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Month: June 2019

READING THE TBR, DAY 160: Middlemarch (1871) by George Eliot

This is another book I didn’t read all in one day (cf. War and Peace). I have been dipping into it all week, slowly absorbing the pastoral splendour of this classic and beloved novel, and discovering why it has stood the test of time — not to mention appearing on a million high school English tests.

There is a lot going on in the town of Middlemarch, and a lot of it has to do with politics that I simply did not understand and had to go research. What was the Reform Bill? What were Reformers? Did it have something to do with church?

No, it turns out it changed the laws regarding who could stand for parliament and how, and also gave more people the right to vote. (Not women though, obviously. That would have been crazy.) How that affects this story is that many of its central figures are either pro- or anti-Reform, and somehow that all ties into how they are able to run a charity hospital in the town. I think?

Of much more interest to me were the romances offered up by this epic, none of the objects of affection truly worthy — except, perhaps, for the lovely Mary, who nevertheless ends up with the wrong man — but all of them very real, and interesting, and infuriating in turn.

I was particularly taken with the story of Dorothea — prim, saintly, often insufferable Dorothea — and her devoted swain, and relation by marriage, Will Ladislaw, who is forbidden from pursuing her after her widowhood by a particularly nasty condition in her deceased husband’s will. The restraint with which the two lovers carefully don not say things to each other is captivating, as is their tendency to measure everything through the lens of the other, and their quickness to take offense or read into perfectly innocent encounters with others. 

For the rest, the steady reform of profligate youngster Fred Vincy is a pleasure, and the comeuppance delivered to one particularly venal bastion of the community is deeply satisfying, and there are moments of dry, almost fourth-wall-breaking wit that raise a chuckle along with the requisite confusion that the author’s belief that you know exactly what is going on in the world of the time is bound to produce.

Of all the “Classics” I have read over the past years — maybe even ever, with the exception of Jane Austen’s ever-delightful output — I think that Middlemarch may very well be my favourite. I not only feel virtuous for having read it, but am genuinely glad that I did.

Who knew?


TBR DAY 160: Middlemarch by George Eliot
GENRE: Classic, Pastoral, General Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: ~15 years.  
KEEP: Yes!

READING THE TBR, DAY 159: Wild Magic (1992) by Tamora Pierce

I hate when this happens.

I read Wild Magic, a novel featuring many of the tropes that I love, and I really enjoyed it. Assured by the almighty Google that it was the first novel in the Immortals series (as emblazoned on its cover) it details the exploits of young Daine, a teenage animal mage of uncertain parentage, who enters the Kingdom of Tortall and becomes embroiled in various battles against the darkness that seeks to invade its peaceful lands. Before long she gets herself a couple of mentors, an audience with King, and a reputation for extraordinary talent, and it was all fairly forgettable, but still enjoyable, YA Fantasy fun.   

But then, just now, I have learned that this is not the first novel in the Tortall series. It is the first in the Immortals quartet, but a whole other quartet, Song of the Lioness, came out several years before it, and I just… I just hate this. I hate that I have not read this series in publication order. It tarnishes the entire experience for me, and really, how hard is it to list other titles in a series inside your book, publishers? It’s not hard! And if you’re going to put “The Immortals Book I” on the cover, then at least include “A Tale of Tortall” or something, as well. 


So now my feelings about this book are tinged with regret, and its not fair, but I don’t even know when I will be able to return to Daine’s antics now. Should I go find and read the Lioness series first? Probably. Yes, I think I will have to.



TBR DAY 143: Wild Magic (Immortals #1) by Tamora Pierce
GENRE: Fantasy, YA
TIME ON THE TBR: ~12 years.  
KEEP: Maybe.

READING THE TBR, DAY 158: Leaves of Grass (1889) by Walt Whitman

Honestly, I only really know anything about Walt Whitman due to Chris in the Morning on Northern Exposure. There as an episode where the bombastic Maurice objected to Chris mentioning Whitman’s sexuality, and I remember watching that and deciding I had to find out more about this classic LGBTQI+ American poet.

Not long afterwards, I found a copy of Leaves of Grass in a second-hand bookshop — a surprisingly intimidating tome, given it was just poems — and of course I bought it, just like I bought La Nausée by Sartre because Angel was once reading it on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I have to say, I enjoyed the French existentialism more than the poetry, but that’s probably just because poetry is a very, very subjective medium, and it turns out I am just not particularly fond of Whitman’s particular gift for it.

