Since I arrived home last week, I’m pleased to report that my bookworm tendencies are in full swing! In addition to dipping in and out of The Morville Hours (one of the joys of rereading), I’ve read two novels and just enjoyed a graphic short story collection this morning. Oh and two audiobooks. This is still not at the level of reading I used to do in Texas, but now that I live in independently, I seem to have less time on my hands. 😉 Hopefully the major re-entry sorting is done and I’ll have even more hours to spend with books in the upcoming months.
I’ll tell you about the disappointing book first: Deadly Slipper by Michelle Wang, the first in a mystery series. I was browsing my library’s shelves when I came across this one, and I was extra excited because finding diverse genre fiction is even more of a challenge than literary fiction. I was also intrigued by its southern French setting and pleased to discover that both of the protagonists were in their forties. Wang brought the setting to life wonderfully; both the scenery and food are described in loving detail, but in a way that feels organic to the book. This is definitely her strongest writing point. The characters were so-so; I liked some of them but others made me roll my eyes and I occasionally was baffled by the strange motivations of the two primary protagonists; there isn’t a lot of personality depth in the book. But that would have been fine, because it was decent enough for a relaxing read and the setting was so rich, if the plot had held together. I mean, it’s a mystery; I’m perfectly happy to read novels with no real plot (why hello Virginia!) but they’re pretty essential to this genre. Unfortunately, the killer was embarrassingly obvious halfway through due to far too many clues, which made the following hundred and fifty pages of contorted red herrings an exercise in readerly crankiness. And suddenly it went from looking like a traditional puzzle mystery to something more gothic; I love both styles but the transition was clumsy. Ultimately, I won’t be reading her other books. However, if you are less particular than me about plot and in the mood for a light book that sweeps you away to the Dordoge, this might just work for you. There were certainly elements I found very enjoyable, and it’s a shame that my annoyance with the mystery itself ended up winning out over the charming bits. If she wrote a book set in the region that wasn’t a mystery, I would give it a try.
This morning, I woke up in a lot of pain, so after I’d brewed my pot of tea, I decided The Book of Ballads, a graphic short story anthology based on traditional ballads generously gifted to me by Debi, would be a pleasant start to the day. I adored the introduction by Terri Windling, and it’s made me want to go a hunt through the library stacks to learn more about folk ballads and the scholarly pursuit of them, and then I moved on to the stories themselves. While each story has a different author, Charles Vess provides all of the artwork, which does a lot of the heavy lifting; I enjoy his style (done in black and white) although I’ll note that he makes no attempt to break out of traditional white-centric patriarchal visions of beauty and ugliness (on one cringe-inducing page, he portrays the rich & unloved ‘brown girl’ in a setting reminiscent of Disney’s Aladdin). That observation made, I very much enjoyed seeing such a variety of approaches to the folk traditions & have a little list of new authors to look into. I’m pretty sure everything Terri Windling touches is gold, and I would love to be her when I grow up. She has a blog that is full of folk and bookish magic.
And now we come to the cream of the post: To Lie With Lions by Dorothy Dunnett. This is the sixth book in her Niccolo Rising series, which is set in the fifteenth century and follows one of the ‘ancestors’ (I think he’s three generations removed) of Francis Crawford, hero of her first series The Lymond Chronicles. I have read Lymond twice and both times ended up living and breathing with the characters involved; on my rereading of the last book I still stayed up late to finish it, just in case the ending had changed. However, I’ve found it a bit difficult to get into the Niccolo books; while I adore her setting as much as ever, I am frequently annoyed by how the characters all behave. Too often, their actions seem more plot-motivated than legitimately based on their personalities. I also found it difficult to forgive them for not being my favourite Lymond characters. And then I thought she was headed in an exciting new direction in the fourth book, and when that direction failed to materialise I took it hard. All of this is preface (and reflects my reading prejudices, not Dunnett’s superb writing!) for me to tell you that I finally fell head over heels in love with the series in this book. Oh my goodness, it’s so so marvelous, and I held my breath convinced that something would happen to make me angry again, but the ending was just superb, and I cannot wait to read the final two books. Luckily for me, I received them for Christmas! If you haven’t heard of Dorothy Dunnett, she writes beautifully detailed, articulate, clever historical fiction that explore the flawed hero trope on the most elaborate stages you can imagine. I would call her the Dorothy Sayers of historical fiction; if you love books that make you think and long to learn more but also catch your breath in sympathy with a beloved character, you should give her a try. I warn you that she is rarely kind to her characters, and unfortunately suffers from a case of Orientalism, but I love her anyway and know that she has many other fans.
As I debated which book to read next, I realised I was really in the mood for a travelogue. So I popped over to my library’s website and added two of the National Geographic Directions line to my ereader. I’ve begun with Francine Prose’s Sicilian Odyssey and will report back next week. But I realised it’s been so long since I’ve read a travelogue that I don’t have many go-tos anymore. Care to share any favourites of the travel genre? Especially ones that are feminist, post-colonialist, etc. I think I sort of gave up because I tried several books in a row that followed the ‘white US/UK/French/other colonial power author arrives, objectifies locals in picturesque way, has a couple adventures, and ends the book with condescending lessons learned’ style that just annoys me.