Saturday, July 14, 2018

DNF: The Long Ships

by Frans G. Bengtsson 
(translated by Michael Meyer)

This saga brings alive the world of the 10th century AD when the Vikings raided the coasts of England.
Acclaimed as one of the best historical novels ever written, this engaging saga of Viking adventure in 10th century northern Europe has a very appealing young hero, Orm Tostesson, whose story we follow from inexperienced youth to adventurous old age, through slavery and adventure to a royal marriage and the search for great treasure. Viking expeditions take him to lands as far apart as England, Moorish Spain, Gaardarike (the country that was to become Russia), and the long road to Miklagard. The salt-sea spray, the swaying deck awash in slippery blood are the backdrop to fascinating stories of King Harald Blue Tooth, the Jomsvikings, attempts to convert the Northmen to Christianity, and much else. Like H. Rider Haggard, Bengtsson is a master of the epic form.

My Reaction:
This was to have been a shared read with Donald, but we didn't get very far.  I think we were only 16 or 17% through the book (having skipped the introduction for fear of spoilers) when we decided that we just weren't that into this saga.

My main interest in the book was that it was about the Vikings and written by a Swede.  Donald (my husband) is Swedish, so I thought this might be something we could both enjoy.  I don't really know much about the Vikings, but obviously they're one of the more exciting parts of Scandinavian history, so I was curious.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that the book was boring, but it wasn't exactly gripping, either.  You know that nothing too terrible will happen to Orm, since he's the hero of the saga and has to live at least until the end.  That knowledge takes away much of the suspense you might otherwise feel on his behalf, which has a flattening effect.

However, I think what bothered me more was that the novel suffers from "Too Much Action Syndrome".  It's just a fairly simple, straightforward cataloging of the events of a fictional character's life.  "And then he did this, and then he did that, and then (after a spate of lackluster poetry) he did this other thing."

Aside from our hero and Krok (who does stand out, as the leader of the expedition), one character is hardly distinguishable from the next-- or at least we both had a hard time remembering who was who and what their names were.  In keeping with the rest of the book, the characterization felt shallow.

There wasn't enough conversation, charm, and distinct personality (to suit my tastes).  Maybe this changes for the better, later in the book, but we tired of waiting for more depth and color in the tale.

I'm disappointed that we didn't enjoy this more.  It wasn't dreadful, but we weren't excited to keep reading.  After my recent capitulation to the interminable The Far Pavilions (and the flood of elation that followed), I didn't hesitate to suggest that we could set this aside as a DNF, and so we did.

Maybe one or the other of us will try reading it with better luck, at some point in the future.  If so, I suspect it will be Donald who conquers Red Orm; this has been another reminder that sagas really aren't for me.

Since I haven't come close to finishing it, I feel guilty giving it a star rating, but since goodreads seems to require that, I'll have to give two stars...

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

DNF: The Far Pavilions

The Far Pavilions
by M. M. Kaye

(My Ruthlessly Edited Version of the) Blurb:
This sweeping epic set in 19th-century India begins in the foothills of the towering Himalayas and follows the adventures (and romance) of Ashton/Ashok/Ash.  A young orphan born to English parents but raised as an Indian, he struggles to belong completely in either culture. 
(Some think that) M.M. Kaye's masterwork is a vast, rich and vibrant tapestry of love and war that ranks with the greatest panoramic sagas of modern fiction.

My Reaction:
I have been slogging arduously through this "saga" for months and months (because I've lacked motivation to read, not because it's at all challenging material), only to finally decide that the time has come to throw in the towel and let this become a DNF (Did Not Finish).

The novel started off promisingly enough, and I did enjoy parts of it and was touched by aspects of it (Ash's adoptive mother, Sita, in particular), but the enjoyable moments became too few and far between, and I eventually recognized that there wasn't anything that could happen in the remaining quarter of the book to make it worth continuing to read.  So I just skimmed the rest!

I found that my two main predictions proved correct...

(Wally dies; Ash and Anjuli go off in search of their peaceful valley in the Himalayas)

...which was all I even remotely cared to know, at that point, and skipping to the end means that I probably saved myself another month or two of forcing myself to read something I no longer wanted to read.  (Ah, sweet relief!)  Basically, I spared myself the Second Afghan War portion of the novel, and I count myself lucky. 

The Far Pavilions has 964 pages.  A book that long might be okay if it's a real page-turner.  This was not one of those books.  Also, the novel seems to have been promoted as more of a romance than it really is, so there's an element of false advertisement.  (Though to be honest, I don't think a stronger emphasis on the romance would've helped in this case, because this author's version of romance leaves me cold... It's not her strong suit, imho.)

If you're interested in the history of India as part of the British Empire, give this a look.  Personally, I found it just didn't keep me interested enough, so I rarely wanted to read it, which is a very bad quality in such a long book!  Part of the problem is that I'm probably just not cut out for sagas.  Terribly sorry, but I get bored; I got bored, and now I'm so so so happy to put this book behind me and never look back.

I'm giving it three stars because while I just couldn't find the will to finish it, parts of it were good.  I think it deserves three stars despite my difficulties with it.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

The Fifth Elephant

The Fifth Elephant
by Terry Pratchett

They say that diplomacy is a gentle art. That its finest practitioners are subtle, sophisticated individuals for whom nuance and subtext are meat and drink. And that mastering it is a lifetime's work. But you do need a certain inclination in that direction. It's not something you can just pick up on the job. 
Which is a shame if you find yourself dropped unaccountably into a position of some significant diplomatic responsibility. If you don't really do diplomacy or haven't been to school with the right foreign bigwigs or aren't even sure whether a nod is as good as a wink to anyone, sighted or otherwise, then things are likely to go wrong. It's just a question of how badly...