Oh, I can appreciate it for its innate cleverness, insight and even, occasionally, wit. He knows his stuff, and there can be no doubt he justly deserves his reputation. But for me, this collection was a slog, just one of those things I was reading because I thought I should, not because I wanted to, and I was very, very glad when I came to the end of it all.

It took me almost thirty years to read this book, after having first bought it. I probably could have waited another thirty, to be honest. Or forever. 


TBR DAY 150: Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
GENRE: Classics, Poetry, American Poetry
PUBLISHED: 1889 (“Deathbed” Edition)
TIME ON THE TBR: ~30 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: City Basement Books.
KEEP: Probably not.

READING THE TBR, DAY 157: Shadow of a Dark Queen (1994) by Raymond E. Feist

Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Saga is a stalwart of Epic Fantasy, a now 30 book-long odyssey that began with Magician, way back in 1982. I read Magician about ten years ago — long after I had already immersed myself in all kinds of Epic Fantasy, both classic and modern, heroic and grimdark — and was quite taken with its worldbuilding, its intriguing cross-dimensional societies, and its unlikely hero, the (of course) secretly powerful country lad, Pug. I read the next seven books in the series in pretty quick succession, but then I just… kind of forgot the series existed, I guess. I certainly never cared enough to seek the rest of it out.

Then about five years ago I found a huge stash of Feist books for sale at a school book fair for just $1 each, and I bought every one of them. I’ve been slowly rereading the initial eight ever since, and today I finally hit a new one, which also happens to be the beginning of a new trilogy within the Riftwar universe.

It’s… not as good as the earlier ones. But it’s sufficiently Fantasy-ish to satisfy my craving for same, and there are enough cameos from earlier installments to keep the story within the familiar landscape. Even if everyone is ruthless as hell.

Our tale begins in a small town overseen by an erratic but generally honourable lord, except that his illegitimate son,  blacksmith apprentice Erik, lives there, much hated by the lord’s wife and heirs. When the eldest lordling assaults Erik’s lady love, Erik and his friend Roo — son of a merchant, and kind of a creep — kill him, and are soon sentenced to death. 

But they don’t die! Instead, they are seconded into an elite commando regiment and sent into enemy lands to track the advance of the dark queen of the title (and of whom we know from earlier titles in the series). That part of the book is better, and Erik’s instinctive horse sense, which almost amounts to animal magic, makes him an engaging hero, even when he is under the sway of the typical break-them-down-to-build-them-up asshole army sergeant type, whom I hate with a burning passion.

In all, it’s not a bad book, and I am intrigued enough with this set up that I am prepared to go further with the series, now that I have recalled its existence. I just hope there’s less of the Falsely Accused nonsense in the next one, because I hate that.


TBR DAY 150: Shadow of a Dark Queen (Serpentwar Saga #1) by Raymond E. Feist
GENRE: Fantasy
TIME ON THE TBR: 15 years. 
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 156: 24 Hours in Ancient Rome (2017) by Philip Matyszak

Such a clever book! An hour at a time, from midnight to midnight, we walk in the footsteps of the denizens of Ancient Rome, from the to bath attendants to Vestal Virgins to laundry workers to lawyers to sex workers and beyond, this book gives us a very accessible taste of living history, and enables us to get inside the heads of these — fictional, but based on fact — long-dead archetypes.

In many ways, however, their lives find echoes in our modern society — even the rampant slavery, unfortunately, cannot be said to have been completely wiped out — and it is through this steady buildup of empathy and familiarity with his subjects that historian Philip Matyszak puts us into their heads, and brings them to life. It is a winning conceit, and one that carries you through each of the twenty-four hours in absolute wonder.

There is probably not a lot that is new here for the avid Roman scholar, but for newcomers to the field, or even just those who really love a “lower decks” perspective on history — which is so often written by, and reflective of, the great and the good — this book is a real triumph.

I am so pleased to have read it. 


TBR DAY 170: 24 Hours in Ancient Rome: A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There by Philip Matyszak
GENRE: Popular History
TIME ON THE TBR: 1 year.  
KEEP: Yes!

