Vacation reading: Two duds and a winner

Posted August 12, 2018 by Lory in brief reviews, reviews / 33 Comments

As promised, I took along some newer books on vacation recently, and managed to finish three of them. Alas, two were not much fun to read, but the last was as entertaining as I’d hoped! Read on to find out which one…

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss had a premise with great potential: a mash-up of female “monsters” and daughters of monsters from various nineteenth century novels and stories, solving a mystery in Victorian London along with Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, this potential was not fulfilled in my eyes. The device of having one of the characters write the story while the others chime in with interpolated dialogue (“Hey, don’t write that!” “Excellent description, my dear”) could have provided a clever metafictional touch, but I found it just clumsy and banal, not adding anything to the story. But most unforgivable in my eyes was the total lack of any sense of the language of the era. I don’t think historical novelists have to be slavishly imitative of the language of the past, but their writing should have a period flavor. Here, a profusion of American slang phrases like “Okay,” “Whatever,” and “No big deal” made me roll my eyes and almost put the book down, though I plodded through it for some reason. I’ll stick to reading the originals — I really want to read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde now — or appreciate even more the authors who do manage to write convincingly with some historical style.

I picked up Lover by Anna Raverat because I read rave reviews of her first novel, Signs of Life, but this one was more easily available. I’m still interested in tracking down the other book, but Lover seemed an example of sophomore slump. Narrated by a woman who has just discovered her husband’s secret love life, while jumping around to various locations for her job with a hotel chain, I found it disjointed, dull and pointless. There was nothing interesting about the relationship it depicted — the husband was a jerk, she kicked him out, it took her a while to come to terms with that, the end. I was actually more interested in the hotels, and if she had stayed in one place and developed some interesting relationships with the denizens or employees, the narrative might have come to life. But no, there was no continuity there either. Two cute daughters had some good lines, but were not fully realized as individuals either.

Sighing with disappointment, I picked up my third choice, Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore, a genre-bending YA mystery-thriller-paranormal-sci-fi-fantasy. When a penniless orphan is invited to a huge, mysterious mansion by an acquaintance of great wealth and charm, you know some capers are going to ensue…and they do, in five different directions set off by different choices made by the main character, Jane. At first it was hard for me to follow what was going on, but as the same situation was cleverly re-imagined through various fictional lenses and with different potential outcomes, it started to come into focus. Jane’s obsession with crafting umbrellas into unique works of art also appealed to me; though some find it silly to be passionate about parasols, I found it a great new take on the creative process. Comparisons to Diana Wynne Jones are not amiss — the multiverse she so enchantingly explored is given another twist here.

Have you read anything particularly noteworthy this summer? Or anything you wish you hadn’t bothered to finish?




33 responses to “Vacation reading: Two duds and a winner

  1. Ren

    I’ve hit a couple of duds or disappointments in my reading lately too. Glad you found a good one, hope your next reads are better still!

  2. As you know, Lory, I try to find the positive in everything I read. Reading Le Guin and Aiken is always a joy, whether it’s a revisit or a first acquaintance. I’m also reading about four different short story collections — Chekhov, Carson McCullers, Janice Elliot, and retellings of Malaysian folktales — and finding some of them uneven or a bit of a struggle.

    I think I thought short stories would be ideal for bedtime reading but it doesn’t appear so; ultimately it appears that fantasy from the likes of Garth Nix and Jasper Fforde is the best nighttime companion for me, at least at the moment. Maybe in a time of political turmoil fantasy and not classic or contemporary fiction provides the comfort and hope that’s necessary.

    Anyway, your winner sounds the kind of tonic I might need to seek out! 🙂

  3. Totally unrelated to your reviews…but the word, ‘dud.’ I do not know why this made me laugh. I don’t hear it much anymore, but for such a short word it says so much!

  4. I really enjoyed Cashore’s first two books but could not get into Jane. My favorite recent reads are Jane Casey’s detective series about Maeve Kerrigan. I can’t put these down! My other recent favorite was Kill the Boy Band, about four teens obsessed with their favorite group and what they will do to get near them.

    • Okay, I’d better look into those. Were you the one who got me into Kate Ross’s Julian Kestrel mysteries? I loved those.

  5. At least one of your vacation books was good! Sorry the other two were so disappointing. 🙂 I just finished reading Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours, which everyone else seems to love but which ended up being only an okay read to me. Hopefully our next books will be better!

    • I never know what to expect going into an acclaimed book; a lot of my blogger friends loved The Strange Case, but it just didn’t work for me. I’m sure many will feel the same about Jane, Unlimited. Well, it would be a dull world if we all liked the same books!

