At first I was ambivalent about this — I’m not a huge Austen fan, but the idea of flipping Pride and Prejudice over to look at the people that supported the Bennets’ lifestyle seemed interesting — and then I got more interested in it and then… I put it down for a day or so while I read The Gospel of Loki, and when I got back to it, I just didn’t care. I think it helped at first that I don’t think it really is that intimately entwined with Pride and Prejudice; most of Sarah’s story is separate from theirs, or at least not so closely linked that you can’t have the one without the other. Which then got kind of irritating — why not take this and make it stand alone, as historical fiction?
Anyway, the problems with it… were mostly that I figured it all out way ahead of time, and then I didn’t care enough to properly read on. I skimmed to confirm what I expected to happen did happen, and then I didn’t care enough to fill in the details. The love triangle, particularly, just sort of exasperated me.
On the one hand, the idea of it is a worthy one — while reading a biography of Austen recently, it seemed that she was more aware of the world that conventional assessments of her reflect, but on the other hand, it also noted that she was weakest with the lower class characters. But Longbourn just didn’t work well enough for me as a story in its own right to reflect back on Pride and Prejudice, which though it isn’t exactly my favourite novel ever, is a clever and witty book.
I don’t get people who find this too dry, or lacking in a sense of wonder about the world. It’s full of a sense of wonder, no less potent because Sagan was agnostic (not atheist, as some people say), and he expresses this almost poetically. While some of the science is falling out of date now, it’s still worth reading Cosmos — as a primer, and for Sagan’s clear explanations of how the world works, and how our understanding got to this point.
I actually have the DVDs of the series as well, and while I know from seeing clips the book and the series are very similar, I’m gonna have to get round to seeing it soon. And if you’ve never heard of Symphony of Science, I definitely recommend it — my favourite is ‘A Glorious Dawn’.
One of the things reading this really made me wonder is what Sagan would think of what we’ve made of the world in the last two decades. We haven’t destroyed ourselves yet, but we haven’t yet disarmed, we haven’t even convinced everybody that climate change exists, and we still haven’t gone any further from our own small planet. I wish we still had Sagan, speaking clearly and rationally about all the problems we face — particularly because he had hope for us, as well as a warning.
Damn, I love the books Angry Robot/Strange Chemistry pick. And I just saw a review complaining that these books are a-okay with homosexuality, pre-marital sex and masturbation. Okay, I’m in.
So, okay, I don’t love this in the way I loved The Mad Scientist’s Daughter. It’s different, lighter. I really did enjoy it, though. I enjoyed how capable the main female character is, and how it’s really her that keeps pulling the powerful assassin’s bacon out of the fire. I liked how they interact, how prickly they both are, and how the romantic subplot doesn’t seem inevitable from the start even when we have a story that apparently involves love’s first kiss.
I enjoyed the world building, too, the types of magic, the not-typically-Western setting (it kicks off with Annana stealing a camel!). At times things seem a little too easy, the pace a little uneven, but it really wasn’t enough to get in the way of the fact that it’s a fun adventure, and I want the next book now.
I didn’t get on with The Other Boleyn Girl, but I was willing to give Philippa Gregory another chance because she is such a loved writer, and it is an interesting part of history — and perhaps more importantly, the portrayal of medieval queens is something I’m really interested in academically. But gah, I’m afraid I’m really wishing I hadn’t bothered, or at least that I hadn’t bothered to buy it. €12!
The problem with it is apparent from the very first pages. Elizabeth moves from a crafty, strong woman who despises the king but does what she needs to out of necessity to a giddy girl who doesn’t even seek proper proof of what’s happening within a handful of pages. By page fifty, she’s desperately in love with him, she’s married to him, she has faith that he’ll come back to her — all based on very little character development, for us, and with no time spent getting to know him (unless, I’m going to be crude, knowing his dick very very well counts) for her.
