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Month: September 2019

READING THE TBR, DAY 262: Daisy Miller (1878) by Henry James

I have a complicated relationship with Henry James, because the man never found a happy ending he couldn’t ruin, and having read The Portrait of a Lady and Washington Square and The Wings of the Dove as a teenager — when happy endings were very important to me — I had shed far too many tears of frustration over his pages to hold him in unreserved admiration.

On the other hand, I think about those stories a lot, more often that you might think, and any story that can so easily worm its way into my subconscious that I spend decades sporadically reflecting upon it, even when I didn’t like it, is indicative of a mighty literary talent. (I know! Henry James is a good writer! Who knew?)

Years ago, riding the wave of a then-recent hour-long rumination on the ultimate fate of Portrait‘s Isabel Archer, I decided I would attempt James again, and began collecting his assorted works. Daisy Miller is quite short, and as an experiment in assaying this most heartbreaking of authors once more, I thought it would be a good one to start with, a mere six years after first buying it. (Sigh.)

The titular Daisy is a beautiful free-spirit of a young girl who is touring Europe with her foolish mother and scapegrace little brother. In Switzerland, she outrages the wealthy expatriate travellers her family encounters with her independence of spirit — she dares to speak to people, even men, without an introduction, if you please — and in Italy her dalliance with a handsome but impoverished local puts her quite beyond the pale. Not that Daisy notices that she and her family have been sent to Coventry, she is having far too much fun. Observing all is the much-smitten Frederick Winterbourne, who comes from the right kind of family and yet is drawn to Daisy’s artlessness. If only Daisy could have realised her affection for him before tragedy strikes so maliciously! Because, of course, a happy ending would be out of the question, even in this early entry into the James canon (this novel was, in fact, his first big success), not least because such a lack of virtue as Daisy displayed — by going for walks unchaperoned, if you please — can obviously not be rewarded.

I really liked Daisy, and in many ways consider her something of an early feminist, even if mostly she was acting out of ignorance of established social rules. After all, why shouldn’t she talk to people? Why shouldn’t she go for a walk with whomever she wished? Hypocrisy and double standards are still with us, of course, but a book like this does, at the very least, remind us of how far we have come. For the most part, anyway.

I can’t say I loved this short novel entirely, or Winterbourne, who has all the hallmarks of an obsessive stalker type, but it is another James tale I will be thinking about for a long, long time. And in this case, I even think it’s a good thing.    

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 262: Daisy Miller by Henry James
GENRE: Classic, General Fiction
PUBLISHED: 1878
TIME ON THE TBR: 6 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Op shop.
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 261: Legend (2011) by Marie Lu

There was a time in the early part of the this decade — which is soon to end; I can’t believe it either — when it seemed like every second YA novel released was mired in some kind of dystopian hell world. This… is another one of those. And it’s not a bad one.

Oh, the dystopia is bad, obviously. There’s a dictatorial government and military that have no qualms about torture, biological warfare, child abuse and outright murder.

But the book itself — it is zippy and even occasionally surprising, and I rushed through it with a minimum of the eye rolling that is often, even usually, engendered in me by works in this particular subgenre. 

Our two protagonists, criminal Day and prodigy June, fall hard and quick, but there are hurts and betrayals and secrets, you know the drill. The alternating narrative is somewhat interesting, and seeing the brainwashed, highly conditioned June slowly come to understand that her privileged life is built on massive injustice and cruelty, is mildly satisfying, but I can’t say I was so moved by the story, or so intrigued by its would be cliffhanger-y ending, to even search out the remaining books in the trilogy, not to mention the related novels.

As I said, this book wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t great, either.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 278: Legend (Legend #1) by Marie Lu
GENRE: YA Dystopia
PUBLISHED: 2011
TIME ON THE TBR: 5 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Op shop.
KEEP: Sure.

READING THE TBR, DAY 260: Doomsday Book (1992) by Connie Willis

Whole swathes of this book are about illness. Serious illness, like the plague and a vicious influenza, one in the distant past and another in the distant future. 