  6. Too bad about The Strange Case…but yay for Jane Unlimited! I will put it on my list. I almost NEVER read YA but I did read Simon vs the Homo sapiens Agenda earlier this year and really liked it a lot. So I feel a little encouraged now to at least give other YA titles a chance!

    • I think it’s worth a chance. It’s weird, but I liked it. I would like to read more YA but I never seem to get around to it.

  7. I think I was able to ignore the language issue in Strange Case because it was all so outlandish. I suspended ALL disbelief, even with non-period issues. 😉 (And the conversational injunctions didn’t really work for me either so I’m with you on that.) Do you know, I just got the sequel from the library and it is 700 pages long?! That’s worrying me a bit.
    And a couple of bloggers have mentioned Jane Unlimited lately and it makes me want to read it again. I didn’t know about the “choose your own adventure” background until late in reading or possibly after I finished but I would like to read it again knowing that it was meant to take different paths. I think I would enjoy it even more!

    • I know what you mean re: outlandishness, but I have a pet peeve about period language. I’m not a total stickler, but I think some effort should be apparent. And 700 pages? Those interpolated conversations take up a lot of space, I would guess that’s partly why it’s so long.

      Jane, Unlimited was one of those books I wanted to reread immediately to see what I missed the first time when I was just trying to figure out what was going on!

  8. Aw Lory, I am sorry to hear only one book out of your three holidays reads was a hit, but well done for still getting through all three – I think I might have given up on the other two! So far this summer, my most noteworthy read has to be the haunting The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier. However I also had great fun reading the madcap Sourcery by Terry Pratchett and the swashbuckling adventure Sandokan, The Pirates of Malaysia by Emilio Salgari. 🙂

    • I should have taken along some du Maurier – she would have been a surer bet! Madcap and swashbuckling sound good too.

  9. Lizzie Ross

    NB: “dud” rhymes with “thud”, the sound a disappointing book makes when tossed aside.
    I’ve been lucky with my reading this year — no duds — but one stand-out winner is David Almond’s Skellig: Boy finds strange being in a junk-filled garage (but not at all like Spielberg’s ET). A great tale of what helping someone recover demands.

    • Perhaps an elision of “dull thud”?

      Glad to hear your reading has been so good this year. I’ve heard Skellig is outstanding though I’ve not read it yet.

  10. Kat

    I tried to read the Theodora Goss and didn’t finish it. I was hoping to find out I’d overlooked a gem, but you had the same reaction and I’m relieved. The book is, however, nominated for an SF award. Maybe the Hugo?

    • Some people absolutely loved it! So I’m not going to argue with them. They can read the 700-page sequel, and welcome to it. But I do hanker after the stylish use of language in historical fantasy. Susannah Clarke, where art thou?

  11. I am sorry you had two duds out of three but anything that has a flavour of DWJ is of interest to me so thank you for writing about a book I’d not otherwise encounter. I’ll look out for it now.

    I feel honour-bound, as someone who wrote mainly positively about the Theodora Goss, to say that like Kristen above I didn’t mind the slang and in fact I found much to enjoy in it though I concede that it is flawed. I didn’t think that she used the interpolations to good effect but I liked the idea, and in the sequel she uses them much better.

    Anyway, I hope you are dud-free for the rest of the summer!

    • It’s good to know that the interpolated dialogue is more effective in the sequel. As I said, fun idea, just not used well here I thought.

      I’m avoiding duds at the moment by rereading some longtime faves. 🙂 But at some point I’ll venture out into unexplored territory again.

  12. Oh yay! I’m glad your third read, at least, was a success. All of these have ideas that interest me, so I appreciate your take on them. I’ll probably be skipping the first two, but I really should bump Jane, Unlimited up my to-read list, especially given how much I enjoyed Graceling 🙂

    • As I mentioned above, it’s very different from Graceling, but i think you may enjoy it as well.

  13. I’m with Kristen — my expectations for the Goss book were just about exactly in line with what the book was, so I was able to overlook the historical language issues. I totally get why they would be jarring though!

    And I adored Jane Unlimited, although I maybe slightly wished the order of the stories had been different? The last one was my least favorite in terms of worldbuilding, and I wished it had ended on a higher note. I loved how strange and inventive it was though!

    • Yes, I loved how strange and inventive the whole thing was. The Goss book had a great idea too, even if the execution didn’t work for me. Glad it was a positive experience for you!

  14. Deb

    I was disappointed by The Strange Case too! The story had so much promise, but I wasn’t crazy about the way it was written. I haven’t read anything by Cashore, I wonder if I should start with Graceling or this one?

    • I would look at both and see which sounds more appealing to you, or choose at random. Both worth a read IMHO!