Books I Have Read – February 2012

Since I started chronicling my books in March I thought there’d be at least one back entry. I included some of my January books in this post, so I’m adding in a few books from January in here.

Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov 

(***** of five)

This is one of those books that came in sideways and blindsided me with adoration. I loved it. I expected to LIKE it. I expected a level (rather high level, actually) of deviancy, I expected sex, and I expected overly verbose, didactic passages that weaved between plot. All of that was present, and how. But, beyond that I found that I really cared about these characters, necessary and ancillary, despite all their glaring flaws. In brief, since a description of this novel is nearly impossible in my inadequate words, this is the story of a one Van Veen and his lifelong love affair with his sister Ada Veen. The story is told in five parts starting in the year 1884 when the protagonist and titular character meet. He is an intelligent fourteen, already believing himself a man, and she is a precocious eleven. They believe they are cousins in a already twisted family tree, but soon discover they are both the product of the long affair between her mother, Marina, and his father, Demon. One would think this new information would put a pause of their already sexual relationship, but as he later states; they were young and they simply didn’t care, and then it was too late. The rest of the story has them meet, meet again, be forced apart, but never forget each other.

But then this is the plot and doesn’t even begin to cover what the book is really “about”. It’s also a beautifully crafted meditation on time and memory. Each part of the novel is half the length of the previous, with Part One (often, so I read, considered the last great Russian novel, and it does read with the same fervency as the likes of Tolstoy) taking up approximately half of this six hundred paged tome. ‘Ada’, also, seems to meditate on literature itself, following melodramatic patterns of great novels but never failing to add elements of the absurd. And don’t get me wrong; there were parts of this story that had me laughing out loud.

There’s also the setting. This is not science fiction or fantasy, not in my estimation, but it does take place in a sort of parallel universe, on a planet called Demonia or, often, Antiterra. The existance of Terra (our world) is a perception left to superstition and religion (though the later element is wisely left out of a book with this sort of plot). The majority of Europe is part of England, while North America has been divided by the French and Russians into Canady (French) and Estoty (Russian). Asia is a wild place called Tartary. Antiterra is much like our world, with small exceptions.

‘Ada, or Ardor’ is a notoriously difficult book to read. The first four chapters are hard to get through and Part Four, essentially a dictated essay written by Van on Time melded briefly into his final re-connection with Ada, was arduous though rewarding. But, barring those examples, this book was enormously satisfying and will likely sit on my shelf as one of my favorite novels of all time.

Gigi by Colette

(**** of five)

Having seen this movie more times than I can count I thought it was about time I read the book. Or novella, I guess. I suppose it could be considered a short story really. But, it’s still a complete story. I’ve never read anything by Colette before and this was the perfect place to start. I enjoyed how much of the action was conveyed through the dialogue and enjoyed pretty much all the characters. Of course more detail could have been included and the romance should have been expanded in order to make it more realistic but that’s not the sort of story this was.

 The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman

(**** of five)

 I, sort of, really enjoyed this book. It satisfied the soapy, scandal and secret loving girl in me while still maintaining a level of maturity when it comes to language.

‘The Lake of Dead Languages’ (a title I adore) is about Jane Hudson. At the beginning of the novel Jane has returned to the school she attended years 10 through 12; a formerly elite and now rather downtrodden girls school located in the Adirondacks of upstate New York, as the new Latin teachers. Jane feels as though the lake is calling her back to the school due to a tragedy her senior year which left both her roommates and her best friend’s brother dead of suicide. Now, events seem to be repeating themselves and we discover that nothing was ever as it seems.

When I read or watch something I try very hard to not figure out what is going on before we’re meant to because I like discovering plot points at the point they are meant to be discovered. With this one there was a lot I saw coming, but it didn’t bother me. Probably because there was so many twists and turns that when I thought I had a handle on one aspect there was still another to ponder.

The setting of this book was fairly glorious. I’ve never been to that region myself, but I felt as if I knew exactly what it was like, how it felt to stand on the edge of the lake and watch it freeze hard enough to skate on. The feeling of cold and foreboding was excellent for this story. I only wish there were more words to use in place of “lake”.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this. It was fast paced and satisfying, so long as you’re not looking for something that you need to take completely seriously.

The Night Climbers by Ivo Stourton

(*** of five)

Initially I gave this book four stars, but upon further reflection, I took one of them away. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy this book, because I did, and those three stars are solid. However, afterwards as I lay thinking about this book I realized that I had some major issues, particular with the ending.

‘The Night Climbers’ is essentially the story of James. Young, and fairly naive, James arrives at Cambridge University imagining his life will be spectacular. He’s apparently read a little too much Evelyn Waugh and decides right off that he need to hold back to keep from making the ‘wrong sorts’ of friends and essentially ensures a semesters worth of alone time. That is until Michael Findlay, a former classmate, climbs through his window. Soon James is initiated into the Night Climbers; a group of extravagant co-eds who drink too much, work too little, have their fingers in many scamming pies, and like to climb the edifices of buildings when the weather is up for it. There’s pompous Michael, beautiful Jessica, street-smart Lisa, and Francis, the half African illegitimate son of a Lord who’s wild spending forms the heart of the group. But when Francis’ behavior causes him to be cut off it changes circumstances so substantially that our characters turn to a crime in order to maintain the lifestyle they’ve become used to.

