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.

Posted in adventure, book review, fantasy, historical | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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.

Posted in book review, contemporary, non-fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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.

Posted in comedy drama, costume drama, historical, movie review | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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.

Posted in book review, fantasy, meh, rating | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

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.

Posted in book review, historically-flavoured, literary fiction, romance | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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.

Posted in book review, contemporary, spy novel, thriller | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

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. 

Posted in book review, contemporary, crime, mystery, whodunnit | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Movie review: Bohemian Rhapsody directed by Bryan Singer

Product info (from Fox Movies):

Bohemian Rhapsody is a foot-stomping celebration of Queen, their music and their extraordinary lead singer Freddie Mercury. Freddie defied stereotypes and shattered convention to become one of the most beloved entertainers on the planet. The film traces the meteoric rise of the band through their iconic songs and revolutionary sound. They reach unparalleled success, but in an unexpected turn Freddie, surrounded by darker influences, shuns Queen in pursuit of his solo career. Having suffered greatly without the collaboration of Queen, Freddie manages to reunite with his bandmates just in time for Live Aid. While bravely facing a recent AIDS diagnosis, Freddie leads the band in one of the greatest performances in the history of rock music. Queen cements a legacy that continues to inspire outsiders, dreamers and music lovers to this day.

My impressions:

A visual feast. A fantastic, electrifying soundtrack, especially during the Live Aid concert. A great actor (Rami Malek) impersonating Freddie Mercury with great aplomb. And yet I found this movie disturbingly formulaic. It was a perfect write-up and I expected something darker. I also had a feeling the story was being told with the benefit of hindsight. Malek’s Mercury was so strangely confident that everything would work out, and some of the dialogue was just too on the nose to ring true.

Still the worst was moralistic undertone, so at odds with different facts from Freddie’s life and his Queen’s career. I wish the director included glimpses of the famous 1977 launch party in New Orleans, featuring naked waiters, snake charmers, contortionists, drag queens, strippers dressed as nuns, and dwarves with platters of cocaine on their heads, a real Saturday Night in Sodom (and so it was called). Or a scene when Freddie gives a fan an autograph writing it on her naked bottom. Or at least that b-day cake of his.

Do you think his mum would approve?

But then the movie wouldn’t be marked as PG-13.

Final verdict:

A bowdlerized version of the ups and downs of Queen’s frontman. Still worth watching but not as fun as I hoped it would be.

Posted in biographical drama, miusical biopic, movie review | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Talking to Addison by Jenny Colgan

Synopsis:

Holly is a frustrated florist who flees the houseshare from hell to move in with a motley crew of friends: there is Josh, a sexually confused merchant banker; Kate, a high-flying legal eagle with talons to match; and the gorgeous Addison, who spends his days communicating only with his computer. One glimpse of Addison, and Holly is smitten. Now the only problem is how to get him to swivel his chair away from the computer screen and his monstrously ugly — not to mention fiercely possessive — internet girlfriend Claudia, to see Holly’s own adoring gaze. After a series of false starts — involving new friend and mathematician Finn — Holly coaxes Addison away from his virtual romance and out into the open. But “out in the open” spells unexpected disaster for Addison, and, curiously, Holly must help rescue him before her own future can begin to bloom.

My impressions:

First of all: have a terrible St. Valentine’s Day as a happy St. Valentine’s Day is not possible in my very humble opinion… and here it goes, in order to make this occasion as ugly as possible I am reviewing a freaking romance, imagine it or not!

I can’t believe I read a chick-lit book, but somehow, it did and, imagine it or not, it wasn’t that bad. Maybe because it wasn’t a classic romance. At least at first I couldn’t resist this tale of Holly, a young florist constantly having money and flatmate problems. She falls for Addison, her hot computer geek room-mate, she goes to a walk with him, kisses him for the first time and the unthinkable happens – Addison has a nasty accident which leaves him comatose…

Well, the book had some serious drawbacks, like rather offensive language used by all characters who, unthinkably for me, enjoyed very raunchy lifestyle. It became rather tiresome after a while. Not to mention very old, very threadbare tricks like the lack of communication between two people allegedly in love with each other. Apart from that I really truly hated body shaming – a female computer geek from the USA called Claudia is fat and the author through Holly abuses her mercilessly time and again… which sounded stupid and unjust, especially coming from a girl who was hardly an epitome of physical perfection.

Final verdict:

It could have been good… If only the sarcastic beginning lasted a bit longer… if only the book was a bit more cohesive… if only the author dared break more cliches. As it is – meh.

Posted in book review, chicklit, contemporary | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Movie review: Perfect Strangers (2016) directed by Paolo Genovese

Movie info:

Seven long-time friends (three married couples and a divorcee) are having a dinner. They decide, as a playful game, to put each one’s mobile phone on the table and reveal every text message or phone call they would receive that evening, to prove that nobody has anything to hide. Hilarity and drama ensue together as everyone’s secrets are unveiled and the seven friends find themselves perfect strangers to each other.

My impressions:

Theatrical-play-like movies are sometimes a hit and sometimes a miss but I have to admit this one impressed me. It was an interesting story albeit a simple one. A shared meal among good friends, three couples and an ex school teacher after a divorce. A moon eclipse, always a good excuse for pranks and wine. It should have been boring and yet it wasn’t. 

I’ve heard the movie has been a hit in Italy and there are many remakes. I am not surprised. What is better than chatting and gossiping and discovering secrets of your friends and neighbours? Who wouldn’t be a little bit curious? Is my wife faithful? What do my friends say about me behind my back? Is this young, happy couple as happy as they seem on the outside?

Behind all that scandal, merriment and drama was hidden an important psychological question. Should we always tell the truth to our partners, spouses and parents? Is it sometimes better to keep some uncomfortable facts to ourselves? Are white lies a necessity of life? Or maybe any lie hurts everybody around us and we are also the victims of our mendacious ways? Plenty to think about, don’t you think?

Final verdict:

A funny, quiet, slow-paced movie which mentions some important issues. Completely recomendable when you are in a pensive mood or you want to trigger a discussion afterwards.

Posted in comedy drama, contemporary, movie review, psychological | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments