sábado, 26 de diciembre de 2015

Paper Towns - John Green

John Green is world-level famous, and has a giant number of fans, self called nerdfighters. I had encountered JG before in gifsets and quotes and thought he wasn't my cup of tea. So I let that hype train pass. I then found him on crash course and mental floss, and thought his videos were funny and highly informative, but I still wasn't convinced to read his books. Then I also watched part of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries because how could one not watch it and realized that Hank Green was his brother. So I went to see what vlogbrothers channel was all about, because the brothers Green seemed something special. And it was awkward and funny and great. And I thought that maybe John's quirky monologues would find their way into his books, so I, being a sucker for witty banter because I grew up on Gilmore Girls, couldn't pass up the opportunity to read witty dialogues. But I still wasn't convinced enough to buy his books, since I'm a bit of a snob at heart, and my library doesn't carry JG books. So John Green and me were at an impasse until I got Paper Towns as a Christmas gift. I waited until summer because this book looked like a summer book (and because a movie was happening).

And here we are, after having run out of excuses. The first thing I have to get out of my chest, being the little snob that I am, is that John Green doesn't write high literature. His prose is not something to contemplate, breathless. But the witty banter was there, the pace was quick and I was entertained. Even more, I was rewarded for watching those vlogbrothers vids, because they are an unexpected window into John Green's creative process. I played a game of spotting the references to his research or to real events of his own life in the pages of this novel. It was cool, like being an insider, and made the world of Paper Towns a lot more encompassing and real.

The characters in this book could be any group of real life teens. some were nerds and some were popular, most had sex on their minds. All of them were awkward. They were, in spite of what may seem, believable. One of the assets of John Green is that he accurately remembers how it was being a teen.

What I wasn't expecting was the seriousness underlying the apparent banality. I was expecting a fun road trip with friends, not a study of expression and perception by others. Of depression. A deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girls, which is one of the most pervasive and hateful tropes ever written - I like this story (500 days of summer comes to mind) and like reading iterations of this story. Margo has the right to be selfish and even hateful because she is a real person. She isn't likeable, but I don't see why she should be. That's the point of the book.
Isn't it also that on some fundamental level we find it difficult to understand that other people are human beings in the same way that we are? We idealize them as gods or dismiss them as animals.
It's true that the ending was anticlimatic, but it was the perfect ending for this book. More mature than I was expecting. John Green definitely gets teens. 

Verdict, even though I guess everyone already knows how they feel about John Green: John Green seems to be polarizing, and readers expects too many different things from his books. I liked it way more than I was expecting. I will give my two cents: read his books as if they weren't written by anybody in particular.

miércoles, 23 de diciembre de 2015

The Collected Short Stories of Conrad Aiken

Disclosure: This book came free for review - thanks, Open Road Media! However, this hasn't affected my review. My opinions, as always, are only mine.

As I've repeated quite a few times already, I'm a sucker for short stories. They tempt me - they are bite-sized novels. I can't resist. Open Road Media sure knew what they were doing when they send me a collection of short stories and by an author I'd never heard about before, no less. Well, it turns out he was a great poet, novelist, literary critic, and father of two great writers (Jane and Joan Aiken).

I liked the Collected Stories, but it was as uneven as any other collection out there, specially taking into account that this collects the whole literary production of Conrad Aiken in the field of short stories, from the 1920s to the 1960s. We can see how Conrad grew and matured through his writing. And many things happened in those forty years: a world war, civil rights, women liberation, the first instances of the technological revolution that would shape our century. This is all reflected in Aiken's worldview, and it's a delight to see that world change through his work. 

However, whatever the theme or the subject is, there are two constants to his stories:

1) Great quality of prose. I mean, the man has a Pulitzer, so it's not like y'all needed me to point this out, but his writing is like poetry. It is precious in its simplicity. Honestly, it reads like a writer's writer if I ever saw one.

2) An autobiographical streak. Because, see, Conrad Aiken didn't have an easy childhood. His father killed his mother one day and then committed suicide, leaving Conrad orphaned. This, of course, marked Aiken very deeply, who proceeded to explore different kinds of mental instability in his stories.

He explores the human condition - the good and the bad. Mainly the bad. Infidelity, pettiness, betrayal. What takes to ditch social mores. What happens when one ditches them. Is a killer insane or just off the social path? How does one get off? Is it slowly or just all at once? In many cases, there is a Christian sensibility to his stories: often religion is not the answer, or at least the persons who practice this religion are flawed.

Much as I liked his social/human stories, I couldn't help enjoying his horror stories even better. Which unfortunately were few and far between. The horror of Aiken is quiet and chilling, in a way that reminds me of Poe. In fact, his most anthologized short stories belong to this genre: Mr. Arcularis and Silent Snow, Secret Snow. He actually wrote a ghost story like no other, a story that is so good that is now in my top ten best short stories ever: State of Mind. It is so subtle, well-written, bone-chilling and reflective at the same time that it is a perfect story indeed.

I have to recommend this, it was a great book. Conrad Aiken is unjustly forgotten. Let's hope this new edition will bring up a little bit of recognition to Aiken.

lunes, 21 de diciembre de 2015

Virgin River (Virgin River #1) - Robyn Carr

"Wanted: Midwife/nurse practitioner in Virgin River, population six hundred. Make a difference against the backdrop of towering California redwoods and crystal-clear rivers. Rent-free cabin included." 

