BOOK REVIEW: Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville

BOOK REVIEW: Moby-Dick, by Herman MelvilleTitle: Moby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville
Published by Modern Library
Published: October 18th 1851
Genres: Classics, Fiction
Pages: 896
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

 There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.

What can I say about Moby-Dick that hasn’t been said already? If you would have told me several years ago that I’d read this book out of pure curiosity rather than out of obligation for an assignment or something, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. It’s been on the peripheral to-read list forever simply because it’s considered one of the greatest American novels, and I probably would have read it just for that alone, but after discovering some of the history behind the novel and about the author, I had to read it for myself.

From the beginning, I was drawn into Ishmael’s recount of his adventures in pursuit of the great white whale, drawn into Ishmael’s deep friendship with Queequeg (to the point of me asking myself is this actually happening several times, especially when Ishmael and Queequeg lounged in bed with legs thrown over each other’s), and drawn into Captain Ahab’s nautical quest to dominate a perceivably indomitable whale.

I can just imagine Ishmael scribbling this narrative out on the ship by oil lamp, during the drudgeries of the day-to-day ship life. Technically, he probably didn’t, if you really want to get into semantics, but the idea of a man in that white-hot writing groove writing about whales and ship life and Ahab’s history and all of the things one does on a ship in the middle of a vast ocean is more thrilling than I could have ever imagined it to be.

And, honestly, I think I read it at a pertinent time in my life. Had I read it before I learned the history of the narrative, the novel, the American novel, religion and its function in the American novel, the personal lives of Melville (and by extension Hawthorne), and postmodernism (and one can argue whether or not this novel is considered postmodern, but it’s different than anything else I’ve read from the time period and knowing how postmodernism works in a literary setting adds to my own consumption and enjoyment of the novel on some level because its lucidity is very much like James Joyce’s style), I probably wouldn’t have appreciated it as much as I do now. It’s a hefty novel, a undertaking, but it’s so incredibly worth it.

BOOK REVIEW: The Mirror Empire, by Kameron Hurley

BOOK REVIEW: The Mirror Empire, by Kameron HurleyTitle: The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley
Series: Worldbreaker Saga #1
Published by Angry Robot
Published: September 1st 2015
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 608
Format: Mass Market
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

 And some of us believe in freedom of the individual over the tyranny of the common good.

After reading Kameron Hurley’s Stars are Legion, I immediately wanted to read everything else she’s written. I picked up The Mirror Empire at work because it was the only other thing aside from Stars are Legion that we had in stock by her at the moment, and I started reading it as my first pick for a Tome Topple read-a-thon this month. I wasn’t disappointed, and it was one of the best epic fantasy novels I’ve read in a long time.

The Mirror Empire subverts the popular tropes found in epic, patriarchal fantasy. While not as visceral and gross as Stars are Legion, this world Hurley has created in The Worldbreaker Saga certainly skeeved me out at times. Some of the buildings are organic, some of the weapons are organic (and attached to bodies by way of seeds in the wrists, of which I imagined coming out much like Wolverine’s claws???), some of the magic is blood magic. It’s the sort of fantasy with the perfect balance of violence and horror that gives you chills and thrills down your spine.

The story is complex and ambitious and takes a little while to get used to because nearly everything about the worlds in The Mirror Empire is different from our own familiarities. It calls into question our own ideas and expectations of gender, gender roles, family structures, and “how things have always been done.” The way in which Hurley does this is subtle. The questions and observations about our own society are covert but become a series of questions you as a reader begin to ask yourself as you explore the lives of the main characters in the story. For example: why is it generally acceptable to us as a society for women to be kept small, beautiful, and always ready for (male) consumption, but when it’s subverted and the men are kept small, beautiful, and always ready for (female) consumption, it’s striking and odd? I enjoyed the trope subversion immensely, and I want to keep reading the series to see where she goes with it next.

It’s certainly a mirror that reflects the best and worst of the expectations of the fantasy genre and our society, and if that’s an intentional pun, I like it. I think if you like epic fantasy and are looking for something new and different in the genre, you should check this one out!

BOOK REVIEW: Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner

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BOOK REVIEW: Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend WarnerTitle: Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, Alison Lurie
Published by New York Review Books Classics
Published: January 1st 1970
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 222
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

 “One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that – to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to by others.”

I don’t remember how I came across this book. I probably came across it in one of my Goodreads TBR adding phases when I look through lists and recommendations and add things. Published by the NYRB, Lolly Willowes follows the story of a young unmarried woman’s life before the Great War until she is older. She’s a spinster who never really wants for more because for so much of her young life she harbors a duty to her father even after his death. It isn’t until many years later that she even attempts to overcome this duty to her father and duty to what she should be like as an unmarried woman in that upper class British society, and even when she does attempt to be herself, she’s still held back for the longest time because in some way, she finds that failing in her sense of duty is somehow failing herself.  She finds freedom, eventually, in a small country town in which she becomes a witch and is befriended by a black cat.

Lolly thinks, late in her life, how important it is to have a room of one’s own in which to be oneself, an idea that comes several years before Virginia Woolf’s famous book. In Lolly Willowes, the idea of witches and paganism are not only a dive into the supernatural but a rebelling against the white, heterosexual, Christian British aristocracy. It was a way in which Lolly could figure herself out without the caging shackles of her old life (as it’s seen when family of Lolly’s come to visit and she’s feeling cagey, even in her old age and even after being free for many years). Lolly’s exploration into witchcraft and the varying levels of it goes against the status quo.