First off, I would have liked more Night Climbing. As the activity leads directly into the title of the book I had imagined that this bizarre, but really sort of fascinating, pass time would be what separated our characters from everyone else. And there’s a good section dedicated to this practice. But then it tappers off and we never hear about it again. Instead they fill their time with eating outrageously expensive meals and drinking. Lots of drinking.

Then there is the crime itself. A lot of exposition is given to it, a lot of explanation. But I never really felt the sense of danger, of urgency that I have to surmise the characters do. It seems more of a fact of something they did rather than the point of the story. And I can only imagine that it is the point, as it’s the bookends that hold the narration together.

Which is another thing; the narration. I wasn’t a huge fan. This story seems like it might have been better served by simply having James narrate it in past tense. Adding in the subsequent story, when he and Jessica meet up again many years later when the crime is potentially going to come to light, seemed forced and unnecessary. Primarily the conclusion.

But, now that I’ve harped over the problems I had with this novel I need to rewind, because I did like it. I might even recommend it to the right person. I thought the characters were richly realized, even if not always likable. I thought the writing was fantastic, Stourton really does know how to string a sentence. And, I thought the circumstances of the plot were really entertaining. I liked these guys, I liked their shenanigans, I felt like I could have sat with them for hours drinking champagne and betting on fixed boxing matches. And that’s a very good thing. So yes, there were issues, enough to take away two stars, but overall I thought it was a very noble effort.

One Day by David Nicholls 

(**** of five)

I make it a point of review every book I read here on Goodreads, but this one I honestly couldn’t find much to say. It was pretty much everything you expect it to be; cute, exasperating, sad. It’s chick lit, but not at the same time. And not just because it was written by a man. It’s a quick read, and satisfying, but there’s really not much to say.

This is the story of Emma and Dexter. They meet the day of their graduation from the University of Edinburgh on St. Swithin’s Day (July 15th) and fail to create a romantic entanglement, though the tension is there. The remainder of the book meets these two characters every year, in St. Swithin’s day, as they live out their lives. Sometimes together, sometimes apart, through all the trials and tribulations that life hands them.

It was good, four stars worth, but it didn’t leave a lasting impression. It’s the sort of book that you put away happy to have read but knowing it didn’t change your life.

Gossip Girl, Psycho Killer by Cecily von Ziegesar

(** of five)

I did not hate this book. In fact, it was hilarious. It was terrible, but in the same fashion as the original books. Now, I read all of them, though I could recognize, even at the time, that they were horribly written with contrived plots. But for some reason I couldn’t seem to look away. It’s true, of course, that I was older than the target audience. And now that this has been released I am older still. What’s funny, to me, is that it’s been sufficiently long enough since these books have been published that I imagine there’s a whole slew of younger readers who are only familiar with these characters through the television show, which is vastly different. Which was why I found it amusing that Ms. von Ziegesar stuck so plaintively to her original characterizations.

But the sloppy characterization and bland, typical parties weren’t the only problems with this book. The deaths also weren’t quite as entertaining as I would have wanted. There were a few that were rather dramatic, but most involved the few words “she swung back her blade and disemboweled a family of five”. Where’s the blood? On a horror level, this wasn’t very satisfying.

But, as I said, I didn’t hate this book. It was amusing to see old known characters behaving uncharacteristically. And who doesn’t like a little murder now and again. I suppose there are a lot of parents putting up a fuss about this but I don’t see that anyone would take this to heart. Everything is so outrageously false.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart 

(**** of five)

Before beginning this book I had high expectations. I’d heard a lot of good things about it. And I was please to discover that I wasn’t disappointed. I’ve read one other book by E. Lockhart, ‘The Boyfriend List’, and while I enjoyed it fully I didn’t feel the need to run out and read the rest of the Ruby Oliver books right away. So I let ‘Frankie Landau-Banks’ (am I the only one that thinks Banks-Landau rolls of the tongue easier?) sit on my shelf for longer that usual. But when I finally picked it up I found myself flying through it, wondering what Frankie would do next.

Let’s start with the fact that I’ve read a lot of YA fiction. Why this is I couldn’t rightfully tell you since I’m obviously not a young adult anymore. But I feel like YA fiction has just as much capacity, perhaps more, to entertain. But ‘The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks’ does a little more than just that. Now, don’t get me wrong, this book is entertaining. It’s even decently written, which is more than I can say for many other YA books. But it also has the important message that girls can be, and should be, considered just as smart, witty, and deceiving as boys. That a girl is not just an extension of her boyfriend and if he views her that way it’s time to say goodbye.

