Classics · Fiction · Humor

Miss Buncle’s Book

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by: D.E. Stevenson

I can’t believe I’ve gotten this far in life without having heard of D.E. Stevenson or Miss Buncle’s Book. It’s a travesty.

Miss Buncle’s Book is the kind of funny, delightful, and genuinely sweet book that I just adore.  It follows the adventures of Miss Buncle, a frumpy spinster resident of the charming British village of Silverstream.  Finding herself financially embarrassed, Miss Buncle resolves to make a dollar or two by writing and publishing a book.  Rather fortunately, Miss Buncle is only able to write about what she knows, and the only thing Miss Buncle knows is her own small village.  Unfortunately, despite her clever name-changing, the residents of Silverstream soon recognize themselves in the pages of the much-lauded novel, Disturber of the Peace.   Hijinks, as you can imagine, soon ensue.

This book is absolutely adorable.  At the core of it are people finding themselves, breaking out from the roles they have so diligently learned to play and redefining themselves long after they thought it was possible to do so.  It reminded me strongly of “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” which is one of my favorite movies ever.   

The characters are well-developed and likeable and just good fun.  The mean ones are mean enough to be disliked but not mean enough to concern the reader – it’s one of those books that leave you smiling.  There are developing friendships and developing relationships and established relationships.  All of them are sweet and heartwarming.

The only thing I had a strong distaste for was one of the relationships in the book.  It developed quite wonderfully but it ended on the dynamic of the strong man leading the shy, retiring woman into wedded bliss.  I know it’s somewhat reflective of the times but still… ew.  It felt a bit overly pushy – from his end – just at the very end of the novel; the only dark spot on an otherwise wonderful story.  Especially since that female character had done quite a bit of exploring and growing on her end.

On the plus side, there was (very definitely, by my accounting) a barely disguised lesbian couple in there that reminded me of my grandmothers.  So cute!  And – this is kinda spoiler-y – they get their very own happy ending.  It was very unexpected to find in a book first published in 1936.  But very excellent and it makes me happy about the state of mankind. (Again, how did I just find out about this book?!)

I loved watching the characters bumbling through their journeys of self-discovery. Nothing big happens in the novel; there’s no dramatic tales of treachery or star-crossed lovers.  Just a bunch of delightful people doing more or less everyday things.

If you’re into fun romps and quaint British stories in which nothing truly bad can happen, written about people you’re quite sure you recognize, you might want to give this one a go.  If you’re looking for more meaty novels  with grand themes or tragic characters or if you like a touch of adventure and danger, than perhaps this isn’t the book for you.

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Fantasy

The Shambling Guide to New York City

by: Mur Lafferty

The Shambling Guide to New York City is the first in a new fantasy series.  Zoe Norris, a publisher from North Carolina who’s come back to the Big Apple after a scandal in her home state has forced her to quit her publishing job and start a new life.  She finds a job with Underground Publishing, though everyone she meets warns her against it, and soon realizes she’s in a start-up creating a traveller’s guide for the coterie. (They find the term “monsters” to be pejorative, thank you very much.)

I liked this book quite a bit.  It’s not the best I’ve ever read, but it was funny and well-plotted enough that I always remembered to pack it along in case I found myself with some free time.  Though the normal-finds-herself-in-monster-reality is a fairly common theme now, I like the Lafferty never allows the book to get too dark; indeed, I finished it right before bed and didn’t at all feel the need to purge my mind with something light and funny lest I get nightmares.

Zoe is an excellent character for the book.  She’s determined and intelligent; she does research and informs herself about her new surroundings as best she can, as well as training herself physically to deal with her new surroundings.  However, she’s also aware of her limitations against vampires and zombies and succubi, (oh, my!) and tries to act accordingly.  She doesn’t always need to be rescued – in fact, she does a little rescuing of her own – but she also isn’t unbelievably lucky and/or stupidly brave.   Zoe is realistic – someone pushed into an unfamiliar world who is adapting as quickly as possible but keenly aware of how outclassed she is by those more powerful beings.

Speaking of powerful beings, I like the way Lafferty handled the monsters – er, coterie.  They come off as sympathetic and likeable, just different and vastly more powerful than humans.  Zoe develops friendships with many of them simply because they are fun people to hang out with; others are kinda assholes.  They never quite become too human; the reader is always slightly aware that they are powerful beings.  It’s like you’re dealing with humanities’ first cousins rather than completely alien beings.  I really think that, in terms of character development, Lafferty couldn’t have set herself up better for recurring coterie characters.