Lolly’s singleness and the singleness of many other women after the Great Wars is due to the fact that there was a shortage of men after World War I. It’s a gruesome thought to realize that so many young, able-bodied men died in a catastrophic war and were a rare sight afterwards. What was society to do with such a surplus of eligible women? Many of these women simply had no place to neatly fit into society because jobs were limited for single women, and not many families could afford to keep those surplus women in their households. So what could one do? Lolly organized her own life, fought for the remainder of her inheritance that her uncle recklessly invested without consent, and sought out a new life for herself among other surplus people (including the elderly, the insinuated homosexual men and women, widows, widowers, and other single people).

lolly willowes - sylvia townsend warner (ph: fairy.bookmother @ instagram)

The novel spoke to me so deeply because I identified so much with Lolly in her growing up years, and the novel has become a reminder to me that I’m not the only one who’s felt this way and that I’ve got it in me to be myself. I’m thankful for an education and supportive people to help me realize that my sense of duty is only to myself (because no one else is responsible for me but me) much earlier than Lolly realizes. We’re sort of raised to believe that women should be wives and mothers and have no other higher aspirations because that “should be” the highest aspiration, but the women who do otherwise are thought of differently.

It’s not to say that there is anything wrong with a sense of duty. A sense of duty is what drives most of us to do what we do, no matter what it is. It is, however, a good idea to examine every now and then where that sense of duty comes from and what it means in conjunction with your own happiness. Lolly Willowes made me think about it more, and I hope, if you’re interested in feminist literature, it might do the same for you.

BOOK REVIEW: Dust and Shadow, by Lyndsay Faye

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BOOK REVIEW: Dust and Shadow, by Lyndsay FayeTitle: Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson by Lyndsay Faye
Published by Simon & Schuster
Published: April 2nd 2015
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Retellings
Pages: 336
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

 As he passed a hand over his eyes, I recalled the he could not have slept more than twenty hours in the last seven days. For the first time since I had known him, Sherlock Holmes appeared to be exhausted by work rather than inaction.

“Because if I am right,” he murmured, “I haven’t the first idea what to do.”

Lyndsay Faye’s debut novel Dust and Shadow imagines what it might be like if Sherlock Holmes and John Watson investigated and solved the Jack the Ripper murders. While she tackles some of the more sensitive issues regarding women and people who are not well-off white men, Faye brings to life that Holmesian Victorian London as if Doyle himself might have imagined. The details of day-to-day life are so vivid and believable that there were times while I was reading this that I forgot it was a pastiche.

This novel is a bit slow at first and really takes about a third of the novel to get to the really interesting bits, but once you’ve hit that mark, the story sweeps you away. Holmes is our cynical, cold, cerebral detective, and Watson is our devoted and daring narrator. Faye’s Watson illuminates the humanity of every character in the novel and develops them well. The addition of Mary Ann Monk, a prostitute who proves herself to Holmes and Watson to be “a woman of extraordinary fortitude. Compared to Doyle’s historically sexist and racist writing, Faye’s Victorian England and the characters intertwined are presented in a more modern and humanist light that I found refreshing, daring, and forward.

While I have read many historical documents and fictional narratives surrounding the Jack the Ripper murders, I found Faye’s (and Holmes’s and Watson’s) deductions and conclusions regarding the murderer to be enlightening, engaging, and well-researched.

As usual, we readers are seeing the story unfold through Watson’s eyes and Watson’s pen, so there are times when we should question Watson and his presentation. Did things happen so neatly as Watson writes them out to be? Watson, when writing these narratives, already knows the end and the resolution, so are any of the details exaggerated or changed to fit a narrative? And there are times when Watson and ourselves as readers have no clue what Holmes is about to do, and that’s what I think really drives this story (and any good Sherlock Holmes story).  Holmes already knows the answers, but we need to know them, even if “on occasion his dictatorial glibness grated upon [our] nerves.” But that’s what keeps us reading until the very end.

If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes in any form, find Jack the Ripper fascinating, or just like a good murder mystery, pick Faye’s novel up immediately.

Faye has a collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories coming out in early 2017, so I’m looking forward to reading more of her Holmesian mysteries.

BOOK REVIEW: This Savage Song, by Victoria Schwab

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BOOK REVIEW: This Savage Song, by Victoria SchwabTitle: This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab
Series: Monsters of Verity #1
Published by Greenwillow Books
Published: July 5th 2016
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Pages: 427
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

 You wanted to feel alive, right? It doesn’t matter if you’re monster or human. Living hurts.

I really enjoyed this book. Victoria Schwab has quickly risen to be one of those authors that I’ll auto-buy anything she writes. This Savage Song is set in a post-apocalyptic North America in which humans and monsters are separated by a literal divide. August and his siblings are monsters who use musical abilities to wreak havoc against their enemies, and Kate and her father are humans who are on the opposing side of monsters. August is sent across the border to get to know Kate, and instead of becoming enemies, the two become friends.

There are things I didn’t really enjoy but I know, in the end, are acceptable and understandable in the grand scheme of the narrative. The first fifth of this book was a little slow for me (and I wondered if I was going to even like it, but then it got unputdownable) and Kate is very similar to other main female characters in Schwab’s other novels (her snark seems almost forced and goes against her character for a bit of the novel). I think for a world that’s unfamiliar it’s good to have a little bit of a build-up with a slower beginning, and it’s perfectly understandable to have a signature sort of character.

The idea of August’s weapon music through his violin is amazing, and I can’t wait to see how that develops in the sequel. I also really enjoyed that the two main characters weren’t romantic in any way. I find that refreshing in the sense that so many books geared for YA audiences seem overly focused on romance instead of friendship, and friendship is a very important aspect of anyone’s life. The horror aspect of the monsters gave me the shivers and added a depth to the terror rising throughout.

It’s not an entirely new type of story in the world of YA fantasy, but it bends expectations and thrilled me while reading it, and it earns a solid recommendation from me.