READING THE TBR, DAY 155: War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy

Now, obviously, I didn’t read War and Peace in a single day. I’ve been reading it since January. A chapter here, a chapter there, every now and then I’d get swept up in the story and read it for an hour or two and a time. But today — oh, the glory of it, today! — I finished the thing.

I am now someone who has read War and Peace. And not as I attempted to read it as a pretentious thirteen-year-old, puzzled but dogged, and eventually giving up, but properly. All the way through, and I understood it and everything.

Even liked some of it.

What I found most fascinating about reading it, as my friend Clara had suggested I would, was to see the Napoleonic Wars dealt with from the Russian perspective instead of the English one. Clara and I are both big fans of Georgette Heyer; we’ve even written essays about her; and in Clara’s she discusses how her college Russian Lit class was made so much easier because of all the backstory she got from our favourite historical novelist. She is so right, but what I also felt was a sense of heady realization that I have been ignoring the “other” side of too many conflicts for too long. When Napoleon showed up in this book, even though he is something of a figure of fun, it suddenly occurred to me that, forget about the Russian perspective, I have never encountered this era of history from the French perspective.  I’ve read Heyer and Forrester and Cornwell and O’Brien — hell, I’ve even read Naomi Novik’s version with dragons, now. 

I really should do something about this blindside I have so recently discovered. History is, after all, written by the victors, but the… do we call them losers?… have a story to tell, as well.

Anyway. Back to War and Peace.

In such a long and sprawling narrative, of course there are many, many characters to keep track of, and many, many plotlines to attempt to follow. (And, equally of course, since this is a Russian novel, all of our many, many characters each have many, many names.) But it mostly hung together, I found, even with my incremental reading of the epic, and I developed some favourites — poor misguided Pierre! Troubled, but kindhearted Natasha! — and some less favourites — shut up, Boris! Grow a spine, Maria! — even while I got involved in the battlefield derring do. (Could have done without a lot of the long passages about military strategy, however.) 

The best part of the book, for me, was the evacuation of Moscow, when Napoleon is advancing on the city and rich and poor alike are scrambling to take what they can with them into the countryside, and to safety. It’s a thrilling scene — it’s where Natasha became my favourite — and perfectly encompasses the many horrors of war, even for those not directly in the thick of it.

The worst part of the book, by far, is the epilogue, which is so long you have to wonder if Tolstoy originally planned it as a sequel. If so, it would have been a pretty bad one. The first part of it is just “and this is what happened next” and it’s pretty dull and kind of upsetting, when you see Nikolai mistreating his serfs so badly. (No wonder the revolted… like, a hundred years later.) But the second part is just interminable. Basically, Tolstoy has taken a look at your history books, historians, and you are doing it wrong. At best, it’s an Appendix — it is certainly not an epilogue. It took me a month to read it, in very grudging installments, and I hated it all the while.

But today I finished it, and I am glad. So glad. I can’t remember the last time reading gave me such a profound feeling of accomplishment — no, not even when I finally made it through Ivan’s epic religious poem in The Brothers Karamazov. (Seriously, shut up, Ivan!).

I’m feeling very proud of myself right now, but I also feel a bit empty — I’ve been reading this book for so long that it feels weird to not be reading it anymore. 

Time to start on Crime and Punishment, I guess.


TBR DAY 150: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
GENRE: Classics, Russian Literature
TIME ON THE TBR: 20 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Alice’s Bookshop.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 154: Murder in Mesapotamia (1936) by Agatha Christie

I have either not previously read nearly as many Poirot novels as I had thought, or my memory is far, far worse than I fondly believe. Because this story was entirely new to me, in every particular, and since it is such an excellent one, I feel certain I would have retained, at the very least, a general feeling of goodwill towards it, and have remembered its title, had it ever actually crossed my brain.

For all that it is set in the sun-bleached sands of Iraq, at an archaeological dig in the desert that is, of course, being conducted predominantly by foreigners to the land — because, infuriatingly, the Middle East has long been an outpost of Empire — this novel takes on quite a chilling and even Gothic note, as a beautiful, beloved wife is found dead, and a shady cast of suspects keeps us guessing to the very end. Told mostly from the perspective of practical British nurse Amy Leatheran, of course Hercule Poirot shows up — why is he always around when these things happen? I have never once had a murder occur anywhere near to me — to get to the bottom of what is one of the more ingenious modus operandi I have ever encountered in detective fiction.