This book is the first in the series, and there’s a good deal of world building going on.  I rather like the author’s imagined New York – full of coterie and their hangouts but very similar to modern-day New York.  Each chapter is prefaced with an excerpt from the completed Shambling Guide to New York City which actually works really well.  I really liked New York for the setting – it gave the author a lot to work with, both in terms of places to visit and feature in the guide and people’s conceptions about the city.  The setting is a huge part of the story, so it actually does matter that the author worked so well with it.

There are several storylines revolving around Zoe; I love that even though there’s a small romantic subplot, it’s not allowed to take over the story nor is it featured heavily in the blurb or the cover.  Too often books written by women get the romance subplots unduly emphasized; here it is not and it remains a nice, yet small, addition to the storyline.  Many of the story’s plots get tied together rather nicely.  It’s not very complex but it is well done.

The pacing was a tad bit off in the story, here and there.  The ending, an action-packed bit, went a little too fast for me to able to flesh out why things were happening, especially since the rest of the story is paced moderately.  I think it was a bit too skeleton-y for my taste; a little more exposition would have been welcome during the action-heavy parts.  It is, however, the first book in the series and I imagine that as the rest improve, this series will eventually end up on my must-have-on-date-of-publication list.  As for now, it’s on the keep-an-eye-out-at-the-bookstore list; I don’t want to miss the next book but I won’t be perched on the edge of my chair, either.

If you like a lighter fantasy book with action, adventure, monsters, and a realistic human character, you should definitely give this one a read.  If you like your fantasy dark and your monsters darker, you might want to give a pass.  If you’re a stickler for the best of writing, I would say give this series a few years and then try to get into it.  I think Lafferty’s work is only going to get better.

Comedy · Fantasy · Humor

Men at Arms

menatarms

by: Terry Pratchett

Men at Arms is Pratchett’s take on guns – or, as it’s known in the Discworld, a gonne.  I, of course, was re-“reading” this on audiobook, with the same talks too quickly narrator as last time.  I’m on a Terry Pratchett kick, so don’t be surprised if you see them popping up on my blog fairly frequently for the next month or so.  (Terry Pratchett, by the way, is a British comedic fantasy writer who uses his universe, the Discworld, to do wonderful satires of the Roundworld.)

First off, Nigel Planer read this and while I generally liked him, he got Vetinari wrong.  In my humble opinion, everyone gets Vetinari wrong; I’ve yet to see a depiction that matches the vision in my head.  Also, again, he reads a tad too fast and you can’t slow him down with really screwing up the audio quality.   Finally, the audio quality varied wildly from chapter to chapter.  (The audiobook breaks up the recording into chapters even though Pratchett generally doesn’t.)

Onto the book itself:  I rather like Men at Arms.  It features many of my favorite characters – all of the Night Watch, but especially Vimes, Vetinari, and the occasional appearance by Death, who’s working on his delivery.  (Death is my all-time favorite Discworld character and he usually has a hilarious little side story going on.)  It’s set in Ank-Morpork, which is not at all like a Discworld version of London.

The Night Watch is being forced to implement a diversity program, incorporating dwarfs and trolls and Om knows what else into their forces.  And Pratchett rather brilliantly satires prejudice here – oh, not the overt prejudice that people really notice, but the little, tiny comments and attitudes that can nearly silently and subtly attack people.  It’s funny but very relatable.  And no one is free from these attitudes – it’s nice how even the best of his characters are shown to have some sort of unrealized prejudice.

So, we have the Night Watch, highly diversified.  We have Captain Vimes, a few days away from his marriage to the highest-ranking lady in the city and coming apart a bit at the seams at the thought of his impending retirement.  We have a gonne, the only gonne in the Discworld, being used by an unknown perpetrator.  And we have Corporal Carrot, universally well-liked, respected, obeyed, and born with a fancy sword in mysterious circumstances.  Good times are to be had by all.
I think my favorite quotes were to do with the justice system and how justice ought to be served.  (Vetinari is of the belief, of course, that every crime ought to have a punishment and if that punishment happens to fall upon the perpetrator of the crime, well, so much the better.)  There were also some zingers about a monarchy vs. a dictatorship (Ank-Morpok’s current regime) which I thought were full of some commonly unrealized truths.

