Book and TV series complement each other

Review:

Ross Poldark - Winston Graham

I have a shameful confession. Other than a few notable exceptions (Tolstoy, Anthony Trollope, Jasper Fforde) I rarely enjoy fiction written by men. I can’t even discuss it without resorting to stereotypes I would resent if it was women being lumped together, but if I was forced to say something it would be that even when I’m intrigued by the stories male authors have to tell, their characterizations, particularly of women, tend to make my skin crawl.

 

So while I’ve been eagerly awaiting each TV episode of BBC’s Poldark, I remained hesitant to try the books by Winston Graham that the series is based on. Hesitant, that is, until I read the opening pages of this first book and got hooked.

 

The prose is beautiful, even graceful, without being ornate or fussy and Graham writes his characters, female and male, with clear-eyed but sympathetic insight that reminds me of George Eliot. There are touches of history (the doings of mad King George, the unrest in France, etc.) and humor, but the heart of the story centers on the families–noble and not–of Cornwall. We see their courtships, their marriages, and their home lives, and we travel to the mines, farm fields, and ocean waters where they earn their livings. It’s a credit to Graham’s skill as a writer that I was actually interested in the sections on copper mining.

 

In the first chapter of the book–and first episode of the TV series–Ross Poldark returns to Cornwall after fighting with the British in the American Revolution, only to find his father dead, his property in ruins, and his girlfriend engaged to his cousin. Ross is the son of a younger son, and not much interested in the niceties of class and society, making him an appealing character for modern sensibilities. His quick to learn but almost feral kitchen maid Demelza also plays a major role in the story, and so does Elizabeth, his former girlfriend, and his cousins Verity and Francis.

 

The book and the TV show complement each other wonderfully. The gorgeous scenery of the BBC production made my reading pleasure all the more vivid, and the book fills in details that the show has to skim over. The novel also gave me a chance to dwell in the story a little longer–an addictive pleasure. Immediately after finishing the first book I started the second volume in the series.

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My TBR shelf . . . make that shelves

I just got a new bookcase (hoorah!), which means I can spread my books out a little. My TBRs had been stacked in piles in front of my other books, but now they have their own shelf. I mean shelves. The 4 shelves in this photo are for fiction, and there are 2 other shelves for nonfiction. And then there’s the ebooks . . .

The next 2 books I’m planning to read (though I could get waylaid by something else) are actually both re-reads (War & Peace and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell) so they aren’t even on these shelves.

Will I avoid buying any new books while I try to pare down the number of my to-be-reads? Not likely.

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Best in the series

Review:

Crystal Kingdom (The Kanin Chronicles) - Amanda Hocking

This action filled conclusion to Amanda Hocking’s Frostfire trilogy opens with Bryn on the lam, falsely accused of treason and murder, and forced to partner with dangerous and puzzling Konstantin Black who she has good reason not to trust. I’m a big fan of Hocking’s richly imagined  troll-verse, a world exactly like our own but with the addition of human-resembling trolls based on Scandinavian mythology who love nature, covet gemstones, prefer being barefoot, and live in elaborate out of the way communities, and  I’ve enjoyed both earlier books in the series, but Crystal Kingdom is my favorite for several reasons.

 

First, while Bryn scrambles to stay one step ahead of the trackers sent to apprehend her, readers are taken on a road trip that stretches from the swamps of Louisiana to the snowy northern reaches of Canada as she visits the home settlements of all five of the troll tribes in her quest to save her own community. They’re all trolls, but each group has unique features, abilities, and customs. We’re even taken to an especially remote and icy dumping ground for outcast trolls, where we meet 14-year-old Ulla who has a mixed tribe background–she’s part Omte, the super strong tribe that sometimes includes ogres, and part Skojare, the semi-aquatic tribe. Ulla’s parents were unmarried royals who abandoned her as a baby so she’s working as a maid when Brynn finds her in Iskyla–I’m really hoping to meet Ulla again in a future troll series.

 

Another reason I loved this book is that several major characters from Hocking’s first troll books, the Trylle series, make major appearances in the story. We had already seen Finn, but now Wendy, plays an important role and it’s wonderful to catch up with her and see how she’s managed the transition from changeling to queen.

 

Crystal Kingdom is full of other delights, Bryn’s friend Tilda proving that being pregnant doesn’t mean she’s not a formidable fighter for instance, and Bryn’s own struggles to reconcile love and duty. Amanda Hocking doesn’t write lyrical prose, but I can’t resist her moving stories, her spirited but conflicted characters, and her inventive settings. There are plenty of books about vampires, fae, witches, and werewolves, but not many about trolls so I’m hoping that Hocking continues to write about this world.

