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Tag: reviews

SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge for February: The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

I’ve decided to take advantage of the flexibility of the TBR Challenge and read books that aren’t necessarily romances. I’m still sticking to the prompts, though, and this month’s theme is “friends.” As I said in my last Weeknotes post, I’ve somehow never read any Tolkien and this seemed like the perfect time to rectify that gaping hole in my reading, especially since we have the print copy on our bookshelf and every library I belong to has an ebook version. And if there’s one message in the Lord of the Rings trilogy that carries through the film adaptations, it’s that friendship is necessary to human flourishing.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

How can you not love a story that begins with these sentences? I don’t know what I was expecting: probably something with lots of almost-too-precious depictions of Greene Olde England and elves everywhere. But what I got was so much more and better than that. This is very much a book that children can read and love, but it’s also a book that adults can appreciate and enjoy (and even love). I’m not a Young Adult reader at all in terms of contemporary literature, but this is classic for-all-ages literature and that is something I do like. The voice is charming and doesn’t talk down to the reader at all.

On to the story. Bilbo Baggins is a young hobbit of fifty or thereabouts, who lives in a very nice home at Bag End. Thanks to the machinations of family friend Gandalf the Wizard, he finds himself hosting a party of 14 dwarves for an impromptu and unconventional tea party. He is persuaded to join them on their journey to defeat the terrifying dragon, Smaug, who destroyed their home and dwarf community and took all their treasures. Smaug lives far away, past the Lonely Mountain, and to get there the dwarves and Bilbo will have to overcome many dangers. Bilbo is reluctant, but the non-Baggins part of him (which comes from the Took side of the family) decides to take the chance and accompany Thorin, Balin, Kili, Fili, and the rest of the rhyming crew.

As you have undoubtedly realized, this is a quest/coming-of-age story. Bilbo learns a great deal about himself and the world beyond Hobbiton and The Shire. They encounter elves, trolls, goblins, more elves, eagles, and other non-human beings on their way to confront Smaug, and Bilbo discovers unknown reserves of courage and resourcefulness that help his friends on their journey. He also finds a ring, courtesy of a goblin battle and the carelessness of Gollum, which renders him invisible and able to get everyone out of some very tight spots.

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SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge for January: Big Trouble in Old Shanghai by Jeannie Lin

Argh, I’m a day late. But the “short shorts” prompt for January is my friend. I meant to read all of Jeannie Lin’s newest release for this month but I ran out of time and only had time for the first story. Even this brief return was enough to remind me why I like Jeannie’s work so much.

“Big Trouble in Old Shanghai” is the first in a 3-story collection set in her Gunpowder Alchemy world, and the connection is made in the title of the collection: Tales From the Gunpowder Chronicles. I read the previous two novels and one of the short stories when they came out and really enjoyed them. They’re not straight romance, rather they are wuxia-inspired adventure tales with romantic elements, but they are written with the same careful attention to the historical context of all her stories.

I was halfway through the story before I realized that the title was a riff on Big Trouble in Little China, the 1986 adventure film directed by John Carpenter starring Kurt Russell as Jack Burton. Lin says in her author’s note that the American main character here, Dean Burton, is a tip of the hat more than a recreation of the movie Burton. The narrator and main protagonist is Ming-fen, a young woman who works in the Western concession zone of Shanghai. She has only her elder brother, Ren, after her parents were exiled as traitors by the Manchu Dynasty. Shanghai is roiling with rebels plotting to overthrow the Manchu, and Ren turns out to be smack in the middle of it. Ming-fen has no love for the Manchu rulers, but she doesn’t want to get caught up in rebellions that are bound to leave hundreds if not thousands of innocent people caught in the middle.

But when rebels stark attacking, she’s forced into running for her life. Ren has armed her with a red sash, which signals that she is sympathetic to them, and she is slowly trying to make her way back to her home and hopefully safety when she falls in with Dean Burton, an American businessman she knows from the Dragon’s Den bar where she works. She becomes embroiled in Dean’s furtive activities in ways I won’t detail because the story is best read without spoilers.

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The Honorable Schoolboy by John le Carré

My reread through the Smiley novels continues, and this was a big one. I’ve never revisited The Honourable Schoolboy after the initial read, and I’m pretty sure I powered through it way too quickly on my way to Smiley’s People, because I remembered very little of the story. This installment is highly rated by most reviewers, although Clive James panned it in the NYRB when it first came out. And he’s not wrong about the “elephantiasis, of ambition as well as reputation” that seems to undergird the novel. But I agree with the majority who praised it. Yes, it’s baggy and long and there are a multitude of storylines. But it’s not that way only (or even primarily) in order to produce a novel that is more than “merely entertaining” any more than The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is merely entertaining.

The novel takes a while to get going. We are first introduced to a group of foreign journalists in Hong Kong, who are hanging out and speculating about the sudden rolling up of the British government office there. We then move to Tuscany, where the Honourable Jerry Westerby has rented a small house, taken up with a young woman he refers to as “the orphan,” and is desultorily writing a book. There’s a surfeit of local color and stereotypically colorful characters in both settings, and I had to force myself to keep going. But then Westerby receives a telegram that send him back to London, the Circus, and George Smiley. The Circus is in dire straits after the discovery of Karla’s mole in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the atmosphere is funereal. But Smiley and his much shrunken band of investigators discover, during their wrapping-up operations, that there may be an important Moscow agent operating in East Asia. Jerry Westerby assumes the guise of a journalist and heads off to Hong Kong, while in London Smiley puts together a team of Soviet and China hands (the former led by Connie Sachs) to pore through the records and connect whatever dots they can find.