Now, Pratchett is British and he does share what I think is (but have no idea if it’s true) a British dislike of guns.  This is a book with the underlying message that guns are evil and shouldn’t be used.  (If you have a different reading, please let me know in the comments!) I’m a Texan and while I believe in reasonable laws regulating ownership of guns, I don’t believe in the abolition of guns – this is one of the few subjects on which Pratchett and I disagree.  It didn’t take away from my appreciation of the book or from the humor; I just didn’t agree with all the points he was trying to make.

So if you don’t want to read a book extolling, however hilariously, the virtues of gun control, if you don’t want to read a comedy where a well-developed and likeable character dies – sorry! but it is a comedy and you do deserve fair warning – or if you don’t like a Douglas Adams’ type wit, than I’d give this one a pass.  If, however, you love absurdist comedy, you love satire and clever truths delivered with a laugh, and you’ve been dying for a book that takes on modern police work, you should definitely give this one a try.

Contemporary Literature · Fiction

We Need to Talk About Kevin

by: Lionel Shriver

This is probably the darkest book I’ve read all year – even Anna Karenina had some light and hopeful moments to it.  We Need to Talk About Kevin chronicles the story of Eva Khatchadourian, mother of Kevin Khatchadourian, mass murderer in a school massacre.  

The book takes the forms of letters Eva writes to her estranged husband, Frank, telling their story from their initial discussions about having to the current day, more or less chronologically. Current day is a little over a year after the massacre; Kevin is imprisoned for his crimes.

The story mainly revolves around Kevin.  Even in her own story, Eva’s letters are a desperate attempt to answer the question: Is she responsible for her son’s actions?  It’s a really interesting read on the nature vs. nurture “debate” (most people agree it’s a combination of both; it’s just assigning importance that we’re still trying to figure out) and the influence a mother has on a child’s development, as well as the reciprocal influence the child has on the mother’s development.

From the beginning, Eva never wanted a child.  She got pregnant with Kevin to please her husband, mistaking a disinterest in raising a child for apathy.  Shriver excellently dissects the indirect pressure on women to have children – the assurances that “you’ll feel differently when it’s your child,” the assumption that because one is female, one wants to have a child, the prescriptive way in which women are supposed to feel about children in general.

The lack of options presented to women plays into this -it is not part of our social framework that women apathetic or on the fence about having kids should err on the side of not having children, rather than assuming they’ll love the baby when it arrives; that a child is a major life change that is not going to magically work out once the baby arrives.  Certainly Eva and her husband never really discuss how they feel about parenting beforehand or how they feel about children – not how they feel about becoming parents, but how they feel about their future child.

Eva’s lack of a desire for a child, coupled with a lack of bonding with her son and an exceptionally difficult baby set up a failing relationship between her and her son.  As Kevin grows older and begins to commit rather horrifying acts (and his mother retaliates, once, much to his delight), Eva finds herself with nowhere  to go.  Kevin brilliantly manipulates his father into seeing only good in him.  In fact, Frank, for all that he is an affectionate and attentive parent to Kevin, doesn’t know Kevin at all.  He ignores the warning signs – the exclusion from playgroups, their inability to keep a babysitter or a nanny, the harrowing tales Eva hesitatingly brings up – and allows Kevin to pull the wool over his eyes as many times as necessary.

Eva, on the other hand, doesn’t bring up Kevin very often.  For all that she sees her son for the (somewhat classical) sociopath he is turning into, she ignores his behavior as much as possible, or allows it to remain solely between her and her son.

In a sense, everyone except Kevin is trapped by societal conventions.  Eva has no on to turn to about her lack of feelings for her baby and later her concerns about his behavior.  Frank is so invested in the idea of a perfect family that he hangs on to his idealization of Kevin as the perfect son until, too late, he can no longer avoid the truth. There are options out there, but it seems like Eva and Frank have never truly encountered them.

Kevin himself is rather an enigma.  One can’t tell if he was born evil or made evil.  Or born with evil tendencies and never prevented from fulfilling them.  Everything he does is done with his mother in mind; why this is so is unclear.  What is clear is that Eva knows and understands him better than anyone else in his life.

Overall this is a rather excellent yet supremely disturbing book.  I rather related to Eva, in her disinterest towards children and motherhood – I have no desire to reproduce whatsoever. I can’t imagine having – and never will have – a baby feeling as I feel.  I don’t blame Eva for Kevin’s actions – I think it’s due to a complex web of influences, events, nature, and social pressures – but I do think there was more she could have done.