It’s a clever concept, this book. There is time travel, in that distant future, and historians attempt to infiltrate the past in order to better understand it. Into this program goes one Kivrin, a Middle Ages scholar who insists on a trip to the 1300s, and despite the fact that she is a single woman travelling alone, at a time when such a thing was just not done, and was dangerous as hell, she is permitted to do so by her besotted advisor, Dunworthy.

This is a long book. Oftentimes repetitive, and there is a lot of delirium brought about by assorted fevers, as well as a lot, lot, lot of death. I’m not sure I liked it for most of the time I was reading it, but looking back on it now that I am at last out of its harrowing grip, I can appreciate its many splendours. If nothing else, I can certainly see why it is accounted a modern-day classic of the genre (whatever genre it is: Historical Science Fiction?) and I will certainly be reading the other four books in this series. Most of which I — of course — already own.  

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 277: Doomsday Book (Oxford Historians #1) by Connie Willis
GENRE: Science Fiction, Historical Fiction
PUBLISHED: 1992
TIME ON THE TBR: 3 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Collins Booksellers.
KEEP: Yep. 

READING THE TBR, DAY 259: The Trap and Other Stories (1984), edited by Pat Wynnejones

Rarely has a book’s title been more accurate, because boy was a trapped into reading this. “Love stories with a difference” is the subtitle of this book, and hey, I like those! But the eight love stories in this book? They’re super religious, and I did not expect that at all. Though perhaps I should have, when the blurb says they are stories to “move, delight and inspire.”

Usually, when it comes to romance, a love story that is “inspiring” is one where at least one of the couple dies. But “Inspirational” romances are a whole other thing, and that is what we’re dealing with here. 

Except not all of them are even romances. The first one is about the love of a teen mother for her fetus — it’s an anti-abortion manifesto, and it made me furious. There’s another story in here in which a man sacrifices himself for a punk kid — the love of fellow man — and even the actual love stories have a lot of asking Jesus for guidance and only falling for someone who also goes to church.

This is a slim volume of just eight stories, I have owned it for over a decade, and I am SO MAD that I have kept it for so long when it took me only an hour to read, and I could have eliminated it from my TBR any time, if only I had opened it some time in the past twelve years.

I have no one to blame but myself.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 276: The Trap and Other Stories, edited by Pat Wynnejones
GENRE: Short Stories, Inspirational
PUBLISHED: 1984
TIME ON THE TBR: ~12 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Library sale.
KEEP: Not a hope in hell!

READING THE TBR, DAY 258: The Last Policeman (2012) by Ben H. Winters

I first encountered Ben H. Winters in his collaboration (I guess…) with Jane Austen in Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. And while the conceit of that book palled after a while — and the Classics Gone Wild trend quickly burned out — it was evident that Winters had a quirky sense of humour and sufficient talent to almost hold his own alongside one of the greatest writers who ever lived.

A year later, I read his Android Karenina, another classic mashup, and enjoyed it very much, so when Amazon alerted me that this author whom I had previously purchased was releasing an original book of his own in 2012, I clicked Pre-Order speedy quick. And then I bought the sequels as they were released over the following couple of years.

Today, a mere seven years later, I finally began to read the trilogy.

I have a problem.

But, to the book. Our first person hero, who isn’t quite the last policeman when the book begins, is Detective Hank Palace, who is investigating a suspicious death during the End of Times, in which a lethal asteroid is on course to smack into Earth not very many months hence, and so what is the point of solving crimes anyway? But Hank is the conscientious sort, not very many years out of the academy and eager to prove his worth. The mystery is ultimately pretty obvious, and Hank’s investigative skills questionable at best, but the world in which the story is set, one of decay and despair and one of “imminence”, in the evocative word of our tale’s inevitable femme fatale, is completely fascinating in its bleak ennui.

I will definitely be carrying on with this trilogy, as much to see whether the asteroid actually hits as for any other reason. Because what if it doesn’t? That is going to be one messed up non-apocalypse, for sure. 

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 275: The Last Policeman (Last Policeman #1) by Ben H. Winters
GENRE: Apocalypse
PUBLISHED: 2012
TIME ON THE TBR: 7 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Amazon.
KEEP: Sure.

