P. Pufferfish is a good person (a.k.a. City of Fallen Angels gets a review)

Okay, I sat for about 3 minutes and remembered the majority of the plot of CoFA, so here is the review for that, posted AFTER the review of CoLS (could I have done a double-review instead? Yes, but I didn’t think of that till now, so too bad). cityoffallenangels

Today’s other featured bookCity of Fallen Angels (Book #4 of The Mortal Instruments) by Cassandra Clare.

Format I consumed it in: E-book, from the library down the street from me.

The premise: Camille Belcourt, Magnus’s ex-girlfriend from The Infernal Devices, tries to recruit Simon to her side (against Raphael Santiago, who is now her rival/enemy). Simon is hesitant, but doesn’t outright tell her no. He goes home and pretty much gets kicked out by his mom, who has found his bottles of blood and thinks he’s a monster. Kyle, the new lead singer of Simon and friends’ awful little band, offers Simon his spare room to stay in. Simon continues two-timing Isabelle and Maia, which he and Clary both acknowledge is a terrible idea. Random people with Simon attack him as he moves around the city, but the Mark of Cain on his forehead causes them to be blown into smithereens for trying to harm him. So far, CoFA seems to be about Simon more so than anyone else.

Meanwhile, Jace has been having nightmares about killing Clary, so in a fit of noble self-sacrifice/machismo or whatever, he decides to keep away from Clary, who starts to wonder if he really loves her after all. One of Jace’s tactics for avoiding Clary is to play bodyguard to an unwilling Simon, showing up at Kyle’s apartment, staying overnight in Simon’s room (this book is the first time I’ve seen what Jace/Simon shippers have been on about for years), coming to Simon’s shows, etc. Unfortunately, Jace and Clary show up at the same show, and Jace gets distracted from his bodyguarding duties by Clary (of course), and Simon, who’s been going without blood for days, loses control and attacks Maureen, a 14-year-old girl with a crush on him who hangs around his band and is “his only fan”. Man-pain abounds and a ton of bad shit happens.

Simon teams up with the Clave at one point to help capture Camille. Magnus and Alec are called back from their European vacation so that Magnus can interrogate Camille. Alec, upon finding out about his boyfriend and Camille’s past *history*, starts to get super jealous and suspicious about Magnus’s history with everyone from his past that they encounter. And through all of this, Jocelyn and Luke are planning their wedding and even have their engagement party right when things REALLY start to go wrong!

My thoughts: Not gonna lie, I wasn’t going to read the last three books of The Mortal Instruments at all because some friends who’d read it advised against it. I’m glad I read the sneak peek that was included at the end of City of Glass (the one with Camille and her minions and Simon and vampire politics– I’m a huge sucker for vampire stories/lore, with the exception of Twilight), because it got me interested enough to give CoFA a shot. Because my expectations were so low, I wasn’t as bothered by some of the things that happened as I would have been otherwise. Simon’s dilly-dallying in regards to his future as a vampire and his romantic relationships with Izzy and Maia would have normally bugged the hell out of me, but instead, I was much more patient about it.

So, things I liked: Camille. Raphael. Vampire politics! Kyle and Jace’s bromance. Clary playing more of a supporting role in the first half of the book (don’t get me wrong– I like Clary, but having as the protagonist for a while was awesome). How Izzy and Maia handled their discovery of Simon’s two-timing. Izzy and Clary’s growing friendship. The awkward engagement party scene. The evil plot that gets revealed in the second half of the book.

Things I disliked: The characters’ inability to think about the end result at critical moments. Simon’s wishy-washiness. Maureen. And why the hell is Alec trusting Camille? What a horrible idea!

My rating: 4/5. Tbh, I didn’t like it as much as CoLS, but I also didn’t spend as much time groaning during slower parts as I did during CoLS, so I’m going to give them identical ratings. I also can’t remember what I originally rated this as, so this will have to do.

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P. Pufferfish Plays Catch-up (a.k.a. Reviews City of Lost Souls)

Work has been busy and the job hunt continues at its sloth-like pace (I’m at a grand total of 3 applications). I’ve binge-watched Luke CageIron Fist (bleagh, don’t do it, guys– see this article for further dissuasion), and The Defenders, along with a whole season of Grimm (which I started back when the show first premiered, btw), and read four books, none of which I’ve reviewed. Damn, and I had so many thoughts on them, too. Anyways, here’s my attempt to get back into the game (how many times have I said that before?). cityoflostsouls

Today’s featured book: City of Lost Souls (Book #5 of The Mortal Instruments) by Cassandra Clare.

