Thomas Cromwell #1: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Read: 9 April, 2017

I’ve tried and failed to read so much historical fiction because the writing quality often just isn’t there. Ever genre has its standards, and it seems that historical fiction got its from the “bodice ripper” romance tradition – very overwrought phrasing, terrible dialogue, intrusive narration, and all-round poor sentence construction. It’s why I’ve always liked the idea of historical fiction, but so rarely actually read it.

Mantel makes it clear that historical fiction can be well written, even excellently written. All the “he, Cromwell” repetition aside, this is an extremely well crafted novel about Cromwell’s rise to power in Henry VIII’s court.

There’s some time hopping at the beginning, which is something of a pet peeve of mine. Not to mention that the beginning – when the reader is already disoriented and trying to work out who everyone is supposed to be – is the absolute worst time to fuddle with chronology like that! There are other ways to keep readers engaged through backstory!

But the time hopping seemed to fizzle out about a third of the way through, and the rest of the narrative was fairly straightforward.

I’m not particularly knowledgeable about Henry VIII’s court, apart from the broad strokes outline and Moore’s Utopia, and this was a fantastic primer. That world feels far more familiar and real to me now, and I appreciate that.

A common praise in reviews of this book is that Mantel does an excellent job of getting into Cromwell’s head, and that is absolutely true. He feels like a complex, real, living person. His pains – particularly the loss of so much of his family to the ‘sweating sickness’ – are viscerally conveyed, as are his drives and his joys.

This is an excellent – if rather long – book that breathes life into the history it is based on.

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Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

Read: February 26, 2017

A young Russian dreams of flight, but everything crashes and burns in the familiar Soviet style.

This novel has a lot going for it. I enjoyed the absurdist imagery of the criticism – the sham within a sham that so perfectly captures Soviet Russia. A few of these images (such as the one in which Kissinger kills the bear) are haunting, and will probably stay with me.

Overall, though, I can’t say that I enjoyed the book much. I’m not sure if I’ve just been tired lately and haven’t had the concentration to read it properly, or if the translation fell short, or if the writing itself is flawed… or maybe it’s a combination of all three. But I found the narrative to be a bit disjointed. Sometimes things would be happening and it would take me a while to figure out what and why.

I also never connected with the main character. Despite the fact that we’re in his head, his voice just isn’t that strong. We’re told the story of his life, but with a remove that prevents the emotional weight from really making itself felt. Even when his mind circles around particular images, and I could sense the significance (the little trapped pilot, the bear), I never knew why these images were significant to Omon. From my bird’s eye perspective, I know that the trapped pilot is foreshadowing, and I know that the bear represents the common people in the USSR, but Omon doesn’t seem to draw these conclusions. So why does he keep the pilot? Why does he think of the bear? It’s that lack of distinction between what the reader knows and what the character knows that made it difficult to connect with Omon’s humanity.

It’s a fine book, an interesting read, another example of absurdist social commentary. The “sham within a sham” aspect was particularly biting. But, overall, this one just didn’t do it for me.

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The Blizzard by Vladimir Sorokin (Jamey Gambrell, trans.)

Read: 13 February, 2017

How appropriate to be reading this as my home is slowly buried in snow…

This is a very Russian novel. It’s bleak, it’s unkind, and it’s fantastical. That 50 horse power sled? Powered by 50 miniature horses. Don’t bother with this book unless you’re a fan of depressing Russian absurdism.

As it happens, I am, and I enjoyed Blizzard. 

Spoiler talk ahead: The absurdisms don’t really add anything to the story. I picked this book up because of the promise of Russian zombies, but there are no Russian zombies. The zombie plague could have just as easily been whooping cough.

In a way, it reminded me of the movie Stalker, which builds up all the dangers of the Zone, describing how they kill, but then there’s no pay off. The goal is reached without incident, and the travellers decide they’d best not make use of it, and they go home.

That’s what happens here. The zombies are played up throughout the story. Again and again, we hear of their inhuman claws and the the way they burrow underground to pop up on the other side of barricades.

Do the zombies ever do this? Do they ever even appear? Of course not, because modern Russian story telling hates its audience, and hates Chekov’s gun.

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Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

Read: 13 January, 2017

After a very unusual night, Richard becomes re-acquainted with his college friend, Svlad Cjelli – or, as he is currently calling himself, Dirk Gently. There’s also a ghost involved. It gets weird.

I have my doubts that Adams knew what the solution to the mystery would be before he started writing. This was my impression with the Hitchhiker’s books as well – he seems to just sit down, write what’s funny, and then try to come up with something that’ll end the book.

And that’s fine. This is one mystery where the journey really is all that matters, and the journey is hilarious.

Now that I’ve finished reading the book, I can finally watch that show I keep hearing about!

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William the Conqueror by Thomas B. Costain

Read: 8 December, 2016

As I was talking to my mom about reading the Narnia books to my son, she mentioned that she has a few children’s books that we might want to look through. There, on her shelf, was an extensive collection of Random House historical biographies for children from the 1950s.

