Review: Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann

613XwhmG+4L._SL500_[1].jpgThis is a story I’ve read any number of times since I first encountered in college, and I decided to try an audiobook this time around.  Big mistake.  I don’t know what the problem was, but it felt like a wholly different book to me, and not one that I particularly enjoyed.  Possibly it was the narrator, a number of people have expressed negative opinions on his work in their reviews.  Possibly it’s a different translation, but I see no indication of who the translator was, and I really don’t have the energy to compare the audio and hard copy versions side-by-side.  Bottom line: this didn’t work for me.

On the off chance that you don’t know the story, writer Gustav von Aschenbach feels restless and takes himself off to Venice where he finds the weather oppressive, but the proximity of a young Polish boy enough to keep him in the city in spite of his health concerns. Much is made of Aschenbach’s work ethic, his moral stance, his belief that will power will carry one through all troubles. And yet in a moment, all of his professional nobility is shattered by the appearance of a luminous boy, a perfect amalgam of Eros, Hyacinth, and whatever other gorgeous, mythic youth Aschenbach’s besotted brain tosses up to explain away the experience of being utterly gobsmacked by desire.

The irony here is so think you need waders.

In the end, we’re the only witnesses to Aschenbach’s fall from grace, from the pedestal which he worked so hard to climb. We don’t really know why he was so smitten, whether there was something in his past which made him susceptible to a beautiful boy. We see him tart his desire up as casual interest, fascination, as a desire to touch perfection, and as love, but by the end, he’s become something he formerly scorned — an old man trying to be a young one — in order to be more attractive to Tadzio. It’s difficult to watch, and yet impossible to look away from the trainwreck of Aschenbach’s end.

Though my favorite Mann story is The Blood of the Walsungs, Death in Venice will always hold a special place in my heart. I’m sorry the audiobook didn’t stand up to the task.

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Review: What Happened, by Hillary Rodham Clinton

34114362[1]I held off on reading this because the election was still too recent, too painful. And yet, what better way to work through it than by reading Mrs. Clinton’s thoughts on her life, her campaign, and yes, on what happened?  I’ve seen reviews that complain that the book was about all these things instead of an examination of what went wrong and I have to scratch my head over that because I’m not sure we can ever really know what happened, not in any granular way.  Too much went wrong.  Clinton takes the blame for the choices she made that proved to be poor ones, she states on several occasions that she was the candidate and the buck stops there.

But she does discuss other factors. Trump’s bitter, divisive campaign that embraced the worst America has to offer. Bernie Sanders (In spite of some reviewers saying she lays all the blame on him, that’s simply not so. Her criticisms are the same ones I had, and I was a Sanders supporter.), James Comey and those emails, third party candidates, Russian interference; they all contributed to her loss.  In the end, Clinton seems to believe that the email kerfuffle so close to the election was the single biggest factor. She rightly blames Comey for poor judgment. But there is no single answer and to her credit, she never tries to offer one.

But beyond that, the reader is given a peek at who Hillary Clinton really is.  Daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, these are rolls she cherishes even more than her political career. We hear about her parents, her mother in particular, who shaped her early years, her husband who supported her in everything she chose to do. (Let’s get this out of the way right now: She admits her marriage was in crisis at one point. They worked through it, which is what adults do if they can. And she says several times that she has never regretted marrying the man who is her best friend. There aren’t any salacious details here, just a woman talking about who she is, and how she got here.)

We get a glimpse into the campaign including a bit of second-guessing, inevitable in a losing campaign. And she talks about coming to terms with the fact that there are people who simply do not like her. I get that.  If all I had to go on was the collection of speeches and commentary she’s made, I might feel the same because she often comes across as stiff and reserved. Her diction is precise and the combination makes her seem a little school-marm-y.  But I know her work, I know her reputation, and I like her very much.  After the election I was sad for what we lost.  After reading this book, I’m sad all over.  She would have been a good, even a great president.