When the recently widowed Melinda Monroe sees this ad she quickly decides that the remote mountain town of Virgin River might be the perfect place to escape her heartache, and to reenergize the nursing career she loves. But her high hopes are dashed within an hour of arriving: the cabin is a dump, the roads are treacherous and the local doctor wants nothing to do with her. Realizing she's made a huge mistake, Mel decides to leave town the following morning. But a tiny baby, abandoned on a front porch, changes her plans...and a former marine cements them into place.

This has been my first full romance novel ever. I promise to resist every lame virgin pun. Can we have a look to my GR updates?

I was excited to be reading this! So many opinions.

I liked it. I know I sound surprised, and I shouldn't, because it so judgemental to think badly of romance novels without ever having read one. Hi, I'm Masanobu, a former book snob on the way to recovery. I asked for help, and happily Maria Helena pointed me to Robyn Carr and her Virgin River series, and here I am.

I don't know whether I would have been drawn to the story on my own. It's true that I love medical shenanigans and stories set in small towns, but I'm not big on babies (I do like puppies and ice cream, for the record). And they are a big part of the plot. It's right there in the back of the book. But I gave it a try and, while Virgin River is not devoid of problems, I enjoyed reading it. 

The story is very much a slice of life - it's very quiet. What moves the plot forward is the emotional journey of Melinda, who is trying to get over the death of her husband to be able to function in society again. With time, she forms a friendship with Jack, an ex-marine living in Virgin River, and they both develop feelings for each other. Mel harbors contradicting emotions of love for Jack and betrayal to her dead husband, which were very well portrayed, with much sensitivity. It was easy to feel empathy for her. The initial sexual tension and sex scenes were tastefully written - delicate, but powerful. They made you feel the love between both characters. 

The pace became a little uneven after Jack and Mel get together, though, and I lost a bit of interest on the story. Too much shirt yanking, too few meaningful interactions for my taste. I had my heart set on the wedding and birth, and on the resolution of some of the secondary characters' storylines, so coming to the end without my resolution made me a bit cranky. I guess it's because Virgin River is the first novel of a long saga, but it feels like a cheap trick to make me want to read more. I would have read the subsequent novels anyway - I want to know more about Doc, Liz and Ricky, Connie, Preacher and the couples in Grace Valley. The characters have grown on me. After a few  days, I find myself wondering how they all are doing. I didn't expect to get attached to these people so easily.

What I couldn't wrap my head around was Melinda's recklessness regardind unprotected sex. She is a midwife and an expert on women's health. Even if she thought she was infertile, she should have thought about STDs. That rattled me, and I knew that Mel would get pregnant. As I said, I'm not crazy about babies, so it was hard to identify with her yearning. But that I can get behind. My problem with this storyline is that it is a bit lazy. Pregnancy and overcoming infertility to signify emotional healing and/or growth is so old it's one of Propp's fairy tales functions. It's symbolic, yes, a new life substitutes the life lost, bonds characters and reminds them of their mortality and will to make the most of life. But I wish Mel could have healed before getting pregnant. On the other hand, babies are such a big part of who Mel is that this pregnancy definitely makes sense. By what I've gathered about romance, it seems to rely a lot on conventions. Quite like folk tales, everything is a bit mythic. Am I probably overthinking this? Yes, I am. I'm conflicted, what can you do.

I just have one question for all you who have read Robyn Carr: are there really towns in the US like this one? It felt so quintessentially American that it rang a bit false - shooting bears in the wild, Hummers, rifles, fishing. It amused me, but I couldn't fully get in the setting because of this. I was expecting something similar to Gilmore Girls' Stars Hollow, and I almost got Little House on the Prairie!

Any recs for a romance newbie?

domingo, 20 de diciembre de 2015

Regarding blogging

This blog has been dead for quite a while. 

I told myself it was because I have been travelling quite a lot for grad school. And because I had a load of work and a load of coursework. 

All of that is true, but I just have prioritized other things before the blog. I've been running my tumblr (almost) smoothly. I haven't stopped reading. I've been watching TV shows. I've playing board games and videogames. I've been baking, which I love and hadn't done for quite a while. While I don't enjoy luxurious chunks of spare time, it seems that I'm willing to make time for other things I enjoy.

So I've decided to face the real cause behind my blogging hiatus: I don't enjoy this format. I dread reviews. Most books don't elicit in me that desire to write a long, thoughtful review about them. And let's be real, comments aren't flowing. My main impulse behind blogging was finding a community to talk about books, but I found it better on booklr. I can't seem to find a blogging community where I can fully fit. And I've realized it might be because I'm not blogging as I'd like - I was just following what other bloggers do. That has turned blogging into a chore, not something I enjoy.

I was going to make the usual end-of-year recap about the blog and some New Year's resolutions about how I want to change the content and make my blog truly mine. But screw that - New Year's way too far away.

I'm starting right now. I'm back to blogging!

(I will post past due reviews because I feel like owe these books a fair review, but when I get up to date with those, I will do as I please - mainly, I'll only write extensively about books that warrant it, and write mini-reviews for the rest on a regular basis)

domingo, 15 de noviembre de 2015

Currently | Reunited with my books

shamelessly stole got this idea from Kim, who blogs at Sophisticated Dorkiness. She reviews the most amazing books, so go read her blog!

Burgos Public Library
I quite like the contrast between the new library and the old church

I've come back home after over a month and a half of living out of a tiny suitcase. October has been a great month for my PhD, but not so good for anything else. I haven't finished a single book in October! I couldn't participate in Dewey's Readathon, nor in Halloween events or the RIP challenge. I also blew Aarti's Diversiverse. I'm so happy to be home again! I have a backlog of books to read and reviews to write: All the Pretty Books is alive once more.

