This is inadvertently turning into a book blog.
Ballantine Books, 2002 (Reprint)
Rutherfurd’s modus operandi is to write about a certain locale (various areas in England in a few novels, Russia, New York, etc.) by telling the stories of a number of families as they live through the location’s history. With London being my introduction to this author, I found this book thoroughly, almost lovingly, researched, and was able to stay invested enough to read through the many, many pages with relative ease. It’s not a difficult read, just a very long one. Reviews promise that the book would cover the entire span of London’s history, and by George, does it ever, with the first page reading, “Four hundred million years ago…” Right. This book is a marathon, not a sprint.
We move through London’s history by following the lives of seven families, beginning in the pre-Roman era with Segovax, a little boy with webbed fingers and a flash of white in his dark hair. This is important, because it’s these kinds of details that serve to remind you who is descended from whom — or you can just keep track via the handy family tree provided in the first few pages. Over two thousand years, we see the families rise and fall as their lives intertwine with each other through friendships, marriages, feuds, and also sheer luck and coincidence. Rutherfurd weaves them into the tapestry of London’s history, so we meet several historical royal and literary figures.
By necessity, the characters move across the stage quickly, so there’s no point in investing in any one. Rather, they serve to bring London itself to life, the vignettes work to humanize and contextualize many of the names, dates, and events that, during my school days, teachers treated as little more than recitations. The coverage was wide and not very deep. We get the details of some events more than others (for example, we spend many pages on building the Tower of London, but other sites only get passing mentions), and some periods were not covered at all. I knew I was being drawn into the book because there were several times, particularly in the first part, where I would put it down so I could Google and learn more before continuing on. Inevitably, there were also many pages covering periods and issues which I personally found uninteresting, which made the book drag and almost feel longer than its 1100+ pages. But finally towards the end, when modern London began to take shape, I loved learning about how the places I visited and enjoyed came to be. And while I found the ending a bit abrupt, I was still, overall, satisfied with the way the author finished off the strands of his narrative when I reached the last page.
I would not hesitate to recommend this book to another Anglophile. I bought it and Paris based on my own affinity for the cities, and I wonder if this format can work its magic twice. If nothing else, I’m looking forward to discovering things about Parisian history that will bring new depth to my appreciate for that city which I love so dearly, as this book has done for me with London.
Seven years ago, I received a Nikon D40 for my birthday, and it is still one of my most prized possessions. A couple months later, one random September day, my friends and I made the trip down to Anaheim for a random Disneyland visit. I, without ever having opened the owner’s manual, used that opportunity to learn how to use my shiny new camera with the “learn by doing” method.
In anticipation of going to Disneyland in one week, and because I’m almost flipping out from the excitement, I decided to appropriate #TBT and sharing a few pictures from that trip seven years ago.
Before it was overhauled, Disney California Adventure was rather underwhelming, but I was happy to find these pictures nonetheless.
Sometimes I wish I’d waited until it was clear to take the shot, but those park-goers are as much a part of that day as anything else. The letters are now in Sacramento, which is quite fitting.
I don’t remember the old boardwalk very well, including the weird clown. This area is now Toy Story Midway Mania.
Now called Goofy’s Sky School, the ride itself is the same.
The only picture I have of the “Sun Wheel,” now Mickey’s Fun Wheel.
Let’s move over to Disneyland! Even though these are very much same as they’ve always been.
The decorations were for Halloween, and the theater now plays Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, which I recommend if it’s a very hot day and you need an air-conditioned place to rest your feet. Admittedly, I fell asleep during Robot Lincoln’s speech.
One of the prettiest spots in the park is the Mad Tea Party at dusk, when the lanterns are lit and the sky is still rosy colored.
I can talk about Disneyland ad nauseum, but I think that’s quite enough this time!
The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic
Emily Croy Barker
Pamela Dorman Books, 2013
The pretty dust jacket and elegant lettering drew me in. But I end up with a tepid reaction to a book that I somewhat enjoyed, but found underwhelming.
Nora, the titular “thinking woman,” is an English Literature graduate student who’s going through some first world problems with her dissertation and her ex-boyfriend. During a wedding weekend, she gets lost while wandering in the mountains and stumbles upon a beautiful garden belonging to the lovely Ilissa. The captivating enchantress welcomes Nora into her world of wonders and delights, and we get a few dozen pages of good time revelries that lended themselves well to mental pictures borrowed from Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby. But when Nora finds out that Ilissa’s beautiful world is an artifice masking ugliness and evil, she is saved by the crotchety magician Aruendiel. From this point, there are still about 500 pages of a clunky story with an abrupt ending.
Nora is an unremarkable protagonist who possesses more than adequate book smarts, but little in common sense or cleverness. Towards the beginning, she was under Ilissa’s powerful spells and I was willing to buy that explanation for her complete passivity. Yet once free of those enchantments, Nora remains a generally one-dimensional character who often comes across as petulant and smug instead of intelligent and assertive. My main problem was Nora did not seem any brighter or more interesting than any other random young woman, and so fell short of what I hoped from a heroine of an epic fantasy, especially one I have to follow for over 500 pages.
The other major character is Nora’s guardian and mentor, an old magician with a “shrouded past.” He is irascible and lacks charm, and I cared little for the painfully slow to develop romance between Nora and Aruendiel that ultimately goes nowhere. Minor spoiler: the whys and wherefores come later, but it is stated fairly early on that Aruendiel killed his wife. This is the biggest hurdle that I don’t think the author successfully cleared as she tried to make Aruendiel some sort of tragic romantic hero with whom Nora could fall in love. He might be powerful and brilliant. But still, the guy murdered his wife.
This is a weighty tome, and many pages are spent on minutiae. While I could see the care that the author put into building her fairy tale world — meanings of words and names in the made up language Ors, the logic and mechanisms of magic — these passages dragged and hindered the parts with any real action. I enjoyed reading about some of the minor and periphery characters more than Nora and Aruendiel, and Ilissa had potential to be an interesting antagonist. There are a few vignettes as we follow Nora and Aruendiel through a series of adventures, but some end up having no importance, and would not have been missed if they hadn’t been included at all.
By the end, though it is obvious many pages before the last, you realize that the book was nothing but hundreds of pages of setup for the sequel. None of the conflicts were resolved, and more were introduced with mere pages left. Perhaps several of the characters we met and then promptly forgot about will show up again in the next book, because otherwise at least 200 pages were truly irrelevant. This book does not stand alone with a complete story that leaves you wanting more from these characters. Rather, it simply ends with a push to the sequel.
I also want to note, the clumsy use of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to draw parallels in the relationships between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy and Nora and Aruendiel. The comparisons are tenuous at best, which only make the references unnecessary and the use of Austen tiresome.
I would hesitantly recommend this book because initially I enjoyed it and it is decently written, and it wasn’t so bad that I wanted to leave it unfinished. I’m not on the edge of my seat waiting for news of the sequel, but should I encounter it someday on another library trip, I would probably give Nora and Aruendiel another chance.