I suspect a great many people are going to be reading this through glasses colored by their political beliefs, which is to be expected, but I would hope that if they’ve gone to the trouble of reading what she has to say, that they will try to do it without preconceptions of how they will react.  Read with an open mind as you’d read anything. That’s the only way to get the value of any book.

I’m grateful to a friend for having gifted the book to me.  He was not a Clinton supporter, but wanted to read it, and knew I did as well. His response was heartening.

Review: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew J. Sullivan

32620349[1]I had bought this book a few months ago in the heat of my challenge to read a lot of books about books, but last night when I was looking for something new to occupy my mind, I realized I couldn’t recall a thing about it.  Why had I thought I’d want to read it?  No clue.  But it was one more book about books I could add to my list, so I began reading. And I was hooked.

Sullivan tells us exactly as much as we need to know about any given character or situation, and he tells us exactly when he needs to.  This is a tight narrative that teases us with clues, but never telegraphs the facts.  I can tell you that the solution to the mystery drove me crazy, and when I realized whodunnit, I slapped my forehead and said, “Oh for heaven’s sake, of COURSE!”  It all made perfect sense, and I never saw it coming.

It’s a book filled with damaged people, though Lydia, who survives a horror I can barely imagine, may be the most damaged of all.  So much so that I found it uncomfortable to be inside her skin for the bulk of the novel. I wanted to shake her and say “Get over it!” all the while knowing that there is no way to get over what she’s been through. Her connection to another damaged soul sets the mystery in motion, and eventually leads to a solution both sordid and heartbreaking.

If the book had a fault it was, I think, that the Epilogue seemed rushed, as if Sullivan had told us what we needed to know and the rest was just sweeping up the crumbs.  I think he could have written it out in a few more chapters to make it more satisfying. But I’m not going to complain too much because I enjoyed the heck out of this book, and hope to read more from Matthew Sullivan in the future.

Review: Ghosts of Wind and Shadow, by Charles de Lint

24931129[1].jpgI needed something gentle last night to ease me through my miserable bout of flu, and to accompany the Christmas music on the radio.  I chose Charles de Lint because no matter how dark he gets, he’s never Dark, never leaves the reader feeling hopeless and helpless. Beneath all the magic in his universe, there is a river of hope, and when I look for comfort, I find it in his stories.

In Ghosts of Wind and Shadow, de Lint introduces us to Lesli, a young woman who feels oppressed by her mother’s insistence that there is no magic in the world, no fae creatures living alongside us, in spite of the fact that Lesli can see them, and knows they’re as real as she is. When it becomes too difficult for her to fight that battle, she runs away from home.

Ghosts is a short story filled, as is most of de Lint’s prose, with the magic of music, which cuts through the world’s darkness (often of human origin.) The Newford universe is a warm, comforting place to retreat to when you’re sick or sad, or just want a quiet pleasure.

Review: Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

36681425[1]Sometimes I look over the reviews of a book before I post my own, just out of idle curiosity, and I was interested to find that there is almost no middle ground on Uprooted. People love it or they hate it. Me, I loved it in spite of its flaws, which I count as hella good story-telling.  And flaws it does have.  The “hero” of the book, known as The Dragon, is a jerk.  Seriously, there’s no other way to describe him.  He has a past which explains some of it, and the fact that he’s shut himself up in a tower with only a single peasant girl (one is taken every ten years, then sent on her way, wealthy but seemingly rootless) for company.  He doesn’t really like the girls, has very little interaction with them in spite of the persistent rumors of him having his way with them. He has cut himself off from all but the most basic human contact for over a century.  Why wouldn’t he be a jerk? He’s forgotten how to treat people.

So on a year of the choosing, Agnieszka expects that it will be her best friend, Kasia, who is chosen.  Kasia is gorgeous, good, graceful, everything Agnieszka is not.  But it’s Agnieszka who is chosen instead. And from that moment, her story becomes something quite different from the one she had expected to live.  She has magic. Agnieszka also has a healthy ego, she doesn’t take The Dragon’s assholery seriously once she realizes that he’s teaching her to be a witch.  She knows she’s good at it, she understands magic at a gut level which is something even The Dragon doesn’t seem to do, being a wizard of rules and precision. Yeah, she’s a bit of a Mary Sue, but we never get the transformation into gorgeous Agnieszka who is desired by all who gaze upon her perfection.  Rather you get a rising heat between her and The Dragon, which they manage to deny until it’s a meeting of equals, and Agnieszka’s conscious decision.