These books had been my mother’s when she was a child, then enjoyed by me, and I picked out a few to share with a third generation – our first was William the Conqueror.

At five, my son is perhaps a little young for this series, but he followed along in his own age-appropriate way. The battle scenes, which enthralled me as an 8-10 year old, we’re a little too intense. There are also a few authorial asides (particularly with regards to gender roles) that made me uncomfortable enough to turn into Teachable Moments.

But, for the most part, this book holds up. The vocabulary is a bit challenging, and the narrative voice doesn’t lend itself well to out-loud reading, but it’s a great introduction to historical concepts. And while I can’t vouch for the accuracy of all the historical facts, the book lays an excellent foundation for helping kids to get a feel for a time period and a familiarity with essential names.

The writing style can be very repetitive, and seemed to have trouble deciding whether it wanted to show or to tell. It’s unfortunate because the book, on the whole, is great fun.

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Read: 16 November, 2016

Casual Vacancy was a big depart from Harry Potter. Aside from being geared toward an adult readership, it’s a completely different genre – “slice of life” rather than fantasy. It tells the story of Pagford, a small town in the English countryside, in the wake of a city council member’s death. All stories come back, in one way or another, to that empty council seat and what it means to the lives of the town’s residents – from its wealthier members right down to the poorest.

A big part of the magic of Harry Potter was the way in which Rowling created a world of stereotype characters – easily grasped and understood at a glance – then remained in their space until they started to come alive. And yet, strangely, they remained stereotypes, just stereotypes that we came to know and to care for.

In Casual Vacancy, she does the same thing. We have the lower class girl with the turbulent home life, and we have the teen obsessed with living “authentically”, the over-achieving “tiger mom” immigrant who had a sort of arranged marriage, the social worker struggling with professional boundaries, the bored housewife fantasising about a singer in her daughter’s favourite boy band, etc.

Each of these characters is and remains a stock. Rarely do they have traits that are not perfectly in keeping with their “type.” And, yet, we stay with them, we watch them, and over 500 pages, sheer time and care fills them out and makes them whole.

It’s a remarkable process.

Harry Potter had its horror and tragedy, but Casual Vacancy lacks its hope. The characters are petty and locked into their own experiences. They are hurt, and they respond by lashing out in a great web of misery. Worse, there is little resolution. Most characters end in the same position – or worse – as they started, or have only just set a course for possible change that is well beyond the scope of this book. It doesn’t revel in the pain, and it does have its moments of levity, but it’s easy to see how this might be a difficult read for some.

One similarity between the two works that interested me is how both Harry Potter and Casual Vacancy work as representations of tyrants and how people deal with/react to them. In Harry Potter, the theme is placed in a fantasy setting, and the tyrant is defeated through valiance and friendship. In Casual Vacancy, however, things are a little bleaker. (SPOILER: And while the tyrant is eventually defeated, it is through the failure of his own body – a realistic fluke that offers that dim ray of hope to the town.)

I doubt that I would have picked up this book if not for the author, and it’s easy to see why so many people were disappointed with it. It’s clearly Rowling’s writing, but this is something completely different, and marketing the book as “by the author of Harry Potter” does it a disservice. That said, it’s a solid piece of writing. Rowling did a great job showing us the complex web of small town life, and navigating between such a large cast of characters in a way that kept it interesting (in the sense that adult “slice of life” fiction is interesting – obviously not a genre for everyone!).

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The Magicians #2: The Magician King by Lev Grossman

Read: 25 October, 2016

Ever in search of his next adventure, Quentin sails out to Fillory’s far reaches to collect back taxes – a simple enough task that lands him back on earth with no way to return.

In the last book, the narrative followed Quentin fairly closely. Here, however, our time is split between the present, where Quentin & co quest to save magic in the multiverse, and filling in Julia’s doings between Quentin leaving for Brakebills and their reunion.

The back-and-forthing is an annoying narrative style and I hate it. I’m not sure what Grossman might have done differently, given the important information that Julia’s storyline gives us, but it’s irritating to start getting into the groove of one storyline only to be ripped out of it at every chapter end. I was enjoying both, but the transition pain was just too frequent.

Julia’s story is an interesting one. It’s much more rushed than Quentin’s in the first book, but it resonated for me in a lot of ways. It certainly wasn’t an easy read, though, as it’s clearly modelled on addiction (and includes symptomatic behaviours and great heapings of depression). Unfortunately, it goes even further and includes rape. (SPOILERS: Why was the rape necessary? In similar positions, rape was never on the table for Quentin, so why did Julia’s ‘price to be paid’ have to be this? Grossman could have done anything to Julia to bring her to her lowest, and he chose the easy route of having her raped. I’m quickly losing patience for rape being the default bad thing that can happen to a female character, especially when male characters in identical situations are almost never raped.)

