Eager reader of history, mystery, classics, biographies, steampunk, lit fic, science, scifi, and etc. My reviews are mostly positive--I rarely finish or write about books I don't enjoy. My TBR is too high for that.
"I am disturbed by the number of children and adults who have never experienced the joys of reading a book just for pleasure. Therefore, I write the kinds of books for children and teenagers that I liked to read at their age, books meant purely to entertain, to divert, to amuse." Ellen Conford
Victorian author Emily Eden admired Jane Austen--and it shows in her astute and witty prose which delighted this Janite--but she begins her book where Jane’s stories end, with a wedding. Lovely Helen has all the ingredients for 19th century happiness. She’s beloved by her large well-off family and she’s about to marry wealthy Lord Teviot, who charmed her when they danced together. But being good Victorians they haven’t actually spent much time alone, and when she is whisked away after the ceremony she suddenly realises she doesn’t know or understand Teviot very well and she’s decidedly homesick, damaging her relationship with her proper but ardent new husband. Among other things the story becomes a post-wedding courtship with lots of twists and turns, ups and downs.
Like Austen’s novels The Semi-attached Couple is filled with amusing characters and there are at least three romances that develop during the course of the plot. It took me a little while to get all the names and characters straight--there is a Lord Beaufort and a Colonel Beaufort for instance--but somewhere along the way this book became one I couldn’t put down. First I simply found it divertingly funny, with characters to laugh at and enjoy loving or hating, but as the story went on it also became exciting, then moving, until finally at the end it was deeply satisfying.
Oh, how odious! The pompously verbose but good-hearted author George Knox has hired a loathsome new secretary who seems determined to manipulate him into marriage. This causes no end of trouble, irritating his good friend and fellow author Laura Morland. The lovely but quite happily widowed Mrs. Morland tries to set things right, but she’s often distracted by her energetic train-obsessed youngest son or her lovestruck publisher or the tribulations and/or celebrations of one of her fellow residents of High Rising.
Mrs. Morland thinks of herself as an author of good “bad” books--lively, highly popular but lowbrow stories set in the fashion world. Along with Laura Morland, who returns in several of Thirkell’s later books, other characters in High Rising include rambunctious children, loyal but opinionated servants, devoted secretaries who nevertheless have their own agendas, an unflappable schoolmaster's wife, an infatuated doctor, and several hopeful but undeclared lovers both young and old.
High Rising is the first of Angela Thirkell’s witty and entertaining Barsetshire novels, which borrow their fictional setting in the English countryside from Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire. Thrikell’s books are loosely connected stories with overlapping characters, most of them written at about the time they take place--in this case High Rising was set and written between the two world wars.
Thirkell may have seen herself as something of a Mrs. Morland. After leaving two husbands behind, Thirkell supported herself and her sons by writing a book a year, successful books that she felt compared unfavorably to her beloved Proust, Austen and Dickens and that she didn’t expect (or want) her cultured, well-educated friends to read. I, however, find her books great fun. No one can write diverting “lowbrow” literature like a classics-steeped highbrow author (see also Dorothy Sayers.)
Before she wrote Seraphina and the just released Shadow Scale, Rachel Hartman created comics set in the same rich and wonderfully elaborate world of humans and dragons. Amy Unbounded is a collection of stories 7 through 12 from that series, bound together to be like a graphic novel. Set some years before the events of Seraphina, these stories feature spunky 10-year-old Amy, a Goreddi combination of Anne of Green Gables and Harriet the Spy, as well as earlier versions of several of the characters (Dame Okra among them!) from the Seraphina duology.
Graphic novels and comics are not normally my thing, but it was great fun discovering all the connections to Seraphina. It’s a much lighter, slighter and of course shorter story than what’s in the Seraphina books.
Amy Unbounded is out of print and not an easy book to get your hands on if your library doesn’t have it. Amazon and other online sites sell copies for $30+. Fortunately for me my sister snatched one up when the price was lower.
Since I love the extensive world Hartman has created I was absolutely thrilled to learn she will not be leaving it behind now that the Seraphina series is complete. Hartman is planning another duology based in the same setting--Hooray!
I loved the setting of this book--an embattled kingdom inspired by imperial Russia with the noteworthy addition of magic--as much as I enjoyed its story. While Alina Starkov is serving as an apprentice map maker in the army a deadly battlefield encounter on the monster-filled Shadow Fold forces out her dormant magical powers and brings her to the attention of the Tsar. Almost immediately Alina finds herself propelled into the opulent, demanding world of the Grisha, magicians trained from an early age to serve their country.
