A break

It’s already May, as strange as it sounds, and I feel I need a break from blogging. It will last a week or two, hard to say right now, but I will be back! Meanwhile have fun, dear Visitors, and read only good books!

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The Partenon by Mary Beard

Product info:

Oscar Wilde compared it to a white goddess, Evelyn Waugh to Stilton cheese. In observers from Lord Byron to Sigmund Freud to Virginia Woolf it met with astonishment, rapture, poetry, even tears–and, always, recognition. Twenty-five hundred years after it first rose above Athens, the Parthenon remains one of the wonders of the world, its beginnings and strange turns of fortune over millennia a perpetual source of curiosity, controversy, and intrigue.

Who built the Parthenon, and for what purpose? How are we to understand its sculpture? Why is it such a compelling monument? The classicist and historian Mary Beard takes us back to the fifth century B.C. to consider the Parthenon in its original guise–as the flagship temple of imperial Athens, housing an enormous gold and ivory statue of the city’s patron goddess attended by an enigmatic assembly of sculptures.

My impressions:

My second non-fiction position this month – I am on a roll! Ok, let’s be concise. If you are planning to visit Greece, do read this book because the history of Partenon, easily one of the most recognizable buildings of the world, is also the history of ancient and modern Greece. Ditto if you are going to the British Museum in London in the near future. If you have ever been interested in Greek myths and culture, it is your book as well – you’ll find a lot of ingenious tidbits concerning Greek gods and godesses, how they were worshiped and why. It is short, well-narrated, factual and wonderfully funny, combining great erudition and sense of humour. Still, the second part, concerning the controversy around Elgin Marbles, currently still housed by British Museum in London, marred the book a bit for me. Perhaps I’d already heard too much about it to find it intriguing. Oh well.

Final verdict:

A small book that covers a lot more territory than just the history of the Parthenon- recommendable not only for ancient history geeks.

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Sacred Games by Chandra Vikram

Product info (from Goodreads):

Sartaj, one of the very few Sikhs on the Mumbai police force, is used to being identified by his turban, beard and the sharp cut of his trousers. But “the silky Sikh” is now past forty, his marriage is over and his career prospects are on the slide. When Sartaj gets an anonymous tip-off as to the secret hide-out of the legendary boss of G-Company, he’s determined that he’ll be the one to collect the prize. 
It is is a story of friendship and betrayal, of terrible violence, of an astonishing modern city and its darker, primitive side.

My impressions:

It is supposed to be the book the first Netflix Indian series is based; still if I have a choice: to read the book or to watch a series I always choose the book. Or the book first and the series later.

Sacred Games has two main story arcs: you follow a Bombay police inspector and a mafia Don, two men whose stories intertwine but only briefly meet. I liked Ganesh Gaitonde’s story better even though
Sartaj Singh and his unique approach toward the world wasn’t bad in itself. There are layers within layers and the author presents a good account of the lives of most of the characters that Sartaj comes into contact with on a daily basis.  Still I got a feeling the book was too long, too ornate, like those Indian and Pakistani trucks, decorated more richly than your average Christmas tree. Overall I think Chandra’s narrative, though mostly action-driven, lacks in certain areas. The book offers an interesting array of characters, but more often than not, these characters do not add much to the narrative and in fact, slow it down.  And the book is long, like over 900 pages so it hardly needs any slowing down.

Add to that the fact that the author had to include a Hindi glossary to assist readers with many Hindi words and phrases sprinkled throughout the text and all of a sudden you are facing a chore, not entertainment, especially in some chapters.

Final verdict:

A sprawling novel about gangsters and cops in Mumbai, India. If you like long, convoluted stories richly flavoured with local spices, you will be enthralled; still be warned – it might take you longer to read than you expected. I almost liked this one. Almost.

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The Confusion (The Baroque Cycle 02) by Neal Stephenson

Product info (from Goodreads):

In the year 1689, a cabal of Barbary galley slaves — including one Jack Shaftoe, aka King of the Vagabonds, aka Half-Cocked Jack — devises a daring plan to win freedom and fortune. A great adventure ensues — a perilous race for an enormous prize of silver … nay, gold … nay, legendary gold.