Time: 12:20

Place: Couch at home

Eating & Drinking: Greek yoghurt and panettone.

Reading: Yesterday I finished The Secret History, which left me quite in awe. I also finished Marvel Knights, which is the most awful Marvel comic I've read to date. Next up is The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I loved the movie, so I expect to enjoy the book. And after that I have several books I'm looking forward to, like Fire Study, Chew: Bad Apples, or The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Playing: I am almost finished with the point-and-click adventure The Curse of Monkey Island. It's great fun, but I preferred the previous two. The story was better, and the puzzles were both harder to solve and more logical.

Watching: Castle. 8th season. I know it's just a procedural, but I enjoy it greatly because the literary references (of which there are few and far between lately) and because of the casting. They are good actors with great chemistry. The new season has started strongly, but I'm not convinced about the evolution of the characters, especially Kate. 

Hating: Deep cleaning and organizing. The apartment is kind of a mess. My suitcases lie half-unpacked, the laundry basket is scary and there's dust in every nook and cranny.

domingo, 13 de septiembre de 2015

Currently | Getting into the fall spirit

shamelessly stole got this idea from Kim, who blogs at Sophisticated Dorkiness. She reviews the most amazing books, so go read her blog!

The weather is chilling - mornings are particularly crisp. Leaves are turning to brown. Things at work are slowly going back to normal. Everyone is back from their summer holidays, but the stress levels are low for the time being. I have a couple of big business trips in the near future, though, so I'm having the laziest weekend I can because it's probably one of the last ones I get to spend at home until end of October / November. My SO is out of town, so I've been lounging and reading on the couch most of the time and it's been great.

miércoles, 9 de septiembre de 2015

Bailén - Benito Pérez Galdós

Here I am once again, blogging about my reading project: going through the 46 National Episodes written by Benito Pérez Galdós, which are an account of 19th-century Spanish history. In spite of their relevance in Spanish Literature and how riveting and well-written they are, they haven't been translated into English.

In Bailén, Gabriel de Araceli is miraculously recovering from the grave wounds received by the firing squad during the aftermath of the Dos de Mayo Uprising. Taken for dead, he has been parted from his dear Inés, who has flown to Andalusia and joined a convent. Gabriel, penniless and desperate, joins the insurgent Spanish Army of Andalusia led by Generals Francisco Castaños and Theodor von Reding. Once more, he finds himself part of a historic occasion: the first defeat of the Napoleonic Army in the Battle of Bailén.

I'm going to keep this review very short, because I don't have many things to say about this. It was a bit of a letdown. It is well written and fast paced, and ends up in a cliffhanger that had me wishing I had the next book near to start reading it immediately. But (you know a but was coming) it was a bit flat.

Inés has been legitimized by her family, and her new social status forces her to marry someone from a noble house. As a result, Gabriel is no longer a proper suitor. This is the main crux of the story, and it makes for a quick read, but not a very interesting one. Gabriel has taken to heart his role as a white knight and is determined to become worthy of Inés. Unfortunately, Inés has been definitely relegated to object, so we don't get a glimpse of what she thinks of her newfound family or how she feels about the turmoil that her personal life has become. I do feel sorry for them, but I wish the characters were more real (and thus more easy to feel attached to them) since the story relies fully on them.

At the same time, they are merely an excuse to show historical events. In the previous three books, Galdós shines at describing this. He shows why they happened and the consequences they had. He didn't shy away from showing the horrors of war. Yet in Bailén he faced a conundrum: he must show a battle in good light. Why was this independence from France better? Spaniards are portrayed as brutish and uneducated, but noble and with good heart. He has been showing why French enlightment would be good for Spain, but here shows that Frenchmen are also savages. So the violent Spanish insurgence is worthy of appraisal. As a result, the Battle of Bailén is just described, but not reflected upon. The images are as vivid as always, and I would swap any history textbooks for these novels, but the pithy thoughts from other novels are absent in this one. And so it fells flat.

lunes, 7 de septiembre de 2015

RIP X | Movie: The Day of the Beast (1995)

Genre: Black comedy & Horror
Release date: 1995
Running time: 103 minutes
Country: Spain

A Basque priest (Álex Angulo) finds by means of a cabalistic study of the Bible that the Antichrist is going to be born on Christmas Day in Madrid. Assisted by a death metal salesman from Carabanchel (Santiago Segura) and the host of a TV show on the occult (Armando de Razza), he will try to summon the Devil to find and kill the baby.

The Day of the Beast is a cult classic in Spain, and it was the film that launched the career of Álex de la Iglesia, a director who has been likened to Guillermo del Toro. Both directors specialize in dark movies with humorous undercurrents where the supernatural and the mundane mix seamlessly.

I was very eager to watch this film because of its premise and its acclaim. In theory, it had every element to appeal to me, but it left me a bit cold. The story is clunkily told and the pace doesn't always suit the general storyline. Considering this was only the second film Álex de la Iglesia directed, those flaws can be forgiven. There was also too much absurd gore and kitsch for my taste, though I realize that it was the intended aesthetics, but I would have liked it better if it didn't resemble a B movie so much. I'm not such a fan of B movies, after all. 