The story’s pace is gentle, but no less compelling for it, and I continue to be impressed by how well these books — if not the social mores and imbalances of the world they present — continue to stand the test of time.

The next Poirot novel, in publication order, is called Cards on the Table, and I am pretty sure I have never read that one, either. All this time, I thought I’d Poiroted all I could Poirot in this life — how wrong I was.  


TBR DAY 154: Murder in Mesopotamia (Hercule Poirot #14) by Agatha Christie
GENRE: Mystery
TIME ON THE TBR: ~ 5 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Vintage shop.
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 153: The History of the Kings of Britain (1138) by Geoffrey of Monmouth

Following yesterday’s abhorrent, indigestible trifle, I thought I’d make with the scholarship and refinement today, which led me to select this venerable work from my (diminishing, but still overflowing) TBR shelves.

Almost nine hundred years old, and therefore missing out quite a few kings (and queens), Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history is… well, a bit unreliable, really. It’s like Philippa Gregory labeling one of her historical reimaginings — The White Queen, The Other Boleyn Girl, what have you — as non-fiction. I mean, Merlin is in this. King Arthur is in this. And I do not in any way mean to suggest that a writer of the 12th Century knows less about the history of his own nation than I do, close to a millennium later and living across the globe, but, really? Merlin?

This is not so much a history as it is a fantasy, but that’s okay. It’s lyrical and lovely, and evocative of an earlier, certainly more martial, but also more courtly time. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but I appreciated its sweeping grandeur, its scattershot attempt at a faithful record of events long past, and the sense of living, breathing ancientness that it brings along with it. Nine hundred years is a long time, and whenever I am reminded that the legacy of human creativity goes back almost as far as humanity itself, I am always grateful.   

Still pretty cheeky to call this a “history”, though.


TBR DAY 153: The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth
GENRE: Classic, History, Non-Fiction (?)
TIME ON THE TBR: ~ 10 years.  
KEEP: Yeah.

READING THE TBR, DAY 152: After (2014) by Anna Todd

I just can’t do it. I tried. Oh lord, I tried. I bought this book close upon its release, around four years ago, due to my sister Kathryn, who was in the grip of One Direction fandom (she is much, much younger than me), and I grew curious when she told me that this book began life as the world’s most read and loved 1D fanfic of all time. 

It’s weird how much 1D fanfic there was back then. Still is, I suppose.

Anyway, much as Fifty Shades of Grey started out as a story of Edward and Bella from Twilight, in this story’s original incarnation, the attractive, tattooed and pierced British student attending our drippy heroine’s Washington college was based on Harry Styles. Except Harry Styles always seems like such a nice lad in all those interviews (and his Carpool Karaoke), and the Harry… er… sorry, Hardin of this book is a total tool. 

Enough of one that I have to stop reading. I don’t care what justification there ends up being for his outright rudeness to the admittedly irritating Tessa. There is nothing that can excuse it, nor the painful writing style in which it is expressed.

I’m eight chapters in and I’m calling it. Time of Death: right fucking now. 

There is a movie based on this “book”, by the way. The end is most definitely nigh. 


TBR DAY 149: After by Anna Todd
GENRE: YA Romance.
TIME ON THE TBR: ~ 4 years.  
KEEP: Certainly not.

READING THE TBR, DAY 151: Dead and Kicking (2015) by Lisa Emme

The heroine of this book is named “Angharad.” Harry, for short, of course. She is a witch who sees dead people, which comes in handy when dead people start cropping up all over the place. Soon, Harry is at the epicentre of a zombie plague, while also being pursued by her city’s powerful vampire lord and being attracted to/angered by a sexy shapeshifter cop. 

All I can say for this book is that it’s pretty much what I expected it to be: zippy and light supernatural fare with the occasional zingy barb provided by our first-person, often-oblivious-but-occasionally-kickass female protagonist.

And yep. All present and accounted for. It was… fine. I’d probably read another book in the series if it came in my way, though I’m not about to seek one out.

Especially not considering AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” is misattributed to Metallica in this one. That’s just sloppy.


TBR DAY 149: Dead and Kicking by Lisa Emme
GENRE: Urban Fantasy
TIME ON THE TBR: 2 years or so.  
KEEP: No, I don’t think I so.