Format I consumed it in: E-book, from the library down the street from my house.

The premise: Yes, I am aware I have no review up for City of Fallen Angels, and I don’t know if I ever will, because quite frankly, I don’t really recall where it starts and ends. I’ll think hard about it after this review is done and upload it right away if I’m able to remember. SO, CITY OF LOST SOULS… the Clave/Council announces that they’re putting the search for Jace on the back burner ’cause let’s face it, more important shit is happening. For example, the wards over Moscow are being destroyed. Wards over other major cities are at risk. Alicante’s wards still need to be reinforced! Clary, predictably, doesn’t take this very well, so she makes up her mind to keep looking for Jace on her own. Fortunately for her, Izzy, Alec (and by default, Magnus), and Simon agree to continue searching. Clary makes the terrible decision of going to the Seelie queen, her most trustworthy and helpful highness, for assistance, and things really kick off from there.

MEANWHILE, Camille is still lying low around New York and trying to persuade Alec to help her with her nefarious plans by talking to him about Magnus’s past and offering him ways for him and Magnus to be together forever. Simon continues to deal with the negative consequences of being a vampire. Jordan and Maia try to enlist the Praetor’s help. And Mr. Creepy McCreeperson (a.k.a. Sebastien a.k.a. Jonathan Morgenstern) is being the absolute creepiest person ever for a YA novel villain. YEESH. You’ll see when you get to his part. My goodness me.

My thoughts: I truly believe my enjoyment of this “sequel trilogy”, as I’ve labeled it, has been greatly enhanced by my reading of The Infernal Devices. There are some TID easter eggs in this second set of Mortal Instruments books that got me way more excited than they should have, let me tell you that.

Things I liked about CoLS: Aline introducing Clary, Alec, and Izzy to her girlfriend Helen and thanking Alec for inspiring her to come out (awww)! Simon’s new status as voice of reason/comic relief in the group. Magnus’s apartment being turned into a halfway house/safehouse for shadowhunters and other non-humans who are on the move. Simon and Izzy! The more intimate glimpses into Magnus and Alec’s relationship. Jocelyn and Marys trying to be good moms/partners/shadowhunters/action-takers/role models.

Things I disliked about CoLS: All that time wasted describing Clary and robot-Jace’s dates in detail. Clary’s terrible, reckless choices. Okay, so she eventually redeems herself, but who the fuck thinks it’s a good idea to do what she did during that very crucial moment about 2/3 of the way through the book? Alec and Magnus’s lack of communication, although that didn’t bug me as much as it should have until THE VERY IMPORTANT, INFAMOUS MOMENT NEAR THE END WHEN IT TRULY MATTERED. The rehashing of the Lilith plot– good god, is this Supernatural? She needs to go. And finally, MAUREEN. I cannot stand her. Perhaps I’m biased against annoying 14-year-old girls; I don’t think so, considering I work with them quite often as a teen services-oriented library person. But the thing at the end with Camille? What the fuck? Did anyone else think that was a WTF moment? ‘Cause I most certainly do. I hope Cassandra Clare explains it in a way that makes sense in the last book so I don’t feel ripped off.

My rating: Overall, a 4/5. I quite enjoyed reading this book. Sure, I was creeped out and spent more time cringing and yelling “OH, COME ON!” at the characters than I would’ve liked, but it was still a pretty good book. Half a star off for the ending (the last 20 or so pages) and half a star off for Clary’s *MOMENT* that I mentioned earlier.

P. Pufferfish loves Shadowhunters, steampunk, and Victorian England, but hates love triangles.

I’m writing book reviews out of order today because I did what everyone told me not to do and immediately started another book after finishing one yesterday. So now my head is filled with nothing but Victorian England and gray and rain and clockwork apparatuses. Guess what I was reading?

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This is most definitely NOT how I pictured Jem in my head.

