The Bog of Lost Scholars

February 11, 2009

Recent Reading: Bebris and Brockmann

Filed under: The Castiron Reading Journal — castiron @ 11:53 pm

Carrie Bebris, The Matters at Mansfield. Mr. and Mrs. Darcy solve another mystery. Why I put a hold request in as soon as I know the library has a new Bebris book: it’s a fun romp. This one’s no exception; I read through it rapidly, and I found several characters’ portrayal quite good. Why I read the library copy rather than buying it: there’s always something that makes me step back and say “wait a minute…”. In this case, it’s a character’s apparent memory loss — it adds nothing to the story other than some artificial pathos. (And frankly, I don’t find the character’s fate consistent with what Austen says in summary.) I find the stories fun, but at the end, I’m dissatisfied.

(Also, note to the publisher: it’s Mrs. Jenkinson. Please correct Chapter 4, where it was consistently given as Miss.)

Suzanne Brockmann, The Defiant Hero. A romance in which the female lead’s daughter and grandmother have been kidnapped by terrorists, and the male lead is a Navy SEAL. I loved her Unsung Hero, but this one didn’t work as well for me. I enjoyed the suspense plot and the subplots — I love the grandmother! — but I don’t really buy the main characters’ romance.

December 14, 2008

Recent Reading: Domesticity, Choices, and Happiness

Filed under: The Castiron Reading Journal — castiron @ 10:27 pm

Jane Brocket, The Gentle Art of Domesticity. I’ve enjoyed reading Brocket’s blog Yarnstorm, so I decided to buy her book sight unseen.

It’s an enjoyable read and suitable for quick moments of browsing; it reads very much like a collection of extended blog posts — short essays that tie in thematically but can be read independently. (Indeed, some of the essays I recognized from the blog, though others were new to me.) The photos don’t seem quite as striking as those on her blog, but they’re still visually interesting.

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Nudge. A really interesting book advocating what they call “libertarian paternalism”. Brief summary of their argument: How you present choices to people affects what choices they make. So if you present the choice in such a way to make it more likely that they’ll choose what you’d prefer they choose (the paternalism side), but still make it easy for them to select another option if they want (the libertarian side), you tend to get the results you want while still preserving people’s freedom of choice.

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness. Why we don’t always judge correctly what’ll make us happy, from a psychology & brain wiring perspective. Interesting, and very entertainingly written. I quibble a bit with the author’s conclusion that the best way to figure out whether something will make you happy is to look at whether it makes other people happy — learning a Bulgarian dance makes me pretty darn happy, but most people find that pretty tedious — but the basic concept makes sense.

November 2, 2008

Recent Reading: Austen Retellings and Such

Filed under: The Castiron Reading Journal — castiron @ 6:11 pm

Pamela Aidan, An Assembly Such As This, and Amanda Grange, Mr. Knightley’s Diary. Both books are retelling of Jane Austen novels from the hero’s point of view; Aidan’s is the first in a trilogy looking at Pride and Prejudice through Mr. Darcy’s eyes, and Grange’s a retelling of Emma.

Both are well-written and enjoyable, and I’m going to seek out further books by both. Of the two, though, I prefer Aidan’s so far. Aidan gives me more of what I want from this kind of novel — an idea of what the hero actually does, besides be interested in the heroine. Not that Grange avoids this, but Grange is more likely to summarize Mr. Knightley’s actions as “discussed parish business” or “talked with William Larkin about various problems”, whereas Aidan is more likely to be specific.

Both authors also add original characters, which makes absolute sense; Darcy certainly would have a wide acquaintance, and while Mr. Knightley knows many of the same people Emma does, he’d notice different people than she would. Generally, the original characters work.

My quibbles: There’s a couple bits in Aidan where I’m not sure what she writes is quite consistent with the books (very minor things — for example, I think Colonel Forster married later in the original than he did in Aidan’s retelling). And while my fanficcy heart loves one of the subplots of Grange’s book, my rational mind admits its extreme unlikeliness. Still, both books are at least worth checking out from the library, and if the rest of Aidan’s trilogy measures up to the first book, they may soon find a home on my shelves.