Alina is used to hard work, but in contrast to most Grisha she grew up an orphan peasant girl, living dormitory style with other war-stranded children on the estate of a charitable duke. Since her schooling in magic is starting much later than her Grisha peers, Alina has trouble fitting into their elite and cliquish group. Other issues include the corruption and incompetence of the royal family, the impassible zone of magic-made monsters that bisects and divides the country, the difficulty of knowing who to trust or believe, and the fact that Alina is expected to help save her country with a flashy magical power she can’t control. Plus there are boy problems, but these are at least as poignant as they are predictable.
Alina is a great POV character, contemplative but not a pushover, willing to jump into hopeless danger to try to save a friend, and full of slightly barbed but disarmingly candid comebacks. I wanted to read myself into a well imagined alternate domain, and Leigh Bardugo’s world conjuring skills were everything I hoped for. Between this book and Rachel Hartman’s Shadow Scale I’ve discovered I love a story with maps. Shadow and Bone is the first of a trilogy and (Oh happy day!) all three books are already published so there need be no waiting if you get caught up. Plus the covers are wonderful.
Rain: A Natural History weaves together planetary science, geology, early earth history, meteorology, human history, cultural studies, travel stories, and even poetry into an entertaining and fascinating account of rain and our relationship to it. The book is beautifully written--vivid, sometimes humorous, and almost poetic without being flowery. It’s easy to fall under its spell. I especially enjoyed all the history and the sections on how depictions or evocations of rain rain have enhanced various works of literature, music, painting, and movies.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing. Review opinions are mine.
Some Luck opens during the flapper era jazz age, but the young Langdon family spends their time in the farm fields of Iowa, not the speakeasies of Chicago or salons of Paris. The first of Jane Smiley’s family saga trilogy, there’s one chapter for each year from 1920 to 1953, taking the story through the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, WWII, and the early days of the Cold War.
In the beginning there’s only Rosanna and Walter, a young married couple who’ve just purchased a farm by taking on substantial debt. Soon children start coming along and as the story goes on through the years readers watch them grow up and make new lives, often far away from their Iowa roots.
Smiley’s writing style is subtle, recounting sometimes quotidian events through the limited third person perspectives of almost all of her many characters, often starting from when they were very young children with limited verbal skills. Much of the story is not high drama, but somehow most of it is compelling anyway and I was completely drawn into the lives of the Langdons. Watching the children grow to adults was fascinating, and Smiley held my interest by making sometimes surprising but ultimately plausible choices for her characters.
With its logic-driven shape-shifting dragons, arcane saint-filled religion, and music permeated, culturally rich, Medieval-like setting, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman is easily of my favorite books of all time. I love its sequel, Shadow Scale, almost as much.
The world building continues to be among the most wonderful I’ve encountered. In Shadow Scale, Seraphina is on a quest to collect other half human/half dragons like herself, which takes her away from her homeland of Goredd and into the surrounding countryside. She travels around three human kingdoms, Ninys, Samsam and Porphyry, each with its own history, culture, landscapes, politics, traditions, and relationship with the dragons, and all so vividly imagined that I feel I’ve walked through those lands myself. Seraphina also spends time in Tanamoot, the mountainous home range of dragons, where the immense ash-scented reptiles soar through the skies and lumber on land in their natural forms.
A lot of things introduced in the first book are explained further in Shadow Scale. During her journey around the kingdoms Seraphina discovers more about the origin of the saint based religion that all the humans have some connection to, though it’s interpreted with interesting differences in the various lands she visits. She also learns more about the many forms and unique abilities of her fellow half dragons, and each of the curious beings in her mental garden plays some role in the story.
Shadow Scale opens with a Prelude you can skip if you’ve recently read Seraphina. It goes over information from the first book that readers might have forgotten, but because it’s written as if it’s by someone living far in the future, long after the events of both books, there were a few bits of implied information about how Shadow Scale ends that I would have prefered not to know, though they weren’t major spoilers.
My only complaint about Shadow Scale is I wish there was more. The resolution of the triangulated relationship between Glisselda, Kiggs, and Seraphina is bold but rushed over right at the end and not completely satisfying. I also felt that with a little more time some of the individual powers of half dragons could have been put to more use--I had hoped the soul or mind animated mechanicals shy Blanche surrounds herself with could have played more of a role in the plot. And at the end of the story I was left wanting to know more about what happens with the people and dragons back in Goredd after the resolution of the conflict, since we hadn’t spent much time there or with any of them.
Basically I love the series so much I greedily want another book. It seems almost wasteful to have imagined such a graphic dimensional world only to abandon it, but I believe the series is a duology that concludes with Shadow Scale. Perhaps Hartman wants to leave her readers with things to think about or envision for themselves, which isn’t a bad thing. Both Seraphina and Shadow Scale are so rich and immersive I know I’ll be re-reading them again and again.
Though I've already ordered my own hardback copy, I read an advanced review ebook copy of Shadow Scale from the publisher through NetGalley. Review opinions are mine.
