March 28, 2014

Four Mini Reviews

As you have probably noticed I have close to zero time lately. I still manage to read, but posting and sleeping are not so lucky :) So I've decided to do as everybody seem do in such case: write mini-reviews! They are small books anyway :)

Title: Harry Potter y el Prisionero de Azkaban
Author: J.K. Rowling
First published: 1999
Add it: Goodreads, Book Depository
Rating: ★★★★★

Yes, this one was in Spanish! We read it together with Hillary from ahorseandacarrot and it was fun! Books in foreign languages are perfect for read-a-longs. Without being accountable I just kept putting it off to read something more relaxing, but with our read-a-long I swished through it in less than two months at a pace of one chapter in three days. Wonderful! I'm a bit afraid to tackle the fourth book yet though. It's bigger and more "adult" and the chapters are longer... Well, maybe in summer, when I have more time :) Also, I'll announce the second Language Freak Summer Challenge next month, so I hope it'll give me a push :)

Title: The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes
Author: Neil Gaiman
First published: 1988
Add it: Goodreads, Book Depository
Rating: ★★★★★

It was the first comic book I've ever read! Can you believe it? After the disappointment of Gaiman's American Gods and because of my inner snobbishness (comic books? They are for children!) I wasn't expecting much of it, but guess what? It was amazing! Dark and creepy sometimes, but totally amazing! I loved the art and how the story is told in short snippets, and how the parts of the puzzle fit together as you read and you get to know more about the awesome, awesome, awesome Morpheus. I love Morpheus. That's all there is to know about my feelings towards Sandman :)

Title: Yvain, or The Knight With the Lion
Author: Chrétien de Troyes
First published: 1176
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Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Unlike Erec and Enide and Cligès, I didn't enjoy Yvain at all, and so I don't have much to say about it. The plot devices never looked so artificial in Chrétien's works as here (pour water on stone to summon a horrible knight? Really?) and the main character never was such an asshole. Yvain leaves the love of his life a couple of days after the marriage and promises to come in a year... and OF COURSE he just forgets about it at all and therefore has to go seek some adventures instead of asking for forgiveness... I will not even go into his treatment of the lion. The lion is the only decent character in the story, really.

Title: The Train (orig. Sputniki)
Author: Vera Panova
First published: 1946
Add it: Goodreads
Rating: ★★★★★

My mom has recommended me this classical Russian war novel, and as usual, her recommendation was brilliant! This short book tells a story of a hospital train during the horrible years of WWII, from its first bombing until the last war spring. Very different people work on this train - doctors, nurses, war officers, engineers... Each one has his/her own story, his/her own dreams and fears, but they all must live together and work endless shifts to make the passage of the patients from the front to the hospitals more comfortable. There's everything in this book: tragedy, loss, love, friendship, true selflessness and cunning self-advancement... Because people are different, and war makes these differences even more obvious.

March 24, 2014

A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger (Review)

Title: A Burnable Book
Author: Bruce Holsinger
First published: 2014
Add it: Goodreads, Book Depository
Rating: ★★★★☆

In the times of Richard II and Chaucer strange rumors and verses start to spread through London. The verses predict the death of Richard II with frightening exactness and the rumor is they come from a book of ancient prophesies... The book travels from lords to bawds, leaving corpses on its way. Meanwhile, the fateful St. Dunstan's day mentioned in the prophesy approaches...

There is everything in this book that you can wish for in a historical fiction novel: a lot of details of everyday life, an old map of London (I love maps!), intrigue, mystery, danger and the love of books. It not only has quite a few remarkable female characters, is has a transgender character! I was... well, confused with Eleanor/Edgar at first, but then I realized that he/she works well in the plot: he/she decides in which situations it's more efficient to dress as a man and when - as a woman, and therefore is able to transgress certain limitations of gender.

Sometimes it was a bit difficult to keep straight all the characters at court, but by the end of the book everything fell into place. Some of the characters' motivations were left unclear to me, but overall the intrigue was well rounded. Although bawds have a lot of action in the book, there is nothing very coarse in the descriptions and the language, which I really appreciated (OK, I guess I'm mentioning it just because I'm reading another Martin right now, lol!). Overall, if I wasn't sure Holsinger is a man, I'd say the book is written by a woman. Rarely do men have so many distinct and interesting female characters in their books. Bravo!