In Europe, the exquisite and resourceful Eliza, Countess de la Zeur, is stripped of her immense personal fortune by France’s most dashing privateer. Penniless and at risk from those who desire either her or her head (or both), she is caught up in a web of international intrigue, even as she desperately seeks the return of her most precious possession.

Meanwhile, Newton and Leibniz continue to propound their grand theories as their infamous rivalry intensifies, stubborn alchemy does battle with the natural sciences, dastardly plots are set in motion … and Daniel Waterhouse seeks passage to the Massachusetts colony in hopes of escaping the madness into which his world has descended.

My impressions:

It’s been a while since I read the first part of this cycle but I felt immediately at home. I admired the courage of Eliza and the never-ending procession of her financial and private enterprises. I was gobsmacked when Jack managed to escape the throes of STD and slavery with a galeon full of enchanted gold and a crew of pirates. Newton and Leibiniz made my inner nerd happy. If you are into picaresque literature, it is your book. If you like history of finances, the birth of modern science, banking and philosophy it is your book. If you like a healthy doze of sci-fi, it is also your book. Too good to be true? Well, almost. ;p

Stephenson has claimed time and again that he doesn’t need an editor. He is, of course, wrong. With the right editor his books wouldn’t be just good, they would be brilliant and much, much shorter. As they are, you can be sometimes a tad too overwhelmed with too much plot, too many characters, and too much description. Oh well, the choice is, as always, entirely yours. Let me quote here one fragment of the second part which, despite many shortcomings, persuaded me to read the last installment

“When a thing such as wax, or gold, or silver, turns liquid from heat, we say that it has fused,” Eliza said to her son, “and when such liquids run together and mix, we say they are con-fused.”
– Neal Stephenson, The Confusion

Final verdict:

It is not a series for a casual reader. If you like longer books which can teach you more than a series of lectures then you’ll forgive The Baroque Cycle a lot and will keep on reading till the very end.

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This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay

Product info:

Adam Kay was a junior doctor from 2004 until 2010, before a devastating experience on a ward caused him to reconsider his future. He kept a diary throughout his training, and This Is Going to Hurt intersperses tales from the front line of the NHS with reflections on the current crisis. The result is a first-hand account of life as a junior doctor in all its joy, pain, sacrifice and maddening bureaucracy, and a love letter to those who might at any moment be holding our lives in their hands.

My impressions:

It was a breeze to read and a quite funny book even if most of the anecdotes, jokes, and stories told by the author are rather unrepeatable, especially during a meal. Be prepared for lots of blood, births, bad language, and assorted ‘implements’ stuck in orifices which are really better left unstuck.  Anyway, as Kay was specialising in gynaecology or “brats and twats” (or so called it other doctors – the charming bunch, all of them) I learned more about giving birth than I ever wanted to know. The author, true to his promise, also explained in footnotes every medical term he used.

I recommend this book mainly to all these hopeful future doctors who think that profession means mainly brilliant career, social respect and tons of money – do read it before it’s too late.

Final verdict:

An important, eye-opening book. I wouldn’t read this again, but I appreciate the fact that, apart from gory, funny, and sick stories about patients it also had a serious message attached to it.

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Movie review: The Favourite directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Product info:

18th century England, the court of ageing Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), the last of the Stuart monarchs. Anne is an unconfident ruler and a very lonely woman, overweight, depressed, moody, even suicidal. Small wonder – she’s lost as many as 17 children and now she needs constant attention. Nobody seems to understand her better than lady Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), her childhood friend. Sarah makes the Queen laugh, massages royal legs, fills the void in royal bed, teases and strokes Anne’s ego like nobody else. Still she encounters an unexpected rival in a form of Abigail (Emma Stone), her penniless cousin who starts the court career as a lowly maid in the palace’s scullery.

Abigail is intelligent and, allegedly, far gentler and meeker than cocky Sarah. She finds a way to the Queen’s bedchamber and to her ear too. Soon she is employed by the Queen herself and draws attention of an ambitious politician, Robert Harley who wants to become prime minister. Will Abigail manage to outmanoeuvre him and Sarah in order to return to her previous walk of life?