Today’s featured book: Clockwork Prince, by Cassandra Clare (Book #2 of The Infernal Devices trilogy). I realize I don’t have a review of Clockwork Angel to link to; that’s because back then, I wasn’t as responsible when it came to recording/logging books I completed as I am now. Do I really need to go back and review it, though? I don’t think so– there are a GAZILLION reviews of Cassandra Clare’s books out there, 90% of them better than mine.

Format I consumed it in: E-book, from the library next to my house.

The premise: This is a sequel, so if you’re looking at it, I’m assuming you’ve already read the first book. This one picks up right where the last one left off, with Tessa and Will still being all awkward around each other ’cause he had to be all dumb and cruelly reject her right after they had their *moment* and kissed in Clockwork Angel (*whispers* but don’t worry, he has NOBLE REASONS for doing what he did!). The Shadowhunter world is still in mortal danger, though, so no time to dwell on feelings! Charlotte and Henry (the latter in name only) are at a hearing(?) to decide whether or not they (read: Charlotte) are suitable to continue running the London Institute. Sexism abounds, and that old git Benedict Lightwood offers himself up as a better choice as Institute head. Some other important people agree with him because Charlotte is young and female and supporting her is riskier and comfortably ensconced people don’t like taking risks. Also, conservatism and sexism and all that. The Consul, who is the head honcho/the man who appointed Charlotte as her father’s successor in the first place (the Head of Institute title isn’t hereditary), gives her two weeks to find/capture Mortmain and “redeem herself”.

And yes, this means the rollercoaster of feelings, confessions, meetings, comings, goings, revelations, etc., all happen in TWO WEEKS?! I’m having trouble absorbing that myself– perhaps my timeline is off? Hmm. Anyways, Tessa is still torn between her feelings for Will and her feelings for Jem, the Lightwood brothers get more screen time, a pairing that I saw coming from a mile away becomes a thing, Charlotte and Henry continue to be adorable, and Nate Gray is still a complete asshole. Oh yeah, and Tessa learns one more tiny thing about what exactly she is and how she may have come to be.

My thoughts:

On the romance: I really enjoyed this book aside from one rather large factor: THE GOD-DAMN LOVE TRIANGLE. I can’t stand triangles. They’re not so bad when they’re fleeting or more one-sided. For example, there was technically a little triangle thing going on with Tessa-Jem-Sophie, but Sophie had more of a schoolgirl crush on Jem and it was clear that Jem only cared for Tessa in that way, so it was all right. Even the Jace-Clary-Simon triangle in The Mortal Instruments was better, weird incestuous situation aside, since no one fricken believed that Clary would pick Simon in the end (they even set things up for Simon to eventually move on with other potential love interests popping up all over the place!). The triangle in Infernal Devices is more along the lines of the one from Hunger Games— all-consuming, annoying, and completely unnecessary! Just once, can’t a female YA protagonist have nothing but pure friendship with a YA male protagonist? She can get with one male protagonist in the end, but why do they BOTH have to vie for her affections? I want more close male-female friendships in YA novels! In any novels!

I suppose that in this one unique case, there is an added tragic element to the triangle because Jem’s dying and Will and Jem are closer than brothers and all that (to me, being parabatai sounds a lot like being married), but I still spent half the book groaning aloud and wondering why Cassandra Clare couldn’t have just made Jem and Tessa become drawn to each other like brother and sister, since he’s an only child and she just got betrayed by her “brother” and is all alone as well? OR! She could have completely flipped the script and made Jem and Tessa get together in the ultimate tragic way and Will and Tessa could be best friends, bonding over books! IN ANOTHER UNIVERSE…

[BIG SPOILERS] I also disliked the Jessamyne/Nate thing because I can’t imagine someone being that stupid, but hey, what do I know? Charlotte and Henry… AWWWW, just AWWWW… I shipped Sophie and Gideon as soon as they met, so I was very happy about that; the whole class lines thing was done pretty well, imo.