My favorite aspect is the confusing ending, which makes you go back and realize that maybe the priest isn't such a reliable character after all. I don't want to give away too much, but the ends makes you question whether there were any paranormal shenanigans at all. The real horror has a very different source, and it ends up working better as a scathing social critique of Madrid in the 90s.

Verdict: entertaining, but I was expecting something different.

I am participating in R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril X, and this counts for Peril on the Screen, as it is both horror and supernatural.

domingo, 6 de septiembre de 2015

Currently | Enjoying the Late Summer

shamelessly stole got this idea from Kim, who blogs at Sophisticated Dorkiness. She reviews the most amazing books, so go read her blog!

New bookstore in town · A game of Sherlock: Consulting Detective
September Book Photo Challenge · Hydrangea with bumblebee

It seems I'm getting over my stomach bug, whatever it was. Yay! I'm easing into routine - went back to work, started baking again and having more quiet evenings. I know this year I'm going to have to travel a lot, and I want to enjoy the time I have at home.

martes, 1 de septiembre de 2015

August in Review

August has passed in a blink, and it has been such a pleasant month. I've been to Madeira - it was truly gorgeous!

What did I read?
I started really reading again last month, and I'm still running with momentum. I'm so happy I can read again! Here's what I read this month:

Chew: Taster's Choice · Bailén · Daredevil: Guardian Devil · The Lightning Thief
Not pictured: O Último Cais · Chew: International Flavor
Lots of comics, and the three of them have been so great! I devoured (he) the two first volumes of Chew, which is crazy good. And for the fans of Kevin Smith (or Daredevil): you can't miss The Guardian Devil. It is a fantastic introduction to Daredevil which examines his troubled history with women and it's very honest and raw about it. It was a relief.

I also read my first Percy Jackson book! It was a very entertaining read, though I recognize it's written for a younger public.

But not everything was good reading-wise. Or, it was, I don't know. I finally got the courage to DNF The Innocents Abroad, which was boring me to tears. It took me half the book to do so, and it's not a slim book.

On the blog...

Goals for September
I did quite well regarding my August goals: I read O Último Cais, set in Madeira, am 75% into The Collected Stories of Conrad Aiken, and have started The Secret History. Unfortunately, I got a serious stomach bug midway through August and resorted to reading comfort books. I didn't feel like making an effort with The Secret History, and I'm not proud (sorry Fariba!). While I'm still suffering that persistent stomach bug, I hope to finish reading it this month. So goals:
  1. Finish The Secret History and The Collected Stories of Conrad Aiken.
  2. Read something for RIP X. Suggestions?
  3. Read something #Diversiverse. Once again, suggestions?


lunes, 31 de agosto de 2015

What I learned on vacation

I am back! I don't want to boast about my vacation too much (isn't that insufferable?), but I wanted to have a quick recap of what I did. As it isn't book-related, I'm going to keep this short, I promise. Did you know that traveling is my other big passion in life? Books and travels is where all of my money goes.

View from the hike trail in Ponta de São Lourenço
My SO and I went to Madeira for ten days. It's a quiet island, but a bit too touristy during the summer. The city was crowded. Fortunately, nature is just around the corner (even literally sometimes). It's beautiful. And the food was delicious. Portuguese cuisine is one of my favorites - the meals are wholesome and satisfying. It's like comfort food with even better taste.

So what did I learn on vacation?

1. Airports stress me way too much. My solution? Why, reading, of course. Fortunately I brought the perfect book to introduce me to Madeira - O Último Cais, by local author Helena Marques. 

2. Renting a car is less difficult than I thought. Driving said rented car comes more naturally than I thought.

3. Scuba diving is magical. I had a living seahorse in my palms! This is something I want to repeat, and maybe at some point get my diver's license. If I can control my anxiety. Breathing underwater freaks me out.

4. Whales are very interesting creatures. Did you know part of Moby Dick was filmed in Madeira? I'm starting to not dread the book so much.

5. I could live on fish and fruit. Such a variety of fish, and so tasty. And the espetadas were awesome, too. Bolos do caco and bolos de mel were the cherry on top. I find myself randomly craving bolo do caco - I will have to learn how to bake it. I've also discovered I don't dislike cauliflower if it's cooked the right way! Portuguese cooks are magicians.

A levada in Madeira

6. My frail, untrained body is capable of way more than I thought. The diving equipment weighed about 40% of my body mass and I was able to haul it from the cabin to sea all by myself. It was around 20 meters max, and all the while I was thinking my back would break, but it turns out it didn't! I was sore the next day, but very proud too.

7. I was also able to walk for miles. The island is very steep and has lots of beautiful walking paths and hiking trails through it that run parallel to artificial water canals, so we really did a lot of walking. I got quite strong legs after the ten days!

domingo, 9 de agosto de 2015

Currently | Feeling the Holiday Rush

shamelessly stole got this idea from Kim, who blogs at Sophisticated Dorkiness. She reviews the most amazing books, so go read her blog!

This is going to be the quickest update I've ever written. My holidays started this Saturday (yay!) and I'm going on vacation in a few hours. I don't think I'll be around for a week or so, so sorry if I don't answer back! I will catch up after I return.

Time: 00:22

Place: Laying on my couch

Eating & Drinking: Nothing yet, but we're about to have burritos for a very, very late dinner.

Reading: I've been trying to clean my slate of currently reading books. Two weeks ago I was reading 9 books. Crazy! This week I finished The Lightning Thief and Bailén, and DNF'd The Innocents Abroad because I was halfway through and it felt like a tedious chore. I zoned out every time I tried to listen to it. I'm still working on Conrad Aiken's Complete Short Stories, and loving them so far, but I'll be reading something more lightweight on the plane.

