Gaius Ruso Mystery #7: Vita Brevis by Ruth Downie

Read: 15 October, 2017

Ruso and Tilla head to Rome, their new baby in tow.

I like that Downie changes up the scenery every now and then. Britain is great, but it was nice to see Gaul in Persona Non Grata, and it’s lovely to see Rome here. And while Downie doesn’t exactly do vivid detail, the city certainly managed to come across satisfyingly noisy, dirty, and smelly.

As usual, the mystery is something of an afterthought. The main attraction is Tilla and Ruso, and now their expanded household. Adding Mara and the two slaves creates a whole new dynamic – not to mention nearly tripling the number of people Ruso has to support… somehow.

Narina has a lot of potential as a character, particularly with her tribal background. In Rome, Tilla seemed willing to ignore the traditional dislike between their tribes because Narina was, at least, from Britain. By the end of the book, the two women seem to have formed something of a friendship as they co-parent and face the dangers of Rome together. But I imagine that going back to Britain will highlight their tribal differences, and perhaps put a strain on their relationship. It’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.

The series is still going strong, and I can already see the threads of many new interesting plotlines starting, so I don’t see me losing interest any time soon.

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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 Turn of the Screw and Other Short Novels by Henry James

Read: 1 May, 2014
An International Episode
Quite an interesting story about national stereotypes, complete with an interesting twist. I rather liked Bessie Alden – who is independent, interesting, and quite a bit smarter than the condescending male characters. I was quite impressed with the way so many stereotypes were tackled.

Daisy Miller: A Study
Daisy is the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl!

I quite enjoyed the story for the same reasons that I liked An International Episode – over and over again, Daisy Miller is defined by others based on her nationality, social status, and gender, and over and over again she shows herself to be far more complex than the simplistic ways in which she is viewed. It helped, of course, that the first part of the story is set in the area where I grew up and that the characters visit my very favourite castle.

The twist ending was unfortunate. It fit too neatly into the idea that women cannot survive social disgrace, even if we are meant to sympathize with them (as we’ve seen in Gaskell’s Ruth or Dickens’s Oliver Twist).

The Aspern Papers
A scathing look at the rights/morality of biographers. The main character is a huge fan of the deceased poet Aspern, and he infiltrates the home of an ageing former-lover of Aspern’s in order to find the titular papers – presumably letters that the woman may have kept from the poet. The story focuses on the invasion of privacy, and what rights public figures may have to their privacy – particularly after death.

The story is interesting and the descriptions of Venice are quite wonderful, but it felt personal and very bitter. All in all, a disturbing story.

The Altar of the Dead
I guess the theme of this story was forgiveness? I don’t know. It felt like an attempt at a Gothic tale, what with the creepiness of the guy who is so obsessed with death that he only seems to like people once they are deceased. But the story was odd, in a bad way. I felt bored reading it, as it lacked the intrigue and variation of the earlier stories. By the end, I just felt unsatisfied.

Turn of the Screw
Unfortunately, I accidentally watched a movie adaptation of this story fairly recently, and I think that my perception was much worsened by knowing when and how the next scare would be occurring. Despite this, I found the atmosphere creepy and the story compelling, even if the ending did feel rather rushed.

The story’s introduction was a nice touch, particularly where the teller, upon hearing a creepy story about a kid, introduces his own story by saying “you think that was creepy? Well, my story has two kids!!” (paraphrase, obviously.)

Beast in the Jungle
As with Altar of the Dead, I could never really grasp what I was reading. The story just went on and on with no real payoff.

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Inspector Montalbano #3: The Snack Thief by Andrea Camilleri

Read: 26 November, 2012

I was introduced to Inspector Montalbano on a trip to visit my dad, who has lately been burning through the series and couldn’t stop raving about it. While I was there, we watched a couple of the TV shows, and then dad sent me The Snack Thief as a birthday present.

I can be quite picky about mysteries. I find that too often they rely on withholding information or on giving the characters absurd ideas or quasi-psychic insight to reach the correct conclusions, and that’s frustrating because it makes me feel lectured to, rather than an active participant in the solving efforts. The Snack Thief handled this perfectly – all the information is presented to the reader as it’s discovered, and any withheld information had good reasons for being withheld. When Montalbano thought that the answer lay in one direction, it’s what I would have guessed as well. When he was wrong, I was wrong too, and not frantically yelling at him to just please think about Clue X.

