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Tag: general fiction

READING THE TBR, DAY 300: The Remains of the Day (1989) by Kazuo Ishiguro

This soul-searing novel was turned into a much-feted film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in the early 90s, which I remember watching in the cinema upon its release. I was already very fond of stories mired in the past when in my teen years, and I remember convincing my friend Serena that we should totally see this instead of Wayne’s World 2

She was not amused.

It’s not that she didn’t like the movie. It was poignant and weirdly intense, and it certainly made us feel very grown up. But when you are in high school, the restrained and angst-ridden not-quite-romance between a largely oblivious career butler and the housekeeper he doesn’t know he loves, all set against the background of looming fascism in 1930s Europe, isn’t exactly the sexiest story ever.

Reading it now, told in first person by Mr. Stevens as he reflects on his storied career at Darlington Hall, it isn’t much sexier, but it is even more poignant. From Stevens’s complete inability to communicate his true feelings with anyone, to his apologia for his employer’s political foibles, to his excessive pride hidden behind impeccable manners, Stevens is a fascinating central character.

His often fractious dealings with Miss Kenton, at first a newly appointed housekeeper at Darlington who stays for nigh on a decade and clearly somehow falls for the austere Stevens, is detailed sparingly, but exactingly, and as their history is slowly revealed through reminiscence you want to reach into the book and shake Stevens by his dignified shoulders and shout, “Dude, she is totally into you, man! And you’re into her! Do something about it!”

But their romance is not the point of this book. Nor even is the social change brought about by World War II that saw the huge staff Stevens once commanded decimated, and the Hall bought by an American. Instead, it is about one man’s single-minded sense of purpose, and how it is so easy to effectively become your job if you don’t pay attention to work/life balance.

And, also, it is about a road trip, and the kindness of strangers, and the concept of “famous” butlers. And, somewhat oppressively, it is about class.

It is just excellent.

And I think I need to watch that movie again. I think I might find it a bit sexier now. 

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 300: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
GENRE: General Fiction
PUBLISHED: 1989
TIME ON THE TBR: ~15 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Borders Singapore.
KEEP: Indeed.

READING THE TBR, DAY 283: Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

At one point during the six weeks I have been very belatedly crawling my way through this book, I told my friend Lisa that it did indeed feel like punishment. I lamented the unknown sins I had committed in this life, or some other, that made me subject to such torture, and vowed to be a better person forthwith.

She sympathised with me, but also wondered why I persisted with something I was hating so much.

I wondered about that, too.

But then something happened. I started liking it. Once the actual (and brutal) crime had been committed — the part where our conflicted anti-protagonist, Raskolnikov, kills an old woman and her sister in cold blood — the punishment part, especially the self-punishment the sporadically guilt-crazed murderer inflicted upon himself, was pretty fascinating.

Sundry secondary characters, many of them mad or obsessed (or is that redundant?), kept the narrative hopping, and the fact that Raskolnikov managed to get himself a romance, and Dostoyevsky was able to make me care about it even after he had been revealed as a truly, deeply terrible person, is a thoroughly impressive literary feat.

Oh, there are way too many monologues in this book, something of a Classic Russian Literature trend, and I’ll not deny there were times when I threw it aside in frustration at the stupidity of people, but I’m glad I read this, as much for its searing examination of the human psyche — and general misogyny — as for the fact that, hey, I’ve read Crime and Punishment now!

The latter probably more than the former, admittedly.  

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 283: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
GENRE: Classic Fiction, General Fiction, Russian Fiction
PUBLISHED: 1866
TIME ON THE TBR: ~17 years.  
PURCHASED FROM: Charing Cross Road, London.
KEEP: Yes.

READING THE TBR, DAY 269: When You Are Engulfed by Flames (2008) by David Sedaris

A couple of years ago, champion raconteur David Sedaris put on an Evening with… himself at a prestige theatre in my home town. My friend Austen scored some free tickets, and knowing how bookish I am, he was kind enough to take me along.

