Monday, December 8, 2014

Better Than Fiction

This one might be out of order, but doesn't matter much given that all my reviews are months behind anyway :) When I go to my in-laws' house, I often pick up something to read there rather than continuing with whatever I am in middle of elsewhere.  One such book was To Sir With Love.  The premise, an educated black man teaching inner-city kids, reminded me of Up a Down Staircase, of which I read a Reader's Digest condensed novel version and enjoyed, back in the day (the black teacher was the added twist as far as I could see).  Only after I started reading it did I realize that it takes place in 1950's London, quite a different scene from the American inner-city, and with different racial overtones as well.  The kids are white trash, the teacher is black upper class, an engineer from South America.  So that's the scene.

The basic story is civilized black man civilizes uncivilized white students, mostly by treating them with respect and shocking them into good behavior.  It's a nice idea, but subject to skepticism - are inner-city kids really just fine adults waiting to shine through? When I started reading, this was my immediate reaction... until I realized something important.  The book is based on a true story.  Now that is a tale worth telling.  E.R. Braithwaite really was a black engineer who took a job teaching poor white Londoners in the years following WWII, and managed to instill both intelligence and breeding (ok, in limited quantities) despite the racial prejudice standing in his way.  Once I realized that, I could enjoy the book free of the niggling "yeah, right" feeling.

And it was a good read.  I, at least, felt a constant tension that some big explosion was just around the corner, but that never happened (no complaints from me about that :)) Small crises arise, but Mr. Braithwaite ably deals with each one deftly and successfully.  And the way the students warm to him is of course quite endearing.  The writing style is spare and a little blunt at times (and of course, with a viewpoint that is occasionally a little dated), and is quite easy to read.  The characterization is excellent (don't know how much liberty was taken with reality here), with each person a mix of virtues and vices in some combination.  There's also a bit of a romance, in an open-ended but hopeful state at the end of the book (this was apparently an embroidery of the truth since E.R. Braithwaite never married).  And it was certainly fascinating to read about racism and society outside of America.

So I certainly enjoyed this book.  And it was short, too, so not too much of an investment.  Pretty light, despite some heavy-ish subject matter.  Recommended :)


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Subtleties Upon Repeat Reading

Well I've been neglecting my blog again... I think the last post I wrote, I mentioned I was on to something slightly more sophisticated than GH.. or maybe that was when I read North and South? Anyway, at some point, I decided I had had enough GH for a while and I started on Emma. I think the impetus may have come from Emma Approved, the web series modernized version of Emma (by the makers of the Lizzy Bennet Diaries, which I think might have inspired me to pick up P&P, IIRC. Parenthetically (as you can see :)), I liked Emma Approved much better than LBD).

Obviously I've read Emma before, but I don't know it nearly as well as P&P.  Almost all of my detailed memories come from the Gwyneth Paltrow movie (though of course, I've watched the Kate Beckinsdale and Romola Garai versions, not to mention Clueless - and Aisha, the Bollywood version of Clueless :)) So I did find a lot noteworthy in rereading the actual bit.  It was also interesting following along the story in two mediums simultaneously (you can see I didn't read it very fast, as the videos only came out twice a week :)) Seeing the videos, which of course only contain the familiar outline of the story, emphasized how much I love that familiar outline :) But more than that, how much richer the book is.

The story of Emma is really fantastic, right up there with Persuasion and P&P (it's the prototypical boy-next-door romance, corresponding to P&P's hate-at-first-sight). But it's a very different book than both of them.  Persuasion is of course a more serious work, written late in Austen's life.  But Emma is quite a bit less light and bright and sparking than P&P.  I know it's considered by many to be Austen's greatest  (most sophisticated?) work, and this is probably why.  There's more character development and maybe just a little bit less happily ever after.  The same wit and keen observation are of course ever present, but I think a little more biting.

I think what most struck me on this round of reading was the characterization.  I have to admit, I didn't like any of the characters as much as their movie selves (except for Mr K of course, he's da bomb :)) Emma, rather than being charmingly selfish in the beginning, is rather too self-deceitful for comfort (especially for a repeat reader, who knows just how many mistakes she's making).  As for Frank and Jane, it seems like the former has few redeeming qualities, leading one to wonder what the latter sees in him.  And all these less than perfect souls make the book... a bit uncomfortable at times, I have to admit.  I felt that discomfort in the ending as well, where, despite the happily-ever-after, Mr. Knightley's and Emma's union seemed just a little bit... I don't know, country gentleman as opposed to aristocrat (rough around the edges?).