If you want a dark, twisted novel taking an unusual stance on a horrifying event, or if you love thought-provoking novels in general, give this one a go.  If you’re not okay with violence, or if you dislike novels revolving around characters that are hard to sympathize with – and these characters are often hard, if not downright impossible, to sympathize with – you may want to give this one a pass.

As always, spoilers are welcome in the comments!

History · Nonfiction

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens who made England

by: Dan Jones

This is the other awesome book I talked about a while back; it took me quite a while to finish it.  Nonfictions generally take me longer to work through than fiction books.

This is a broad history of the Plantagenets, England’s ruling dynasty for over 200 years.  Despite the name, there is a heavy focus on the kings at, I suppose, the expense of the queens. There was reasonable focus on Eleanor of Aquitaine in the beginning of the book but the queens further on in didn’t get much exposure.  (In fact, a few were briefly shown- and I mean a sentence or so – as being important to diplomatic or political events but how or why they were important was never shown.)  So, don’t get too excited about a book that places emphasis on both kings and queens.  This isn’t that book.

Jones’ writing is engaging and informative.  There’s no dialogue – it is a history book – and sometimes it becomes hard to tell people apart. All the men are named John, Edward, Edmund, or Richard; all the women Isabella or Eleanor.  (Okay, this is a bit of exaggeration but only a bit.)  Though Jones did a good job of describing the different personalities, he didn’t always do a good job of helping me keep them separate, especially when they were casually referenced later in the book.

Note-keeping would have been helpful for me, but my brain doesn’t handle details well.  Jones keeps things organized and presented in a logical manner, so if you’ve got a sharp mind for small details you’ll probably find it easier to keep everything sorted than I did.   Otherwise, I think Jones did a good enough job tying the story together into a bigger picture that even without keen mind for dates that I came away with a great understanding of the time period.  (Also the anti-Semitism. Holy cow, people. I had no clue.)

As a broad history, it really works.  The book flows seamlessly from war to domestic and international politics to matters of dynasty and heirs.  I don’t feel like anything was out of balance. Enough action to keep the reader interested, enough politics to keep the reader intrigued, and enough analysis to make the reader think. There are lots of maps of Europe and England and a family tree at the beginning and a list of recommended readings at the end; very helpful!  You don’t have to know much about the history of England to be able to follow (thank god, because at this point my British history is pretty much limited to what I’ve learned from romance novels.)  I really loved the analysis of the kings politically and from international standpoints.   There was a time or two where I felt Jones was overreaching in reading the personalities of the time, but for the most part he asserted his conclusions by saying what he felt the evidence pointed to and occasionally even walked the readers through an analysis of a primary source.

Speaking of primary sources, the really nice thing about this book was that the primary sources were translated into modern-day English.  I loved, loved, loved that. Lovely!

If you’re looking for a broad history of the Plantagenets, or a jumping-off point into English history, than definitely give this book a go.  It’s easy to read, well-balanced and well-written.  It seems fairly unbiased but unfortunately I don’t really know enough about history to say that with any authority.  If you’re looking for an equal focus on kings and queens or if you want a really in-depth analysis of any of these kings, than perhaps this isn’t the book for you.

Uncategorized

What Don’t You Read?

I’ve asked a fair amount of questions on positive reading habits – what you read or how many at one time – and dear readers, you’ve been graciously answering my questions. But now I have a question on the opposite end of the spectrum: What don’t you read? What absolutely turns you off?  Is there an entire genre you avoid, covers or blurbs that you hate?

I don’t like poetry, as I’ve recently discussed.  I’ve never been able to figure out why and I’ll continue to try to like it but so far, no luck.  I refuse to read a book that makes me feel like I have to learn a new language to understand it – I just put down A Clockwork Orange after approximately two pages. Sorry, Burgess!

And I will not, under any circumstances, read horror novels.  I read Carrie and thought, oh King’s not that bad. What’s all the fuss about?  So I picked up Pet Sematary and was terrified of any animal I met after dark for months.  Did I ever mention that I grew up on a ranch and part of my duties was night feeding?  I don’t watch horror movies because I get nightmares for weeks on end and after those two horror novels, I decided that Wikipedia was the only place I was going to read about any horror anything.

So, dear readers, let me know what makes you scrunch your nose and pass up a book.  And why, if you can articulate it.