Some more summer reading catch-up:

  • Eva Ibbotson, A Countess Below Stairs. A Russian countess works as a servant in England and falls in love. Enjoyable.
  • Marvin Harris, Cow, Pigs, Wars, and Witches. Interesting ideas on why various cultures have practices that look irrational at first glance.
  • Laura Kinsale, Seize the Fire. A princess and a military hero fall in love and find that each other isn’t quite what they thought. Intense and well-written, but ultimately didn’t hook me; I have no urge to reread it.
  • Maria Snyder, Magic Study. Still good, but not as good as Poison Study.
  • Stealing Heaven. The daughter of a professional thief makes friends for the first time and wants to change her life. Very interesting.

Didn’t finish:

  • The Darcy Connection. Two daughters of Mr. Collins go to London. Read about a third; didn’t finish. The writing was good, and I liked Eliza, but after a while it started to seem too much like P&P. I might try this one again later.
  • Vermont Valentine. Read about a third, skimmed the rest. A good romance, but just didn’t click with me. (Though having a parasitical insect be the trigger for a romance is kinda cool.)
  • Lady of Mazes. It’s probably a great book; I just don’t have the brainpower for it right now.

October 2, 2008

Some Summer reading

Filed under: The Castiron Reading Journal — castiron @ 6:30 pm

While I haven’t had much time over the past months for blogging, I’ve certainly managed time for reading. A partial list:

  • Nita Abrams, A Question of Honor. A historical romance in which the heroine is Jewish (though, I gather, not strongly observant).
  • Kathleen Korbel, A Rose for Maggie. A pleasant romance, and occasionally borderline treacly, but what makes it stand out: This author gets the mixed emotions of having a disabled child spot-on.
  • Martine Leavitt, Keturah and Lord Death. I found the story a little choppy in places (or perhaps I was too sleep-deprived to follow the narrator’s logic), but it was interesting, and the closing passage is beautiful.
  • M. T. Anderson, Whales on Stilts and The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen. The first is absolutely wacky and hilarious; the second is wacky and hilarious and has a few bits that kick you in the chest. Heartily recommended.
  • Scott Westerfeld, Peeps. An interesting take on vampires. Yep, he’s deservedly popular.
  • Robin McKinley, Sunshine. Another interesting take on vampires, and I want one of Sunshine’s cinnamon rolls.
  • C. A. Belmond, A Rather Lovely Inheritance. A charming book with interesting characters that find out interesting things about their pasts.
  • Laurie Viera Rigler, Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict. I’ve never actually had the urge to live in Jane Austen’s time, and now that I’ve read this book I never will. But it gives an interesting picture of what life may have been like for a well-off woman in Austen’s era.
  • Hilary McKay, Saffy’s Angel. A family that I’d hate to live in but am fascinated to read about.
  • Neil Shubin, Your Inner Fish. A really cool and very readable book on human body structures and their relation to structures in other critters.
  • Loretta Chase, Lord of Scoundrels, The Last Hellion, and Your Scandalous Ways. Enjoyable historical romances. I really liked the first and last and expect to reread them many times, but while the second was fun and I liked the heroine’s occupation and interests, there was too much BS about the heroine’s ancestry for me to want to buy the book. (I also reread Mr. Impossible and still find it a wonderful book; the characters have actual brains, and their interactions are delightful to read.)
  • Alan Weisman, The World Without Us. A fascinating look at how long human structures and artifacts will last after we’re no longer around to maintain them. (Warning: after reading this, you may decide to switch to cloth grocery bags when possible.)

May 24, 2008

A Woman Without Lies, Faking It, and Character Emotions

Filed under: The Castiron Reading Journal — castiron @ 2:09 pm

Elizabeth Lowell, A Woman Without Lies. I’ve read more romance novels in the past couple years than I had since middle school (thank you, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books). Some of them have become favorites, but a large number of them, even though well-written, don’t do anything for me. This book is helping me articulate why.

There are a lot of really good things in this book. Angel and Hawk are interesting characters, as are the secondary characters. The descriptions of fishing and of stained glass work are fascinating. The storyline is generally plausible; the characters’ interactions make sense based on their histories. I kept reading because I wanted to see how the couple would overcome their differences and get together.

So what don’t I like about it? I don’t like reading characters when they’re thinking about their emotions[*]. I don’t like the author’s telling me what the character feels instead of showing me. I especially get annoyed by passages to the effect of “she instinctively knew that he felt more for her than he was showing”. And in the romance genre, these things are acceptable parts of the style, so I run into a lot of books that annoy me.