WatchingVeronica Mars and Breaking Bad.

Listening: My summer holiday playlist.

Promoting: Luna's Paper Towns giveaway. Run, because it ends today!

jueves, 6 de agosto de 2015

Magic Study (Study #2) - Maria V. Snyder

With her greatest enemy dead, and on her way to be reunited with the family she'd been stolen from long ago, Yelena should be pleased. While she is eager to start her magic training, her days as a poison taster have changed her in many ways, and it appears that even her own brother would want to see her dead. But she can't go back to Ixia, where a death sentence awaits her.

I loved Poison Study quite a lot, definitely more than I expected. It was entertaining, complex, diverse, political, romantic. It was everything a good book should be. Of course, I had high expectations for Magic Study. I was really interested in learning about Sitia: Sitian government, as opposed to Ixian military dictatorship, magic, clans, the Zaltanas. Unfortunately, I still want to learn about all of this, even after reading a whole novel with a plot that hinged on the differences between Sitia and Ixia. As you can guess, Magic Study didn't deliver.

The world building, which was so luscious in the first novel, is here a mere afterthought, just a background for Yelena's adventures. This was a huge letdown, but I could have overlooked this if Snyder had devised a complex and satisfying plot, which she didn't. What's driving me mad is that she had every element to make it work, but ended up discarding a very interesting political intrigue and an elaborate magic system in favor of simplistic episodes that went for a cheap thrill. It worked at the pace level, but I felt I had consumed empty reading calories. 

While oddly entertaining, everything boiled down to Yelena being reckless, then kidnapped, then turning down help to try to understand her abilities better. And it seems like Yelena can do pretty much everything. There are limits to her abilities, but there is always a workaround to what she can't do. I'm sad to say she is becoming a Mary Sue. The story felt repetitive and trite, and the insterspersed flashbacks from Poison Study broke the narrative pace. We know this is book number 2. Trust your readers and don't spell everything out for them.

Also, where is Snyder's ability to make me care about secondary characters? Dax, Kiki and Moon Man are nice, and Cahill Ixia could be interesting, but you couldn't tell one from the other if you had to rely on their voices. This is surprising, considering the extremely well-written characters from Poison Study. I miss Ari and Janco. Even Valek, who appears in Magic Study, is just a sad shadow of the Valek we met in the first Study novel.

I really hope this is Sequel Syndrome, but I fear the series is veering into FWP (fluff without plot) territory. Nevertheless I enjoyed it, maybe more than it can be gleaned from this review. It was a letdown compared to Poison Study, but it still was a good book. I will be reading Fire Study - I just don't need to read it with the same urgency I felt before Magic Study.

martes, 4 de agosto de 2015

Top Ten Tuesdays: Fairytale Retellings

I haven't participated in The Broke and The Bookish TTT for a while, but I couldn't let this topic pass by. Fairytale, folktale and myth retellings is my favorite fantasy subgenre ever. I AM SO EXCITED. It took me ages to whittle this list to a decent number. It was so hard. There are so many good retellings!

In an effort to limit myself to the actual topic at hand, I decided not to include retellings of "modern" stories, like the wonderful Alice in Wonderland retelling, Splintered by A.G. Howard. I also didn't include retellings for European folktales, like Frances Hardinge's Cuckoo Song, or Sylvia Townsend Warner's Kingdoms of Elfin. As I still had quite a big list, I decided to use this TTT to highlight less well-known books, and didn't include popular books like Marissa Meyer's Cinder or Joan D. Vinge's Snow Queen.

So, without further ado, here goes my list of Top Ten Fairytale Retellings!

lunes, 3 de agosto de 2015

Too Much Happiness - Alice Munro

Judging by Too Much Happiness, Alice Munro is indeed a master of the short story craft. In this collection, there are nine shorter short stories and a longer one, almost a novella. Astoundingly, I feel as if I had read ten novels. She has an uncanny ability to plunge the reader into the world of her stories with a swift turn of phrase by which landscapes and lives and years are condensed in one sentence. To illustrate what I mean by this, see the start of Some Women:
I am amazed sometimes to think how old I am. I can remember when the streets of the town I lived in were sprinkled with water to lay the dust in summer, and when girls wore waist cinches and crinolines that could stand up by themselves, and where there was nothing much to be done about things like polio and leukemia.
In a couple of sentences, Munro paints a clear image of the setting. And then she masterfully ends the story with this flawless sentence:
I grew up, and old. 
Apparently simple, yet I had never read something so beautifully crafted. And her prose is as deceiving as her subject matter. She writes mainly about women in a closed environment. At first sight, the stories seem domestic, provincial. She has been dismissed for being a women's writer, and for being a regionalist. But, actually, that makes no sense. Her women, who seem variations of the same woman at different times, with different ages and placed in different circumstances, are essential. She might use a smaller scope than most, but she achieves universality even with more ease. These stories are packed with hard truths and feeling, and they require some time to settle and unlock their whole meaning. They are stories full of tragedy, and vitality. Some also have humor. Some have fairy-tale magic in them. 