In my book:
A very entertaining and well-researched historical mystery. Perfect relaxing read!

March 22, 2014

Once Upon a Time VIII Sign-Up

Once Upon a Time VIII is here! And look at the gorgeous painting! Isn't it awesome? The choice of the buttons is another reason why I love-love-love Carl's events! As if there were not enough reasons to love them without this one, heh :)

This year I'm joining for...

which means I'm going to read at least 5 books that fit somewhere within the Once Upon a Time categories: fantasy, folklore, fairy tales or mythology. And as I'm getting addicted to the picture lists, here's some books I plan to choose from! The upper row is fantasy, and the lower is Arthurian books.

I'll track my progress here, and we'll see how many I'll actually read :) And HERE is the link to all my posts for the event.

This spring is the spring of writing my thesis, passing the last exams (hopefully!), preparing for the conferences and undergoing some unpleasant medical treatment... So some fantasy is what I'll need in the evenings after all this unless I'm completely devastated :) Perfect timing!

March 21, 2014

Candide by Voltaire (Review)

Title: Candide
Author: Voltaire
First published: 1759
Add it: Goodreads, Book Depository
Rating: ★★★☆☆

I intended to read Candide together with this read-a-long, but instead I finished it the same evening I started it. I know I didn't understand as much of it as I would have if I had read is slowly, but I knew I didn't want to spend the whole month with this book.

As you probably already know, Candide is a satire of the philosophy of optimism, that is, the belief that everything is for the best, and this world is the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire drags his characters through A LOT of horrible life situations to prove otherwise, all this in a very hyperbolic manner.

I have nothing against satire, and I like it when it's well-done, but here it is probably over-done. The things happening to Candide and his co-sufferers are brutal, horrifying and disgusting, and only some of them are funny. Also, a lot of satire is really hard to understand because it's the product of its time. For example, different religious orders and movements are obviously being mocked, but I have no idea what for... But the bits which are funny saved this book a bit for me. I liked the Eldorado part, and I quite enjoyed the character of Martin, who is wonderfully cynical. 

In my book:
The main appeal of this novel is that it's really short. If you are able to see some other appeal as well - well, you are probably very high-brow and really into French Enlightenment... I'm not and that's why I didn't really enjoy Candide.

March 16, 2014

March Madness Check-in (Week 2)

Whoops, the second week of the read-a-thon flew by, and the second check-in is happening HERE. I can't say this week was as productive reading-wise as the previous one, but I'm still making some progress! So let's look at the lists!

1) The to-finish list. Absolutely no progress here... I wasn't equal to reading Milton this week, is all. It was tiresome enough without him :)

2) The read-a-long list. Candide was so short it took me one evening to read. The read-a-long is one month long, so I was supposed to leave something for the next weeks, but ooops...

3) Fun books list. Wolf Hall finished! Nothing else..

4) No progress on the Arthurian list so far... I hope to read Yvain next week though.

5) This is a not-planned list :) Because I suck at sticking to lists :) And there is a read-a-long for Sandman. A Burnable Book is also fun and entertaining. I'm nearly half way through it.

Well, not so much reading done, and I don't hope for an improvement, as the next week is the last one before the conference deadline... But we'll see :)

March 14, 2014

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Review)

Title: Wolf Hall
Author: Hilary Mantel
First published: 2009
Add it: Goodreads, Book Depository
Rating: ★★★★☆

Last year when I was in Vancouver on a conference I stumbled upon a wonderful bookstore selling used books. I didn't have much money on me, but I still spent an hour there and bought three rather thick books. Then I walked about 15 km with this heavy parcel in my hand because my hotel was already far behind and I had big touristic plans for the day. I was so dead at the end of the day that I cursed my book-buying addiction. But I repented thinking so as soon as I looked at my precioussssses again (and took a bath!).