On the rest of the book, like the plot and all that: It was still fast-paced SOMEHOW, despite all the pauses in-between for Tessa or Will to lament about their feelings. There were seriously paragraphs/pages of nothing but pining/anguish/making out, but things still chugged along smoothly. Most of the other characters who appeared are pretty memorable, and Mortmain remains a frightening and sinister force despite not once making an appearance in this book. The clockwork automatons are also largely absent, so the focus is more on the investigation. I did have a problem with the Gideon/Benedict Lightwood thing and how it played out. I just thought the way Gideon defects is done too easily. And how the hell did Benedict throw a huge, expensive party for denizens of the Downworld without SOMEONE from his world catching wind of it? Sure, he threw it in his family’s mansion away from the city, but these are still wealthy English families living in Victorian England– word gets around. How the hell did he manage to keep everything a secret? THESE ARE THE MINOR THINGS THAT I WONDER ABOUT WHEN READING OTHERWISE GOOD STORIES.

Rating: 3.75/5. I think that if I were to give a fair, unbiased rating, it would be a 4/5, but this is MY rating, so I’m taking a whole star off for the love triangle and an additional quarter of a star for MINOR PLOT THINGS.

P. Pufferfish: On the road to becoming a John Le Carré fan?

Really quick note: I reorganized the Reviews page so that my meager number of reviews are now grouped by decade of publication. I’m hoping it’ll help me see gaps in my reading (not that I have much desire to read as many old books as new ones). Anyways, jumping right in.

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Today’s featured book: A Murder of Quality, by John Le Carré.

Format I consumed it in: Print, from the library where I work. They actually didn’t have AMoQ on its own– I had to check out the edition that came in the same volume with CFtD. 

The premise: Smiley, now retired, receives a request from an old war-time colleague, Ms. Brimley, who is working as the editor of a newspaper: a long-time reader/subscriber to the newspaper, Stella Rode, has written to tell her that she’s afraid her husband is going to kill her. Considering that their correspondence mostly consists of bland advice and recipes, this is a bit alarming. Smiley agrees to investigate, but before he can even get started, lo and behold! They receive news that Mrs. Rode has been brutally murdered! Smiley immediately heads off to Carne, the location of an expensive boarding school where Stella’s husband, Mr. Rode, teaches; coincidentally, it’s also the place where Smiley’s ex-wife, Lady Ann, grew up.

The staff of the school are stuck-up and desperately trying to hold onto the old ways, despite evidence that this isn’t working. The inhabitants of the town, including the police chief, don’t mix with the staff, but are still closed off and conservative in that small-town way. Everybody is nasty and suspicious, but nobody seems to have a really good, solid motive, which does it make it a bit tricky to figure out who the murderer is.

My thoughts: I am glad I didn’t give up on the Smiley series after the first one, because Le Carré’s writing really improves in the span of just one year/one book– the pacing is better, the big reveal is done in a much more logical/satisfying way, and although he still uses the typical giant-explanatory-paragraphs-to-show-how-a-crime-was-perpetrated method, I wasn’t bothered by it because he got his timing right. George Smiley himself is also much more likable in here.

That said, this wasn’t a particularly original or refreshing mystery novel or anything like that. It was a bit formulaic, but I’m reading it in 2017 after a shit-ton of other similar novels have been published/adapted into TV series and movies. AMoQ reads like an Agatha Christie novel, which was a bit surprising to me, because Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (the movie/my introduction to Le Carré) is completely different.

Rating: 3.5/5. I liked it, but I didn’t REALLY like it. I gave an extra star for the ending, though– it threw me off a bit and I’m still thinking about it, trying to decide if I liked it or not.

 

“Spring 2018 can’t come fast enough!” said P. Pufferfish.

I have no interest in another year speeding by and me aging up faster than I’m ready to, BUT! Last night (or rather, this morning), I finished a book that I absolutely LOVED and just saw that the sequel will be available around May of next year. I cannot WAIT! I want it NOW!

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What is today’s featured book?: Amberlough, by Lara Elena Donnelly, who, by the way, is not much older than I am, I think. She was featured in this episode of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is where I first heard about her and her book, so she has to be very young.

Format I consumed it in: E-book. I didn’t wait for it to go on sale or anything, despite my annoyance about e-books sometimes costing the same as/more than print books– that’s right, I paid full price for this book, and it was worth every penny!

The premise: Here are the players:

Cyril: 35, cunning, manipulative, bears a remarkable resemblance to a famous fictional movie star, comes from a long line of famous diplomats. Suffering from trauma from a previous mission gone wrong. Occupation: Spy. Although he’s described as 5’7″ and blonde, I kept picturing Richard Madden the way he looked in Sirens as Cyril, except with dark blonde/reddish hair. That image really grew on me, and now I can’t imagine anyone else as Cyril.

