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.

domingo, 5 de julio de 2015

Currently | Bidding goodbye to the school year

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

Geocaching in a Roman Road · New Comic Shop · Me! In Cookie Form!

I think this is the longest I've been AWOL from the blog, and I've missed it. My reading and healthcare plans fell by the wayside. I'd love to say it was because I was busy working, but that wasn't the case. I have suffered a living slump. I just soldiered through, and did nothing noteworthy. That doesn't work as a good blogging topic, though, and here we are.

This year has been full of changes I didn't expect. I started the schoolyear with a bunch of grad school mates, but they have all fled to other cities since they couldn't find grants to follow their projects. I should be happy I can continue my research, but it's odd to be the last one standing. Several awful things happened at work between my labmates, and now, the atmosphere has turned unpleasant, even though I'm not implicated in the turmoil. I also had to bid farewell to a bunch of non-work friends who found better jobs and moved. I'm a bit lost after this stroke of bad luck.

Not everything has been bad, though. I had my first experience as a mentor, and I loved it. It helped that my undergrads were intelligent and hardworking young women, and I'm going to miss them. That cookie up there was a gift from one of them. Crazy talented. If I had to bake cookies who looked like people, I'd be taking a cubist approach out of necessity. I also TA'd my first class, and it was easier than expected. I've learned a lot. I also rekindled my love of comics, joined Marvel Unlimited and discovered a new comic shop with kind and helpful assistants who didn't scare me away. And started geocaching! I love finding the little caches and new-to-me places around the city.