It seems from this review that maybe I didn't enjoy the book all that much... but of course that's not true :) The romance remains utterly blissful and the writing delectable.   But I think Emma's comparative grittiness (compared to P&P that is) took me a bit by surprise.  I may have been suffering from a surfeit of Heyer aristocracy and/or excessive familiarity with the "good parts" (see previous review for more on that).  But I don't mean to distract from the perfection of the book, don't get me wrong. I loved getting to know Emma a little better and JA is, as always, the master.

Verdict: 5/5

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Maybe a Little Worn, But So, So Comfy

As I mentioned previously, most of my reading over the past few months (really going back quite a while) has been Heyer, so no real pressure to review.   I finally picked up something else so it's a good time for me to do my Heyer shorties. As always, impressions aren't fresh in my mind at this point and of course it's not my first go round for any of these.  So you'll get what you get :)

Bath Tangle - I think I liked this one a little more than usual on this reread. Why? Gosh these hard questions :) The romance was good.  I think I felt like there were more moments than I had realized at previous times.  Really too bad I can't remember more at this point :)

Regency Buck - now I have a complicated relationship with this one. It was one of my first loves, and it does feature a very dashing hero and heroine. But as a more experienced Heyer reader, its status as GH's first Regency is quite clear.  There is a lot more focus on the culture and less on the couple.  And there's a mystery element that I can take or leave.  But I realized that a while ago, so that was already factored in to my enjoyment of the book. That being the case, I wouldn't say I liked it more than usual, but you, it certainly has its moments.

Sylvester - now this one I actually have something a little interesting to say :) Possibly because I remarked upon it when I actually read the book (to Dov) so I remember it now.  I've gone back and forth with Sylvester - when I first read it, I was in ecstasies about how it featured a rich duke as the hero.  But subsequent readings left me less enthusiastic, as the heroine is rather uninspiring (not to say a little annoying at times) dab of a girl and, furthermore, we sympathize first with Sylvester so that it is difficult to see Phoebe's point of view.  I think on the reading before this, I remember thinking it was a little more romantic than I had at times given it credit for - I didn't remember the details of their time in London and how it made their romance grow more naturally.  This time though, it was the end of the book that struck me.  So many Heyers have something of a wild goose chase or complicated plot at the end that (in my opinion) distracts from the main event.  This book, too, features a wild ride through France and back to England - *but* the interaction between Phoebe and Sylvester throughout is priceless.  Far from being a distraction, I found the last part of the book elevated it to a solid, satisfying romance.  (That's not to say I wouldn't have enjoyed it as much as I enjoy any Heyer even without the ending, I'm just saying this may now be back on my favorite GH list).

Arabella - an old favorite, and still a good one.  Is somewhat open to the criticism I mentioned above about the end of the book being distracting - it's less romantic than amusing almost.  But Mr Beaumaris (GH's answer to Brummell) is, of course, perfection.  And though others have found Arabella silly and naive, I find her sweet and poised (though admittedly lapsing into idiocy at times).  I think I did find this one *a little* less romantic than I have at other times, but maybe that's because I know the romantic moments so well? They felt like they had just a tad of "do, don't say" to them.  But still, not complaining about this, it's a thorough treat.

Frederica - also one of my faves.  Again, I know the romantic moments here almost too well to thoroughly enjoy them, but they are still unquestionably satisfying.  There is rather too much about Frederica's family in this book for my taste (always has been) but it really is a great story.  Romantic and great read, as always.