I actually liked the references to Melusina, etc, because that was something that could well inform someone’s attitude back then. But that was about the only thing I liked. Here is this woman who was strong, capable, and at the very least politically astute if not downright clever — reduced to a melting, credulous little dove over a handsome face. Gregory’s version doesn’t feel consistent, either internally or with history. Other characters are just as mercurial, so it’s not as if this is a clever characterisation thing.
If I ever get to writing a thesis, I’ll probably have to reread this and read a lot of Gregory’s other work, but it’ll be unwillingly.
Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England, Neil McKenna
Despite the claims of meticulous research, Fanny & Stella seems to be mostly a sensational recounting of some admittedly quite sensational events. On the one hand, I felt that there was a lot of delight taken in talking about the “sordid” details — pretty thorough accounts of physical examinations for sodomy, and also a bit of an obsession with the sex as well. It’s also written in many places as if it’s nothing but a story, and it certainly doesn’t keep in mind that for Stella and Fanny, this trial was potentially a death sentence.
On the other hand, from the descriptions here (admittedly this could be the author’s work rather than reality), the two would have loved the attention, the tell-all details, outside the context of, you know, being in great danger. And I certainly learnt about the LGBT community in the Victorian period, and some of it rather surprised me.
The fact that Fanny and Stella were referred to by those names, more or less consistently, and by female pronouns… I couldn’t decide if that was meant to be respectful to them (what were their gender identities? Would they even have had a concept of that as we do?) or if it was meant to drive home at every point the whole “He-She Women” thing going on. Adding to that was the way the author presumed to know what was going on in their minds…
All in all, it’s entertaining but I wouldn’t trust it as solid scholarship, and I’m a bit leery of the author’s motives in writing it. Certainly it felt like there was a lot of prurient interest going on.
I’m really not sure what to think of this. It reminds me of John M. Ford’s The Dragon Waiting, somehow; something about the style, the density of it and allusiveness. I’m sure I missed some things by not being aware of the Vergil stories, not picking up on all the mythological references properly — and I have a pretty good background in that sort of thing, since I took Classics.
It’s a slightly different style than expected, too, I think. It slides seamlessly between scenes without any transition, it slips from direct speech into reported speech — it doesn’t make things easy. I quite liked the writing style, for the most part, but I wouldn’t like it to be a common one, if that makes any sense.
The story itself… it’s a quest narrative, but the quest is more about knowledge than action, at its heart. It’s about making a magical object, in a context where magic isn’t easy, isn’t a shortcut as it can be in other fantasy works. It’s a long slow process, like any other way to make something, and it requires sacrifices and effort. It’s an interesting take on it.
I wasn’t overwhelmingly fond of the portrayal of women — Cornelia, Phyllis and Laura seemed pretty nebulous, and the love aspect was just flung in there — but The Phoenix and the Mirror was something a little different to my usual fare. It just wasn’t as good as I’d hoped.
The idea of creating a proper utopia, as opposed to portraying an idea that was meant to lead to a utopia and ended up being oppressive/only working for the upper class citizens, is not a new one, but it’s not one I’ve seen around much recently. Part of that is probably that it’s hard to make a society like that interesting; my English teacher Mr. E always used to point out that literature is about things going wrong, that what we are interested in is not happy people, but the conflicts they come into. I would add that we enjoy a happy ending, true, but it needs to be earned, whether by an epic battle or a comic series of misunderstandings and angst.
The problem with News from Gardenia, for me, is partly that. It’s a utopian society, and nothing seems to happen through the entire novel apart from the narrator being transported forward in time — where very conveniently, people immediately recognise what’s happened and sort out said hapless narrator.
The other problem is, well, I didn’t like the POV character. I’m not sure if he’s intended to be on the autism spectrum, as another reviewer suggested, or whether he’s just meant to be the stereotypical insensitive nerd guy, but his attitude to his girlfriend from page one was making me grind my teeth, and it didn’t get better. The writing isn’t good enough to carry that, making me wonder if it’s actually a character voice or the author. Blech.