My impressions:

On the one hand, I enjoyed the story immensely. The rivalry between Sarah and Abigail was so refreshing after all these all-male historical dramas. The Queen was such a splendid example of a petulant child hiding under the clothes of a woman in power, a miscast monarch, a complex, tragic, funny, sometimes even horrible human being. All the setting was deliciously contemporary, despite the costumes and linguistic anachronisms. Speaking about the language… there was a lot of cuss words. I didn’t like that even if it fitted the atmosphere. When it comes to historical accuracy, well, don’t look very close at it and you’ll be fine. Overall, while the broad outlines of the rivalry for Anne’s attentions are true, many of the major episodes and themes of the film are either purely fictional or are highly speculative. For one thing nobody has ever proved that the Queen liked women in her bed. Quite contrary, Queen Anne was close to her husband who was left out of the picture in the movie even though he was alive for most of the time covered. Oh well – after all it was a movie, not a history lesson, right?

Final verdict:

A caustic comeuppance comedy with fangs and claws. If you enjoy historical movies with more heroines than heroes, you should watch this one.

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A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle 01) by Ursula le Guin

Product info (from Goodreads):

Ged, the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, was called Sparrowhawk in his reckless youth.

Hungry for power and knowledge, Sparrowhawk tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death’s threshold to restore the balance.

My impressions:

A classic story penned by a very well-known author, first published in 1968 and still it took me so long to read it. It was a simple coming-of-age story, written in a very original style. It can be called an introspective book. It was also a book strangely devoid of stronger emotions.

The whole story of Ged was told in such a way that it seemed to me a parable, not a story. There are no interesting personalities or relationships in this book, no adventures, just a very, very dry, almost didactic, quest. Don’t get me wrong – the tale wasn’t bad on the intellectual level but for me, without all those emotions, it was a bit underwhelming. Nothing drew me in and caught my imagination. After a while, I stopped caring.

Final verdict:

What can be said about a classic book which simply didn’t work as well as it should? Only this: not all books that appears to be on everybody’s reading list must necessarily be good for you, sad but true.

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The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Genevieve, a skinny, precocious little monkey with a mind full of philosophy and the power to read the swirling waters of an oracle glass, is taken in by La Voisin, an ingenious occultist and omnipotent society fortune-teller. La Voisin also rules a secret society of witches – abortionists and poisoners – who manipulate the lives of the rich and scandalous all the way up to the throne. Tutored by La Voisin, Genevieve creates a new identity for herself – as the mysterious Madame de Morville, complete with an antique black dress, a powdered face, a cane, and a wickedly sarcastic streak who is supposedly nearly one hundred fifty years old. Even the reigning mistress of the Sun King himself consults Madame de Morville on what the future holds for her. And as Madame de Morville, Genevieve can revel in what women are usually denied power, an independent income, and the opportunity to speak her mind. Beneath her intelligence and wit, what drives Genevieve is a private revenge – but what she doesn’t expect is for love to come in the bargain. 

My impressions:

It wasn’t a bad book for a pseudo-historical fiction, not bad at all. I liked its heroine, a young girl without a future but with a gift of divination, mainly because she was intelligent and funny. Her stooped back and one shorter leg were such drawbacks in an era when a girl should be pretty first and intelligent later (or never).

Also la Voisin, the powerful 17th century French witch, drew my attention to the plot effectively – I’d written an essay about her once and was curious how the author dealt with such a complex personality. I am pleased to say she was rendered well – a ruthless, even amoral woman, tough as old boots, but also surprisingly witty and, overall, rather likeable.

What was not especially good was the length of this novel and the fact that the narration was very slow-moving, almost sluggish at times. And I wish there were more history interwoven in it Oh well.

Final verdict:

A lightweight historical fiction with an intrepid heroine and some nasty poisons. I don’t regret reading it but I do feel it didn’t fully exploit its potential – it could have been better but it could have been much worse too.

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The Other Woman (Gabriel Allon 18) by Daniel Silva

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

She was his best-kept secret …

In an isolated village in the mountains of Andalusia, a mysterious Frenchwoman begins work on a dangerous memoir. It is the story of a man she once loved in the Beirut of old, and a child taken from her in treason’s name. The woman is the keeper of the Kremlin’s most closely guarded secret. Long ago, the KGB inserted a mole into the heart of the West—a mole who stands on the doorstep of ultimate power.