READING THE TBR, DAY 257: Night Nurse (1972) by Jean Thomas

When I learned that the character of Claire Temple, played by Rosario Dawson in the Netflix Marvel series — Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Punisher and The Defenders — is based partially on the 1970s character Night Nurse, of course I had to find out more about her. After all, Claire was the best thing about most of those series, at least until they tried to make her a martial arts badass, and I loved the idea that so many decades ago Marvel had produced a mini-series based on a nursing professional with zero superpowers.

And Night Nurse — Linda Carter; the character was created before actress Lynda Carter personified Wonder Woman, it should be noted — indeed has no powers, but as the first port of call for superheroes who are injured and who, unsurprisingly, can’t seek help in your average emergency room, she is an important figure in comic land. And, her existence fills a pretty major franchise-wide plot hole, when you think about it.

This 4-issue series mostly revolves around Linda’s dedication to her job, and her jerk of a fiance who tries to make her give up her vocation just to care for him. (Bye, Jerk Fiance!) It’s quaint, and very much a product of its time, especially given our heroine’s Halloween-esque figure-hugging white uniform, but the secondary characters — fellow nurses — up the diversity quota, and the cameos by various injured heroes keeps the adrenaline pumping as Night Nurse is faced with medical emergencies surely outside the scope of her training. 

A Daredevil issue, also featuring Night Nurse, is also bundled into this collection, and that is pretty great, too, especially as it gives a bit more reason as to why Dr. Claire Temple, of comic fame, would have devolved into Nurse Claire Temple on the small screen.

At least Nurse Claire wears scrubs. 

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 274: Night Nurse by Jean Thomas; illustrated by Winslow Mortimer and Alex Maleev
GENRE: Comics, Marvel, Medical
PUBLISHED: 1972 (reprint 2015)
TIME ON THE TBR: ~2 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Comics R Us.
KEEP: Sure.

READING THE TBR, DAY 256: Pride (2018) by Ibi Zoboi

I have read dozens of Pride and Prejudice reimaginings, revisions and variations, many of which have been YA and yet more of which have moved the story into modern times and more diverse cultural milieus. Of those dozens of versions, quite the best of them all may very well be Pride, in which Zuri Benitez and Darius Darcy hate their way to love on the streets of Bushwick, Brooklyn.

When the wealthy Darcy family moves across the street early one summer, Zuri is not impressed. Who are these people gentrifying her neighbourhood? Who is this private school kid who looks down his nose at her Afro-Latino clan?

The story follows a very familiar pattern, of course — Zuri falls for the sob story of the charming Warren, who has a history with Darius’s younger sister; an older female relative is horrified over Darius’s interest in the unsuitable Zuri; Zuri has competition from a rich mean girl, Carrie; Zuri’s younger sister, Layla, is a precocious and man-hungry; and Zuri’s older sister Janae is devastated when Ainsley, Darius’s brother, dumps her for no apparent reason. But despite all the expected story beats from the original, this version felt fresh and new as it found its own path through the narrative, and had time and space to make Zuri a pretty amazing beat poet, too. 

The one sore spot for me was the Janae storyline — I felt like Zuri was far too quick to forgive Darius for his part in that. Our Lizzy would have had him begging for her forgiveness for at least another hundred pages. But aside from that one misstep, the rest of this book is awesome, both as a YA novel of finding yourself in an ever changing cultural landscape, but as an adaptation of one the greatest novels ever written. 

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 273: Pride by Ibi Zoboi
GENRE: YA, YA Romance, Retelling
PUBLISHED: 2018
TIME ON THE TBR: ~1 year.  
PURCHASED FROM: Amazon.
KEEP: Yes!

READING THE TBR, DAY 255: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (2014) by Meg Elison

A pandemic has swept across the world, with devastating effect. Not only did it wipe out 98% of the male population, it hit women even harder, and infant mortality became total. The human race looks to be on the edge of extinction, and many of its remaining females are being held captive and forced to serve the needs of the men who have claimed them.

