Monday, 25 August 2014

Comfort read

If I had a comfort read, this would be it: Kaari Utrio's romantic comedies that are set in the 19th century Grand Duchy of Finland. For excitement, I go for her earlier novels, set in the much less genteel Medieval times. That world is brutal!

Then again, so is the 19th century. The ballrooms may not be battle fields, but the pecking order is rigid and the rules ruthless. This is the time when one's social standing determines everything from the way one dresses to the people one can associate with – and marry. Marriages have little or nothing to do with love: they are advantageous arrangements. Women have precious little independence and extremely narrow roles.

These novels are described as comedies of manners and are often compared with Jane Austen's novels. They do indeed have much in common: ladies and gentlemen looking for an advantageous match; meddling parents and family members; a bit of romance and quite a lot of humour. Some of the characters start off as haughty or stand-offish, but – yes, you guessed it: love changes everything.

The focus is on match-making, but, like Austen, Utrio highlights the dependence of women on marriage to secure social status. There is usually something about her heroines that sets them apart, and they tend to have experiences atypical of (and sometimes abhorred by) the women of their times: they may have received an education available to very few women (e.g. in The Smolny Institute for Noble Girls in St Petersburg) or they may have accompanied their fathers on expeditions where folklore material (such as poems) was collected.

When you pick up one of these novels, you know what you're going to get (therein lies the comfort). There will be bonnets and balls, pride and prejudice, attractions deemed unacceptable... and characters whose love will conquer the obstacles of societal expectations. The historical details are rich and well-researched. The writing is solid – perhaps not the lyrical prose I'm guilty of favouring, but it's vivid and a perfect fit for the characters. The sharp observations are delivered in humorous tones: I always find myself chuckling and smiling when reading these books.

Granted, when you start, you have a fairly good idea of what's going to happen, but how... that is a mystery. Plot twists abound, often involving mistaken identities or exaggerations or ill-intentioned rumours, or misunderstanding arising from the fact that it simply was not appropriate to discuss certain matters (let alone express one's feelings). The final page always leaves me admiring how neatly Utrio ties up every loose end.

This is what a comfort read is all about: as soon as you open the first page, you know you're in good hands.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

About books about books

I sound like a broken record? No, no (well, sometimes... “chocolate, chocolate, chocolate...”) - I mean books that are about books, books where an important role is played by books. These stories may be about a specific book or books in general; reading books, writing books, selling books, buying books, loving books... but most of such stories aren't just about books, they are also about stories, knowledge, imagination – and where those can take you or how they can change the world.

Here are some examples of books about books - I've only included books that I've read. Some I've loved, others... not so much.

“The Shadow of the Wind” and “The Angel's Game” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Book dealers and mysterious books, writers (rather mysterious, too) and the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.

“Under Heaven” by Guy Gavriel Kay. Okay, technically not about books, but poetry does play an important role in this one (and it is beautiful).

“The Eyre Affair” by Jasper Fforde. Special Operatives in literary fiction. Literary homicides. People who get (literally!) lost in books or poems.

“Tathea” by Anne Perry. A Book of Truth. Not this book but in this book.

“Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen. A parody of Gothic romances and a heroine who loves them... over-romaticizing and confusing art with life – sound familiar? ;)

“Where the Shadows Lie” by Michael Ridpath. Long lost Sagas and Tolkien references.

“The Princess Bride” by William Goldman. A story about a story about a story... no, wait...

“A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness. An enchanted alchemical manuscript (plus public and private libraries).

“The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco. An abbey library and manuscript scribbling monks.

“The Time Traveler's Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger. There's a library and there's time travel. I repeat: time travel!

“Ilkeät sisarpuolet” by Kaari Utrio. An owner of a printing press in the Finland of 1827 – and famous figures from the history of Finnish literature.

And then there are, of course, numerous adaptations of well-known novels, such as “My Mr. Rochester” and “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” etc. which are also about books, or characters from those books. Not to forget companion books to novels or series of novels, definitely also books about books.

So, yes, I love books, I love reading... naturally, I love reading about books, and I'd assume just about every book lover feels the same way. And authors, too – why else would they write books about books? This was just a brief look at such books, so if you'd like to recommend one (or more!), you're welcome to leave a comment.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Review: The Bones of Avalon by Phil Rickman

A scientist and an astrologer, a mathematician and a sorcerer, and the queen's adviser in the hidden matters. John Dee is all this, yet his greatest desire is to build his own library and devote his life to studying. Much to his dismay, Queen Elizabeth I sends him on a mission to recover the lost bones of King Arthur from the one-time Avalon, now the gloomy town of Glastonbury that harbors dark and dangerous secrets. Dee is plunged from his world of quiet contemplation into the whirlwind of murder plots, witch hunts, grave robbers and the literally deeply buried secrets of the ancient and more recent kings.

Dr. Dee is not your typical dashing hero. He knows his books, but they have imparted to him precious little knowledge about the real world. The shy and socially clumsy bookworm (what, identifying with the main character? Me?) is forced to survive situations entirely novel to him. Including encountering an interesting woman.

While I love historical fiction, I don't often read historical mysteries. I enjoyed ”The Bones of Avalon”, however. It wasn't always easy to follow who did what and why, and I found the ending somewhat underwhelming, but I loved the rich period detail. Many of the characters are real historical figures and are, for the most part, skilfully drawn and have their strengths and weaknesses. The writing is beautiful, and while the pace is slow, I found that it fit the feel of the story. And the feel and the atmosphere were perhaps the best parts of the novel. There is eeriness, mystery and magic and the sense of the land and locations that is just... I was going to say incredible, but the right word here is credible.

I particularly enjoyed the conflicts between science and sorcery, and between Christianity and the 'old ways'. The lines between them blur, and it was amusing to read about Dee's astonishment when he is considered a 'conjurer' while he sees himself as a scientist, a man of enlightenment. This is one of the elements that make the book entertaining as well as thought-provoking, something I enjoy in a novel.