Ten Books that Have Been Recommended to Me and How That Turned Out (or, I Am a Grump)
(based on the prompt from The Broke and the Bookish)
1. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami
Making its second appearance in two weeks, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was lent to me whilst I was travelling in India. Murakami’s writing style lends itself well to travel reading, as it’s all a bit odd anyway so if you don’t read for a while and forget something, you’re probably not missing out too much. In comparison, I read Kafka on the Shore when back in the humdrum of everyday life and wasn’t particularly impressed, whereas the short stories in After the Quake were more successful. Murakami is good in small doses is what I’ve learnt.
2. The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern
How has this book only got 4 stars on Goodreads?! It might not be my very favourite book, but it is well written, has a great story, interesting characters and incredibly beautiful imagery. It is also the only, ONLY book that I have yet encountered which was enjoyed by everyone I know who read it. I bought it for a friend having seen positive reviews, she read it, loved it and gave it back so I could read it. It was then lent to another friend, who loved it and bought her own copy, I bought my own copy and it was lent to at least two other people who loved it. All these people have totally different taste in books and yet, in the Venn diagram of enjoyable books, we all overlap at The Night Circus. If you haven’t read it, do.
3. The Scarlet Pimpernel – Emmuska Orczy
My buddy is an avid collector of books by the Baroness, so to see what all the fuss was about I read The Scarlet Pimpernel. My goodness, isn’t Marguerite annoying? She reminds me of that quote from Black Books: “He looks surprised. All children look surprised. Everything’s new to them!”. Everything seems to be a surprise to Marguerite, including that her husband has been spiriting off French nobles right under her nose. I think I’ll stick to watching the BBC version starring Richard E. Grant.
4. Bitter Greens – Kate Forsyth
My love of Versailles and French history is painfully clear to the people I know (see my post The Unfortunate Princess), so I was lent Bitter Greens, as a fair proportion of the plot takes place in Louis XIV’s Versailles. This book has a great concept, the story of Rapunzel, told by Rapunzel herself (here called Margherita), the witch, and one of the first authors of the story, Charlotte-Rose de la Force. The stories all intertwine and the plot bounces backwards and forwards in time (sometimes excessively so), and it’s clear that Forsyth did a huge amount of research into 16th and 17th century Venice and France. But, unfortunately, it seems as if she was determined to use every single fact that she discovered, so there’s sometimes an avalanche of historical detail which can distract from the story. There is also a lot more romance than I expected (romance is not my favourite genre as my book choices probably reveal), but that might work for people who aren’t me. Worth a read, but bear in mind that there is more than one instance of rape (I though I’d point this out as it is unexpected and I object to it being used as a plot point).
I read these years ago so this is only going to be a general impression. The Lies of Locke Lamora was a great read, it has fantastic world building and the main characters have some interesting back story set up in preparation for the planned sequels. It also seemed at the time to be somehow different to the other fantasy books being released, possibly due to the swearing, but also due to the potential paths the story could take. Then along came Red Seas Under Red Skies. I loathed this book. It’s bloated (over 500 pages long) and yet nothing happens for hundreds of pages at a time. The whole middle section is tedious, it’s filler and serves no purpose. Let’s just say that I own The Lies of Locke Lamora but will never own Red Seas. In a related footnote, I have had The Republic of Thieves next to my bed for months, but I’m too scared to read it in case it’s bad (it is also unnecessarily long, 650 pages this time). I have had two positive reviews, but at least one of them didn’t think Red Seas was that bad…
Again, haven’t read these in years, but from memory they were cute. The Eyre Affair was the strongest and benefits from having Jane Eyre to draw from. I do like the expansion of Miss Havisham in the later books, if only to see her enjoy herself, albeit non-canonically, and it’s fun to try and pick up on all the literary references. I notice that there are several more books in the Thursday Next series, but I’m not sure that I’ll read them as the concept was getting a little tired already.
7. The Tournament – Matthew Reilly
A different friend is a Matthew Reilly fan (although I think this may be starting to wane), so she lent me The Tournament. I’ve never been that bothered about reading his books as I loved Ice Station, but to me, the quality has just never been there since (if you are interested in reading a Reilly book, read Ice Station, it has killer whales and a submarine!). The Tournament posits an alternate history in that a young Elizabeth (the future Elizabeth I), travels to Constantinople to witness an international chess tournament, then someone is murdered and her tutor is tasked by the Sultan with finding the murderer. So far, so silly. I don’t actually mind the concept, although it requires a massive leap of logic, and it’s clear that Reilly’s done his research into the time period. But here comes the however, and it is that the murder plot (the real basis of the plot) is rubbish. It is similar to one of the less convincing Agatha Christie plots, with multiple murders and murderers all over the place. Meanwhile, one of the minor character’s entire purpose is to act as some weird moral lesson, which is both annoying and preachy. Like Bitter Greens, The Tournament also has some unexpected and unnecessary (although you could argue that they are almost always unnecessary) rapes, with bonus references to child abuse. The book does actually have a warning at the start about ‘adult themes’, although I’ve never noticed one on his other books which regularly feature wholesale slaughter and dismemberment. Interesting distinction.
8. Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood
One of those books that wasn’t at all what I expected. My only previous experience with Atwood was The Handmaid’s Tale in high school, which scared the hell out of me, so I was a little wary about Alias Grace. I was pleasantly surprised to find an engrossing fictional interpretation of a historical murder. The depth of historical research is obvious but is well dispersed throughout the story (probably helped by the fact that at the time of reading, I had been reading about 19th century prisons and girls in domestic service so I had some general knowledge of the setting). I feel more confident in reading Atwood’s Oryx and Crake now (another recommendation).
9. City of Saints and Madmen – Jeff Vandermeer
I love this book, which is why it keeps turning up again and again in my posts. But it is a recommendation, so it’s not like I’m cheating. This was recommended to me by a girl in my Classics class, way back in undergrad, and to her I will be forever grateful! Thank you Laura, wherever you are!
More silly books, this time though it is totally intentional. Lucifer Box is an Edwardian dandy who is also a secret agent (The Scarlet Pimpernel strikes again!), a magnificent cross between James Bond and Sherlock Holmes. In a wonderful piece of plotting, the three books are spread out over Lucifer Box’s lifetime (I like good planning in a series), so past events and characters can be referred back to and Box’s increasing age actually has a bearing on the way the plot unfolds. They can be a bit hit and miss, but enough is good to make them enjoyable.