The characters are fantastic – they are all, truly, characters, with very amusing quirks and details. Even small side characters aren’t spared the gift of personality. While it may seem like an odd comparison, it reminded me somewhat of A Song of Ice and Fire, except, of course, that the quirks and details were funny rather than depressing and horrifying.

I highly recommend this book and, more broadly, the Inspector Montalbano series. It’s a quick read, easily finished in an afternoon, but it isn’t fluff, and it’s hilarious. My only advice would be not to read it on an empty stomach!

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The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Read: 28 November, 2008

Having been a huge fan of the movie version for years, my approach to the book was understandably loaded. I already had an image of what the characters would be like and how the plot would unfold. As I read, I kept referring back to the movie and comparing the two versions – sometimes favourably and sometimes not. Ultimately, however, I realized that the two are entirely different entities, having only some plot elements and names in common.

Overall, I found the characterizations of the movie to be more enjoyable, from a purely emotional stand-point. I don’t think any film has ever captured the awkwardness of growing up quite so well as Adso’s kitchen scene with the village girl! Sean Connery’s William was the familiar figure of the innocent and slightly naive genius. And then there’s Ron Pearlman’s Salvatore – a character the book version can only be a poor foretelling of.

In the novel version, however, the characters didn’t come through as much – perhaps because they were more realistic and didn’t draw quite so much on stereotypes and archetypes. On an intellectual level, this worked just fine. On an emotional level, however, I just had too much trouble bonding with any of the characters for it to really work. That being said, I don’t know how much of this is because of the movie version’s taint.

The novel is long and slow (an intentional feature, if the appended essay is to be believed), but it is never tedious. The rythm is steady and only as slow as it needs to be. Whenever I would feel myself just starting to get bored, something would happen. Eco showed an incredible sense of pace in that sense – every scene is exactly as long as it needs to be.

All in all, it’s a great novel. It is, however, very dense. I am glad that I waited until now to pick it up because I think that I would have been turned off by it had I tried any earlier. It’s a wonderful novel to read for someone who has been studying Medieval history as a hobby for quite a while and wants a good illustration of the complexities of society/theology.

My recommendation would be to try reading it, but to put it down immediately if it seems to dense or boring. Try it again later. It would be a terrible shame to predispose yourself negatively to the experience simply because you tried to get into it too early.

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The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

Read: 5 May, 2008

After reading The Monk, I thought that the Gothic genre was pretty neat-o. So I looked up for some other books in the genre and The Mysteries of Udolpho kept coming up, so I took a chance and bought it. It took me eons to read. In fact, I did give up at one point and read Tom Sawyer and Hearts in Atlantis before picking it up again. But I have an obsession with finishing every book that I start, so I was determined. I took notes while I was reading of everything I didn’t like, so I will go through negatives first:

The biggest negative is the pacing. A full two hundred and change pages pass before anything happens. That’s right, the first third of the novel is essentially a travel narrative with some old dying guy and his personality-less daughter as the travellers. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a novel that toys with crossing genres and becoming a travel narrative (I did like Black Mountain, after all), but the descriptions of the scenery were altogether too Romantic for my tastes. Romantics are as stuck up, pompous, and self-absorbed as the Victorians, but a trait I find endearing in the latter is made annoying in the former by being caste under the pretence of artistic genius (those of you who know me know that I make a distinction between “artists” and “artistes” – I am incapable of being in the same room as the latter without wanting to hit something, whereas I find artists to be, on the whole, quite nice people).

On the whole, only about a third of the novel takes place in the titular location. But there was more to it than just a slow-moving novel (which, again, in and of itself is not a terrible thing). What made it infuriating was that the main character seemed to be suffering from Alzheimer’s. A new plot line, or short-term goal, would be introduced and she would resolve to take care of it. It would then be dropped entirely as though it had never happened until dozens of pages later where she suddenly remembers and takes care of it. A good example of this occurs near the beginning where Emily’s father instructs her to burn some secret letters. She gives him a solemn promise, goes to where the letters are, and then spends pages and pages moaning about how sad life is before she finally gets to the letters. At this point, my next complaint is made into example. Emily reads a bit of the letter, doesn’t tell the reader what it says, alludes to how “shocking!” the content of the letters is several times, but does not actually explain what she read until a full 450 pages later!