It was a bitterly cold and snowy February here in Maryland--not as bad as Boston, but still enough to drive us all indoors. I coped with it as best I could by reading 12 books. The 10 above were new-to-me and the 2 below were re-reads--Seraphina I listened to as an audiobook.
I tried again to read a graphic novel, Aya, which only confirmed it's not a format I enjoy much--no fault of the author or illustrator.
The standouts for me are The Fires of Autumn, a gorgeous book by Irène Némirovsky, Dust Tracks on a Road, Zora Neale Hurston's lyrical and moving memoir, How to be a Heroine, Samantha Ellis's thoughtful and enthusiastic book about how reading novels has changed her life, and Some Luck, the first of Jane Smiley's family saga trilogy, which spreads out considerably from its opening on the farm fields of Iowa.
A paragraph from the NY Times that captures exactly how I felt about Spock back in the day:
Spock was mostly impervious to love, but his mother (played by Jane Wyatt) was human, which meant that he couldn’t always suppress his feelings. And that made him the most unattainable and romantic hero imaginable — Hippolytus, Euripides’ chaste and scornful warrior, or a Mr. Rochester for the sci-fi age. Naturally, some of the more memorable episodes revolve around Mr. Spock’s extraterrestrial love life.
Leonard Nimoy 1931 - 2015
I found this dual biography that sheds light on the fraught relationship between misused, determined power-seeker Catherine de Medici and her equally misused, more idealistic daughter Marguerite fascinating and its tone just right. Rich with historical detail and compelling personalities, it’s as engaging as a novel but more substantial, and it’s backed up by 24 pages of notes and an extensive bibliography.
Taking place in France during the reign of Elizabeth I, the book helped expand my knowledge of that era beyond the borders of England. Its eloquent but hair-raising accounts of arranged marriages, shifting alliances, deadly power struggles, disfiguring diseases, royal family dysfunction, and religious wars between Catholics and Huguenots kept me reading late into the night, and many interesting people of the time, including Mary Queen of Scots, Philip II of Spain, and Nostradamus make appearances on its pages.
Daughter Marguerite was forced by Catherine to marry her Huguenot kinsman Henry, King of Navarre, which went against Marguerite's strongly held Catholic beliefs, only to have her wedding celebration turn into a Huguenot slaughter orchestrated by her mother. Later Marguerite was imprisoned by her mother and her brother the king of France under circumstances that could have led her to a fate similar to that of Mary Queen of Scots, who had just been executed by Elizabeth I accross the channel, but Marguerite’s good sense, good negotiating skills, and good luck saved her neck.
One of my favorite facts from the book: Marguerite and Henry’s court at Navarre was parodied by Shakespeare in Love’s Labor’s Lost--though it wasn’t Marguerite he was poking fun at. In a time of religious power struggles, Protestant England was tired of Huguenot King Henry’s compromises with French Catholics.
Marguerite comes across as romantic but devout, as well as intelligent, self-educated, and compassionate. Her diplomacy skills helped changed the course of French history and promoted religious tolerance. Catherine was treated shoddily by her husband Henri II--his blatant affair with Diane de Poitiers humiliated her--but after his death she herself was often opportunistic, ruthless, and cruel making her unpopular during her lifetime. Her daughter Marguerite lived and died mostly beloved by the French people, but according to this author the two reputations have been somewhat reversed in the minds of many modern historians, with Catherine being portrayed as pragmatic in a difficult time and Marguerite not given credit for her achievements. Goldstone’s book succeeds at tipping the balance back a little.
Those who don’t enjoy reading may assume it’s a solitary activity, and they’d be partly correct because page turning (physical or virtual) is usually done alone. But we literature lovers crave community as much as any social animal. It’s why we join book clubs and haunt web sites like GoodReads, BookLikes, and of course Austenprose. We love to connect with other readers to share passions, recount experiences, and exchange opinions about books. And reading about reading is an irresistible meta-pleasure that’s almost as fun as getting lost in a novel. For all these reasons Samantha Ellis’s “How to be a Heroine: What I learned from Reading too Much” piqued my interest.
Her book opens on the Yorkshire Moors with Ellis and her best friend arguing about which Brontë heroine they’d rather be, Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw. Ellis made what to her was the obvious choice: passionate, gorgeous Cathy. Cathy had been her role model since first reading Wuthering Heights at twelve, and Jane had always seemed too stoic, virtuous, and, well, plain to her. But Ellis’s friend shocked her by disagreeing. Jane is independent, her friend pointed out. Jane doesn’t suffer fools and she sticks to her principals. Her friend thought Cathy looked silly--always weeping and wailing, and marrying a rich boy because she’s a snob even though she claims to love Heathcliff. “Why not just not marry the wrong man?” (2%) Ellis’s friend asked her.