[*]Actually, I need to clarify this. I love passages like

“From such a connection she could not wonder that he should shrink. The wish of procuring her regard, which she had assured herself of his feeling in Derbyshire, could not in rational expectation survive such a blow as this. She was humbled, she was grieved; she repented, though she hardly knew of what. She became jealous of his esteem, when she could no longer hope to be benefited by it. She wanted to hear of him, when there seemed the least chance of gaining intelligence. She was convinced that she could have been happy with him, when it was no longer likely they should meet.”

or

Like was surely not an adequate word for this hash of delight and anger and longing, this profound respect laced with profound irritation, all floating on a dark pool of old pain.”

(Austen, Pride and Prejudice, and Bujold, A Civil Campaign.)

They’re beautiful words; they make the character’s feelings clear; they stop after at most another paragraph or so. Once the author makes her point, she stops beating me over the head with it. In romance, on the other hand, it seems much more acceptable for the author to say “See? Here’s what this character’s feeling. You in any doubt? Okay, I’ll reiterate!”

And the romance authors I enjoy the most seem to be the ones who do the least of this, who are writing a story about a relationship but showing me the growing love between the leads rather than insisting that the love is there. Take another recent read, Jennifer Crusie’s Faking It. Cruise makes it obvious that Tilda and Davy are falling for each other, and shows why they’re a great pair; I get to learn about the characters as they learn about each other, and when they finally break the remaining barriers between them, I’m as thrilled as they are.

And when they think about their feelings at all, they do it in unique voices; they sound like themselves, not like any of a hundred other characters. Lowell has a few passages where Angel thinks of her feelings in terms of stained glass or Hawk in hunting metaphors, and that works for me, but when they think in more generic terms, I start skimming. That’s probably the biggest thing right there, actually. If your characters must spend paragraphs being introspective, at least make them think in their own voices, not thoughts that could be cut and pasted into another novel without editing.

May 5, 2008

Recent Reading: Passage and Idleness

Filed under: The Castiron Reading Journal — castiron @ 10:30 pm

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Sharing Knife: Passage. Read as soon as it got here; later went back and reread favorite parts of TSN: Beguilement and entirely reread TSN: Legacy, followed by a reread of Passage.

While I think that what Bujold’s doing with an American-based landscape is interesting, I’m from a different region than the one she used, so it doesn’t resonate with me like it does with readers who grew up in Ohio and surrounding regions. But I find the society fascinating, and I very much like how there aren’t easy answers. The problems that Dag and Fawn deal with are huge ones, unlikely to be solved in their lifetimes, let alone within one book (or four).

Tom Hodgkinson, How to Be Idle. I didn’t finish this book, though I read large chunks of it. The author has some really good points, that apply just as much (if not more so) to American society as to his own British. Why should we look at any apparent idleness with suspicion? Why is it more important to look like we’re busy for eight hours than to accomplish something really useful in four and enjoy the rest of our time?

And yet….

The book would have worked better for me if H. had been clearer about idleness as “doing what you choose to do, and yes, that activity might actually resemble work” (which does appear in some spots to be what he ultimately means) rather than idleness as “doing things socially considered fun” (hanging out in pubs, lying in bed doing nothing, smoking, boozing). Many of the activities he talks about as examples of how to enjoy idleness would drive me batty with boredom. It’s quite possible that an evening of knitting for the joy of the yarn and the desire to see the final project (and not because I really need to finish this project for a deadline) would fit right into his definition of idleness, but if it doesn’t, well, I’d much rather spend an evening knitting than an evening drinking beer in a pub.

Also, I come away from this book with the strong impression that he’s speaking to men, not to women. For example, he brushes off the work of childrearing with “train them to get their own breakfasts on weekends as soon as possible”. That’s nice, but in the intervening years, the kid has to be nursed or bottlefed, diapered, bathed, kept from poisoning itself, civilized into a reasonable human, etc., etc. As a mother, especially as the mother of a mentally disabled kid and a single mother until recently, I don’t have much chance for real idleness, and certainly not for any mental activity that requires long stretches of focused alert mind, because if I didn’t do the work of caring for my child, no one else was going to take up the slack. (The chapter in which H. sings the praises of skiving, slacking on work and enjoying watching someone else do it instead, raised my hackles to say the least.) The chapter on sex, too, is clearly aimed at men, with a token wave of “yeah, women just lose all interest in sex once they’ve got some kids”. (Speaking as a mother who still has a sex drive, I’m more than happy to while away a lazy afternoon or evening in my husband’s arms, but we both need to be sufficiently caught up on sleep that we don’t drop off as soon as we get some quiet, and without a babysitter, we’re pretty well limited to “after the kid is in bed”, which is perilously close to “time we nod off”.)