Aristide: 41 (42?), incredibly alluring, calculating, confident, flirtatious– a self-made man of many talents. Occupation: Master of Ceremonies/performer and notorious head of a smuggling ring.

Cordelia: Age unknown, stunning, sharp as a tack, loyal to a fault, resilient, brave, resourceful. Occupation: Showgirl.

The story is set in an almost alternate-universe version of Europe towards the end of the Jazz Age (it feels like the transition from the 20s to the 30s). The cities and states are all fictional, all part of a fictional country surrounded by other fictional countries, but they’re very familiar and clearly resemble real European cities during that time period.

I’ve read several reviews that call this book “timely”, and I have to 100% agree– the main conflict here is the government takeover by the new Ospie party and its leaders, who are mostly represented by conservative businesspeople who detest show biz and “out of the norm” relationships and everything else that’s fun in life. They also have a thing against immigrants and many of them seem to be racist to some extent. Everyone knows the election results were tampered with, opposing party politicians are forced to resign or are arrested after being framed for various crimes, the entertainment district is repeatedly raided, businesses are shut down, strict travel restrictions are implemented, riots are breaking out….. basically, throughout the novel, we are witnessing the transition of a state from flawed and slightly corrupt to completely fascist and corrupt, and get to see how our protagonists deal with these changes.

All three main characters are people who are used to operating from the shadows and more or less do illegal things on a daily basis. They are not pure, warm, friendly characters– they have all experienced life and are somewhat self-serving and suspicious of everyone. Their lives and work also overlap a lot: Cyril is in a romantic relationship, more or less, with Aristide, and many of his poor decisions are made to keep both himself and Aristide alive. Aristide has his own problems and network of friends/acquaintances/employees/colleagues/contacts, etc. to worry about, but I would say his actions are influenced by his feelings for Cyril as well. Cordelia is Aristide’s co-star and the only one of the three who actually tries not to throw her associates under the bus to save herself whenever a problem arises. Without further spoilers (in this section, at least), we move on to

My thoughts: This book was a fantastic read for me. I loved all three protagonists, especially Cordelia, who is just so spunky and is such a dynamic character. She starts out as just a showgirl who’s running deals on the side, but becomes a super important player by the end of the book. I enjoyed reading all the interactions between the characters– Lara Elena Donnelly does a good job balancing dialogue, inner thoughts, and action. I just complained in a previous review about a book having too much telling and not enough showing. Not so here! I was especially impressed by how she doesn’t spend paragraphs on world-building. We pick it up from things the characters say and do; we figure it out from brief descriptions that come up during action scenes and from government documents and propaganda posters and banners plastered around the city, almost as if we were walking through the place ourselves and not just having it described to us by a friend who’s recently traveled there.

That said, I have to mention that I may be a bit biased when it comes to the main relationship in this book, because I’m a huge fan of slash in books/media, especially if it’s canon. There were several detailed sex scenes. As a rule, I do not like detailed sex scenes in books because I feel like they’re interrupting the action. However! I didn’t mind these scenes, probably because of the aforementioned reason. If Cyril had been female instead and I had to read the same scenes….. yeah, I think I would have grumbled a little. I will say, though, regardless of gender, I adore Cyril and Aristide’s relationship. Aristide is a morally ambiguous character, and in the first half of the book, I thought Cyril was one, too, but by the end, I realized he’s an immoral little shit. He cares about his sister and Cordelia, but only in a passing sort of way (meaning he spares them a thought occasionally during his scheming). Aristide is probably the only person he wouldn’t betray to save his own hide, and you can really see it. It’s kind of beautiful.

[SPOILERS] I thought this book was a stand-alone, so I was super worried one or more of the three of them would be killed off. The whole thing also ends in a massive cliffhanger, but in a way that if Lara Elena Donnelly did decide “Nah, I don’t want to write any more”, you could PRETEND things will magically resolve themselves and it wouldn’t be too unsatisfying. I HATE ambiguous endings (I’m looking at you, German movies!), so I was relieved to learn that this will be a trilogy and I’ll get a legit resolution… probably by 2019.

Rating: 4.5/5.