The tale is told mostly through the journal entries of a woman who goes by many names throughout the book, who binds her breasts and cuts her hair and becomes handy with a weapon, in order to remain free. She is travelling north east from San Francisco, she doesn’t know why, mostly just seeking refuge from the disturbing radio messages coming out of Mexico (“bring your women, they will be safe”) and trying to help women along the way, where she can, even if it is just by giving them temporary medical care and birth control, which she had the forethought to bring with her. Be prepared.

There are many points in her journey that are pure terror, as her safety is compromised again and again by the intrusion of fellow survivors into her loneliness, and she doesn’t trust easily, or often, but eventually finds a few decent people in a sea of terrible ones, thus restoring to her some semblance of faith in humanity–and in the reader, as well. The occasional interspersing of third person omniscient narration, which gives us back- and future-story on several key characters and the world at large, only serves to intensify our midwife’s plight, and makes of the world an even more starkly barren wasteland.

Moving, terrifying, gripping, ultimately hopeful, it is a post-apocalyptic book that deals in many big themes, especially those of women’s rights, reproductive rights and (which is a near-constant of the genre) the Evils the Men Do, as well as the role of faith and mindless devotion when all about you is in ruins. Sexuality is explored, as is the notion of active consent, and it is a book to leave even the most ardent of gun control advocates with an appreciation for a powerful rifle, if the worst should ever befall us.

I loved this book. And hated it, too. I will be thinking about it for a long, long time. I am just not sure whether that is a good thing or not.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 272: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (The Road to Nowhere #1) by Meg Elison
GENRE: Post-Apocalypse
PUBLISHED: 2014
TIME ON THE TBR: 2 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Amazon.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 254: Footnotes (2019) by Peter Fiennes

Informative and interesting — two things that do not always go hand in hand — this is the epitome of a quirky travel narrative, which I love, as well as a biography of several venerable English writers, which I also love.

The beginning section on Enid Blyton is a triumph, enthralling and satisfying to anyone who grew up with her works (and must now constantly examine their own attitudes as a result), while the fondness I developed for travel writers now long-dead, having travelled with them alongside the amusingly dry-witted Peter Fiennes, is an added bonus. And I have been meaning to read some Wilke Collins for years now — I certainly will do so now.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 271: Footnotes: A Journey Round Britain in the Company of Great Writers by Peter Fiennes
GENRE: Travel Narrative, Memoir
PUBLISHED: 2019
TIME ON THE TBR: 1 month. 
PURCHASED FROM: Amazon.
KEEP: Yep.

READING THE TBR, DAY 253: The Tyrant’s Tomb (2019) by Rick Riordan

The god Apollo, exiled to Earth and mortality by his angry father — unreasonably angry, by the way; it’s not like Apollo’s particular crime was worse than any committed by any of the Pantheon, including Zeus himself — has spent the past three books coming to terms with his new circumstances. Instead of his usual irresistible form, he is now caged within the body of lumpy and pimply teen Lester Papadopolous; instead of near-omnipotence, he is now only sporadically graced with a mere shadow of his former powers; and instead of inspiring awe and adoration he now has to constantly put up with mouthy kids rolling their eyes and him and calling him names. 

And they know he’s Apollo.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a Rick Riordan mythology-infused adventure if there was not a quest, and, moreover, a quest with an arbitrary timeline placed upon it. In this one, those dead Roman emperors — because this series is mostly set in the Olympian gods’ Roman aspects — are still causing havoc, and also there are zombies, you guys.

It’s silly, it’s fun, it’s just a good godly time, and even after all these books — there are, like, twenty of these mythos-infused YA outings, among his various series — Riordan can still make me catch my breath as easily as he puts a smile on my face with his increasingly outlandish adventures.

What’s that? I’m a grown-up? Yeah? So?   

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 270: The Tyrant’s Tomb (The Trials of Apollo #4) by Rick Riordan
GENRE: YA Fantasy, Greek Mythology, Retelling
PUBLISHED: 2019
TIME ON THE TBR: 2 weeks.  
PURCHASED FROM: Readings Carlton.
KEEP: Of course.