Above all, they are stories to reread and ponder.

domingo, 2 de agosto de 2015

July in Review: A collection of links

July has been a good month. I've recovered my will to blog, read, and go out. As of right now, I'm also baking again!

summer sunsets in the mountains

What did I read?
Back in March I lost track of number of pages I had been reading, and I also kind of gave up on my reading challenges. I don't know whether I want to go back, honestly. I don't want to stifle my renewed reading mojo. But I can still show you what I read this month:

Virgin River · Magic Study
It might not seem too much, but I'm proud because both are romance novels, which mean I'm fighting against my snobbery, and because I'm reading again with regularity. That alone means the world to me.

On the blog...
I reviewed quite a number of books. I'm catching up with past books because this blog was started with the objective of keeping a book journal of sorts, and I didn't want to forget about my reads. Sorry for the review spam :/


jueves, 30 de julio de 2015

The Map of Chaos (Victorian Trilogy #3) - Félix J. Palma

Summary (from Simon & Schuster):

When the person he loves most dies in tragic circumstances, the mysterious protagonist of The Map of Chaos does all he can to speak to her one last time and confess the secret he didn’t dare tell her while she was alive. A session with the most renowned medium of all time seems to offer the only solution, but the experience unleashes terrible forces that bring the world to the brink of disaster. Salvation can only be found in The Map of Chaos, an obscure book that he is desperate to find. In his search, he is given invaluable help by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Lewis Carroll, and of course by H.G. Wells, whose Invisible Man seems to have escaped from the pages of his famous novel to sow terror among mankind. They alone can discover the means to save the world and to find the path that will reunite the lovers separated by death.

The Map of Chaos is the third and last book of Félix J. Palma's Victorian trilogy. I also reviewed the first and the second novels. TL;DR: I loved them, and you will love them too if you love Victoriana genre fiction.

I am so sad to have finished reading this. The Victorian trilogy is one of the best things to have happened to Spanish fantasy in ages. It has relaunched the speculative fiction scene, especially the Spanish steampunk community, whose members have welcomed Palma among them. In fact, the prologue was a 'wink-wink-nudge-nudge' kind of situation referencing many steampunk tropes and it was a lot of fun.

I am happy to say that the end of the trilogy lived up to my expectations, although I have some minor quibbles with it. One of the best assets of the Victorian trilogy is Palma's flowery prose. It can be a dealbreaker for some readers, who can't stand the meandering about, but it is germane to what Palma is doing, which is writing an homage to early genre novels, thus making use of their style. Sadly, The Map of Chaos falls a little bit short on this front. 

On the other hand, characterization was extremely good this time around, even better than in the previous books. Palma's characters are redeemed by love, and writing about love is one of the stronger suits of this writer. It is easy to step into the character's shoes and feel what they feel, no matter how much you hated them when you were experiencing the story from the point of view of the other characters. I have already said this, and will repeat it: I am sad to leave these characters for good. I have grown very attached to them. Oh well, I can always reread this trilogy.

I am going to delve into spoiler territory, because I want to discuss this at length. I really don't want to say goodbye to these characters! Read on at your own risk.

martes, 28 de julio de 2015

The Dinner - Herman Koch

The Dinner was a summer hit book last year. Or was it the year before? I'm never really good at keeping track of bestsellers and if I end up reading the book, it's usually when the hype has died down. I don't do this on purpose - I'm such a slow reader that I've got several years worth of good reads to catch up on.

What I'm trying to say is this: this review is most completely unnecessary, because everyone has already heard of this book. But if it went under your radar and you like to read twisted novels about the banality of evil, read this. I think this novel is better appreciated if you go blindly into it, so I tried not to read much about it before I finished it. I recommend you do the same, so stop here if you haven't read this, because there will be spoilers. Fast review: I really really liked it.

jueves, 23 de julio de 2015

Poison Study (Study #1) - Maria V. Snyder

About to be executed for murdering a man, Yelena is offered the choice to live by becoming the poison taster for the Commander of Ixia. In a land where no extenuating circumstances could change her fate, this is her only opportunity to avoid being hanged. Unfortunately, Valek, the spy master, would never allow a convict to be truly free, so she is poisoned as a security measure. As long as she works as the poison taster, she will receive her daily dose of antidote. If she tries to escape, she will die a long and painful death in just two days.

If you are looking for a riveting high fantasy with innovative world-building, endearing and diverse characters, with a side of romance, this is the novel you are looking for.

I am going to be veering into spoiler territory here, since I wanted to discuss this at length. Read at your own risk.

The premise of the book obviously hinted at a fast-paced novel, and I was expecting brainless summer reading. Which it is, in a way, but there's much more to it than I was expecting.

lunes, 20 de julio de 2015

Romeo and Juliet - William Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet is one of those works of literature which needs no introduction. Everything that can be said about this play have been said already, oodles of words have been poured in essays, thesis, papers, critics, and reviews. But my favorite analysis of all has to be that of John Green:

Part Two is here.

I am always intimidated to speak my mind about uber-classics like this one. Not because I fear to blabber like an idiot (which is something I definitely do), but because it feels redundant and unnecessary. So I'm going to keep this realy short.

I had read this before in high school, and remembered this play as Very Serious Literature. Slightly boring, slightly tragic. But I really wanted to kick Romeo and make Juliet come to her senses. How come she came involved with such a dumbass? Of course, I read this translated to Spanish. In this reread, I have used a bilingual edition. One of those nifty books with the text in original English and translation side by side, with notes and a critical essay. And it has made all the difference. It turns out that Shakespeare is really funny! And his commentary is not full of judgement - Romeo and Juliet does not condemn the lovers, as I had been made to believe in high school. The text is full of sexual innuendo and jokes of not-really-respectable nature. He was able to elicit laughter and sadness in the same sentence.