 

 

I read a free ebook advanced review copy of Crystal Kingdom, supplied to me by the publisher through NetGalley. Review opinions are mine.

 

 

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Candid memoir of expatriate life in 1930’s-40’s China

Review:

China to Me - Emily Hahn

 

When I first started reading Emily Hahn’s candid memoir I felt like I’d walked into the middle of a witty and fascinating conversation that I didn’t quite have the context for. There’s a reason for that, when China to Me was first published in 1944 WWII was still going on and the public was already well aware of Emily Hahn and her unconventional somewhat scandalous life, so there were details she could assume people already knew. I was out of that loop, but I soon enough found my footing.

 

Hahn traveled to Shanghai with her sister in 1935, got a writing job for a British newspaper and decided to stay. She mixed with the rich and powerful, mainly British and other European expatriates, but she also had a romantic relationship and business partnership with an already married Chinese publisher and poet. Her apartment–which she describes in humorous detail–was in the red light district and she kept a pet gibbon name Mr. Mills who sometimes accompanied her to parties.

 

In 1940 Hahn traveled inland to the mountainous city of Chungking (now Chongqing) to interview one of the Soong sisters, who I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of, for a book she was writing about the family.  All three sisters were married to prominent Chinese men–political and military leader Chiang Kai-shek, revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, and uber wealthy finance minister Kung Hsiang-hsi–but the sisters also cultivated their own positions of power and influence. Hahn was in Chungking while the Japanese were conducting bombing raids on the city, so she had to type her book between frightening but tedious sessions in cave-like air raid shelters.

 

But Hahn’s experiences in Chungking were nothing compared to her life in Japanese occupied Hong Kong. She had about a year in the city before the invasion, which was long enough to have an affair with a married British military officer and give birth to their baby. Up until this point Hahn’s memoir had been highly interesting to me, but her harrowing descriptions of the chaos, scarcity, and menace of living under enemy rule while trying to care for and feed her infant daughter and make sure her hospital imprisoned lover had  food and medicine made the book almost impossible to put down.

 

Hahn was a follows-her-own-rules kind of person, and this is a lively, entertaining, and informative book, but it’s her astute and forthright observations about people, including herself, and their varied reactions to hardship, displacement, cultural difference, tests of love and loyalty, and the loss or gain of power that elevated this memoir above a simple recounting of events for me. The book closes in 1943 when Hahn finally returns to the US with her daughter, but the war is  raging on so her life and the fate of her lover are still up in the air, making me very relieved that I had a biography on hand to fill me in on what happened next–though you could just check her Wikipedia page.

 

This memoir is well over 400 pages, and I did find myself skimming at times, but like many of my favorite books, China to Me sent me into passionate internet research mode, and it’s added several titles to my TBR list–I for sure have to read Hahn’s book about the Soong sisters. There’s a lot more by Hahn to choose from because she authored a total of 52(!) books and wrote articles, poems, and short stories for New Yorker magazine almost up until her death  at the age of ninety-two in 1997.

 

In 2014 China to Me was republished by Open Road Media. I read an ebook review copy supplied to me at no cost by the publisher through NetGalley. Review opinions are mine.

 

Emily Hahn.jpg 

 

Emily Hahn with her pet gibbon, and the Soong sisters.

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Beautifully written story with a 1980’s setting in Barbados

Review:

The Star Side of Bird Hill: A Novel - Naomi Jackson Groves

This poignant coming of age story combines lyrical writing with a realistic earthiness, occasionally it’s slightly too earthy for my tastes, and it features two sisters, Phaedra age 10 and Dionne age 16, whose plans for the summer are upended when their barely functioning mother sends them a world away, from Brooklyn to Barbados, to live with their grandmother, a midwife and herbalist, skills that have been passed down in their family since the times of enslavement. Caribbean culture and the sisters’ new lives on Bird Hill are beautifully and believable evoked, the characters are almost achingly real, and the story held me more and more in thrall as I went on.

 

In reading reviews, one thing that surprised me is some of the reactions to the cover art. The author chose the image from a painting titled “Too Much Makeup”  because the wary girl it depicts reminds her of 16-year-old Dionne, who continued to wear makeup in Barbados as a kind of armor and a connection to the life she was forced away from in Brooklyn, but a number of reviewers on Amazon and other sites have made a point of saying they hate the it. I’m generally partial to all things colorful and I like the cover art, especially since the author’s description helped me see Dionne in it. What do you think?