I’m not going to get all shirty about the rules of magic here. They are what the author says they are, nothing more or less, and complaining about how magic “doesn’t work that way” seems fairly pointless to me.  I liked the feel of it, so I accept that it works the way Novik tells us it works.  More than that, I liked the feel of Agnieszka’s magic which is friendly and homespun. What she does in the end seems to me to be a direct result of how her magic has developed over the course of the book.

Had it ended with Agnieszka doing the work she’d chosen for herself, I’d have been completely satisfied because it’s a story of a young woman finding her path in life. She’s helped by her teacher, given strength and purpose by her best friend, and the other people in her village who she cares about.  It’s a story about how an awkward girl becomes a woman who finds her voice, and the best expression of who she is in the magic she chooses to do.  In one thing about her magic, The Dragon was spot on: Agnieszka is a healer, and by the end, we see how powerful that gift really is.

So yeah, count me as one who loved this book.  I wasn’t insulted or annoyed by it.  I enjoyed the characters, and felt that the pace was exactly right.

Review: The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye (Millennium, #5), by David Lagercrantz

32599492[1].jpgIt’s officially over between me and Lisbeth Salander.  No hard feelings on my part; I’ll always remember the good times of the Stieg Larsson books, the intelligence, the tension, the memorable, sadistic villains, and wonderful supporting characters.  I tried, I really did, to like David Lagercrantz’s take on the universe, but the previous book left me feeling let down. And this one?  I pushed myself halfway through it and finally bailed.  Yeah, it’s over.

Why? Well for one thing the series has moved into the standard thriller territory where the make and model of a person’s gun or car is way more important than what’s being done with it. I grew to hate that kind of writing when I was ghosting a thriller, and now it just backs up on me whenever I stumble across it.

For another, it takes much of the spotlight off Lisbeth.  Yeah, she’s “the girl” of the title, but you wouldn’t know it to read this book in which Blomkvist, and a host of other characters, all get much more screen time than Lisbeth does.  Maybe it all pays off in the end, but after listening for half a dozen hours or more, I found that I didn’t care because Lagerkrantz has made Lisbeth dull.  He’s done the same to Blomkvist, but it’s not as immediately apparent because at least we get to see a lot of him, get into his head. Unfortunately he still comes across as a lump.

I was not a huge fan of the revelation in the previous book about Lisbeth’s family (not going to spoil it for anyone.) But that it is not only playing a big part in this book, but it is expanded upon, involving another character, left me cold.  I simply don’t care about Lisbeth’s horrible family and its twists and turns.  It should have been left alone, in my opinion.  The trilogy was a complete arc.

I won’t be bothering with any more of these books, much as I loved the trilogy.  This makes me sad because I felt comfortable there.  They were like old friends.

Review: The Woman in the Water (Charles Lenox Mysteries, #0), by Charles Finch

34953108[1]Once again I found myself at a disadvantage by joining a series in progress.  The Woman in the Water is a prequel to the Charles Lenox mystery series, and recounts his very first important case, that of two murdered women found in the vicinity of the Thames, one in a trunk, and the other, covered in flowers and laid on a door.  The latter becomes known as the Thames Ophelia because she floated down the river and was beached on the shore.

Or was she? From the very beginning, Lenox finds problems with that narrative, but because he’s an amateur, and the son of a Baronet, the police don’t take him very seriously.  Obviously they should, we all know that from the get-go since this is a prequel to a successful series of mysteries. But it’s a time-honored trope, and it does work, mostly by throwing roadblocks up and proving how resourceful the amateur really is.