These three books were Titus Groan, Wolf Hall and Watership Down (which I haven't read yet, but will soon!). Now I can say that at least two of them were totally worth the effort :)

Sometimes I think that half of all the historical novels out there are about Henry VIII. But I doubt any of them are anything like Wolf Hall. The novel is written from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, one of the most powerful courtiers of Henry VIII's time. He is behind Henry's first divorce, the new legislation concerning ecclesiastical matters and foreign politics of the time, so his is a VERY informed point of view! He is also an interesting person himself - born a son of a smith, having served abroad for the most of his youth, learned not only in economy but also in theological matters, with wide correspondence abroad and an infinite influence at court, but still despised by every titled man of the realm for his descent... An outstanding person indeed!

The most striking feature of Wolf Hall is its writing. It is sometimes hard to get into it after a long pause, but as soon as you do, it doesn't let you go. And I mean, literally! I physically couldn't stop reading, I didn't notice how many pages ago I should have put it down to go do something useful (like getting food! Once I missed the shop's closing time and had to order a pizza.) Mantel doesn't give you the story in chunks, set in different places and peopled with different characters, divided by cliffhangers. Instead, she somehow makes you turn the pages even though the narrative is very calm and meditative, and nothing sudden happens.

The only problem I had with the writing was that Cromwell was always referenced as "he". Although the narrative is totally first person. Does it have some clever name? Help me out here, English majors! Anyway, I found it really confusing, because sometimes it was difficult to understand who is speaking or doing something. Imagine a passage like this: "Sir BlaBla remarks: "blablabla". He goes to the window". You would think that the "he" here refers to Sir BlaBla, but it doesn't! It's actually Cromwell who is doing it. So confusing.

In my book:
A beautifully written and haunting novel! Recommended even to those who are sick and tired of Henry VIII and his public family life.

March 11, 2014

Cligès by Chrétien de Troyes (Review)

Title: Cligès
Author: Chrétien de Troyes
First published: 1176
Add it: Goodreads, Book Depository
Rating: ★★★★★

Cligès is the second poem by Chrétien de Troyes and it is a wild and amusing mix of Tristan and Iseult, Romeo and Juliet and your classic Arthurian romance. The story can be roughly divided into two parts: the first one tells about the Greek emperor Alexander, who came to King Arthur's court in search of glory and also found his love, and the second focuses on his son Cligès and his love to Fenice, which is very unlike the simple and idyllic story of his parents.

The most striking thing about this poem is that it's very, very funny. Chrétien's ironic and cute portrayal of the lovers' feelings made me smile all the time. They seem stupid but also really adorable in their agony. And aren't we all stupid when we are in love? :) Another thing that I like about Chrétien de Troyes is that he is always very self-conscious about his writing, and he talks to the reader, explaining his writer's choices and underlining the structure of the poem. It's as if he is telling you the story reposing in front of the fire after a plentiful dinner washed down with mulled wine.

The plot is more real and much less conventional than the plot of Erec and Enide, the only other Chrétien's poem I've read so far. Instead of battling imaginary giants at imaginary locations, Cligès is about real European politics and real battles and sieges. There is also abduction, treason, forbidden love, poisons, you name it! I really loved the "marriage solution" from the story. Fenice, in love with Cligès, doesn't want to sleep with her lawful husband, so every evening she gives him a potion which makes him sleep and dream certain dreams that make him sure she does her marital duty by him. Awesome, right??

In my book:
Cligès is much more readable than Erec and Enide and is very entertaining without any reservations!

March 10, 2014

American Gods by Neil Gaiman (Review)

Title: American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
First published: 2001
Add it: Goodreads, Book Depository
Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Oh, this book... I can't put off writing this review any longer, so to make it easier let's make a deal here, OK? If you love American Gods so much that you can't stand any critic, don't read what I have to say about it, and if you do read it, don't hate me afterwards, please? :) It's just that I know many people feel very protective about this particular book, so I'm a bit afraid of their rage, because yes, unfortunately, I didn't like it at all...