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Time travel, robots, Greek gods, Atlantis, and Plato’s Republic, part II

Review:

The Philosopher Kings - Jo Walton

After the community riving debate at the end of the previous book, the goddess Athena has gone off in a huff, taking most of the futuristic robot workers with her, and the Just City–her philosophical experiment based on Plato’s Republic–is fragmenting into factions. Some groups want to follow Plato’s strictures differently or even more closely, others are allying themselves with Sokrates or blending Plato’s ideas with religious beliefs, and they all are skirmishing violently over the museum quality artwork that Athena had “rescued” from the dustbins of history and installed in her Just City project to enhance the souls of its citizens, a tragically ironic miscalculation. As The Philosopher Kings opens, my favorite character from the first book is dying, shot by an arrow in one of the battles over art.

The Philosopher Kings is the sequel to The Just City (my review here), and you would definitely want to start at the beginning of Jo Walton’s Thessaly trilogy before jumping into this continuation of the story. In the first book, when Athena decides to try creating the ideal city that Plato describes in his Republic dialogue, she time-travels interested people from throughout history (from far into our future to deep into our past) and sets them up on the isolated island of Atlantis sometime before the Trojan War, knowing the site will later be destroyed by a volcano so that nothing they do will interfere with any already determined chains of events. Apollo joins her, taking on mortal form to be part of her Just City experiment, because even being a god is limiting in its way and he knows he has things to learn. As a human Apollo is both incredibly talented and clumsily clueless.

Apollo is back as a narrator in the second book, and so is Maia, an earnest, hardworking intellectual sort, who had been deeply frustrated by the many restrictions placed on women in Victorian England before Athena brought her to the Just City when she was 19 years old, but deeply philosophical Simmea dies in the book’s first few pages after being wounded in the ongoing battles over artwork.  Simmea began life on a farm in ancient Egypt and was then sold into slavery before being brought to the Just City as a ten-year-old, and she has been grateful for the goddess-given opportunity to become her best self. Fortunately Simmea’s place as a narrator is taken by her teenage daughter Arete, a young woman coping with the mostly wonderful but unsettling secret of her parentage–her father Apollo is a god, which allows her the possibility of becoming a hero like Hercules, maybe the first female hero.

Because they aren’t supposed to interfere with history, most Just City citizens had stayed close to their settlement on Atlantis, but after Simmea’s death they decide to make a voyage of discovery, goodwill, and possible revenge, since there are those, Apollo among them, who believe the attack on Simmea must have come from outside. Much of the book is taken up with this epic trip around the islands of the Mediterranean. The voyagers aren’t sure exactly when in time they are, and the primitive, non-philosophical lives of the pre-Trojan War people they first encounter stun them. There is much debate about whether it would be better to help those people or leave them alone.

This sequel thrilled and gripped me as much as the first book did. It’s a novel full of ideas and action, but it’s the characters that bring the story to life. They each have sincere and strong, but often clashing ideas about how to create a Plato inspired community, and now their opinions are further challenged by what they find on the voyage. I could especially relate to their feelings of dislocation out in the “real world”. Coming of age in the late 1960’s, early 1970’s, an era when we questioned everything, I was eager to pick apart my hidden (and probably mistaken) axioms of belief. To that end I attended St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland where we sought Truth, or maybe just truth, by reading, discussing, and arguing over “the Great Books”, from Homer and Euclid to Tolstoy, Marx, and Einstein (yes, it was a European male dominated list, something the school has rectified somewhat since.) Over summer and winter breaks it was always a disconcerting shock to discover that there were people, even among our friends and family, who didn’t care enough about Plato to have his dialogues be a constant topic of even casual conversations.

The third book in this series won’t be out for a while, on her blog Jo Walton said Summer 2016 at the earliest, but I await it eagerly.  It looks like it may be set far into the future, and if so I’m sure Athena’s Just City experiment will have many new and interesting challenges.

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I found it!

Themis-Athena’s description got me interested in The Leopard, a novel by  Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa that was on the best seller list in 1960 the week To Kill a Mockingbird was released, and I found it at my library book store for 25 cents! 

 

Also, even though I don’t read a lot in the genre, I couldn’t resist 3 sci-fi fantasy novels by Sarah Zettel with (I think) great covers–I especially love the woman talking earnestly to the tall, blue and handsome alien–so I’ll be giving Playing God, Kingdom of Cages, and A Sorcerer’s Treason a try too.

 

I found it!

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