I am a converse, and really looking forward to reading more Shakespearean literature! What are your favorite Shakespeare plays?

jueves, 16 de julio de 2015

Kraken - China Miéville

Deep in the research wing of the Natural History Museum is a prize specimen, something that comes along much less often than once in a lifetime: a perfect, and perfectly preserved, giant squid. But what does it mean when the creature suddenly and impossibly disappears?
For curator Billy Harrow it's the start of a headlong pitch into a London of warring cults, surreal magic, apostates and assassins. It might just be that the creature he's been preserving is more than a biological rarity: there are those who are sure it's a god. A god that someone is hoping will end the world.

Kraken is my first China Miéville. I feel the need to say this upfront because I've since heard that this novel is his worst, but as my first time encountering his new weird fantasy, it still blew my mind.

The story starts as a police procedural, anchored in reality, although the objective of the heist is not quite common: a giant squid, an Architeuthis. Up until this point, the story was riveting. I wasn't entirely sure if there was going to be magic in my urban fantasy, or it would be populated by non-humans, or what, but I really wanted to know who stole a kraken and why. Then the first hints of magic (or knacking, as Miéville calls it), witches, and gods appeared.

Miéville is an incredibly gifted writer. He is way above my reading level - he is definitely more learned than I am, so I was constantly looking up words and facts, and racking my head to understand witty word puns. This quickly became my favorite aspect of the book: the witticism. On top of being an outstanding writer, he's got a PhD on international relations and is an active socialist. This decidedly shows in his book, but I like my fantasy with a side of politics and philosophy. He is also really imaginative, so the magic system was innovative. Origami magic? A group of prophets who literally read the entrails of the city? A Union of Magicked Assistants who goes on strike organized by the spirit of an old Egyptian shabti? Who thinks of that?

At the same time, this intellectuality is the downfall of the story. Kraken is bursting with ideas and half-plots that end up going nowhere. If this novel was twice as long, it would still need more pages to develop every idea that gets mentioned. The lack of space entails a lack of emotional investment in the characters. You root for the characters because you are supposed to, but you never really have an opportunity to care for them. The death of one character is briefly dwelt upon, both by the characters themselves and by the author. And it should have had more of an impact. The story never really grabs you and make you read uncontrollably. In short, Kraken lacks soul.

I am looking forward to reading the rest of Miéville production because it's true that his worst (if this truly is his worst) is still better than the best of many. So what's your favorite Miéville?

lunes, 13 de julio de 2015

Daddy-Long-Legs - Jean Webster

Jerusha Abbott was brought up at the John Grier Home, an old-fashioned orphanage. One day, after the asylum's trustees have made their monthly visit, Jerusha is informed by the asylum's dour matron that one of the trustees has offered to pay her way through college. He has spoken to her former teachers and thinks she has potential to become an excellent writer. He will pay her tuition and also give her a generous monthly allowance. Jerusha must write him a monthly letter, because he believes that letter-writing is important to the development of a writer. However, she will never know his identity; she must address the letters to Mr. John Smith, and he will never reply.

I picked Daddy-Long-Legs on a whim just before Dewey's 24-hour Readathon when I realized I had no audiobooks ready. It is short, a little over 4 hours, so I figured I could even finish it during the Readathon. It didn't happen, since Kraken took most of my time. But I found it was perfect audiobook material for those long hours processing samples alone. Ah, grad school!

Fun fact: I had actually seen the anime My Daddy Long Legs before knowing it was based on a book (yes, I live under a rock when it comes to children classics), but thankfully I couldn't remember much about it when I started reading this. Yay for faulty memory!

Be warned: this will contain spoilers.

Epistolary novels can be hit or miss, and this was definitely a big hit. Daddy-Long-Legs is a proto-YA novel in the vein of my favorite children classics: The Little Princess, The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables... I have a soft spot for stubborn, imaginative, bookish and outspoken young ladies. It helps that I feel a tad identified. Daddy-Long-Legs is a bit more mature than any of those classics, and Jerusha has self-awareness, which is sorely lacking in many of these classic heroines. The result is an endearing and humorous voice that easily carries the reader through four-years worth of letters without answers.

The vignettes that compose Jerusha's life denote an open-mindedness and independence that I didn't expect in a female character from a novel written in 1912. It was really welcome. Jerusha writes about how her classes are going, which books she is reading, the friends she is making and how she is keeping her secret origin from them. She is always funny, and always touching. And for these vignettes alone Daddy-Long-Legs would be worth it, but the 

added mystery of who the anonymous benefactor might be really ties everything together.

During her first year in college, Jerusha meets Jervie Pendleton, the uncle of one her friends, and 14 years her older. A friendship quickly develops between them, a friendship that slowly culminates in love by her graduation. I soon saw that Jervie would turn out to be Daddy-Long-Legs himself, so by modern standards I should find this romance problematic. Yet I find it endearing, and could even argue that it was subtly feminist. Jerusha not always does as her benefactor says. She insists on finding a way to support herself and pay back the money, so she starts tutoring other girls instead of going to Europe on holidays. She works hard to gain her independence, and it pays off. 

