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Rachel Hyland Posts

READING THE TBR, DAY 294: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (2017) by Theodora Goss

With the third book in this series just released, I at last decided to read the trilogy, the first two of which I bought on a whim because the title of this one just would not be denied.

It is told in rather scattershot fashion, in a kind of meta way, in which the characters of the story oversee the story’s construction by one of their number.

It makes sense when you read it. 

The alchemist’s daughter of the title is one Miss Mary Jekyll, who is left almost penniless upon the death of her secretive father. As she begins to investigate Dr. Jekyll’s mysterious death, and life, however, Mary comes into contact with the fractious Diana Hyde and three other young women with somewhat unnatural origins — Catherine Moreau, Beatrice Rappacini and Justine Frankenstein — and they uncover a sinister plot by pseudo-scientists of the Victorian era who aim to rule the world.

Throw in a suave appearance by ace detective Sherlock Holmes (whom the ever-upright Mary finds strangely attractive), and this book becomes a thorough delight of fantastical imagining — and reimagining — that is a pure delight. 

Onwards to the sequel immediately go I!

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TBR DAY 294: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club #1) by Theodora Goss
GENRE: Steampunk
PUBLISHED: 2017
TIME ON THE TBR: 1 year.  
PURCHASED FROM: Amazon.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 293: The Body (2019) by Bill Bryson

The inimitable Bill Bryson’s amiable, often incisive, travel narratives are among my very most beloved books ever, and I love his explorations of the English language, Shakespeare and the like, but his impeccably researched popular science works — first, A Short History of Nearly Everything, then At Home, and now this one — are, quite simply, works of staggering genius.

This one is somewhat squickier than his earlier scholarly tomes, because the human body itself is squickier, of course, but it is nevertheless fascinating, as Bryson not only details the various parts and functions of our biology but also honours those who have examined it so thoroughly and dedicatedly (and, at times, unethically) throughout the millennia.

It is fantastic.

Read it.

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TBR DAY 293: The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Popular Science
PUBLISHED: 2019
TIME ON THE TBR: 1 month.  
PURCHASED FROM: Amazon.
KEEP: Of course.

READING THE TBR, DAY 292: The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole

Famous as the world’s first example of Gothic literature, this book is confusing in that it seems to be a satire of Gothic literature. Can one really satirize a thing as one simultaneously creates it? 

Apparently, yes.

Ostensibly a translation of an earlier Italian work (it isn’t, and reminds me of The Princess Bride in that regard), this florid, melodramatic tale of evil noblemen, self-sacrificing noblewomen, — except for Isabella; you go, Isabella! — pert maids and the occasional handsome hero is far more entertaining than I’d thought it would be, given a) its provenance, b) its age, c) its reputation, and d) this terrible cover.

The reason I bought it in the first place was that it is the kind of book read by heroines populating the novels of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, but in many ways this book relates far more to the authors than their creations. From the Gothic parody that is Austen’s Northanger Abbey to the fact that Heyer also created a literary genre, I appreciated this work as much for the connections to those two favourites of mine as I did on its own merits.

But merits it does indeed have, even if the language is sometimes very dense, the characters even denser, and the horror factor is so mild that even I could handle it. (I am not very good with horror.) But for audiences at the time, this book was a revelation, and spurred an interest in the macabre and the thrilling that lasts until this day.

For that alone, The Castle of Otranto deserves to be read, and admired, and appreciated for many more centuries to come.

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TBR DAY 292: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
GENRE: Gothic Fiction, Classic Literature
PUBLISHED: 1764
TIME ON THE TBR: ~15 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Hatchard’s Booksellers, Picadilly.
KEEP: Of course.

READING THE TBR, DAY 291: Sad Cypress (1940) by Agatha Christie

Well, this is yet another intriguing entry into the Poirot canon. A wealthy old lady dies on the brink of making a new will (because, duh), then a young woman close to her is poisoned, and the old lady’s niece is arrested for both deaths.

Unusually, this one spends more than a little time in a courtroom, which gives the tale an enjoyable Law and Order vibe. I actually figured out the murderer here, which I wish I could say was due to my general and abiding genius but I am afraid is more likely just because the plotting wasn’t quite as skillful as it usually is.

Nevertheless, this is yet another stellar installment in this continuing delight of a mystery series.

Well, except for all the people who get murdered, of course. That part is less a delight, obviously. 