That’s right, dear Ms. Radcliffe seemed to have lived under the mistaken impression that frustration = suspense. Several times, Emily makes shocking discoveries that horrify her, but she refuses to tell the reader what those discoveries are. Worse yet, Emily will seem to forget all about them as soon as she is done being shocked – at least until another shocking discovery prompts her memory.

In fact, Emily’s forgetfulness is a major theme in the novel. It comes up as part of another complaint that I will mention in a minute. For example, when she and her suitor, Valancourt, are forced to part, he makes her promise that she will always look at the setting sun. The idea is that he would do the same and that they would be “together” even when apart by knowing that they are both looking on the same object. Sweet and romantic, right? Well, yes, it is… the first night. Emily whines away while she watches the sun set. This promise is then never mentioned again. Never. By either Emily or Valancourt. This isn’t just a case of sunsets not being mentioned because there are oodles of sunsets in the novel. Emily just doesn’t seem to care that much about the “solemn promise” she makes to the love of her life.

Which is my next complaint: there are two Emilys in the novel. One is the Emily constructed by the narrator, the Emily that we are told about. The other is the Emily we see, through the things she says and the actions she takes (or, in this case, doesn’t take). These two Emilys are rarely in agreement.

Another complaint I had was that objects and characters appear and disappear depending on the plot’s need for them. A major example of this is Emily’s dog. Whenever it is needed to wake Emily up to spot an intruder, or growl when there is a need for absolute silence, it will appear. As soon as it’s done filling out this function, the dog promptly disappears. Relating to the last point I made, the narrator tells us again and again how much Emily loves this dog, feels comforted by this dog, and dotes on this dog. And yet, we never once see her cuddling it, petting it, stroking it, looking to it for comfort when afraid, or anything else of the sort.

There are other continuity errors. For example, Emily escapes Udolpho in the middle of the night, with no warning whatsoever, and from a place that is not her bedroom. And yet she somehow has the presence of mind to carry with her a large box of letters and all the drawings she’s made since going to the castle. Maybe she hides them under her skirts or something?

The final negative that I will mention is that Valancourt is a thoroughly despicable character. Honestly, Jane Eyre‘s Rochester is a sensitive and romantic boyfriend compared to this guy. He bears every mark of the abusive boyfriend. Not only does he accuse Emily of not really loving him whenever she doesn’t want to do something he wants, he will also stalk her (to the point that her gardener shoots him thinking that he’s a burglar) when she refuses to marry him. After all that, he flies into a rage when she (rightfully) wonders if he loves her, trying to physically restrain her! And for all the noble chivalry the narrator keeps telling us he expresses, he allows his girlfriend to be taken into a situation that he knows is dangerous for her and doesn’t even try to save her from it (except, of course, trying to terrify her into marrying him with threats of violence – you know, from other men… that he’d be saving her from… obviously…).

He’s also just so whiny. It’s totally pathetic. He knows that he is distressing her, she’s in tears and begging him to stop and leave her alone, but he just whines and whines and whines at her. He will even admit that he is distressing her and that he should stop, but the very next sentence out of his mouth is more whining!

All in all, I found that he was incredibly similar in his behaviour to the Count Morano – the bad guy, the guy we are supposed to hate, the guy Emily spends a third of the novel terrified of. The way he acts toward Emily is nearly identical. In fact, he even tries to scare Emily into marrying him by telling her that Morano will hurt her – using the same tactic the Count uses, except that he’s passing off the obvious part of the blame to someone else!

There’s plenty more that I could mention, but those are the major points and this post is getting pretty long. In terms of positives, I must admit that I struggle to find any. There were some instances of humour that had me chuckling, but they were too few and too far between to really count them as any kind of saving grace. I did like that every single instance of the supernatural was resolved (even if poorly) and shown to have perfectly natural explanations. And, of course, the novel is a classic and has a lot to offer if looked at as a historical document.

All in all, it’s a book that I hated reading but that I am glad to have read. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, though. This is one of the few books that I think might be better enjoyed in a heavily abridged or cliff-note form.

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