I had high expectations of this book, and it went fairly well in the beginning, but then weird shit started to happen, and I was thinking "Why am I doing it to myself??" all the following 450 pages. OK, maybe the ending (that revelation of what's going on, you know what I'm talking about) was also not bad, but I was already bored to death by the time I reached it. Why was it so? Let me try to explain.

The main problem for me was the overly depressing mood of the story. I felt the pressure of the despair oozing from the pages all the time, and there was no comical or other relief. Is it surprising then that my favourite character in the book is the "Fuck off" raven? I know that if the book affects me so, it means the writing is good. Well, it is good, but I didn't like what it was doing with me anyway. And don't forget the corpses! Sooo many of them... I've had enough of corpses for a year of reading.

As for the characters, well, they are another problem. Shadow is awful. He is resigned, passive and incurious, and I don't understand him at all. The gods are also rather dull. I mean, come on, they could have been really outstanding, but instead they are very meh... I realize that it's kind of ideologically fitting, because they are dying out, but still... I wanted something more exciting. Wednesday came fairly near to being exciting, but not quite. 

In my book:
I didn't enjoy American Gods at all, and I would especially NOT recommend it as a rainy day reading. Seriously, it may draw you in a long-lasting depression.

March 8, 2014

March Madness Check-in (Week 1)

The first week of this month-long read-a-thon is gone, and Juliana is encouraging all the participants to share their progress HERE. As for me, I'm doing fairly well. Remember I had several thematic to-read lists at the beginning of March? I think I'll continue with this format for the rest of the read-a-thon, because pictures are cute, right?

1) My to-finish list is nearly complete! Three out of four books finished, and some progress is made with Paradise Lost. But it takes time...

2) I haven't started with my read-a-long books list yet, so no cheerful yellow stars here! :) But both books are short, so I think I still have enough time to read them yet.

3) I've read half of Wolf Hall from my historical fiction and fantasy list, and I really like it so far!

4) My Arthurian list is also not forgotten, as I've just finished Cligès by Chrétien de Troyes, which I totally loved!

Overall, I'm quite satisfied with how my March reading is going, and I hope to keep the pace! Wich me good luck! :)

March 2, 2014

Erec and Enide by Chrétien de Troyes (Review)

Title: Erec and Enide
Author: Chrétien de Troyes
First published: 1170
Add it: Goodreads, The Book Depository
Rating: ★★★☆☆

The reason I actually enjoyed this poem is probably the translation. Mine is a verse translation into Russian, and it is really good: readable, rhyming, stylistically suitable. Without a good translation these epic poems can be a bit repetitive and tiring, you know, and Erec and Enide sometimes was. It's full of the descriptions of the feasts, presents, entourage and blows in the duels. But clever word choice and a fast rhyme flow somewhat covered those nuisances.

Erec and Enide is the first of Chrétien de Troyes's Arthurian romances. He took some old legends and remodeled them according to current chivalrous tradition. So no surprise the reader sees some French locations there and some imported goods which were not present at the hypothetical Arthurian times. Each and every knight is under constant pressure to prove his value to everybody and himself, and this usually leads to some stupid decisions, like travelling alone or not stopping for rest to tend one's wounds... I guess the death rate was rather high among the knights of the round table.

Erec wants revenge from some unknown knight for an offence he has given to the queen. While accomplishing this, Erec meets his future wife, Enide, fights for her and brings her back to the court. After marriage rumors start that Erec is caring more for his wife than for his valor (hm... not surprising at all!), so he decides to go search some fights again, this time taking his wife with him and testing her on the way.

I don't like Erec at all. He is straight as a stick, and is not very amiable and clever. Enide is more to my liking, as she is always alert for anything that can harm her husband, and can perfectly well deal with some unwelcome suitors (that want to kill her husband and get her as a prize, obviously) by outwitting them. Nevertheless, I'm really surprised that a woman is allowed to play such an important role in the story and accompany her husband in his adventures. A great decision, Chrétien de Troyes!

In my book:
Although Erec is not the most popular knight of the round table, Erec and Enide is a good introduction to the topic. It's rather entertaining and only at times repetitive.

P.S. Jean has also written a review on Erec and Enide, so go check it out HERE. Arthurian event is the best, I tell you!

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