That question sent shockwaves through Ellis’s longtime worldview and started her on a reading quest. Ellis always pictured herself like Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, “in training to be a heroine” (3%) by reading to find out what kind of woman she might want to be. But what if she had modeled her life on the wrong heroines? If she had been deluded about Cathy, could she have been mistaken about her other literary icons? Ellis decided to challenge her old views by re-reading every book that had been important to her, and reevaluating all her choices.
In the book’s eleven chapters Ellis scrutinizes all her favorite literary heroines and considers how they influenced her, starting with her earliest book loves, like the little Mermaid, and continuing on to the stories that captivated her in young adulthood. It’s a personal and passionate quest, so along the way readers learn a lot about Ellis herself and about the turbulent history of her uprooted Jewish-Iraqi family, who fled the Middle East for England, but still retain many traditions from their former life. A postscript contains a recipe for Iraqi Jewish marzipan called masafan, an homage to Nora Ephron’s “Heartburn”, and an extensive bibliography of every work she read for her project.
Ellis investigates many more heroines than are named in her chapter titles: The Little Mermaid, Anne of Green Gables, Lizzy Bennet, Scarlett O’Hara, Franny Glass, Esther Greenwood, Lucy Honeychurch, The Dolls (from the Valley), Cathy Earnshaw, Flora Poste, and Scheherazade. In the Anne of Green Gables chapter, for instance, Ellis wrote about imaginative Anne Shirley (who first inspired Ellis to be a writer), but also about the life and troubled marriage of author L. M. Montgomery, which shed light on the bland, even dispiriting, choices Montgomery made for Anne’s fictional adulthood. In the same chapter Ellis also considers Louisa May Alcott and her books featuring Jo March (another fictional author Ellis admired), Pollyanna (whose optimism seemed brainless compared to Anne Shirley’s spunk), Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Little Princess” (Sara Crewe’s dislocation reminded Ellis of her family’s forced exile) and the movies “When Harry Met Sally” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral”.
Ellis is both a playwright and a journalist, and obviously a woman who takes stories seriously. Though her scope is wide her insights about the heroines are penetrating and thought-provoking, making this an intellectually rich, emotionally moving book. Part of why it’s so compelling is how well Ellis connects her own experiences to those of her heroines. When Ellis was twelve and her friends were relating to Judy Blume’s characters, it was Lizzie Bennet she felt kinship with. Growing up in an expatriate traditional culture in which marriage was woman’s primary goal, Ellis completely sympathized with the plight of the Bennet sisters in Pride and Prejudice.
As I went through How to be a Heroine I couldn’t help thinking about the ways I’ve been influenced by my own literary heroines (for the record I always preferred Jane Eyre to Cathy.) That made reading this book like having a heartfelt conversation about life and favorite novels with an avid, well-read best friend. In the end, Ellis’s verdict on her early book loves is mixed; some heroines no longer seemed worthy of emulation. My verdict on her book however is absolutely positive; I loved it.
I received an advanced review ebook copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley. Review opinions are mine.
Originally posted on austenprose
If you enjoyed Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Française, her novel of life in France during the German occupation of WWII, I think you will be just as enthusiastic about The Fires of Autumn. It has the same kind of sweeping but intimate storyline, and the same gorgeous prose style. Written in 1940, after Nemirovsky fled Paris and two years before her death at Auschwitz, The Fires of Autumn is being marketed as a “spiritual prequel” to Suite Française because though it doesn’t have the same characters it takes takes place in France in the years before the events of the other book.
The Fires of Autumn follows a diverse but connected set of Parisian families from the days of optimistic confidence before WWI, and carries them through the despair and disillusionment of the war itself, the intoxicating moral and monetary temptations of the 1920’s, and the financial and cultural adjustments of the 1930’s. Fortunes are made and lost, affairs are begun and abandoned, and children grow up and have children of their own. The book concludes during the chaotic early years of WWII.
Though many characters are involved, much of the story revolves around the sometimes tender but often fraught relationship between Thérèse Brun, who wants to live a simple, loving, traditional life, and Bernard Jacquelain, who is cynical after his harrowing experiences of trench warfare in WWI and bent on grasping all the pleasure he can through fast living, luxury surroundings, and assignations with willing women, not caring--at least at first--about the cost.
So far I have loved everything I’ve read by Nemirovsky. She excels at painting a scene, so it’s easy to imagine the colors, ambiance, and smells of her settings. And she brings readers inside the hearts and minds of her characters in sometimes long internal monologues, but her writing is always sensually and emotionally rich, never dry. This is a compact book, only 240 pages long, but Nemirovsky makes every word and image count.
Zora Neale Hurston approaches this moving memoir like a master storyteller, with wonderfully lyrical prose that reminded me a lot of her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Loved it.
"Ruby: The Adventures of a Galactic Gumshoe" is free for one week only using a link from the boingboing website. This is the "refreshed" version with newly updated music.