In other words — an interesting concept, and I would love to see such a book written by a mother, but H.’s take didn’t work for me.

March 11, 2008

Not-so-recent Reading

Filed under: The Castiron Reading Journal — castiron @ 10:57 pm

A bunch of stuff I read back in November/December, wrote up, and never posted:

Jennifer Crusie, Fast Women. When Nell takes a job as a secretary with Gabe, both their lives get upended. Eh. It was a fun read, but I don’t have the urge to reread it on a regular basis (i.e. I decided against buying a copy for 50 cents).

E. M. Forster, A Room with a View. Lucy Honeychurch goes to Italy, meets an unsuitable young man, and tries to deny that she’s in love with him. Eh. It gives me a greater appreciation of the movie Stiff Upper Lips, which draws a lot from Forster novels (and presumably the movie versions thereof), and Charlotte Bartlett is a brilliant portrait of a passive-aggressive jerk, but I found much of the story tedious.

Diana Wynne Jones, The Pinhoe Egg. Marianne Pinhoe tries to find out why her family is hiding from Chrestomanci, who’s ticking off the rival family, and where her grandmother’s cat Nutcase keeps vanishing. Cat Chant tries to figure out how to ride a horse, why the nearby forest seems so odd, and what’s in the mysterious egg he finds in Marianne’s grandmother’s attic. It’s an interesting story, and it doesn’t have the “you’re not just responsible for things you did inadvertently or out of ignorance; you’re guilty of them” attitude that really annoys me in many of her other books. If I get the urge to reread it, I’ll buy a copy.

Alexander Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo. Still fabulous airplane/travel reading.

Linda Wynstead Jones, The Sun Witch. I made it partway through the prologue and decided I’m not interested enough to continue; the background feels like Extruded Fantasy Product, and while I enjoy a good sex scene, the very beginning of the story is not where I expect it (plus, assuming it’s the same guy who appeared earlier in the prologue, he should be too badly injured to get it up).

November 21, 2007

Recent Reading: Fantasy, Romance, Adventure, Pictures, and Fantasy

Filed under: The Castiron Reading Journal — castiron @ 12:12 pm

Peg Kerr, Emerald House Rising. A young woman training to be a gemcutter learns that she has talent for magic. The characters are interesting, the magic system is cool, and the story takes a lot of unexpected routes.

Jennifer Crusie, Bet Me. When Min’s ex-boyfriend attempts to make a bet with Cal that Cal can’t get Min into bed within a month, hijinks ensue. A fun and funny romance.

Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, Don’t Look Down, first reread. Reading this back-to-back with a traditional Cruisie, I can see why a lot of people didn’t like this book; it’s really not a romance, though it’s got a romance subplot. I came to this book originally having read only one Crusie novel, so I didn’t have particular expectations (other than for some interesting characters and good dialogue, both of which this book has); that’s probably one reason I enjoy it so much. It’s an entertaining story; it’s got action and suspense; it has a one-eyed alligator. Even the speed of the romance doesn’t bother me; I see Lucy in particular as someone who was ready to make a big change and just needed a catalyst. I’m definitely planning to read Crusie and Mayer’s next book as soon as it’s either in the library or out in paperback.

Eve Bunting, One Green Apple. A picture book about an immigrant girl who goes on a class trip to an apple orchard. Quite nice.

Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Wow. Amazing worldbuilding, characters that while rarely likeable are still fascinating, and sensawunda out the ears. This is going to join The Count of Monte Cristo as one of my airplane reads — long enough that I won’t finish it on the first leg of the flight, fascinating enough that it’ll take me 45 minutes to notice that we still haven’t taken off.

October 18, 2007

Big Mess O’ Books

Filed under: The Castiron Reading Journal — castiron @ 12:00 am

Esther Friesner, Druid’s Blood. A Holmes pastiche set in an alternate England where Queen Victoria keeps the realm safe by magic. Quite a fun novel; given the number of nods to Victorian England that my history-deprived brain catches, I’m sure there’s a slew that I’m missing. I’m also amused that the chapters all seem to be named after Holmes adventures that Watson didn’t write up.