By the end of her college education, Jerusha and Daddy-Long-Legs are on more equal terms than when he met her at the orphanage. However, she is still indebted with him, both pecuniarily and morally, which results in the rejection of her suitor out of a sense of duty to her Dear Daddy, unaware that both are the same person. She feels a marriage should be based on complete honesty between partners, which she can't do at that moment. On top of that, she thinks she should use her college education to develop her career instead of becoming simply the wife of someone she isn't one hundred percent sure would support her dedicating herself to writing. Both motives imply very modern views of marriage. 

On the other hand, I understand that it wasn't Jervie's intention to fall in love with Jerusha, and when he did, he wanted her to love him because of who he was, not because he was her benefactor and she felt like she owed him. It is a very complex situation, since the power imbalance between the two is quite apparent. The great thing about this romance is that Jervie is aware of the power he holds over Jerusha and decides not to use it. He respects and fosters her freedom. When he finally revealed himself as Daddy-Long-Legs, they had known each other for a few years and had developed a relationship outside of their roles as benefactor and orphan. But the revelation was necessary so that both could come clean to their marriage, as equals.

Reader, I loved this. I will get my hands on the sequel soon, I hope.

What are your favorite classics with young ladies as main characters? And more importantly, what are your favorite romances? I'm still trying to find my foot on the genre!

jueves, 9 de julio de 2015

The House of Impossible Loves - Cristina López Barrios

The House of Impossible Loves follows the Laguna family through four generations. The women of this family are cursed with tragic love affairs that end up in the birth of another girl, so the curse perpetuates itself. Will any of them be capable of breaking it? 

I like magical realism, and this novel is full of it. But it is a very particular brand of magical realism: it has a very Castillian taste about it. Cristina López Barrios has an excellent prose, albeit too florid at times, and it is one of the highlights of the novel. All of the Laguna women and even one of the men (Santiago) have a knack for cuisine and gardening, so the text is infused with beautiful metaphors from nature and baking, and hard, gutty ones from hunting and preparing the animals to be eaten. The prose evokes smells, flavors and textures with ease. It is at times too raw, and at times fleeting and a bit repetitive, but it has potential to really shine as the author matures.

The story itself is very physical, even primeval. From the heartbreak suffered by Clara Laguna, the first Laguna woman we meet, every one of them focuses on their lust and gluttony - it's a common thread through the novel. Clara gives in to lust for revenge, Manuela thinks this licentiousness is the cause of their curse, so she represses her instincts. But The House of Impossible Loves doesn't condemn women for being human, and Manuela's strategy doesn't pay off. It is a good commentary on the nature of superstitions and the role of women throughout Spanish recent history. Blamed for their sins and termed witches, but once born in disgrace they would not be able to change their fate.

I was really invested in the story, which was definitely haunting, but unequal. It wasn't my favorite read of the year, but I'm willing to read more by this author.

Have you read any good magical realism lately?

lunes, 6 de julio de 2015

Minireviews #2: The comics edition

Are you ready for a second batch of mini-reviews? Because I am!


Book 1: Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel

Meet Alison's father, a historic preservation expert and obsessive restorer of the family's Victorian home, a third-generation funeral home director, a high-school English teacher, an icily distant parent, and a closeted homosexual who, as it turns out, is involved with his male students and the family babysitter.

The art in this graphic memoir is truly beautiful: line drawings in muted monochrome. And it goes hand in hand with the delicacy with which it treats the subject at hand, feminism, gender and identity. Alison Bechdel doesn't have all the answers, and she was trying to make sense of her own life through fiction. I do this, but as a reader. However, her questions are important, for which this memoir is now lauded as a classic, as it shoud be. To top it off, it is laced with super clever literary references that I loved with my whole heart. This spoke to me.

Book 2: Superior, by Mark Millar & Leinil Yu

Simon Pooni is living with multiple sclerosis, missing all the things he used to take for granted, and escaping into the world of movies and comics with his best friend. Then SUPERIOR entered his life.

My favorite part about this comic was the AMAZING art: I love Leinil Yu style. It's clean and defined, but doesn't fall in typical superhero art pitfalls. It's just perfect. The story was entertaining and had a clever ending that I didn't foresee, but I found it bit too soft and saccharine. After all, Superior is very similar to Superman, and I do find Superman a bit boring. Anyways, I think of this as also a nice homage to Christopher Reeve, but I might be dead off here. 

Book 3: Embroideries, by Marjane Satrapi

This is an entertaining and enlightening look into the sex lives of Iranian women, as recounted by the women of Marjane's family, gathered for an afternoon of tea drinking and talking.

This is the comic I didn't know I wanted, and I did enjoy it very much. It is my first Satrapi, too, and now I want to read Persepolis more than ever. This is a short, light-hearted memoir composed of vignettes ranging from the dismal to the absurd. Every story openly laughs at the sexual constraints imposed to Iranian women, as every woman gets her revenge on the men that slighted her. I liked the sense of community that is shown in these pages. To my very Western eyes, this has been eye-opening.

Book 4: Blue is the Warmest Color, by Julie Maroh

Clementine is a junior high school who seems average enough: she has friends, family, and the romantic attention of the boys in her school. Then she meets Emma. Their attraction is instant and electric, and Clementine will find herself in a relationship that will test her friends, parents, and her own ideas about herself and her identity.

Another coming out story in simple monochrome, which I think really fits introspective stories. Again, the art is truly beautiful, and underlines the truly beautiful love story contained in this short book. A story about acceptance, growth, and the problems of being a homosexual teenager in 90s France. It isn't ground-breaking, but it is really well done, with equal amounts of tragedy and hope. My only quibble with this is that it is too short, and it felt a bit rushed, but I definitely recommend it.