretting, though these segments are thankfully handled without useless drama. A bunch of things happen towards the end that leave me feeling eager to read the third volume (which I’ve already bought and which I’ll read soon), but I’m also sad that future instalments will no longer continue this languid teenage soap opera; perhaps, though, that is for the best.

I don’t have much to say about this one, simply that it’s everything a good second instalment should be: it’s well written, professionally handled, and it leads effortlessly into volume three.

Disclaimer: the author is an acquaintance of mine (we were briefly in the same bookclub).

Jul 2, 2019, 1:53am

>215 Petroglyph:

On the other hand considering how I don't know how I feel yet about Balzac, the shortness of the book appeals to me greatly as it's a book that is on my shelves but that my eyes tend to glance right over every time I look for my next read.

Jul 2, 2019, 3:44am

>209 Petroglyph: I'm generally on my own in CR as being a big Updike fan. I get why he springs to mind when you speak of middle-aged male writers who focus on can't-keep-it-in-their-pants middle-aged men characters, but I think his best writing was a lot of fun, and in the Rabbit series in particular I think the reader both laughs at and feel sorry for his philandering protagonist on account of how pathetic he is. Outside of the Rabbit series, though, I admit I tired of the middle-class bed-hopping after a few books.

The Roth novella sounds utterly bonkers but a lot of fun!

Jul 2, 2019, 4:17am

>219 Dilara86: We started to study it in 4ème I think, suggestion of a student who wanted to show off his extensive culture. We stopped the study less than 200 pages latter (too difficult for us...) and I remember being the only one finishing (and enjoying) the book!
Once you've passed the first 80 first pages of descriptions (I hated them by then), you're off for a story full of adventures and romance!

>221 Petroglyph: I was about to suggest La Peau de chagrin, my second (in time) great encounter with Balzac! Maybe the book I prefer from this author!
Both Les Chouans and La Peau de chagrin would deserve a re-read on my part. Your thread might be the incentive I was needing!
Happy Balzac reading!

Jul 2, 2019, 7:42am

I set off hopefully reading Le Père Goriot but gave up after struggling through the first ten pages. I turned to the English translation in the penguin classics edition, but found this abysmal, so both books are still sitting on my book shelf. The French edition in Le Livre de Poche series has a seemingly decent introduction, a vie de Balzac and there are notes throughout on his usage of the more antique words. I shall revisit le Père Goriot when I feel better equipped.

Jul 3, 2019, 1:11am

I read Goriot in my teens and didn’t get much out of it: coming back to it in later life was much more interesting. But I think the Balzac I’ve enjoyed most, to date, was Les illusions perdues. Lots of fascinating detail gleaned from Balzac’s many failed business ventures and his time as a journalist.

Jul 3, 2019, 6:53pm

>225 lilisin:
Don't be afraid! It's both short and good!

Jul 3, 2019, 7:30pm

>226 AlisonY:
My exposure to Updike was a collection of short stories called Trust me, which I picked up after we read another of his stories at uni, and, I'm sorry to say, my Updike cup runneth over. It's not part of the Rabbit series, and I've no intention of ever embarking on those. He's one of those authors who I see more as an instance of a genre that doesn't appeal to me (1960s-1970s US litfic) than as an individual author.

The Roth novella was impossible to take seriously: it would almost serve as a parody of that kind of fiction (and I enjoyed it because of that).

Jul 3, 2019, 7:31pm

>227 raton-liseur:
So either Les chouans or La peau de chagrin... I'll let you know what I settle on!

Happy rereading!

Edited: Jul 4, 2019, 8:09pm

>228 baswood: >229 thorold:

I want to avoid Le père Goriot for now; I'll probably get to it once I've worked my way through a few of his other works, and once I've decided they were worth my time. I'm hopeful so far!

Jul 4, 2019, 8:10pm

Un roman anglais by Stéphanie Hochet

Why did I choose to read this?
I enjoyed the slightly weird plot choices in Hochet’s Les éphémerides and wanted to read more by her. Apparently this book is inspired by the life of Virginia Woolf.

Review (Also posted here.)
À première vue, Un roman anglais commence comme de la fiction littéraire normale. Anna, traductrice et jeune mère, cherche une gardienne pour Jack, son enfant de trois ans; elle décide d’embaucher une femme qui s’appelle George (comme l’écrivain George Eliot). En réalité, George est un homme de son âge, professeur sans emploi parce que tous ses élèves sont partis pour la Grande Guerre. Tandis que son mari continue à travailler à Londres, Anna cultivera son existence familiale dans la campagne avec George et Jack.

Si cette description suscite des attentes sur une direction particulière pour le déroulement de cette intrigue, ces soupçons ne sont guère réalisées: Hochet permet aux personnages et aux situations de son imagination de se développer comme si elle n’a jamais lu les clichés attendus. Ceci est renforcé par sa langue directe et concrète, qui ne pourrait point être insipide. De plus, elle arrive même à changer de narrateur (d’un je aux plusieurs ils et elles), et elle fait ça dans une façon entièrement motivée par le récit. Tout ça donne l’impression d’une fiction fraîche, d’un éclat littéraire qui m’a absorbé par sa sobriété.

Encore une fois Hochet m’a présenté un récit inattendu et irrésistible qui jouait avec mes expectations dans la meilleure façon. Bravo!

Jul 4, 2019, 10:50pm

And >234 Petroglyph: was the last book I wanted to do a review of that I read before July 2019. Many thanks to all who read along, or who offered comments and suggestions!

Continued in the next thread!

Oct 18, 2019, 8:56am

>207 Petroglyph: I know it was a long time ago, and I should have asked earlier, but did you get any recommendations :-D ?

Nov 3, 2019, 10:17pm

>236 Dilara86:
Sadly, no. I've sent her an email, though, and will prompt here next time I see her. I'll forward any recommendations to you!
This topic was continued by Petroglyph's 2019 reading, part 2.