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TBR DAY 291: Sad Cypress (Poirot #21) by Agatha Christie
GENRE: Mystery, Cosy Mystery, Poirot
PUBLISHED: 1940
TIME ON THE TBR: ~6 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Vintage shop.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 290: Cyril and the Dinner Party (1986) by Michael Palin

Michael Palin is, of course, a comedy god, a fact proven again and again not only through his Monty Python hijinks but his travel narratives, and much more. But does he have skill with kids’ books?

Er. No.

Cyril is a little boy who one day discovers that he has magical powers and can change reality at a whim. He makes his family change form in assorted ridiculous ways — it is all very Harry-inflates-hateful-Aunt-Marjorie — and… well, that’s about it.

It’s fine. Forgettable, but fine.

Kids probably wouldn’t hate reading it. I didn’t hate reading it either. But I was very glad when it was over, and it’s only, like, 20 pages or so. Which makes this book a very good lesson that, no matter how brilliant someone might be, they’re probably not going to be good at everything.

Except for John Cleese, of course.

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TBR DAY 290: Cyril and the Dinner Party by Michael Palin
GENRE: Picture Book
PUBLISHED: 1986
TIME ON THE TBR: ~2 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Op shop.
KEEP: I guess.

READING THE TBR, DAY 289: The Wrong End of the Table (2019) by Ayser Salman

A sprightly and engaging story of hardships, embarrassments, friendships and dating, successful screenwriter Ayser Salman’s reminiscences of being an immigrant in America, an expat in Saudi Arabia, an Iraqi during two Gulf Wars and a Muslim post-9/11 kept me entranced all the way through. Her storytelling is effortless, her humour often subtle, and her life completely fascinating, while also being infinitely relateable. 

Loved this.

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TBR DAY 289: The Wrong End of the Table: A Mostly Comic Memoir of a Muslim Arab American Woman Just Trying to Fit In by Ayser Salman
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Memoir
PUBLISHED: 2019
TIME ON THE TBR: 2 months.  
PURCHASED FROM: Dymocks.
KEEP: Sure.

READING THE TBR, DAY 288: The World According to Star Wars (2017) by Cass R. Sunstein

I am a sucker for books of essays that turn beloved pop culture into topics for scholarly discourse, and this one is a fine example of the breed. I can’t say I agreed with all of the conclusions, or even propositions, enclosed within these pages, but I thoroughly enjoyed Cass R. Sunstein’s in-depth look of the world of Star Wars, its place in our society, and the lessons we can take not only from its text (and subtext) but from each of our reactions to this entertainment behemoth.

I liked. I learned. I even laughed occasionally.

Especially when Sunstein claimed that Darth Vader is the best character in all of Star Wars

That’s just hilarious.

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TBR DAY 288: The World According to Star Wars by Cass R. Sunstein
GENRE: Media Tie-in, Non-Fiction, Film
PUBLISHED: 2017
TIME ON THE TBR: ~1 year.  
PURCHASED FROM: It was a gift.
KEEP: Naturally.

READING THE TBR, DAY 287: Lady Fortescue Steps Out (1992) by Marion Chesney

As an eleven-year-old, I fell in love with world of the glittering English Regency through the work of the incomparable Georgette Heyer. In the years since my admiration for her has only grown, and along the way I have happily found more than one author who, while never quite matching Heyer’s wit, scholarship and style when it comes to historical romance, has nevertheless followed closely enough in her footsteps that I have greatly enjoyed their various versions of this history-inspired fairy tale world she all-but created.

But I never liked Marion Chesney. 

My friend Megan swore by her, in our younger days, and I remember trying so hard to understand what she liked about these books, but they just always rang so false to me. I read several Chesneys at Megan’s urging, but was always so outraged by the constant threat of social suicide that all her characters laboured under, not to mention her incredibly inauthentic and stilted dialogue, that I gave up on her pretty quickly and have not picked up one of her books since I was probably fourteen. But then a few years back, Chesney’s books were re-released under her real name, M. C. Beaton, and the knowledge that the writer of Hamish Macbeth was also the writer of those lacklustre Regency knock-offs was sufficient to get me curious enough to tackle one of them again.

Maybe Teen Me was wrong, I thought. Maybe Adult Me would finally get the appeal.