I had read a couple of Sedaris books beforehand, but afterwards I rushed out to buy the other ones, because he was fantastic on stage, and reminded me just how much I enjoyed his slightly off-kilter observations on life, the universe and, well, himself.

This is another terrific collection of Sedaris’s thoughts, scattershot and unrelated, but impeccably told. Some of them defy belief, some you hope aren’t true — because unpleasant people abound — but all carry a grain of human truth that cannot be either denied or ignored. And they are, for the most part, funny as hell.

I could have done without the story about parasitic worms escaping from people’s legs that kicks us off, though. I will have nightmares for weeks.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 275: When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
GENRE: Humour, Memoir
PUBLISHED: 2008
TIME ON THE TBR: 2 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Readings Carlton.
KEEP: Yep.

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 244: The Alice Network (2017) by Kate Quinn

Told in alternating narratives, one during WWI and the other not long after WWII, this enthralling tale of espionage and nascent feminism made me cry and cringe, and occasionally even chuckle, as our two heroines hunt for true human evil.

Eve, in WWI, is fluent in English, French and German, and so is sent into France to try to spy out some of the Kaiser’s secrets and gets drawn into a dangerous liaison with a hateful collaborator. 

Charley, in the aftermath of WWII, is nineteen and knocked up and single, but is determined to track down her cousin, reported killed in France during the war, and who became entangled with that same collaborator — who Eve had thought long dead. 

Charley begs, then finally pays, Eve to get involved, and along with Eve’s handyman, handsome ex-convict Finn (you know what he’s there for, right?), they travel across France in search of the past — and find it, in something of an anti-climactic manner, it must be said.

Still, the horrors of war, the contributions of the Alice Network — which was a real actual thing — and the terrors of occupation are rendered in high definition in this novel, and while it is not something I ever want to read again, I am pleased to have read it, because a reminder of how lucky we are to live in peace (those of us who do) is always timely.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 244: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
GENRE: Historical Fiction
PUBLISHED: 2017
TIME ON THE TBR: ~2 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Dymocks.
KEEP: I’ll probably pass this along.

READING THE TBR, DAY 176: Normal People (2018) by Sally Rooney

I bought this one on a whim, having almost enjoyed Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with Friends. But I didn’t start on it until my friend Kaitlyn mentioned this evening that it had been assigned for her book club, and we decided to compare notes.

I came home and began on it right away, and we have now made plans to catch up as soon as possible. Because I had Thoughts. (Edit: So, it turned out, did she.)

These Thoughts were not good thoughts. I actively detest this book. It is just hideous, all about two wounded teens who end up wounding each other, and one of whom then goes on to enjoy wounding, in a hurts-so-good kind of way — except then she hates herself.

My understanding of the S&M world is limited, I have to admit, but I can’t imagine that community would be flattered by the assertion that one is led to embrace that lifestyle due solely to an abusive childhood and some crippling self-doubt.

The relationship between our two lead characters — I will not say protagonists — is toxic and disturbing, as right from the outset, as teenagers, he takes sexual advantage of her neediness and then treats her like dirt. She feels worthless anyway, and he just reinforces it, makes it worse. At University in Dublin, they reconnect, she now the popular one, he now struggling to find his place, but still, she is downtrodden, by her awful friends and him, and good gods, girl, just stop being so whiny.

Normal people they may be, in that we all have our regrets and flaws and we’ve all been terrible to others in the past and have made assumptions and have cared about being cool. But they are also people I hate.

This book is everywhere at the moment, I see people reading in cafes, on trains, in parks. Occasionally, I stop and ask: “Are you enjoying that book?”

Not a single person has yet said yes. Which gives me a renewed faith in humanity, at any rate.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 176: Normal People by Sally Rooney
GENRE: General Fiction
PUBLISHED: 2018
TIME ON THE TBR: 8 months. 
PURCHASED FROM: Dymock’s
KEEP: NO!!!