My Reaction:
Has it really been over three years since we read Jingo (the previous book in this series)?  I can't believe how fast the time goes...

I've only ever read Pratchett as a shared, read-aloud experience, and I think we usually select one of his novels at Donald's suggestion.  I enjoy Pratchett's work while I'm reading it, but it doesn't seem to leave a lasting impression on me, other than a vague memory of "generally amusing".  Part of the problem is that I just don't connect with his work emotionally, for some reason.  (Well, maybe with poor little Gaspode... What can I say?  I have a soft spot for dogs!)

So, knowing how I typically react to Pratchett, The Fifth Elephant was as expected.  It was entertaining.  Parts of it were very funny.  I enjoyed reading it (except maybe for a few parts, such as some of the comparatively dull dwarf stuff... and Angua's angst, which merely annoyed me, because evidently I'm not a huge Angua fan).

It was a good experience, all told-- but no matter how many of these books I read, I don't think I'll ever feel like I truly care about most of these characters or think about them unprompted in my daily life, the way you do with some of your favorite books and characters.

The next time Donald suggests Pratchett, I'll probably give my usual mental shrug.  "Eh, yeah, ok.  Might as well."  I'm sure I'll enjoy it once we're reading, but the prospect won't fill me with great excitement, because it never does!  (I even feel a little guilty about it, but there it is!)

However, because I do enjoy (most of) the reading in the moment, I'll grant this one 3.75 stars and round up to four.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Clouds of Witness

Clouds of Witness
(Lord Peter Wimsey #2)

by Dorothy L. Sayers

When blood stains his family name, Lord Peter fights to save what he holds most dear. 
After three months in Corsica, Lord Peter Wimsey has begun to forget that the gray, dangerous moors of England ever existed. But traveling through Paris, he receives a shock that jolts him back to reality. He sees it in the headlines splashed across every English paper—his brother Gerald has been arrested for murder.
The trouble began at the family estate in Yorkshire, where Gerald was hunting with the man soon to be his brother-in-law, Captain Denis Cathcart. One night, Gerald confronts Cathcart with allegations about his unsavory past, leading the captain to call off the wedding. Just a few hours later, Cathcart is dead, with Gerald presumed to be the only person who could have fired the fatal shot. The clock is ticking, and only England’s premier sleuth can get to the bottom of this murky mystery.

My Reaction (with marked SPOILERS):
(This was another shared read with Donald.)

This is the third "Lord Peter" book we've read. The first in the series, Whose Body?, didn't make a lasting impression on me, for some reason. I can barely remember anything about it at all, good or bad. (This may say as much about my memory as it does about the book.) More recently, we read a collection of short stories, which I enjoyed (on the whole), but which skips down the entire chronology of the novels (and obviously is made up of short stories, which I don't usually like quite as much as novels).

In brief, this was enjoyable in spots, a little less so in others. I'm happy enough to continue the series, especially since I understand that some of the strongest books are yet to come.

I found it more than a bit ridiculous that...

Um, spoiler alert? this group of people (including Lord Peter himself!), cheating at cards was apparently more scandalous and less understandable/forgivable than cheating on your spouse. I'm not at all impressed by that, if I'm honest, and it has slightly lowered my good opinion of Wimsey, for the moment. Maybe he'll redeem himself in the next book.

While a particular plot point... Hm.

Time for another SPOILER ALERT!

As I was saying, while a particular plot point (the fact that the "murder" wasn't actually a murder at all) may have been relatively fresh and original when this was written, it doesn't have quite the same element of surprise, these days.  Add to that the fact that I don't love it when murder mysteries turn out that way and we have another minor strike against this book, from my point of view. That said, if you don't guess what's happened, you get all the same fun of trying to unravel the mystery, no matter what the solution turns out to be.

To end on a positive note, I enjoyed the overall feel of the book-- especially the bright spots of humor. As has been said before, Lord Peter is a more intelligent and capable version of Bertie Wooster, which is a selling point for the Wodehouse fans among us. He even has his own type of Jeeves in the unflappable Bunter!

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Lucky Jim

Lucky Jim
by Kingsley Amis

Regarded by many as the finest, and funniest, comic novel of the twentieth century, Lucky Jim remains as trenchant, withering, and eloquently misanthropic as when it first scandalized readers in 1954. This is the story of Jim Dixon, a hapless lecturer in medieval history at a provincial university who knows better than most that “there was no end to the ways in which nice things are nicer than nasty ones.” Kingsley Amis’s scabrous debut leads the reader through a gallery of emphatically English bores, cranks, frauds, and neurotics with whom Dixon must contend in one way or another in order to hold on to his cushy academic perch and win the girl of his fancy.

My Reaction:
(Shared read with Donald.)

I chose this novel from one of those lists of "best humorous fiction", possibly suggestions for fans of P.G. Wodehouse. Apparently, it's a classic. The funniest novel of the last century! (Or latter half of the last century, depending on who's making the list...)

Hm. Well, skimming some reviews, it's clear that I'm not the only one who feels slightly befuddled by its generally high ranking. Now, to be fair, there are amusing moments, but it's simply nowhere near as funny as you'd expect it to be, based on its sterling reputation.

Maybe the comparisons to Wodehouse threw me off... (Wodehouse is better, by many magnitudes. And he manages hilarity without being nasty or mean-spirited, which is even more impressive!)

Lucky Jim has its good points, but I don't think it's a masterpiece. I didn't love it, and it doesn't inspire me to read more from this author.

Oh, and the face-making gimmick got old. Remembering all the time I wasted trying to picture the latest weird face he was making, I'm considering docking the book another star... But no, I'll be generous and stay with three out of five. (Yes, it's a generous three-star rating. You don't realize how tempting it was to shrug and just skim the last half of the book.)