P. Pufferfish’s first attempt at reading John Le Carré

Last week, I got around to watching Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy after… 3 or so years? It was a decent movie, but I had some trouble telling if some of the flashback scenes were part of one large flashback or were actually different flashbacks that all happened to be around the same time each year (you’ll know exactly what I mean if you’ve seen it). Anyways… callforthedeadcover

Today’s featured book: Call For The Dead, by John Le Carré, who, by the way, is one of the most fascinating authors ever. Check out his Wiki page.

Format I consumed it in: Print, on loan from another library in the system where I work. They have one of the older editions with nothing but the title and author’s name on the cover.

The premise: George Smiley (Gary Oldman, in the movie), still recovering from his divorce (separation?) from his wife, Lady Ann, is asked to do a routine interview of a Foreign Office executive who the department has received an anonymous tip about. After the interview, the executive, Sam Fennan, appears to commit suicide, leaving behind a typed/signed letter stating that his reputation is in ruins after the interview and all the suspicion towards him. His wife, Elsa, confirms that he had been feeling down since the interview. However, while questioning her, Smiley borrows her telephone and accidentally picks up a reminder call that Elsa claims is for her; the telephone company informs Smiley that the call had been placed by Sam Fennan the night before his death, which would mean that he didn’t expect to die the next day. Smiley is suspicious and proceeds to investigate further.

My thoughts: I’ve heard John Le Carré’s name all my life and am aware of all the books that he’s published since 1961, when Call For the Dead came out. This book really feels like a first novel. Thankfully, it’s very short (128 pages, in the edition I have; I think there’s another edition that’s 160 pages). Some of Le Carré’s point-of-view shifts were a bit jarring, and there was SO MUCH DIALOGUE. I am a big fan of dialogue-heavy books, but there were paragraphs and paragraphs of exposition. I found myself wishing for a flashback when I normally find flashbacks (especially in a mystery novel setting) sort of cheesy and overused. Too much telling, not enough showing– this book is a prime example of that age-old writing workshop rule!

George, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch in the TTSP movie), and Elsa Fennan were all interesting enough as characters, but they weren’t great characters. I have no doubt that if I keep reading until I get to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (which is actually the fifth book in the Smiley series), Smiley and Peter will really start to grow on me, but for now, I’m not that invested yet. I do want to know more about Smiley’s odd relationship with his ex-wife(?) Ann, though; she seems like an unusual woman, especially for that time period. Smiley’s descriptions of the man she left him for, though, are a bit racially insensitive. I get that he’s frustrated, and the comparison he uses is “understandable”, considering the time period in which this was written, but still uncomfortable to read.

I did not like [SPOILER] the whole Dieter Frey-being-behind-the-whole-thing path the book took. It felt very contrived, and it didn’t help that the introduction/presentation was done poorly. Peter’s investigation reveals that Elsa has been sending correspondence to an address belonging to a specific German firm. Smiley then treats us to a paragraphs-long story about his time in Germany (where he first met Dieter Frey, who was still a university student at the time) seemingly out of nowhere so we can get to know our villain more intimately. Then, at the end, Le Carré proceeds to explain Frey’s overall motivation in such a hand-wavy way. HEH?

Perhaps I would have enjoyed this book more if I had more knowledge of the politics/history of this time period. As it is, I know virtually nothing about popular university politics and opinions in this particular time period in England and Germany’s history (so many people were in the Communist party! Whaaaaat?) and Great Britain’s involvement in the Cold War in general. Same with all the directions and street names the characters shout out during chase scenes– I can imagine that if I were a resident, I would go I know exactly which alleyway they’re running down! or something along that vein, but when Le Carré says “in the style of Fulham” or whatever, I have no clue what that means.

Rating: 2.5/5. I didn’t really like it, but I didn’t dislike it. I think it was a decent book, but I feel as if I’m watching the first one or two episodes of a show and am not that into it yet.