So in summary, not worth it, sadly. But hey, if anyone wants it, I’m putting it on Bookmooch.
The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, Paula Byrne
I have never really been a big Austen fan, which along with my relative indifference to Shakespeare and Chaucer when I began my first degree reaaaally made other lit students look at me askance. I still think that those three are pushed upon us to a ridiculous degree, and often its not even their best work that is touted as The Book To Read (for example, I favour Troilus and Criseyde over The Canterbury Tales, and pretty much anything over Romeo and Juliet). But anyway, I’ve slowly come to appreciate them a little bit more, which will probably horrify my mother (at least where Austen is concerned). Sorry, Mum.
Paula Byrne’s biography of Jane Austen is quite a common sense one. Instead of looking first to her fiction and then trying to extrapolate out to her life, it looks at the objects that surrounded her or inspired her and teases out things from there. I’m not really a scholar of the period in any sense, so I can’t speak as to the accuracy of it, but it reads well and I appreciated this view of Jane Austen as a practical, witty and determined woman, fully supported by her family and with no doubts about her chosen course in life. It debunks ideas like the picture some people have of her being very sheltered and not in contact with the world, putting us in touch with the politics she would have been aware of and the places she went. It has some nice inserts with some of the objects mentioned pictured in colour.
I’m not keeping this book, but I’m certainly donating it to my library — I know that someone who is more of an Austen fan than me will doubtless appreciate it even more, and I’m willing to bet there’s a member of even our tiny little library who fits the bill.
The British: A Genetic Journey, by Alistair Moffat
I generally enjoy Alistair Moffat’s non-fiction writing (I don’t know if he’s written any fiction), although I don’t agree with his outlook on the Arthurian legends (which he even manages to slot in here). It’s very much popular science, or that’s how it feels with the inserted text boxes of “interesting facts”, but the level isn’t really “complete beginner”. I mean, it talks about mapping population movements via comparing particular unique markers, which must mean single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), but it doesn’t really contextualise that much. To me, my classes in genetics and anthropology contemplated this really well. It also talks about mitochondrial DNA and things like that, again without much explanation.
It starts off being general, rather than really a genetic history of the British, because of course, it goes back to the last common ancestors of mankind. It narrows down later on, looking at the various different inflows of new DNA, e.g. to what extent the Romans or the Normans mixed with the people already in Britain. What I was more interested in was the discussion of how Britain’s population got there. I didn’t know, for example, about the land that joined Britain to mainland Europe at one time, Doggerland, so all of that was new to me.
All in all, it didn’t give me many surprises, but it’s pretty up to date (includes stuff about recentish finds like the Denisovans) and, for the British population, pretty comprehensive. I’d have liked a little more about the separate populations of Britain: there are genetic differences, generally, between Scottish, Irish, Welsh and English people, and I’d have been interested to know more about how those groups formed and remained intact.
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, Caspar Henderson
Caspar Henderson’s 21st Century Bestiary is not an encyclopaedia, as some people might expect, but something more in the medieval tradition of bestiaries, mixing information with philosophical and moral comment. It’s interesting, and Henderson’s ideas are well expressed, and I imagine a full colour version of the book must be stunning (my own is the paperback, all in black and white, but I seem to recall seeing a colour edition). It’s definitely not all that scientific, in places, relying on anecdote and going off on tangents into what an organism might have to teach us.
One of Henderson’s major concerns is the environment, and the preservation of Earth’s current biodiversity, for which he makes a good case. Ultimately, if your interest is science, this will probably be unsatisfying: it’s here to demonstrate some of the scope of biodiversity, not to explain it, or even to go very deeply into any one scientific principle (though it touches on plenty).
I do wish it had been better edited — the typos and such are extremely distracting. All in all, it isn’t quite as good as I’d expected from the rave reviews and my quick glance over it in the shop, but it is interesting.