READING THE TBR, DAY 170: Year One (2017) by Nora Roberts

For anyone who may be unaware, and it seems unlikely but I suppose it’s possible, Nora Roberts is a prolific romance novelist who also writes supernatural romantic thrillers as J. D. Robb, and other things under assorted other pseudonyms. It was probably only a matter of time before she got on board the Apocalypse train, given that the genre is among the most popular of present times — I think we all just want to be assured that now matter how bad things seem, things could yet be worse. Certainly, my friend Lara, who gave me this for Christmas last year, says she hates the world a little less every time she reads a book like this.

What I didn’t expect was that “a book like this” would involve fairies.

Told through multiple perspectives, the end of the world leads to the usual rioting, rape and rationing, as well as sending good people on the run because of dark magics and a messiah. You know. The usual.

For all my extensive reading in pretty much every one of her frequent genres, I have never actually read a Nora Roberts book before this. There is no denying her talent, of course — as millions of readers, and billions of dollars, will attest — and she certainly has a way with a compelling cliffhanger. Whether I am invested enough in her vision of TEOTWAWKI to rush out and buy the sequel I am as yet unsure, but I am certainly going to start reading more of her books.

Luckily, I have collected more than a few of them over the years.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 170: Year One (Chronicles of the One #1) by Nora Roberts
GENRE: Post-Apocalypse, Paranormal Thriller
PUBLISHED: 2017
TIME ON THE TBR: 8 months. 
PURCHASED FROM: It was a gift.
KEEP: Maybe?

READING THE TBR, DAY 168: Longshot Saves the Marvel Universe (2014) by Christopher Hastings

The title of this limited run both attracted and concerned me, speaking as it does of some major fourth-wall-breaking, and that can be very hit and miss. On the one hand, there is Deadpool, King of the Fourth Wall, and on the other there is the 90s She-Hulk title, which was basically just MAD Magazine, but even more obvious and juvenile.

Happily, this wacky installment isn’t fourth wall-breaking at all, or maybe it is, but more like in Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, which not only broke the fourth wall but also examined the trope as a storytelling medium. Because Longshot — who is already a pretty confusing X-Man (but not mutant), his powers of luck causing havoc almost everywhere he goes (yes, luck is a superpower; cf. Domino in Deadpool 2) — alters reality when he… er… luckily?… gets his hand on a cosmic cube that is comic-speak for the tesseract, and suddenly there’s some kind of Q-like guy (Star Trek, not Bond) in charge of an anti-magic S.H.I.E.L.D. and Dr. Strange shows up to explain everything. 

Thanks Doctor Strange!

Of course, many other Marvel stalwarts show up too, and that is always the most fun part of an alternate universe story line. From Scarlet Witch to Hulk to Ghost Rider to Deadpool to Reed Richards and Tony Stark (who share some of the blame for the craziness herein) and many, many more besides (Blade! Spider-Man! Cap!, the cameos fly thick and fast and it is a joy. There’s also a possessed teddy bear. Of course.

Does Longshot actually save the Marvel Universe? Well, yeah, which is good, since he’s pretty much the one who endangered it in the first place. And it’s mostly a good time, though the yin/yang rhetoric is pretty pointed, and the allegory about control stamping out artistry is… not new. Still, there are worse ways to spend a half hour or so.

Much worse.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 168: Longshot Saves the Marvel Universe by Christopher Hastings, illustrated by Jacopo Camagni and Matt Milla
GENRE: Comics, Superheroes, Marvel
PUBLISHED: 2014
TIME ON THE TBR: 2 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: City Comics.
KEEP: Yes.

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.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 150: Shadow of a Dark Queen (Serpentwar Saga #1) by Raymond E. Feist
GENRE: Fantasy
PUBLISHED: 1994
TIME ON THE TBR: 15 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Op shop.
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.

SCORECARD

TBR DAY 150: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
GENRE: Classics, Russian Literature
PUBLISHED: 1869
TIME ON THE TBR: 20 years. 
PURCHASED FROM: Alice’s Bookshop.
KEEP: Yes.