Only one man can unravel the conspiracy: Gabriel Allon, the legendary art restorer and assassin who serves as the chief of Israel’s vaunted secret intelligence service. Gabriel has battled the dark forces of the new Russia before, at great personal cost. Now he and the Russians will engage in a final epic showdown, with the fate of the postwar global order hanging in the balance.

My impressions:

It wasn’t the worst Gabriel Allon part, far from it. In fact I would enjoy that fun, fast-paced thriller enormously if only my brain didn’t switch on in the least opportune moment. What’s happened? Let me explain.

The main story arc is based on life and deeds of Kim Philby, one of the most dangerous Russian moles active in the UK in the 20th century and the most prominent member of the Cambridge Five. Philby was a convinced communist, Marxist even. His extramarital child was supposed to inherit these proclivities and here comes my problem numero uno. Do children often follow the footsteps of their parents? Well, not really. Philby’s father was an author, orientalist, and convert to Islam. Kim didn’t follow his example for a reason or two so why his progeniture should?

My second problem was that child of Philby (I am deliberately vague when it comes to sex of the said child as it is a spoiler) was living and spying in a quite different era – there are not many real communists in contemporary Russia, not when it comes to the government anyway. Vladimir Putin is called in this novel simply ‘the Tzar’ and very rightly so, he is far closer to pre-communist era rulers of that country. Now I wonder: how come the child of a fervent Marxist could be so faithful to not-especially communistic overlords? I suppose it would be far more logical if that child turned against modern Russians, becoming a so-called double agent.

Final verdict:

A decent spy novel but nothing special. Meh.

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Lethal White (Cormoran Strike 04) by Robert Galbraith (Pseudonym) J.K. Rowling

Product info:

“I seen a kid killed…He strangled it, up by the horse.”

When Billy, a troubled young man, comes to private eye Cormoran Strike’s office to ask for his help investigating a crime he thinks he witnessed as a child, Strike is left deeply unsettled. While Billy is obviously mentally distressed, and cannot remember many concrete details, there is something sincere about him and his story. But before Strike can question him further, Billy bolts from his office in a panic.

Trying to get to the bottom of Billy’s story, Strike and Robin Ellacott—once his assistant, now a partner in the agency—set off on a twisting trail that leads them through the backstreets of London, into a secretive inner sanctum within Parliament, and to a beautiful but sinister manor house deep in the countryside.

My impressions:

Lethal White is the fourth (4th) book in the “Cormoran Strike” series, written by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling). The series primary characters are Cormoran Strike (Strike) a private detective in London and his temporary clerk, turned investigator, turned partner Robin Ellacott, now Mrs Cunliffe. It was one long book. What’s more, it was also a slowly-paced one. Once again the whodunnit story arc I found simply boring and not especially believable. I might be wrong but if somebody like Billy, an unbalanced,  psychotic youth apparently living on the street, came to my office I’d call social services or police, preferably both, and forgot about the whole issue. Why Strike had to engage himself, even though he had plenty of other well-paid investigations to follow, is beyond me.

The slow-burning romance between Cormoran and Robin had to carry the whole novel for me and it managed to do exactly that – but with visible effort. I had an impression the characters were stuck in the same routine for the fourth book; even if you enjoy that routine how many times are you able to read the same of the sameness… And those political comments thrown here and there. Do you have to spoil your book with politics? Apparently J.K. Rowling’s answer is a firm ‘yes’. 

Finally let me pour some acid on the title and quotes from one of Henrik Ibsen plays (Rosmersholm), starting every chapter. They didn’t make sense. I never managed to find a connection between the murder of a politician and  an autosomal genetic disorder most prevalent in American Paint Horse even though it was illustrated by a painting done, allegedly, by Stubbs, and fitting those Ibsen quotes with the content of chapters was more often than not pure guesswork.

Final verdict:

I’m not sure I will be willing to read the next part of this series just for Corm-Robin pairing. 

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