Venetia - I always like this one, but I think at some point I elevated it almost above every other GH.  This would be on the virtue of there being little else in this book beyond the love story (I mean there is Venetia's family background, but that doesn't seem like an altogether separate concern) and the supreme romance - there are A LOT of good moments in this book.  On this particular read, I found myself rather more bothered by Damerel's lack of morality than previous occasions though.  Not that he's such a bad person, but the book does rather celebrate his rakishness, and I see no reason for that.  Still, still, still, it's spoiled to complain.  These books are really the best of the best :)

And one last thing I'm tacking on to the end here.  Not a Heyer, but after I went through all these old faves, I was in the mood of another - Eva Ibbotson's The Morning Gift (which I have reviewed here previously).  An incredibly well-done romance, though there's no question that stylistically it can be irritating (many find it so irritating they never get past it, I have the ability to do so :))  Certainly enjoyed it on this reread, but again, I may know the romantic moments a *little* too well to thoroughly enjoy them.  I know exactly what's coming and so maybe have difficulty appreciating their proper significance.

Am I reading these books too often? Maybe in some cases... but nah.  Not like I didn't absolutely love each and every one of them, even if I didn't get quite, quite, quite as much as on previous reads.

Verdict: 5/5

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Romance and Adventure in a Familiar Setting, If Not Quite Luxury

If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been (probably not, I have been mostly AWOL these days), mostly occupied with Heyer, which has the decided advantage that I can review all my reading at once :) And I will, hopefully sooner rather than later, but meanwhile, I do have one non-Heyer on my list.  Around January or February, we went to Saki and Danny for Shabbos and I was discussing books with Gital (who is of course, also a Heyer fan and, as such, can be trusted :)) She said she had been reading this fantasy series she was enjoying and gave me one of the books. I wasn’t expected and TON out of it b/c she didn’t give it rave reviews, but I figured it would be a solid romance.  (Name of the book is Heir to Sevenwaters by Juliet Marillier btw).

And it was that.  It was Sharon Shinn-style fantasy, mostly old-fashioned society where the romance takes a central part of the story.  This particular fantasy land was based on Celtic myth, so apparently quite close to medieval Irish society (not that I know much about it).  Being medieval (and medieval fantasy) it was more earthy than chronicles of my beloved hyper-refined Regency era, but I think that’s typical of this kind of fantasy.  I’m trying to think of other examples of it, because I feel like there are others - maybe Sherwood Smith? Court Duel is actually quite refined though… I guess maybe Outlander, though that obviously takes place in much less refined circumstances… anyway, not that important.  Point is, old-fashioned nobility, less elegant than perhaps my preference, but still framed in a society where romance means something.  Plenty of magical elements too.

Fine, so that’s the setting.  What about the plot? It was a romance.  Definitely a bit of an earthy one :) But solid, well-plotted, with some angst.  I guess the romantic plot culminated well before the actual ending, but it was far enough along that it was fine.  But, as that suggests, this book is not a solid romance, there’s plenty else going on, mostly of fantastical nature.  I found this part of the book well-crafted, with lots of loose ends that are tied up neatly, and puzzles that work out.  (I tend to like this kind of thing, I should really call it out more explicitly in reviews).  I guess the beginning was a little slow, but it always is, in comparison with the end.  And our hero and heroine really do impress with their performances, outwitting the evil king of the fairies (or whatever they call themselves :))

As I said (or maybe I didn’t say it yet), it’s been a very long time since I read this, so it’s a little hard to remember exactly how I felt about it.  I do know that I thought it was too earthy for my ideal taste, but that I got through it extremely quickly (at least for the usual pace I’m setting these days) because I found it interesting and fun.  And looking back, and I definitely am thinking I want to read the rest of the series.

Verdict: 3.75/5

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Boringly Unrealistic

Once back in Edison and in my new house (technically not back in Edison I guess since I was in Highland Park before) I resumed the book of which I had been in the middle when I took my unplanned month long stay in Teaneck - the latest 44 Scotland St.  I had picked this up from Sarah Sp. at some point, not nearly as promptly as I had the previous books (all of a piece with my library habits these days) and then never really gotten into it as there was no rush (no one on line behind me).  I finally picked it up sometime after Succos, only to be interrupted for over a month.  This is actually similar to the way I read the last book, which was interrupted by events.  And I think my reaction to the two was similar (though I didn't reread my previous review of course before writing this one :))  The story just kind of goes on, never really grabbing you and never really getting anyway.   There are some funny moments and lots of unexpected ones... but it just failed to hold my interest.  Was this due to the unscheduled hiatus? Probably partially.  But more, this is like the seventh book in the series (eighth? I don't know).  And these books are written as serialized newspaper columns.  So what can really be expected? If everything was resolved, the books would be over.  But how else to keep things interesting than rather random twists and turns? I guess the books continue to amuse, at least in places, but I think I care about the characters less and less rather than more and more... and if I don't care, why do I keep reading? (Of course I will keep reading b/c it's not exactly tedious but I'm not eagerly awaiting the next book or anything).