In short, this is the story of Frankie Landau-Banks (obviously). She’s a sophomore at the exclusive boarding school Alabaster Prep and over the summer she’s turned from a beanpole dork into a curvaceous beauty readily turning the heads of the most popular Senior boys. Enter Matthew Livingston, Frankie’s longtime crush, who connects himself readily to our heroine almost immediately. But it’s soon clear that Matthew has secrets he’s not willing to let Frankie in on. He’s a member, and I don’t really think this is a spoiler, of the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds, a good old boys club (read, secret society) that Frankie’s father once belonged to which specializes in lifelong connections and juvenile pranks. And because Frankie’s much more clever than anyone has ever given her credit for she soon knows more than she was ever supposed to. But the one thing she knows above all is that she wants in. Soon Frankie’s far more involved than anyone realizes which sets off a chain reaction of events that will change everyone’s perceptions of the girl in question, both at school and at home.

The plot was intriguing, the characters believable and fun, and the fast-paced tone of the story never allowed it to lag. The only thing I wasn’t one hundred percent on board with was the ending. It seemed, when all was said and done, that Frankie felt somewhat ashamed of what she’d done. Others viewed her as “psycho”. I didn’t. I thought it was awesome. So there were some side effects nobody wanted but in general I can’t really even think of anyone who would condemn someone for pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes quite so fully. Bravo to Frankie, next time it’s unlikely anyone will underestimate you.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King

(*** of five)

There’s no doubt about it; this is a remarkably well crafted book. The characters are always compelling, the mystery dense, and the subject matter well researched. It’s the kind of book that should have received more than three stars from me for all these things, but I found I just couldn’t grant them. There were a lot of things that annoyed me about ‘The Beekeeper’s Apprentice’.

This book is essentially the story of Mary Russell, a vastly intelligent (to a fault) young woman who, in 1915, quite literally stumbles upon Sherlock Holmes in his retirement in Sussex. And because Miss Russell is just so bright and the great detective will never truly retire the two begin to collaborate. She becomes, as the title suggests, his apprentice. Soon the two are solving cases left and right, leading up to a sort of disappointing showdown with a rather disappointing typical villain.

Mary was a great character. It took me a little while to warm up to her, unlike how I had heard I’d adore her instantly, but when I did I found her to be a formidable student and then partner to my favorite detective. The writing, also, was superb. The language and sentence structure managed to be both modern and antiquated at the same time. Just as you would expect a well written novel to be about someone from the Interbellum period. I did, however, have issues.

The main problem I had with this novel was the characterization of Conan Doyle’s characters. John Watson, primarily, and to a degree Mycroft Holmes. Might I just say here that it would be extraordinarily difficult for anyone to write a scene between the two Holmes brothers and manage to sound genuine. Ms. King has them bantering back and forth finishing each other’s sentences with the elder Holmes throwing out comments about how he doesn’t enjoy physical activity. Essentially ignoring Mycroft as a character at all. His presence, in fact, comes off more as one of convenience and necessity than anything else. But Watson was the more annoying problem. The strength, in my opinion, of the Sherlock Holmes stories is not simply that of Holmes, Watson himself is a rather important character; not just as biographer but as translation to the audience about what the hell is going on. Our frustration at Holmes’ penchant for rushing away without explanation is filtered through the good doctor and our concern for the detective through his sometimes roommate about his various vices. But as a human being Watson is a former military man, a crack shot, capable of considerable legwork (despite an injury), and a reasonably skilled detective in his own right. More importantly, Watson is not an idiot, though Holmes remarks of his inferior intellect from time to time, but rather an intelligent man who’s brain works in the normal fashion instead of the remarkably way Holmes’ does. Perhaps my view is skewed, having been introduced to both these characters through ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ where Watson serves as the primary character as well as detective. But it’s hard to ignore the praise, though with often corrections, Holmes often has of his friend. His portrayal in this novel resembled more closely the bumbling, portly fellow that followed Basil Rathbone’s Holmes around the movie screen. And I found it vastly annoying. Even if Mary eventually liked him well enough to call him ‘Uncle John’.

Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse 

(**** of five)

Sometimes I think the things I like best about P.G. Wodehouse books are the names of the characters.

I think it’s hard to review books that have lasted the test of time. Everyone already knows they’re good or else people wouldn’t still be reading them almost a hundred years after the fact. But, I’ll try. ‘Right Ho, Jeeves’ is the second Jeeves novel. I say second, but I suppose I mean second full length book, as valet Jeeves, and his employer Bertie Wooster, are already well known characters through Wodehouse’s stories. This particular one involves one country estate, two couples, and lots of confusion. As always. The story begins with two visitors to Mr. Wooster’s flat; Gussie Fink-Nottle, who’s gone and fallen in love, and Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia, who wants him to hand out prizes at the Market Snodsbury grammar school, much to Bertie’s reluctance. But when the object of Gussie’s affections takes up visiting at Aunt Dahlia’s Brinkley Court and cousin Angela has a falling out with her fiance, Tuppy Glossop, Wooster makes the trek out to the country, trusty valet in tow, to try and fix things with both couples and enjoy some of the chef Anatole’s specialties. Of course, because he’s Bertie Wooster things do not go smoothly.

I mean, I loved this book. It was pretty much exactly what I wanted from it; hilarity, terrible schemes, and amusing vernacular. It’s considered one of the best Jeeves stories and it’s not hard to see why

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About Lindsay

I have a C'est Moi page, you should probably just read that.
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