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The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar

Read: 23 October, 2016

The Rabbi’s Cat is a slow, meandering snapshot of life in an Algerian rabbi’s household, as narrated by his pet cat. The cat begins to speak, and so the rabbi must prepare him for his bar mitzvah. The family gets a visit from cousin Malka and his pet lion. The rabbi must pass a dictation test to determine his rabbinical placement. The rabbi’s daughter marries, and the whole household goes to Paris to meet her new in-laws. Things happen, the characters talk and feel and live, and issues are resolved after a fashion, enough to make way for the next. I wouldn’t be surprised if each chapter had originally been published serially.

I picked this book out at the library, knowing absolutely nothing about it, because the cover looked interesting. Unlike the last time I did this, this time was actually a very pleasant surprise.

The artwork is beautiful. It has a lot of character, and it shifts with mood to enhance the storytelling. As I’ve been trying to read some more superhero comics, which tend to favour a more “realistic” style (albeit with idealised bodies), this kind of expressive artwork has been missing.

I also found that the style reminded me a lot of the French comic books that I used to read as a child. I felt very vindicated when I found out that the artist does, in fact, belong to the French graphic novel tradition!

The story itself is delightful. Most of the characters are fairly archetypal, but we spend a lot of time getting into the rabbi’s head. He’s a complicated person who is seen wrestling with his faith. In the beginning, it’s more intellectual, as he tries to teach the cat in preparation for his bar mitzvah and they argue theology. Later, when his daughter marries and he feels abandoned, it brings his grief over his deceased wife back to the forefront. It’s very touching, often funny, and so very human.

The novel had a somewhat mythic feel to it, particularly where the animals were involved. It read a bit like a parable, making its Jewishness all the more palpable.

I really enjoyed this one. It was cute, and heartwarming, and entertaining. The cat was amusing, and the storytelling was very well adapted to its medium.

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Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen

Read: 16 October, 2016

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is, as you might imagine, a bit gimmicky. It’s the kind of book that looks great on the shelf and will never fail to elicit some titters. It’s a book that makes a great novelty gift, but that I can’t see too many people buying for themselves.

Because it really is a gimmick. Grahame-Smith adds fairly little to Austen’s original work. What does get added is a bit clunky. The writing doesn’t match Austen’s style very well, zombies notwithstanding.

The strength of Grahame-Smith’s version is in the world building – how a different era might respond to a zombie crisis, how such a hierarchical society might encoroporate zombie fighting training as another measure of class (the wealthiest are trained in Japan, while the lower echelons of wealth train in China). Unfortunately, Grahame-Smith is so bound by Austen’s writing that he doesn’t really go far enough with it.

I enjoyed the story, but mostly as an opportunity to revisit one of my favourite Austen novels. What Grahame-Smith adds is a little weak, but still fun. There’s a joy in seeing Lizzie Bennett slaughtering zombies!

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I Was The Cat by Paul Tobin (illustrated by Benjamin Dewey)

Read: 15 October, 2016

I picked this up off the library shelf because I had some time to spare and it was a graphic novel (and therefore a fast read), and it had cats. SOLD!

Unfortunately, it left a lot to be desired. The story is about a blogger named Allison Breaking (so named so that she could pun her name – if it even counts as a pun – by calling her website ‘Breaking News’, uuuuugh), who is hired by a wealthy and mysterious person named Burma to ghostwrite his memoirs.Except that her new employer turns out to be a cat! Dun dun DUUUUN!

There are mostly two stories being told. In the first, we have Burma’s story of his previous lives. In the second, we have the present day story of Allison coming to terms with meeting a talking cat, and her discovery of his current plot for world domination.

First, the positives: The artwork is very good. It isn’t particularly stylized, but it’s solid and clear. I also enjoyed all the little easter eggs hidden throughout the images, like the Pulp Fiction assassins, or the random Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The problem is that the narrative felt very disjointed. The conceit of the nine lives could have been interesting, but ended up just being Burma listing off famous people he’s met. It doesn’t make much sense, either, except in a ‘how history tends to get taught in primary school’ sort of way. There’s no reason for Burma’s first life to be in ancient Egypt, but then not again until the Elizabethan era. After that, as we get into history that the readership knows more about, his lives seem to come fairly regularly. Why the gap, except to make some joke about the ancient Egyptians worshipping cats?

The world domination plot was rather disappointing, largely because it wasn’t adequately set up. The insider trying to warn off Allison doesn’t seem to care much whether she’s warned or not, and doesn’t really seem to be trying to accomplish anything in particular by revealing the plot to her in any case. And once he does manage to warn her, what does he say? He tells her not to worry about it. So that was plot time well spent…

And that really sums up the whole book for me: There are lots of ideas, mostly a mish-mash of pop culture references, all thrown in together, but none of them serve of purpose or lead to anything.

And did Burma’s evil plan remind anyone of the Leviathan plot from Supernatural?

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