Verdict: 2.75/5

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Take That, Brontes

For some reason I thought I had done this review a while ago, and it's too bad I didn't because man, I had what to say on this :) Still do of course, but some of the rigor gets lost after a while, you know? Anyway, here's what I do have to say.  After all my children's ebooks,  I was ready to go on to something a little weightier - not too weighty of course.  Jane Austen was out, as I wouldn't want to sully my Austen experience with ebook reading (it's good enough for most anything else of course, don't get me wrong), but what about Jane Eyre? The Brontes certainly don't hold the same place in my heart... and their disdain of Austen hasn't endeared them to me of late either.   I've read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre (I don't think any of the other ones) - the former I really didn't enjoy, though I thought it was very well written.  The latter I liked better, and I've even read it more than once I think, though not for a while.  It's certainly closer to a popular romance (haha Charlotte Bronte, don't you love that compliment? (smirk :)), which its myriad adaptions speak to, but it doesn't have any of the light, bright, sparkly-ness I so love and those Brontes so disdain (I get some of my ideas of the Brontes' opinion of JA from Austen paraliterature, it may be a little exaggerated, but I'm pretty sure they didn't think too highly of her). ANYWAY, I've always thought Jane Eyre was a good enough book in its way, certainly worthy of being re-read.

After re-reading... well I was definitely surprised. I mean it's well-written of course, a classic, no doubt about that.  But not only does the romance fail to enchant (which I always kind of felt, it's more creepy than delightful), the characters themselves are just not likeable - just not. Even Jane!  Mr Rochester, of course, we know to be an overbearing and peremptuous character, only redeemed by his love of our heroine. But our heroine... one would have thought her goodness and quiet charm an attraction.  In my mind (and I'm sure in the minds of many others), she's close to Fanny Price, the moral loner amongst a rich and spoiled crowd.  But that's not Jane Eyre at all - yes, she's a loner among the rich and spoiled (at least for parts of the book).  But moral? Well she's not a bad person - but she's not especially generous or loving, and admits to being spiteful and ill-natured.  I guess we are supposed to see her as human, like us, and not unnaturally angelic.  And of course, unnaturally angelic holds little charm for me either. But as we know, there are other authors perfectly capable of creating flawed characters who are eminently likeable (yes, you know who I mean :)) Whereas Jane Eyre, if she is meant to be liked at all, is to be liked because of her faults and not in spite of them.   And sorry, but I don't admire spitefulness, selfishness, coldness, or even self-abnegation.

So I didn't like the main characters. The story? I guess it's romantic in it's way, but not my type - obstacles of an external nature rather than good relationship angst (for the most part, I guess there is some angst but it's mostly on Jane's side and not Mr. Rochester's, and who wants that?).  What about what the Brontes apparently pride themselves on, on creating drama that moves the human spirit? (I guess that's what they try to do, since they ridicule JA's tales of ordinary life and mundane and meaningless).   The drama sure is there, no doubt about it.  But moving? Why is it moving? We have a unfortunate man and the stupid woman who loves him for nothing I can see, they unite after events that have a touch of the supernatural to them... I guess some people find this moving, but give me ordinary people, their ordinary trials, and the ordinary endings that feel extraordinary because we care so much about them.  In short... give me Jane Austen.

The Brontes have their fans of course (those adaptions again) and maybe some literary critics find their works to be of more significance, I don't know.  My new sil Shoshana said she loved Jane Eyre for some reason, and I think Dov's grandmother loves Wuthering Heights (and doesn't adore P&P, hmmph).  But I think (of course I do :)) that Jane's fame and renown have spread far beyond the B. sisters.  Literarily of course - Pretty sure P&P tops more lists of the greatest English novel than Wuthering Heights - and popularly even more so.  The Brontes might be inclined to dismiss this latter one - who cares what the masses think? - but that the masses 200 years after the fact are still in love with Austen speaks a lot to her universal appeal and continual relevance.  So there :)