But, nope. Teen Me was right. (About this, anyway; there is a lot else about which she was distinctly mistaken.) If Lady Fortescue Steps Out is any indication, I still really, really dislike Marion Chesney’s pitiful attempts at Regency writing. I couldn’t even come close to finishing this book and now, hours later, I am still just SO MAD at how bad it is.

The line that led me to close this book for good? “Get you hence!” uttered by a lovely young lady, now reduced to working as a chef in a new hotel called The Poor Relation run by the indigent but well-bred scions of respectable families (yeah, that’s the plot; sigh), who has just been offered a position as a Duke’s mistress after he renews her acquaintance years after once dazzling him at a ball, and has now been cast upon hard times (yeah, he’s our “hero,” people; sigh).

 I just… no. No, no, NO. 

Absolutely not.

Sorry, Teen Me. How could I ever have doubted you?

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TBR DAY 287: Lady Fortescue Steps Out (Poor Relation #1) by Marion Chesney/M. C. Beaton
GENRE: Regency Romance
PUBLISHED: 1992
TIME ON THE TBR: 1 year. 
PURCHASED FROM: eBay.
KEEP: Certainly not.

READING THE TBR, DAY 286: Scandal in Bohemia – A Sherlock Holmes Graphic Novel (2014) by Petr Kopl

One thing that never occurred to me when I read “A Scandal in Bohemia” — the 1891 first Sherlock Holmes short story, coming after the novels A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four — in which Holmes is tasked with tracking down a photograph incriminating to the King of Bohemia is that there was never actually a king of Bohemia. 

Nor, it turns out, did I actually know where Bohemia was.

But in an afterword to his comic adaptation of the story — which he combines with that of “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, not entirely successfully — Petr Kopl discusses this lack of King, because Bohemia is in the Czech Republic and it is important whether or not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knew that or not. You know, to Czech people. Of which he is one.

I get it, but I tend to think… well, Doyle probably just figured everywhere in Eastern Europe was ruled by a King or Prince or Archduke or some such. It did seem like that, at any point up till World War I, at any rate. Did it really matter whether it was Bohemia, or Transylvania, for the sake of the story? Not really.

But it does matter to Kopl’s version of Sherlockian events, because in it he has brought in some other stalwarts of Victorian literature — hello, Dr. Jekyll! — and doubtless Dracula is waiting in the wings somewhere.

Will I read more of his slightly off-kilter take on the great detective? Probably, should they come in my way. A comic book adaptation is a very fun way to re-read some of the classics of literature, after all, and if I can march through the Holmes canon in such cracking style, and with the occasional League of Extraordinary Gentlemen-style added bonus, why would I not?

Seriously, I’m asking. Why would I not? (I really need a reason to read less books, so if anyone can answer this in any definitive and convincing kind of way, please get in touch.)

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TBR DAY 286: A Scandal in Bohemia — A Sherlock Holmes Graphic Novel by Petr Kopl
GENRE: Adaptation, Comics, Mystery
PUBLISHED: 2014
TIME ON THE TBR: 3 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: All Star Comics, Melbourne.
KEEP: Sure.

READING THE TBR, DAY 285: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1922) by G. K. Chesterton

I am so mad that I brought this book back with me from London more than a decade ago, and have given it shelf space ever since. WHY did I do that? Why did I not read it as soon as I bought it and learn how unutterably boring it was right away, and discard it with prejudice before allowing it to take up valuable baggage allowance on an across-the-world flight?

Oh, right. Because that’s what I do.

Damn it.

Anyway, this book. Dull, dull, dull. I cannot understand how Chesterton has become such a byword for English mystery writing, often spoken of in the same breath as Christie, Heyer and Sayers. His Father Brown series, which I have never read (but I’ve seen a few episodes of the TV series) might account for it. But this one–no. It is nothing more than a misbegotten collection of eight short stories that showcase the Discount Sherlock Holmes that is Horne Fisher solving crimes and posing metaphysical and/or moral dilemmas while attempting to deliver wry one-liners that simply never land. 

There is something very disconcerting about so thoroughly disliking a book by anyone universally accounted a “classic” author. You feel like you must be wrong, somehow. But, no. Surely you can’t be wrong when it comes to whether you enjoy something or not?

Right?

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TBR DAY 285: The Man Who Knew Too Much by G. K. Chesterton
GENRE: Mystery, Cosy Mystery, Classic
PUBLISHED: 1922
TIME ON THE TBR: ~15 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Charing Cross Road, London.
KEEP: Nope.