Much of Lenox’s origin story is derivative. He’s essentially a Sherlock Holmes-era Peter Wimsey, right down to having a valet who also serves as a detecting partner, being the second son of a lord, and having a close relationship with his mother. Fortunately his elder brother and sister-in-law are vast improvements over the Duke of Denver and his horrid wife. And Lenox’s father seems a genuinely nice man.  Graham is an excellent Bunter analog as well.

As I became familiar with the characters I found myself thinking of the story as pedestrian, but fortunately it began to pick up as Charles takes up the case of one of the two dead women.  By the end, I thought it was a fairly clever mystery, and wanted to read more about Lenox. Finch won me over in spite of what I felt was a lackluster start to the novel.  In the end, there is a lot to like about this book, and like it I did.

The month is looking up!

Review: A Long Day in Lychford (Lychford, #3), by Paul Cornell

34836331[1]I can’t say I enjoyed this story all that much. Because I’m not familiar with the universe and characters (I haven’t read books 1 and 2) I was at a disadvantage.  I never got a feel for the characters, or what the dynamics were between them.

I might have gotten more from the story if I hadn’t found Cornell’s writing style rather distracting.  I can’t tell you what specifically bothers me about it, but I found my attention wandering, and being more than a bit annoyed by some of his choices.  I’m not sure any of this is entirely Cornell’s fault, or entirely mine, but because of these issues I can’t give a thumbs up. Nor am I willing to give a thumbs down because it’s an interesting idea, and the writing, despite my problems with it, is clear and competent.

 

Review: The Burning Page (The Invisible Library, #3), by Genevieve Cogman

29612879[1]The third book in the Invisible Library series does not disappoint, and by the end it seems to raise the stakes in intriguing ways. I would have expected Irene’s nemesis in this volume to be Lady Guantes who, after the second book, had reason to want revenge. But the plot is more complex than that.  There is fallout from book two, but it’s not what we might expect.

I can’t say too much about the plot because that would involve spoilers.  Rather I’ll say that the character development is quite interesting. Irene is on probation at a time when the library is under attack, and is still holding Kai at arm’s length. Peregrine Vale, the Sherlock Holmes analog, is dealing with the fallout from his foray into the chaotic world of Venice. Supporting characters like Lord Silver, Inspector Singh, Bradamant, and Zayanna all have important roles to play here as an ensemble cast comes together to work through the challenges of the novel.

Do yourself a favor and read these books.  They’re well-written and fun, and they don’t take themselves too seriously.

Review: Snake Agent (Detective Inspector Chen, #1), by Liz Williams

18804502[1]The Housemate has been raving about these books for several months, so I thought I’d dive in in December, a month which, so far, has not been what I would call either comforting or joyous.  Fortunately, she was dead right about the Inspector Chen novels. Snake Agent, the first of the series, is an intriguingly different sort of detective fiction which takes place in a world where magic, magical creatures, gods and goddesses, heaven, hell, demons and ghosts all have a role to play in the mystery of a young woman whose soul is stolen after her death, and wrongly sent to Hell.

Detective Inspector Wei Chen, a human detective who nevertheless is quite familiar with the supernatural, takes on the case with the help of a demonic detective who also has a stake in the outcome. Chen serves the goddess Kuan Yin, but they’re not on the best of terms because he has married a demon who he rescued from Hell.  When his beloved wife is forcibly returned to Hell, he knows he’s on his own.

I’m not as conversant with Chinese culture as I might wish to be, so much of Williams’ story was even stranger to me than it might otherwise have been.  The series has been likened to The Dresden Files books, or John Constantine’s adventures, and I think both are apt, but it’s very much outside the western fantasy sphere. It is deeply eastern, deeply Chinese in flavor, and for me that meant taking in an extra layer of meaning and experience.  It’s not difficult since Williams is a good writer, and it makes the reading all the more rewarding.

If you’re up for something different, something fantastic, mysterious, and well-written, you might want to give the first book of the series a try. The mystery is solid, the characters won me over, and the humor is subtle.  I’m anxious to read the next book in the series now.