Verdict: 3.5/5 (I mean, it's still a good book and all I guess)

(this seems to have lost little of its rigor despite the time that has passed :))

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Little Gem Tucked Away In Ebook Land

The next title on the list is the only original read of my kindle fare, and, I'd say, the most interesting.  Looking at the top free books, I noticed one of the top was the title "Wired Love".  This was not a book I had ever heard of, and I assumed it wouldn't interest me, but for whatever reason (probably something I read in the reviews, but I don't remember what) I decided to give it a try. I assumed it would be a tale of love over the internet,  contemporary but by some new author giving it away for free for publicity.  It wasn't.  As was evident from the very beginning, this is a historical novel - about love over the telegraph! I think it was rediscovered as an interesting title recently, since of course, it foreshadows our current age of technological courtship, which is why I had never heard of it (excuses, excuses :)) It certainly isn't a great classic, and doesn't read by one.  But it certainly *is* right up my alley - light historical romance! (not the harlequin kind :))

I wasn't sure where the book would go, since the premise didn't seem like it would stretch to entire book.   Two telegraph operators flirt, eventually they meet... by that point, no more suspense, right? But surprisingly enough, though the book was not exactly a weighty tome, it managed to keep the story fresh and interesting all along.  The obstacles placed in the way of our heroes feel realistic enough, and their light romance is sweet and fun to follow along.  Not the deepest or most intellectual story, but undoubtedly a fun little tale.

Verdict: 4.75/5

Elementary, My Dear Readers (Yes, I know this isn't even really from the books)

It's been a while since I'm back on the train and 4G (back on the train now in fact), but (no surprise) I have emerged from the subway with the task of reviewing several more ebooks.  There were a few other choices outside of the children's classic genre - for one thing, I read all but the last collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories (the last wasn't free :)) The stories are all the same, but not the less addictive for that. I found myself "deducing" to Dov when not reading the stories :)

I remember one of the Sp's, (I think Shy.) pointing out that Sherlock's cleverness is implausible - many of his "inevitable" deductions are not inevitable at all, and he's only brilliant because he's right (in other words, his methods would not work in the real world).  This is definitely somewhat true, but who cares? 1) He's awful smart for a' that :) And who doesn't want to read about smart, successful people? 2) Even though I know the cases are just crafted by the author for a specific reveal, it's still enjoyable to see the way the ends are cleverly tied up.  I get a lot of pleasure out of well-tied up plot strings :) Even in the cases where I had a vague notion of the solution (and that was most of them, since this is not my first reading of Sherlock Holmes) I liked seeing how the details were resolved. And I'm not a critical reader, so even if the resolution wasn't perfect at times, I mostly missed those gaps.

After a while, of course, these stories are just all the same - that's expected.  But they can still be clever and amusing for all that.  Not enough to make me pay for the last set (though maybe I would have if I hadn't found other reading materials), but you know, quite enough to enthrall me while they lasted.

Verdict: 4/5

Old Favorites, New Format

So what have I been doing for the past whatever? Well living at my in-laws for one thing.  Which means 1) No access to my usual source of books these days, my own bookshelf and 2) away for Shabbos in all different places which means not much time to read.  But what I have been reading is ebooks. It started out as something to keep me occupied on the long A subway ride to the GWB bus terminal, but turned out to be entertaining enough to keep me occupied at lots of other times as well.  This time it wasn’t ebooks on my kindle (that’s packed away somewhere and in need of a charge), it was Google Play on my phone (which would seem even less appealing than the kindle but even so).  I was only interested in free books of course, and didn’t want to invest in anything too heavy… so it came down to children’s classics (and Sherlock Holmes).  About the latter, I will post separately, but here’s  rundown of some or all (if I can remember them) of these trips down memory lane.