Rumer Godden, Home is the Sailor and Miss Happiness and Miss Flower and Little Plum. Childhood favorites about dolls. Still thoroughly enjoyable, and quick reads besides. I also read The Rocking Horse Secret, which was an interesting short book — it’d be almost too sweet, except for the very realistic depiction of the elderly woman.

Steven Brust, the Khaavren series: The Phoenix Guards, Five Hundred Years After, The Paths of the Dead, The Lord of Castle Black, and Sethra Lavode. A fun series, and reading the whole thing in sequence definitely adds to the appreciation.

Loretta Chase, Captives of the Night. This was an interesting romance, with some suspense as to whether the hero is actually a good guy or not.

Cara Lockwood, Wuthering High. A girl gets sent to a boarding school that turns out to have…interesting faculty.

Elizabeth Hoyt, The Raven Prince. I swear I’ve read the opening setup in another novel (and, now that I think about it, I suspect both are homages to Jane Eyre). Anyway, it was an enjoyable read, but while the sex scenes were steamy and well-written, they didn’t pass the “if the book faded to black at the bedroom door, we’d be scratching our heads about the character development” test.

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls. Damn. Even better on rereads. Just read these books, okay?

Didn’t finish:

Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation. To anyone who seriously argues that there’s no problems with using “man” and “he” to mean “generic human, male or female”, this book is a counter-example. It was originally published in the 1950s, so the usage is understandable; it’s also damn confusing. First Eliade seems to be talking about initiation rites for any gender; then context makes it clear that he’s talking specifically about males; then something suggests that he might be talking about both men and women…. I finally decided I wasn’t sufficiently interested in the book to wade through it. From what I read, though, a more accurate title would be “Rites and Symbols of Mostly Male Initiation”.

Joan Aiken, Jane Fairfax. While I love the character from Emma, this story didn’t do anything for me, and I put it down partway through.

Larry Doyle, I Love You, Beth Cooper. Well written, and the chapter illustrations are amusing, but it didn’t grab my interest enough to keep me going.

Rumer Godden, Listen to the Nightingale. I’m pretty sure I read this book as a kid (as well as Godden’s other book about a child who goes to ballet school, Thursday’s Children), but I don’t remember the details. Since I didn’t sympathize at all with the main character, I gave up a few chapters in.

September 3, 2007

A Mess of Books

Filed under: The Castiron Reading Journal — castiron @ 2:23 pm

Tom Deitz, The Gryphon King. Honestly, this book stays in my library due to sentiment. Not that it’s bad; it’s a very enjoyable urban fantasy with colorful characters. But if I were reading it for the first time now, I don’t think it’d be in my keeper stack.

P. G. Wodehouse, The Girl in Blue. I attempted to summarize this book’s plot for my boyfriend, and I failed miserably. There’s just too much going on, and just about every single incident and character ties into the story; you couldn’t drop any without leaving a hole. Plus it’s great fun and has a lot of dry humor.

Paul Darrow, You’re Him, Aren’t You? Darrow’s autobiography, including a lot of stories from his years on Blakes 7. This is one of the rare cases where I wish I were listening to an audiobook rather than reading a dead tree book. The book is reasonably interesting, and there’s a lot of great anecdotes, but especially in the beginning, it’s a somewhat choppy read. If I were listening to it (preferably read by Darrow himself, of course!), I’d have enjoyed it much more.

And dear $DEITY, the font. This book was designed by someone desperate to cut down the number of signatures to save money; the font is tiny and hard for me to read, let alone someone who might have actually seen B7 in its original run.

Still, the one benefit of the bumpy structure is that it’s easy to read a couple pages, put the book down, and come back to it later — perfect bathroom reading. And some of the stories are fabulous, particularly some episodes in Darrow’s childhood that made me think of Miles Vorkosigan.

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility. Still a great book; still even more entertaining than the (very good) film adaptations I’ve seen.

Zilpha Keatley Snyder, The Egypt Game. A great children’s book that I still love as an adult. I notice the time it’s set (the 1960s) more on this read than on earlier readings.

Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night. The first time I read it, about eight years ago, I greatly enjoyed it (and still have “What would that matter, if it made a good book?” on one of my computer monitors), but it didn’t echo in my mind the way it does this time. Partnership and creative work. Sorting out what one should do from what one is asked to do. Choices and consequences. Wow. How did I miss all that the first time?

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