In addition to the main two storylines, there are a number of subsidiary ones involving the raft of characters le Carré introduces. He builds a thick context with backstories not only for them, but for even minor figures who appear once or twice. Westerby’s mission is to trace the movements and relationships around Drake Ko, a prominent and powerful Chinese businessman in Hong Kong whose interests extend into China. This leads him to Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, and other sites of the Vietnam War. Ko’s mistress, Lizzie Worthington, provides an avenue to other associates, and since she is beautiful, mysterious, and in jeopardy, Jerry naturally falls in love with her.

Meanwhile, back at Cambridge Circus, Smiley and his group are doing battle not only with the British foreign policy establishment (readers will note the reappearance of several characters from TTSS), but also with the Americans, known to the British as the Cousins. The Cousins were in the background before but now they are front and center, and le Carré brutally depicts the way the balance of power has shifted between the two nations and their intelligence operations. Britain is barely hanging on in Hong Kong while the US owns the Southeast Asian theater, for good or ill. Smiley is constantly battling unholy alliances between ambitious and amoral members of each side, who use the opportunity to advance personal rather than collective goals.

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The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers

In a comment to one of the posts on our Fen Rivers Way walk, Ros pointed out that The Nine Tailors was set in the Fens and described it as one of the best descriptions of the area she knew. I had completely forgotten that not only did Sayers set novels in the area, Lord Peter Wimsey’s brother is the Duke of Denver. As in Denver the town and Denver the sluice. Good grief, how did I not remember this? TheHusband did, but we didn’t talk about it on the path.

Nine Tailors cover

I pulled out my copy of The Nine Tailors a couple of weekends ago and started reading. It has been described as one of Sayers’ best novels, even the best by some. All I remembered about it was that there was a lot of information about bell ringing and bells played a major role in the story. But as soon as I started reading I realized how much more than that it was. Sayers spent part of her life in the Fens and was very familiar with the villages and the agricultural life of the area, and it shows.

Lord Peter and and his man Bunter have an automobile accident on the way to a house party during the holidays and wind up in the village of Fenchurch St. Paul. They are put up by the vicar and his wife and Lord Peter becomes drawn into the vicar’s (and the village’s) central passion, which is bell-ringing. The church is famous for its bells, and on New Year’s Eve Lord Peter helps out the village’s group of bellringers in their effort to set a new record.

On their way out of town after the car is repaired the two encounter a man who is looking for work, speak with him briefly, and go on their way. Lord Peter notes his condition and the discrepancies between who the man says he is and what his appearance suggests, but thinks little more about it until he is contacted by a young member of the village for help in identifying a body that was buried where it shouldn’t have been.

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The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

I don’t read much chicklit or romcom, which cuts down on my romance-adjacent reading these days since they’re among the more popular and talked-about sub-genres. But when a number of my romance friends raved about this 2019 and Janine specifically suggested it to me, I put it on hold at the library and read it when the hold came in last week. I can see why it’s on a number of best-of-year lists, because it’s quite sweet and charming at times and has a great premise.

This is the ultimate high-concept novel. The main characters meet when they share a London flat, but it’s not just any flatshare: they divide up time, not space. Tiffy is an editor of craft books who needs to get away from her controlling, abusive boyfriend and find an inexpensive place to live in London. Leon is a palliative care nurse who works nights because he needs to pay a solicitor to appeal his brother Richie’s wrongful conviction and imprisonment for armed robbery. Leon’s solution is to rent his flat in the hours he’s away at work and spend his days off with his girlfriend, Kay. Tiffy convinces herself and her worried friends that sharing the flat will work out. It’s small but comfortable and convenient, and Leon doesn’t seem like a serial killer.

The story unfolds in alternating first person POV, present-tense chapters. Tiffy and Leon communicate via post-it notes and don’t meet for the first half of the book. Tiffy is quirky and outgoing (not quite Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but uncomfortably close), and Leon is reserved and the opposite of talkative. Leon’s character is conveyed through a particular and stylized form of expression: his interior monologues are written in sentences in which pronouns and articles are omitted. For US readers of a certain age he sounds weirdly like George HW Bush at times. Linguists call Bush’s omissions of pronouns, especially “I”, left-edge deletion. Leon’s more general conversational deletion occurs throughout his written and unspoken thoughts. Tiffy, by contrast, is verbose in all her forms of communication. These authorial choices highlight their personality differences, but they also come across as stereotypically gendered and quite a few readers (on Goodreads, at least) found Leon’s sections difficult to read. On the plus side, though, the 21stC epistolary form of post-it notes back and forth were quite charming and did a good job of establishing their growing understanding of each other.

Leon, being emotionally reserved and taciturn, has no friends, although he talks regularly to Richie and has warm relationships with his hospice patients. Tiffy, being emotionally open to the point of oversharing, has strong friendships at work and outside it. Her best friends are Gert and Mo from college and Rachel at work. Each of them fulfills a stereotype and all three of them, and really all the supporting characters, are depicted almost entirely in terms of their relationship to and function for Tiffy.

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