A Little Princess - This was the first title I picked out.  I have  read this book *many* times and always enjoyed.  What’s not to enjoy about a rich and beloved little girl and her riches-to-rags-to-riches story? Everyone (except Miss Minchin of course, and who cares about her) loves Sara and even her darkest days don’t stay dark for very long.  And the book really is a fairy tale with the Indian gentleman taking secret care of his lost ward.  I don’t know if I enjoyed it more than I used to but it was definitely a fast and easy read. (And I was less annoyed than usual by little Sara’s mannerisms :))

The Wind in the Willows - I read this book once but didn’t remember it at all (and I’m not sure I followed it the first time around).  Of course I knew vaguely that there was a Toad in the story and some other animals, and something about a car, but that was it.  What I found when I read it was that there really isn’t all that much more.   I mean of course there’s  a lot more - Ratty and Badger and Mole and all their story - but as for plot, not really.  There’s no real fault in that, plenty of books get by on just telling one short story after the other, with some small plot line (like Toad’s adventures) running through.  And the animals do have nice adventures.  But I had quite a hard time with this book, because it wasn’t just meandering along - it seemed to go back and forth.  First of all, the personification of the animals was confusing, as I found it inconsistent - do the animals fight/eat each other? Are they all the same size? Are only some of them sentient? I’m not sure why this bothered me so much, as the author as the liberty to personify his animals as he feels is right, but if these questions intrude on my imagination, I just feel like it’s imperfectly done.  And then there was the inconsistency of tone, with a few chapters having almost religious solemnity, and then the wild ride of Toad’s crazy adventures.  I just didn’t know what to think.  I read the Wikipedia article and it pretty much said the same thing.  This isn’t a book known for consistency.  And I’m not quite sure what it is known for, because it just didn’t feel exceptional to me at all.

Around the World in Eighty Days - I always liked this one, I think because Phileas Fogg is just so unredoubtable (I think that’s the word).  He is indeed, but on rereading, I found this very aplomb to be somewhat out of place.  He insists that a trip round the world in 80 days is not merely a best case scenario, but eminently possible.  Though he does, in the end, succeed, in the face of many tribulations, his very narrow escapes at several points in his journey seem to indicate that no, indeed, plenty of luck is needed to make the deadline, it is by no means a foregone conclusion, even to one as fastidiously careful as PF.  So when Phileas Fogg’s infallibility fades somewhat, what’s left? It’s still a pretty good adventure :) Especially when so many of the places he visits were new to me as they were when I first read this book.  It was quite an education and an enjoyable journey, even this time around.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - I never liked this as much as the rest of the Oz books, and it is very different I think.  I haven’t read the rest so I can’t really compare, but what I can say of this one, is it’s written in that very deliberate fairy tale style.  The plot plods along, the characters state things, and it’s all just a little emotionless.  But when we’re talking about a story as iconic as this one, we bring our own emotion to the table, and this funny little fairy tale speaks to us (or me :))

Anne of Green Gables / Anne of Avonlea / etc.

Thus far I have only reread the first two of the series, and I’m not sure I will end up reviewing the rest if I go farther, so for now, let’s count this for all of them :) The Anne books were always a series I tolerated for the romance, which is of course excellent.  That’s why I’ve read Anne of the Island far more than the other ones.  The romance is of course present in the first two (I think the first even more than the second) but much more subtle/in the background of  course.  As for everything else, I always found Anne and her fancies to be annoying and the way everyone loves her to be extremely Mary-Sue-ish.  So it was much to my surprised that I found Anne Shirley when she first arrived at Green Gables, to be a delightful and sympathetic preteen.  Her high flown speeches and exaggerated emotions were quite as amusing to me as to Marilla and Matthew, and she seemed a sweet child deserving of love, much as she is to that pair.  Her various scrapes were of course a little trying but mostly less awful than I remembered.  I was, in short, pleasantly surprised, and attributed it to my being old enough to appreciate Anne for the child she was. This is probably true, Anne of Green Gables may be better read as as an adult for one to sympathize with its tone (at least in my case).  BUT I will say that as Anne aged - when she grew into a thoughtful and dreamy teenager, I felt my old skepticism return.  Teenage Anne’s quiet fantasies and deep engagement with nature and philosophy left me rather cold and I did not feel the same sense of love that her townspeople seem to feel for her.  Maybe that’s because I need to get yet more older to appreciate it :) Or maybe it’s because when she started to take herself seriously, I lost all interest.   Not that these books aren’t still very enjoyable in their romance and their light tales of PEI life (not to mention Anne’s various successes along the path of life) but I find my earlier impression to have been confirmed in the later parts of AoGG and AoA.  Oh well, can’t complain :)

Verdict: collective 4/5 can't be bothered to do each individually :)