P. Pufferfish learns more about a favorite writer and his extraordinary wife

Today, I am not going to talk about a sci-fi/fantasy/adventure novel! *GASP* I never said this blog would be exclusively about sci-fi/fantasy/adventure, but it may as well be, since that’s 90% of what I read (with the occasional mystery thrown in). However, once a month, I attempt to read something I normally wouldn’t (and would never have chosen myself), and the easiest way to do that was by joining a book club where the next youngest person is almost double my age and all the choices are more “literary”; most of the time, we read books about famous men’s wives– not really my thing, but I’ve liked some of the book choices. Since I’ll be at work a lot this upcoming week and will also be going out of town to meet up with some college friends over the weekend, I decided (mostly out of guilt) to read my book club book first instead of the bajillion other books on the list that I actually wanted to read. And soooooo…

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This is not the cover that was featured on Overdrive, but oh well.

The featured book: Under the Wide and Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan.

Format I consumed it in: E-book, borrowed from work.

The premise: This is the story of Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife, Fanny Van de Grift, an American woman from Indiana who was still married when the two of them met at an artist’s commune in the French countryside. The book opens with Fanny moving to Belgium with her 3 children, teenaged Belle and 2 little boys, to get away from her useless alcoholic husband, Sam. After the youngest son gets really sick, they move to France, where Fanny meets RLS, “Louis”, and a bunch of his artist/writer friends, at the aforementioned commune. Louis immediately falls in love, and the rest of the book follows the two of them throughout their courtship, their marriage in California, and their many, many moves to different places throughout Europe due to Louis’s poor health. As usual, I won’t spoil anything in this section (not that there can be many spoilers to begin with, since this is real history), but their lives/the numerous, sometimes strange journeys they end up taking read like an adventure novel the likes of which Stevenson himself would have been enjoyed writing.

My thoughts [SPOILERS ABOUND]: Fanny and Louis, who are more than 10 years apart in age, clash often (their relationship sometimes feels more like that of a mother and son or a big sister and her baby brother), but there’s no denying that they work. I couldn’t help thinking about how Fanny was so American, and Louis so Scottish, and wondering if that was one of the reasons they clicked– if Louis were English instead, would it have been different? They were both fiery, free, unyielding, wild, eccentric personalities who were prone to “bouts of melancholy”, as I’ll call them, and capable of feeling inexpressible joy. Louis, with his endless optimism, was especially endearing.

When I started this book, I was reading just to get through it rather than out of any true enjoyment (romance of any kind is really not my thing), but even though I was reading begrudgingly, I couldn’t deny that their banter even at their first meeting was pretty good; they really had chemistry with each other. That said, Louis, like all other great men of genius, is obsessed with his work and is selfish in that he doesn’t consider Fanny’s feelings much in the pursuit of inspiration. One of my favorite things about this book is getting to “watch” Robert Louis Stevenson work. I’ve always considered myself a huge fan of RLS, but in reality, I was just a fan of his works; I knew next to nothing about the man. Despite this being a work of fiction and not a biography, I now feel as if I had the privilege of knowing him in real life. I didn’t start liking UtWaSK until the part where Louis tells Lloyd the story he’s made up on the spot about Long John Silver. I loved reading about his inspiration/writing process for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

By the end, though, I found myself speeding through the book to find out what happens to both of them, not just Louis. Like I said, I’ve read several other books about famous men’s wives, and most of the time, the men really overshadowed their wives, even when the wives were the sole POV/narrator throughout the entire thing. I have no doubt that in life, RLS greatly (and perhaps unfairly) overshadowed Fanny (in fact, UtWaSK discusses this in-depth), but she is such a force of her own that I ended up really sympathizing with her and wishing that she hadn’t been so victimized by systemic gender bias/oppression. The part where she talks about how she was trying super hard to get her housework done so that she could write, but more work kept materializing and by the time she was finished, she was so tired she couldn’t write anymore made me sad.

I was a bit uncomfortable reading about Louis playing the role of ” the good white man”/white savior and being treated as a sort of lord by the natives of Samoa, but I had to remind myself that this stuff probably actually happened (I have yet to confirm) and in reality, Louis really WAS one of the few good white guys who understood the negative impact of colonization and how it was going to lead to permanent erasure of this oral culture/history. But he and Fanny were only there as a result of colonization. But he actually cared about the Samoan natives and they accepted him in return. In the Stevensons’ case, the whole having Samoan servants and friends who eventually become like family thing is kind of complicated to judge in terms of ethics.

Rating: 4/5 stars. I ended up liking this way more than I thought I would and appreciate RLS’s books more now that I know about his life and Fanny’s contributions to these stories.